How do you write about Remembrance Day? I had the fortune to visit Flanders, Belgium this spring, yet I’m at a loss to put into words what that experience was like. Flanders Fields is not a singular destination. The fields of Flanders stretch for thousands of kilometres across Belgium. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and so here is my tribute to the those who sacrificed their lives in WWI.
It was through this town gate in Ieper (formerly known as Ypres) the majority of Commonwealth soldiers marched under on their way to the front. Ever since 1928, the Last Post, a final salute to fallen warriors is played every evening at 8pm under Menin Gate.
This daily ceremony is a token of gratitude by the citizens of Ieper to those who fought and fell for the restoration of peace. The tradition was forced to stop during the German occupation beginning in 1939, but within an hour of the Germans leaving Ieper at the end of WWII, the bugle struck up once more.
Buglers from the local volunteer fire department pay tribute every evening.
Menin Gate lists the names of 55,000 missing soldiers. Though approximately 100,000 have no known graves. A second memorial was built at Tyne Cot Cemetery in remembrance of those whose names are missing from Menin Gate.
At Menin Gate I met many veterans and descendants of WWI soldiers, including of Laurence V Haby, a former Australian National Serviceman and Army Reservist with 30 years service. He came to Belgium to follow his grandfather’s footsteps who served in Galipoli, France and Belgium, returning home in 1919 to Australia.
Located just outside of Passchendale, Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in world. Almost 12,000 Commonwealth soldiers are buried here, including 1,011 Canadians. Nearly 70% of the soldiers buried here remain unidentified, their gravestones inscribed: A Soldier of the Great War – Known Unto God.
From Scottish thistle to New Zealand’s silver fern to South African springbok and the Canadian maple leaf, symbols representing the soldiers nationality mark many gravestones.
British limestone gravestones meticulous laid out, replaced the wooden crosses used during the war. Naturally, not all who fought were Christian.
The gravesite of V.J. Strudwick, a British Rifleman who died in January 1916 is one of the most popular in Flanders. If you look closely at his gravestone, you’ll notice he passed away at age 15. It’s likely he enlisted at age 14 or 13. Sadly, underage soldiers were not uncommon.
It’s believed up to 20,000 underage Canadians enlisted. During recruitment, they were told to take a walk around the block and think about what they were about to do, and if they were sure, to come back and sign up with an appropriate birth date.
The policy during WWI was to was to bury soldiers as close as possible to where they passed away. From 1915 to 1920, the hamlet of Lijssenthoek, Belgiumwas where the largest evacuation hospital of the Ypres Salient sat. Soldiers were brought here from the front lines and over 300,000 based through this field hospital.
From the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery visitor’s centre to the actual cemetery, you pass by iron posts hammered into the ground with numbers and dates engraved upon them. These represent the number of burials per day starting in Oct. 1914.
The cemeteries in Flanders are immaculate. They are beautiful, serene spots that give one pause.
Over 750 km. of trenches carved the western front, and at Memorial Museum Passchendaele, visitors can walk through replicas. These zig zagging mazes were constructed differently depending on the country that made them. The Germans lined theirs with sacks, the Brits with corrugated metal. All were topped with sand bags.
Rudyard Kipling, who lost his son in WWI chose this saying from The Bible on the Stone of Remembrance at Tyne Cot Military Cemetery.
What does this year’s Remembrance Day mean to you?
I’m a freelance writer with bad hair, a loud mouth and a serious case of wanderlust. Whether it’s luggage, time or just life, I cram as much as possible into small compartments. Warning: Contents may shift during flight. My life is one bumpy ride! Follow me on Twitter or Pinterest.