In this third, and final post for April 7, I have included the final four stops, (plus an explanation for the sites I did not make it to) The Brooding Soldier, Langemark German Cemetery, The Kitchener’s Wood Memorial, The John McCrae Memorial, and the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony. For those of you who have just joined, it would be helpful to start with Post 1 and Post 2, which can be found here and here.
TRAVEL LOG #1003
LOCATIONS: Belgium Flanders/Ypres and Surrounding
DATE: 7 April
MODES OF TRANSPORTATION: Car, Foot
CATEGORYS: War and Memory, First World War, Belgium Flanders
ENTRY TYPE: Daily Report
SUPPLEMENTARY REPORTS: Travel Itinerary: Belgium Battlefields Day Trip
Stop 6: St. Julien Canadian Memorial – The Brooding Soldier
This was the most impressive monument I have yet seen, based on it’s size and the way that it presents in the area. Driving by, there is no way you can miss seeing this monument. It is imposing. It commemorates the Canadian soldiers that held the line on the British Left when the Germans first used gas in April 1915. This was another battle that captured my interest in high school and it was impressive to see the memorial in person.
Stop 7: Langemark German Cemetery
This cemetery was heartbreaking in a different way to the other ones I saw. Over the years, the German Cemeteries in Belgium were consolidated into one cemetery. At first glance it is already moving in the number of men and boys it represents. It becomes even more so when you begin to move around and read the information. It begins with learning that the large plot in the middle is a mass grave containing thousands of men and boys. There are names inscribed on panels surrounding the grave of men that it is now thought reside in this plot. The tragedy of a war that results in an anonymous mass grave. The tragedy only grows as you begin to walk around and realize that the flat headstones represent many burials. It is not like the other cemeteries where one headstone almost always represents one life. Here one headstone can represent 20 or 25 lives. And, if that wasn’t already enough, many headstones have inscriptions such as, “Zwanzig Unbekannte Deutsche Soldaten”… “Twenty unknown German Soldiers.” If I was heartbroken at reading the inscriptions that indicated the burial place of one unknown soldier, I was even more so at seeing headstones that represented so many more. A number of white flags fly around this cemetery and the sign stated that “The dead of this cemetery admonish to peace.” It was subtle, and probably unintentional, but it almost felt like they had to justify the presence of the cemetery in Belgium. It was heartbreaking.
Stop 8: Kitchener’s Wood Memorial
This small roadside memorial is related to the St. Julien Memorial, in that it commemorates the same series of battles. But in this case, it commemorates the battle that followed the gas attack. The attack that resulted in others pulling back and leaving a gap to the left of the Canadians. The Canadians counter-attacked and captured the German position at Kitchener’s wood. As the memorial plaque states “Both Canadian battalions sustained heavy casualties and by morning established a line of resistance south of the wood. This action prevented a German breakthrough to Ypres and beyond…” The most impressive part of this small monument is it’s location looking out over the fields where the battle was fought. In terms of War and Memory, I was struck by how this particular battle holds a relatively small place in the Canadian memory of the First World War, despite it’s importance in preventing a German breakthrough. And despite it’s time proximity to the battle where the Germans first used gas.
Stop 9: Essex Farm Cemetery/ John McCrae Memorial
At this point, I was still holding onto the belief that I could see everything on my list, so I didn’t spend as much time here as I could have. What struck me the most about this memorial was the Advanced Dressing Station Bunker/series of bunkers. In particular I was struck by the size. The stations were very small and cramped, and had to have been terrible working conditions for those doing the initial medical work on the wounded (including those wounded in the gas attacks of April 2015). As it was, there was a little bit of mud on the ground. I can only imagine how much worse it would be after a series of rainy days. I was also struck by the peacefulness and tranquility of the site. So much different than the fields McCrae saw as he tended the wounded and dying. The fields and conditions that led him to write “In Flanders Fields.”
As an aside, I made friends with a cat that followed me into a small treed in picnic area. How different this place is today than 100 years ago.
Stop 10 – after a few directional false starts, I realized that I was not going to be able to fit in the rest of the sites I planned to see before heading to the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony. Based on how tricky it was to find some locations, there was too much chance I wouldn’t make it to Ypres in time. So I decided to head straight to Ypres. I missed seeing: The Princess Patricia Light Infantry Memorial, Sanctuary Wood Canadian Memorial, the Memorial to the St. Elois Tunnellers, and the Voormezeele Enclosure No 3 Cemetery (which contains the grave of one of the first two Canadian Soldiers Killed in action). Maybe someday I will return. I also was unable to see the Flanders Field Museum, unfortunately, as based on the time it closed I would have had to cut many other stops.
Stop 11: The Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony
The Menin Gate was designed in the post was years to commemorate the commonwealth soldiers with no known burial spot. As mentioned before, it soon became clear that the size was not adequate. But the site has come to be a place where people commemorate all those of the commonwealth who fought and died on the Ypres Salient. Though many others also fought there, the Ypres Salient has become closely associated with the commonwealth war memory. It was a beautiful evening for the ceremony, which is done every evening, and the lighting highlighted the names inscribed on the memorial. For the centenary, each evening they are also narrating a bit of the story of a different soldier whose name is inscribed on the memorial.
In Summary: I saw and experienced so much of war and memory today, and I still need to process and think through a great deal of it. Eventually I will see it more as the historian of memory and commemoration, but right now I am still a person who experienced the commemoration for the first time. Perhaps I will write a post, or series of posts, on the nature of war and memory as it regards the First a world War Commemorations in Flanders, but for now, this is where I will end these (long posts) for this one day.
To end with an experience completely unrelated to war and memory, I drove back to Bruges at dusk and witnessed the most glorious sunset I have seen in months. It was beautiful, peaceful, and calming. And I was thankful.