I am going to restrain myself. I promise. I hope.
Zeebrugge port is second only to Antwerp in the country and is the largest car shipping port in the world moving 2 million cars annually.
Belgium is a very small country, 30,000 sq. km (65 km of coastline) but is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with 11.2 million inhabitants. It has more castles per square inch than anywhere else, with about 470 in the country – unfortunately we were not going to see any of them today.
We were on our way to Ypres – correctly spelled and pronouced Eiper (Eeeper) by the Flemish. The French spelling, Ypres, came about because Belgium is a dual-language country: the north which borders Holland uses Dutch, the south which borders France uses French. French was the dominate international business language pre-WW1 and used on all the maps, thus Ypres. They are working hard to get the correct Flemish name and spelling recognized.
This was a WWI memorial tour and my head is brim full of information about the Eiper (Ypres) Salient and the Flanders Fields area. (A salient is a curved ‘front line’ that projects into enemy territory and therefore needs to be defended on three sides.) Oh no, you say. But, I promised to be good so I will do my best to keep the majority of it to myself, else this will become a book. If you want to know more there are hundreds of books written and tons of info on the internet – knock yourself out.
Our first stop was at Tyn Cot Cemetery (so named because a farm in the area reminded the British soldiers of a similar area in Tyn County at home and the name stuck when the cemetery was created. There are many British names in the area’s cemeteries, towns and streets for this same reason). Tyn Cot is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world and contains 11,956 graves (8,961 British, 997 Canadians, 1,368 Australians, 520 New Zealanders, 90 from Newfoundland (which at the time was not part of Canada), 2 British West Indians and four German soldiers). Of these almost 12,000 graves 8300 are unidentified and are inscribed with the regiment of the soldier, if known, and the inscription “A (nationality if known) soldier of The Great War.” Along the bottom of each marker is the phrase, composed by Kipling, “Known Unto God.”
The wall around the cemetery bears the names of 34,857 unknown dead. The descriptive plaque at the entrance says, “Oct 1914 – Nov 1918. 35,000 officers and men of the forces of the United Kingdom and New Zealand who have no known grave, whose bodies could not be recovered, whose graves had been unrecorded, lost or destroyed, or whose remains could not be identified.” Nearly all died between Aug 16, 1917 and Nov 11, 1918. There are 250,000 Commonwealth servicemen of WWI commemorated in Belgium, 100,000 of whom have no known grave. (750,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen died on the Western Front during WWI, 200,000 in Belgium and over 500,000 in France – 60 million mobilized worldwide with 50% casualties; wounded or dead.) They are commemorated upon headstones marking graves in over 1000 war cemeteries and 2,000 civil cemeteries or on one of the six memorials in Belgium and 20 in France which carry the names of more than 300,000 who have no known grave.)
Belgium was the only completely occupied nation in both World Wars. Located as it is between The Netherlands and France, even though it was a neutral country, it was invaded by Germany and occupied for four years during each war.
The area of Flanders was completely destroyed. There were virtually no recognizable buildings, no trees, no roads, no canals and ditches, no landmarks remaining by the end of the war. Everything had been shelled or trenched. Many of the major battles of WWI occurred within the area of Flanders Fields in northern Belgium; Ypres, Passchendale, Hill 60, Sanctuary Wood, Polygon Wood. The front line moved back and forth several times over the years and every 50-100 meters cost thousands of lives on each side.
We had 45 minutes to wander the cemetery. Our guide explained about the creation of the Commonwealth Graves Commission after the war to deal in a consistent manner with all the dead regardless of rank. Most of the Commonwealth dead remained in Belgium, very few were re-interred back home.
There are smaller cemeteries all over this area where battles took place and the dead were buried on the spot. Tyn Cot was one such but other bodies as they were found were brought here for a proper military burial and it became a major cemetery. There are also separate cemeteries for Scotland, Australia, the US (some of whom fought here during the last year of the war), etc. We were shown the grave of a Canadian private who was awarded the Victoria Cross and told about the two bunkers remaining on the site; one bare concrete near the original entrance gate and the other that was incorporated into the Cross of Remembrance located in the center of the cemetery.
Scottish CemeteryWe next drove to the town of Eiper and the Menin Gate, whose walls are inscribed with the names of 54,896 soldiers who fought in the Ypres Salient from 1914-1918 and who have no known grave. I had gone to the Royal Canadian Legion in Salmon Arm before we left for Boston and got some poppies and red maple leaves. I laid a couple on graves of unknown Canadians at Tyn Cot and John and I each laid one at the Menin Gate. When the memorial was officially opened by George V part of the service included the playing of The Last Post. People requested that it be played again, and again and again. The street on both sides of the Menin Gate are closed off every evening at 8 pm and a Short service of Remembrance including The Last Post takes place. A year ago they commemorated the 30,000 playing of The Last Post at the Menin Gate.
