Night Location: Gent, Belgium
Song of the Day: Viva la Vida - Coldplay
Mumisode of the Day: During the Flanders Field Tour, we entered a WWI museum complete with an original, undetonated mustard gas shell. When the guide started to move the shell, Mum promptly headed for the door.
An incredible day in Belgium. In spite of the grey sky, slight drizzle and cold wind, we have all experienced another highlight today. We were all up early, as tends to be our tradition of late, and set off for Brugge (pronounced 'Brug' as in 'rug' by Claude). We arrived just as the city was starting to get up. Wandered through the cobbled streets to the Grand Markt and were inspired by the beautiful architecture. Brugge is a city that has been built over a canal system; it is a little like the Venice of Belgium. As is the tradition in Venice, one of the great tourist activities here is to experience the city by boat. So this is what we did, embarking on the earliest boat of the day. The boats here are like limousine versions of the common dinghy. You are fairly close to the water and have a great view of the low bridges and buildings that line the canal. Needless to say it was fairly cold on the water, with the breeze blowing off the canal. Brugge is definitely at its prettiest from the water.
After the boat tour, we explored some more streets and the shops. Amber bought a hat, scarf and gloves, Mum bought yet another scarf, and even Dad bought a scarf that would prove very useful for the rest of the day. David, again with his awesome research, had found a WWI tour around Ypres so this is where we headed for the afternoon.
The tour, titled 'The Flanders Field Tour', was just incredible. It covered several of the great war cemeteries and monuments of WWI and really gave us all a taste for the history and chronology of the war. The tour took four hours, and the time just flew. We travelled in a mini-van with only two other people (also Australian) exploring the town of Ypres itself, as well as several other villages including Passchendaele.
Ypres was a significant town in WWI as this was the last town that the Germans wanted to capture before crossing the Belgian border into France. It was never captured by the Germans during the war. They came within walking distance, but each time were forced back. It is one of the major sites that Australians fought and died, and in the famous Third Battle of Ypres, 38000 Australians were killed or injured in just eight weeks.
Our first stop on the tour was the Essex Farm Cemetery. It is famous as it is located in Flanders Field, the inspiration for the famous poem, 'In Flanders Field', by John McCrae. In this field there are bunkers that have withstood almost the last century and include the dressing station and stretcher bay where the surgeon, John McCrae worked. He wrote the poem after the death of one of his friends. Look it up if you are not familiar with it.
The guide explained what we were seeing in the cemetery. This was a cemetery that has been left as it was since the war, and as such it is laid out in a semi-chaotic fashion. You can tell that soldiers were rushing to bury their friends while shells fell around them. Since then, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has laid white headstones over the burial spots but they have not attempted to make perfect lines as seen in other war cemeteries. Where several people were killed in the one incident and it was impossible to distinguish who was who, the headstones are lined up all touching one another. This cemetery also houses the grave of the youngest Allied Soldier, dying at just 14 years old. Where a soldier was unable to be identified, he still got his own headstone. It simply reads, "A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God."
The guide was able to show us pictures as we went along of what the place looked like both before and during the war. He was also able to explain the first use of chlorine gas and the havoc that that that wreaked on the Allied Forces. The next big stop was the German War Cemetery, Langemarck. Such a contrast from the British. As there are only four German cemeteries in this area, compared to over 100 Allied Cemeteries, there are over 44000 people buried here. We were told on the tour that a 35 year agreement existed between Belgium and Germany, that German soldiers could be buried on Belgian soil and that that ground would belong to Germany for 35 years. The Allies were given the land for their cemeteries for eternity. In 1954, mass exhumations of German soldiers occurred, combining the WWI German dead into four cemeteries in this area. Here there are no individual head stones for any one soldier. Over 20000 names are noted on large stone walls and in a chapel at the entrance, carved into oak. It has a very different feel to the Allied Cemetery and was visited by Hitler during WWII.
We visited several other memorials and then Tyne Cot Cemetery outside of Passchendaele, the largest WWI British Commonwealth Cemetery with over 12000 soldiers buried here. This was a cemetery largely established after the war, when soldiers had the task of cleaning up the surrounding fields of fallen comrades. It includes the German pillbox or cottage as the Australians called it, captured by the Australians during this time.
The tour ended at a small museum at Hill 62 on private land that has a field containing original WWI trenches left just as they were at the end of the war. Trees have been allowed to grow up, but other than this it remains unchanged. You can still see the massive crater holes left by the artillery shelling, the connecting tunnels, the dugouts and other tunnels. It was really incredible to stand in a trench and know that here stood Allied soldiers of WWI. It also gave us a really clear understanding of the mud of Ypres. Soldiers drowned in this mud, and even though the trenches had not been walked through recently, and it had not been raining recently, you could still see how wet they were. The ground really is just clay.
It was also here at this museum that we could see remnants of shells and an undetonated mustard gas shell. When the guide was rolling the shell back and forward so that we could hear the liquid inside, Mum headed for the trenches outside with a frightened expression on her face. She explained that, "It was pointing right at me!"
We returned to Ypres and applauded our guide as he truly had been fantastic. His grandmother was evacuated from Ypres during the war and he was born and raised here. The town itself, although completely flattened during the war by the constant artillery bombing, has been rebuilt in the original Gothic style thanks to the German reparations as agreed at the Treaty of Versailles.
Ypres is also home to the Menin Gate, a memorial to fallen Allied Soldiers who were unaccounted for and thus have no individual head stone. There are over 56000 names on this gate including over 6000 Australians. Due to a miscalculation of the size required for the total missing (over 90000) 35000 additional names are inscribed on a salient shaped wall at Tyne Cot Memorial. Each night since its inauguration a bugler plays 'The Last Post' at 8pm at the Menin Gate. The tradition has only been suspended during the occupation by the Nazi Forces in WWII and was recommenced the night the town was liberated even though it was likely to draw attention as fighting was still going on nearby.
We were lucky enough to be able to attend this ceremony, and as it is getting close to Remembrance Day, there were seven buglers and a military salute. Someone also recited the Ode of Remembrance:
'They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We shall remember them'.