Thursday, July 13, 2006

In Flanders Fields

You know those sublime days when you come home sunburned from wandering, sticky from food eaten on the road and exhausted by all the nice things that you've done ... yesterday was something like that.

We woke early and did all that we needed to do before leaving the city. 9.30am and we were Ieper bound (Ypres in French), introducing ML to the landscape and stories from one of Belgium's many war experiences.

Coincidently, she and I had followed in my grandfather's footsteps, spending time in Gallipoli back in 2003, now there we were without having ever intended it, following Grandad and the ANZACs from Turkey on over into Belgium. Although Grandad fought at the Somme in France there were Kiwis in Flanders too.

Driving the Flanders Field route is always a sobering experience. There are more cemeteries here than you can imagine ... 1000s of young men died during the wars. We began at the Flanders Field Museum in Ieper, a rather stunning interactive experience.

We left the town and drove to Essex Farm Cemetery, the location where John McCrae wrote his poem 'In Flanders Fields'. I found my first small group of late-blooming poppies and captured them from every conceivable angle ...

We stopped at the Canadian Memorial then drove on to the German Cemetery; a somber place where 24,917 soldiers share a mass grave under the roses, 7977 of those soldiers remain nameless, and 1000s more share graves with 10 or more of their comrades.

Our next stop was Tyne Cot Cemetery. Yesterday was another of those 30+ celsius days so we had to pick and choose where we stopped. Tyne Cot has 12,000 soldiers from Commonwealth Forces buried there, the largest number of burials of any Commonwealth cemetery of either world war.

It's beautifully kept and is constantly visited, and while this doesn't make it any better for all those who died so long ago, at least they haven't been forgotten.

From Tyne Cot we drove over to the Passchendaele Museum in Zonnebeke. It's another stunning museum ... one that compliments the interactive experience of the Ieper Museum.

Nine rooms give the visitor a chronological survey of the war using photos, a large number of historical artefacts and dioramas.

The second part of the museum has a 1917 trench reconstruction and descends into a reconstruction of a 20 foot deep dugout with head quarters, accommodation, workshop, communication room and first aid post. In the tenth and last room of the dugout the visitor can see historical photos, film of excavations and relics.

We wandered on, visiting a water-filled bomb crater, Mesen ridge and on over to the French cemetery at the edge of Ieper.

We were travelling back into Ieper to hear the Last Post being played under the Menin Gate. If you ever find yourself travelling that way it's worth taking the time to stop and watch.

For a few moments the noise of traffic ceases and a stillness descends over the memorial. At exactly 8pm up to six members of the regular buglers from the local volunteer Fire Brigade step into the roadway under the memorial arch. They play Last Post, followed by a short silence and then play Reveille.

The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life in Ieper (Ypres) and the local people are proud of this simple but moving tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town.

I always seem to meet interesting people under that gate and last night was no exception. We met two British war veterans from the Korean war and spent some time talking with them about how they came to be taking part in the ceremony.

ML finally sat down and experienced a dinner of Belgian fries (frieten) at a curbside cafe in Ieper.

It was just one of those really nice days that you stumble over ocasionally.

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