You may be wondering about all the German dead. Understandably there was not much sympathy for them during or after the war. Over 600,000 people of Belgium were displaced, forced out, suffered injury and death, and had everything they owned confiscated or destroyed. Most of the German dead were just buried in mass graves. Very few, if any, have ever been re-patriated home.
Our next stop was a couple of blocks away in the town of Eiper; the Flanders Fields museum; considered to be one of the best museums in the world. Oh no! Thankfully we had three hours before the bus would return to pick us up. Our guide said most people go through the museum in about an hour so that gave people lots of time to find some lunch and explore or shop. Our friends Bill and Lyn and Bob and Barbara were on the tour and we had gathered together on the ship so we were all on the same bus. Barb said we would meet at the exit at 12 and go for lunch. I said I would tell John but told her I was a museum junkie and if I was done by then I would join them. Guess…. Did we meet them for lunch? Not.
We spent over two hours in the museum which was loaded with images, paintings, uniforms, videos, before and after shots of the countryside, models, videos of actors and actresses narrating ‘personal’ experiences of the war. It was really good.
In Belgium it is still common 100 years later to come across unexploded shells, pieces of shrapnel, weapons, equipment and bodies during construction or farm work. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains an office in Eiper and they come to the site and care for the remains. With DNA and other modern equipment it is possible sometimes to identify the victim. If it is a soldier of the Commonwealth he is given a full military funeral and interred in Tyn Cot or one of the other cemeteries. If a German, I think the Commission gets in touch with Germany to care for the body.
In the museum there was a display case crammed full of items that were all collected during an industrial construction built between 1990-2010.
There are still unexploded shells and mortars buried in the ground. Sometimes they are detonated by the discovery – hit by equipment or farm machinery – with deadly results. Sometimes they explode underground and do no damage. A few weeks ago a farmer was working his field and suddenly the tractor lifted right off the ground. A mortar had exploded underground and the force lifted the tractor. On one 25 acre parcel a farmer found 120 bodies, 4 air planes, 1 English tank and over 2000 shell holes.
Also hidden around the country are old trench works and fortified bunkers. These too are regularly discovered during construction projects. A year or so ago a farmer was returning home for lunch and half of his farm sunk into the ground in front of him. There had been a wood-beam trench room under his land. Over time water had seeped into it, rotted the timbers and the whole thing caved in.
After we came out of the museum we ate the bran muffins we had brought from the ship, bought some ice cream and then wandered around Eiper for an hour or so until the bus returned to pick us up.
Our last stop – finally, you say – was Essex Farm Cemetery. In the near vicinity of the cemetery was the medical aid tents where Canadian doctor Major John McCrae (later Lieutenant-Colonel) was working as Brigade-Surgeon of the 1st Canadian Artillery Brigade who were lined up along the nearby Canal Bank. His good friend was brought in, gravely wounded, and died not long thereafter. Major McCrae penned the poem “In Flanders Fields” on May 3, 1915 at the height of the 2nd Battle of Ypres. He read the poem at his friend’s funeral and then tossed it away. It was picked up by another soldier who sent it to Britain where it was published in “Punch” magazine. Immediately it resonated with the public and the military as a poignant reminder of the self-sacrifice and futility of war. It is still recited at most every year at Remembrance Day (Nov. 11) ceremonies in Canada. (We had to memorize it in elementary school and I can still recite most of it. Funny how some things stick in your brain.) Coincidentally there were still a few poppies in bloom at Essex Farm. (The soil in Belgium is clay. They say every Belgian is born with a brick in their stomach because all of the ingredients to make bricks are just below the surface. When the clay-mixed soil is churned up and the top soil destroyed the first plant to grow again is the poppy, which makes it a fitting symbol for survival during and after war. We laid the rest of our poppies from home at Essex Farm Cemetery.
On the way back to Zeebrugge we passed the Australian Cemetery and a few other small ones. We got back at 3:30, the ship sailed at 5, we ate dinner, turned our clocks back another hour and were in our jammies with our sore feet up by 7:30. A day at sea tomorrow. We need it.
The Australian Cemetery
It was a very poignant day, but I am so very glad we went. We owe everything we have today in our wonderful country to the sacrifices of these young men. May they rest in peace and never be forgotten.