Thursday, January 15, 2009
In Flanders' Fields
On our last day in Belgium we rented a car and visited several World War I monuments and cemeteries. Of all the historical events that were taught in school, I seem to remember what I learned of WWI the most. I am not sure why that is; perhaps it was a particularly interesting subject to me, or maybe Mr Cool, my junior high social studies teacher, taught that subject with extra enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, just hearing the names Vimy Ridge, Ypres, and Passchendaele conjures up images of battles, trenches, and muddy fields. So it was a bit surreal driving through Flanders’ fields in our little VW Polo, passing by a commonwealth cemetery every few kilometers. It was a cold day with a thick ice fog hovering over the fields, limiting our visibility. The fog added an eerie element to our day. As we walked through the Tyne Cot cemetery, the resting place of almost 12,000 soldiers, we could not see the edges of the cemetery. It seemed as though the graves went on forever.
As we crossed into France and headed toward Vimy Ridge, the fog lifted and revealed a beautiful blue sky. We were fortunate because the Canadian monument at Vimy is very large and we would not have been able to appreciate it in the fog. The recently restored monument is the most impressive of the WWI monuments. The fields surrounding the site are off-limits to tourists because of the undetonated ammunition below ground (just as I remember learning in grade 8). The fields, originally flat, are now a series of rolling hills created by the bombs that attacked the area. I would love to return during the summer when they provide guided tours of some of the original trenches.
We crossed back into Belgium to track down a few additional Canadian monuments. In the tiny town of Passendale, we took Canadalaan to the small monument that commemorates Canada’s involvement in the battle to capture the Passchendaele ridge. We then headed to the solemn monument at St Juliaan that marks where Canadians withstood the first German gas attacks.
We finished our tour in Ypres, hoping to visit the In Flanders’ Field Museum, but got there too late. It was interesting to see the town, though, as it was completely annihilated during the war. It has since been rebuilt, and is a large, lively town. To show their appreciation to the people of the commonwealth for their sacrifice, the town flies several British flags and holds a short remembrance ceremony every day.
It was a memorable and patriotic day, ending a great trip to Belgium.