- One Cold and Wet November Day
In Flanders Fields
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It was cold, drizzly and foggy, just perfect for staying at home curled up by the fire. But that wasn’t the purpose of my visit to Ypres, a town that was practically blown off the map in WWI. The townspeople returned after the war determined to rebuild, a task that took them 40 years. The most spectacular building, Cloth Hall, was finally finished in 1964, a faithful replica of the original, built in the fourteenth century. The Hall and Cathedral, surrounded by Grote Square and charming little shops, complete a picture right out of Medieval times.
I met my guide at the Ypres (Belgians spell it Ieper and pronounce it "ee-per") Tourist Office. Raoul, a history teacher who guides on weekends, is an expert on the First World War. He showed me the Canadian battle sites, explained the positions of the troops and the cost in terms of human life, facts incomprehensible for the mind to grasp.
Well equipped with a lined Gortex jacket, heavy walking boots, woolen gloves and umbrella, I thought I was ready for the day. But it was a damp cold and after each stop we hurried back to the warmth of the car. We tried to walk in some of the few remaining trenches at Sanctuary Wood, but that was next to impossible. How the soldiers must have suffered as they trudged through that heavy, wet, red Flanders clay.
The ink on the Armistice was scarcely dry before voices in all countries demanded that those who had died so senselessly should by commemorated in a fitting manner. The little town of Ypres is surrounded by 160 cemeteries, all marked by green signposts. In each of these cemeteries are row upon row of neatly arranged white markers sometimes stretching as far as the eye can see. In the fog, the concrete German pill boxes and grave markers, faded into the horizon. Yet each marker represents the human suffering of those who "loved and were loved" but now lie in Flanders fields.
The Canadian monuments are prestigious and in good taste. The grounds that surround them are nicely landscaped and well groomed. A Canadian flag flies proudly overhead and at each entrance there is a logbook for visitors to record their name, address and comment about their visit.

 
A Young Soldier’s Diary
My Father enlisted when he was 17. He kept a little diary in his upper left pocket which he used for hasty little notations such as: " Dec. 24, 1917...billeted in chicken coop. Christmas Eve feast....jam, bread and maconochies (hard tack). A common entry is....mud and rain....mud and rain.....snow....mud and rain....box from home...or on less fortunate days....reported sick, can’t speak....sick...whole gun crew sick....influenza."
Other notations are worse. "Wrigler wounded above knee...Heavy bombardment all day....All leaves cancelled...Heard Christie was killed...Russ Gardner killed....McCormack hit in stomach and leg". Day after day the only notation was "tunneling." After visiting the war sites, the craters that still remain explain the purpose of all that digging. The huge explosions that resulted took the Germans by surprise.

 
Ypres - a Medieval Centre
Ypres, a textile centre of great importance during Medieval times, was completely destroyed during WWI and 500,000 soldiers were killed in its defense. For those who survived, it was a life of fear, battered by shells and surrounded by corpses. To add to the misery, their clothing was infected with lice, they floundered in mud and water and shared their trenches with huge rats. The deadlocked trench warfare created a barren landscape where not even a tree could survive.
 

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The Menin Gate
The Regina Hotel on Grote Square was within a few blocks of the Menin Gate, the memorial to the Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in the Ypres Salient. The road through Ypres leads to Menin which was occupied by the Germans. Ypres, the most fought over town of WWI, never fell.
The Gate is incised with the names of those who died and have no known graves. Standing beneath the arches where 55,000 names are recorded by regiment, is a very moving experience. I noticed others, men and women alike, who couldn’t hold back the tears. England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa are all represented. When the Menin Gate was completed, it was too small to record all the names of the missing so another 35,000 are remembered on the carved panels at the back of the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest cemetery in the world with 12,000 graves, on the slopes below Passchendaele.
Every night at 8:00 p.m. this busy road is cut off. The people of Ypres stop to pay tribute to those who died. The Last Post is sounded on silver bugles by members of the Fire Brigade and a piper escorts the dignitaries to the center of the Gate. A short but moving ceremony follows, a tradition that began in 1929 when the Gate was completed. The only interruption came during WWII when Ypres was occupied by the Germans.
I wondered how many would attend the Remembrance Ceremony. To my surprise there were about 300 people there, some old, some young and speaking many different languages.
 
