A weekend hardcore festival with the ladies you say? In Belgium? Where exactly? Ieper? As in the WWI battlefield area… Fields of poppies Ieper? Yes? Ah this sounds interesting, I shall go….
So fast forward a few months and I was travelling alone on the 6am Eurostar attempting to reach Ieper in time for an afternoon Battlefield tour. The scenic journey from Brussels in a mustard yellow and brown train showed me how many Belgians seem to own small ponies in what looked to be their back garden, Ieper is the spelling in Flemish, and as it is a Flemish region I shall refer to it as so! Ypres is the more common French name, and occasionally still by some old school Brits also goes by ‘Wipers’; due to it’s nickname during WW1. Belgium I learnt, instead of opting for a dual language sign system like most countries, just changes the name depending on where you are at that moment. Not entirely unsurprising given the huge divide between the Flemmish (Dutch) and Walloon/Brussels (French) speaking Belgians.. So I’ve read about anyway.
Flanders Battlefield Tour: http://www.ypres-fbt.com
After ‘running’ past the usually scenic main square to the hotel to drop off my backpack I managed to find the pick up point amidst the loud, neon funfair in time to start my tour. My guide was a Belgium man, Jacques, who was born in the nearby town of Poperinge and lived close to Talbot House, which was a ‘club’ used during WW1 as a getaway for the war. Age 13 Jacques enquired about this white house that seemed to attract a lot of attention and subsequently spent most of his free time there, and eventually became the curator for two decades. Whilst sitting in the beautiful market square of Ieper (ignoring the fun fair) it was unbelievable to hear and see that it has all been built post WWI, and in fact Ieper had been completely flattened. Belgium managed to stave off Britain’s intentions of owning Ieper and instead re-built it as it was. And it really is a beautiful ‘old’ European town.
Our first stop was Essex farm, a canal side dugout which has now been restored with concrete, famous for where Canadian John McCrae wrote, and then threw away the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ – picked up and printed in Punch Magazine. McCrae did not survive the war.
This area was also an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) and standing alone inside the dugouts felt creepy and claustrophobic, even more so when imagining, with the aid of photos the amount of people in them at the time. Due to the fear of being gassed they were very poorly ventilated with just 5 closely monitored pipes coming through the roof. We were then taken to Boesinghe/Boezinge where the first German gas attacks occurred in April 1915 under the guidance of Fritz Haber . He received a Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1918 and later went on to develop Zyklon-B for use as a pesticide (the gas used in the Holocaust/Gas Chambers.) Fritz was himself a Christian convert, I believe due to avoid anti-semitic prejudices & to avoid glass ceilings in his academia and research rather than a spiritual conversation. He still had to flee the Nazi regime in 1933 & died the following year.
We were given vivid descriptions of the gas attacks and those coupled with the no mans land and trench narrative we’d been hearing I really felt I was standing in what was once hell on earth.
Next stop was Langemark, a German war cemetery, which Hitler visited in 1940 to commemorate the young ‘heroes’ that died here in 1914 during the First Battle of Ieper. The Germans called it ‘Kindermord bei Ypern’ (massacre of the innocents) and photos of course were used for propaganda purposes afterwards. As I’ve mentioned in my WWII posts I find German war cemeteries incredibly bleak with a cold, eerie atmosphere and this one was no different. The ghostly ambiance enhanced by four men seeming to follow you around the cemetery, and once you realise these silhouettes are only statues, the creepiness doesn’t dissipate. The thought of Hitler once walking on the same ground I was on made me feel genuinely sick to my stomach, very different to how I felt segwaying over his bunker in Berlin.
The stories got more personal, and therefore more horrific. We visited the area where Private Harry Patch, the last WWI Veteran who died in 2009, aged 109 saw friends die on the bridge (above) in front of him, and another almost ripped in half by shrapnel. He did not (could not?) visit here again until 2007, on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.
Nearby out next stop was Tyne Cot, one of the largest cemeteries that was built around the original graveyard after battle took place. It was named after ‘Tyne Cottage’, an ADS run by the Northumberland Fusiliers.
I was told that there was still a lot of WWI shrapnel littering the Ypres salient, though it didn’t stop me being surprised that there actually is. A lot.
Our final stop was the Hill 62 Museum. Inside I was immediately greeted by an overpowering odour of air freshener, making the air heavy and clammy and felt mildly choking.. I wondered if this was on purpose.
Arriving back to join my mates at the main square for beers in the sun I had to force myself to snap out of the state of despairing disbelief in the world and humanity I had succumbed to. I think the worst realisation was that after all the death and destruction I’d heard about, the ‘war to end all wars’ it really just paved the way to the hell that was to start two decades later.
At 8pm I went to the Menin Gate Memorial to listen to the Last Post Ceremony that honours fallen soldiers. The commemoration and bugle playing has been taking place every night since Nov 11th 1929, with the exception of the WWII years. The atmosphere, or even chance of reflection was ruined by the bystanders need to video and film everything rather than honour quietly why they were actually there.
The next three days were full of drunken fun in a field. New friends, old friends, new bands, old bands. Even a pivotal moment of awakening that changed my life. What more can you ask for?!
And on the fourth day whilst everyone else was dying with a hangover in the hotel… what did I do? Go to the ‘In Flanders Field Museum’ of course..