Dr. John McCrae - Guelph, Ontario
Essex Farm Cemetery is very close to the place where John McCrae, the young Canadian doctor, worked at an advanced dressing station. The wounded were brought here on stretchers. On one occasion, a soldier, writhing in pain from a German gas attack, turned out to be one of his best friends and he could do nothing to help. It may have been from this experience that he wrote, In Flanders Fields , the most famous poem of WWI .
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The poem , in his handwriting, is displayed on a large plastic board beside the bunker. Dr. McRae died of meningitis at the age of 46 on January 28, 1918. and is buried nearby in a war cemetery in Wimereux, France. School children from neighboring towns recently raised money to restore the cement bunker as a lasting tribute to his memory.
 
The First Gas Attack
Langemark was the scene of the first German gas attack, directed at French troops. Chlorine gas burns the lungs and causes third degree burns to the skin. Nothing like this had ever been seen before and the French troops fled in terror as the gas cloud rolled toward them. A Canadian regiment was sent in to fill the gap, preventing Ypres from falling to German hands.
The Brooding Soldier is a statue of a Canadian soldier, head bowed, rifle pointed down, the position of respect for a dead comrade. The Canadian Government bought the land to commemorate the spot where 18,000 Canadians withstood the first gas attacks in April 1915. It is a fitting memorial to the 2,000 men who are buried here at St. Julien Memorial.
 
The Cement Cemetery
This cemetery is listed as an open cemetery where bodies can still be buried today. Bits of uniforms, bones, and I.D. still get turned up by farmers working their land and by construction workers preparing new sites. Signs warn people who find ammunition to leave it for the Bomb Demolition Crew. Just before I arrived, a farmer found a German chlorine gas bomb from 1915. In attempting to detonate it he killed himself and blew up his house.
At Langemark Cemetery, the only German cemetery in the area, 6,000 soldiers are named on the entrance gate and 44,061 Germans are buried here, many in a mass grave. It is beautifully landscaped and well maintained, a fitting memorial to those who died for their country.

 
All Is Not Quiet On the Western Front.
There is a growing interest in the Western Front which stretches 750 kms from the North Sea of the Belgian coast at Nieuport to the border of France and Switzerland. No man’s land was the treacherous moonscape that lay between the German and Allied trenches, scarred by barbed wire and shell holes.
All is not quiet along the Western Front. The First World War is having a revival. New and better museums are replacing the old and battle sites are being preserved with an account of what took place.
 
Interactive Museum - Ypres
A new museum opened in Ypres in the Cloth Hall, last year. To tell the story of the war in Flanders, the most modern presentational techniques have been used. War memorabilia is integrated with interactive models to show the gradual destruction of the town and the flooding of the plain of the Yper River to prevent the Germans from advancing. Key moments are highlighted such as the gas attacks, the Christmas truces and the medical care services. Eye-witnesses tell their stories....a soldier-poet, a village priest, a surgeon and a photographer.
The central section of the museum represents no man’s land. Here an attempt is made to take the visitor into the life of the soldier going "over the top". The feelings of desperation, shock, uncertainty and fear give a deeper emotional insight into the true meaning of war.
At present, 100,000 visitors visit the museum annually. Information is provided in Dutch, English, French and German. Large video screens display images taken from hours of film and hundreds of photographs. Interactive CD-Roms provide background material . Visitors choose a personal route through the exhibition and learn whether they escape with their life or die in the Ypres Salient, a sobering experience.
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780 Third Avenue, Ste. 1501 New York, N.Y. 10017 Ph: (212) 758-8130 Fax: (212) 355-7675
Grote Markt 34, 8900 Ieper Belgium Ph: 32 (0) 57 20 07 24 Fax: 32 (0) 57 21 85 89
 
For further information contact:
The Belgian Tourist Office
The Tourist Office, Cloth Hall
 
When You Go
By Air:
KLM to Schiphol Airport
By Rail:

Buy a Eurail Flexipass before leaving Canada. It provides 15 days of first class rail travel in 17 countries. For Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg buy a Benelux pass. Direct rail links to all of Europe from Schipol Airport.
Call: (800) 361 RAIL
Climate:
Mid April to Mid October for best weather. July and August are peak tourist times.
Electricity:
220 volt
Guides:
$60.00 Cdn /two hours
Ypres is a small town. The Hotel-Restaurant Regina, across from the Cloth Hall and Tourist Centre, is clean, friendly and centrally located.