Sunday 13 November 2016

Don't know much about history

Although I now have a keen interest in history, I have to confess that it wasn't a favourite subject at school. Not that I am a complete dunce, but I have a feeling that my knowledge of history is a bit fragmented. This is mainly due to the teacher I had during the last four years of secondary school, whose heart wasn't really into teaching. He didn't even make us swot for our exams, as his were open book ones, so names and dates are not as imprinted on my brain as they should be.

When it comes to the First World War, the things that stuck to mind, apart from the dates, were the trenches, and that our very own Flanders Fields were the scene of some of its most important battles.

And let's not to forget that 11 November, Armistice Day, is a holiday here in Belgium!

Can you believe I hadn't even been to Ypres until a couple of years ago? This all changed when we first went there for a short break back in 2012.

Visiting Ypres, it is impossible not to be immersed in the history of the Great War.

Looking at the magnificent old buildings, and especially the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle), it is almost impossible to grasp that the whole town was virtually destroyed by four years of pointless violence and that the buildings you are looking at are less than a hundred years old. 

In fact, it was only due to the people of Ypres that the town was rebuilt at all, as the British were all for keeping the ruins as a modern Pompeii.

The Cloth Hall now houses the interactive In Flanders Field Museum, the visiting of which makes you only too well aware of the importance and severeness of the Great War.

Every visitor is given a poppy bracelet with a microchip. Based on language and entered data (name, country, region), the interactive application makes the closest match between you and two First World War witnesses, ordinary people whose stories make the war tangible and personal.

As you journey through the museum, the whole experience is enhanced by a chilling soundtrack composed by the British band Tindersticks.

We visited on a gloriously sunny September day and stepping out of the museum we felt rather dazed and slightly disorientated.

Also in Ypres, the Menin Gate is the most famous Commonwealth war memorial in Flanders, which stands on the site of the gate through which tens of thousands of soldiers passed on the way to the front, many of them never to return.

The gate was officially inaugurated in 1927 and displays the names of 54.896 soldiers which went missing in the Ypres Salient between the outbreak of the war and 15 August 1917.

Because the gate was too small to hold the names of all the missing, those who were lost after this date (a further 34,000) are commemorated on the panels of the Tyne Cot Memorial in Passchendaele, which we visited on a suitably grey day in September 2014.

Approaching the new visitor centre, which was opened in 2007, you can hear the names and ages of the young men who died recited in the background, which is incredibly moving.

Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest British war cemetery on mainland Europe and has uniform headstones made of white Portland stone

11.956 soldiers of the Commonwealth are buried here. The screen wall at the back of the cemetery commemorates a further 34.957 missing soldiers who died after 15 August 1917.

The German War Cemetery at Vladslo near Diksmuide (Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof Vladslo) contains the remains of over 25,000 young men. It is in stark contrast to its British counterparts, but certainly not less moving.

The tranquil setting, with simple stones and roughly hewn stone crosses, creates a sense of great sadness and loss.

This is enhanced by the pair of sculptures entitled “Grieving Parents” by German artist Käthe Kollwitz, who lost her youngest son in the war.

At the time of our visit, the sculptures were being restored, so unfortunely it was impossible to photograph them together.

For now, I will end this history lesson with someone else's words, written at the time:

When war shall cease this lonely, unknown spot
Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,
And flowers will bloom in this now barren plot
And fame upon it through the years descend-
But many a heart upon each simple cross
Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss. 
- John William Streets, A Soldier's Cemetary


  1. thank you for that "ear worm".....
    it´s good to be remembered of what can ignorance, stupidity and capitalism do to the human race. all this hopeful young man! the railroad keeper and i have the theory that the 1.WW was made up because after the turn of the century the reform movements, new found libertinages and the raise of alternative life models seemed to those in power as a huge danger...... send them into a war to make clear where is above and below.
    wonderful k.kollwitz sculptures! i´m a huge fan of her!
    hugs! xxxxxx

    1. You're welcome Beate ;-) There is a Käthe Kollwitz museum, dedicated to the story of the sculptures at Vladslo, which were made in honour of her son, in a nearby town. We're planning to visit it on one of our next trips there ... xxx

  2. Those two pictures of Ypres, one post war and one today are quite poignant. I can see the reasoning to keep it as was as a reminder to people, but of course the people of Ypres want to live there. They've done an amazing job. The 11th November is called Remembrance Day in the U.K. I'm so glad we still take the time to remember and be grateful. I would like to go to Ypres at some point to pay my respects. Xxx

    1. I think Remembrance Day is a far better name! I hadn't been to Ypres until 2012, and it's less than two hours from where I live ...The whole area is steeped in WWI history, which I find very moving. Definitely worth a visit. xxx

  3. Blimey, Tindersticks! Are they still going?
    That looks like a poignant place to spend time. I know a good friend of ours went last year and was very moved. xxx

    1. I think it's impossible not to be moved. At Tyne Cot cemetery, hearing those names recited, I was choked up by the time we got to the visiting centre ... I think Tindersticks are mostly doing film scores now ... I quite liked their first album. xxx

  4. I find those memorials with all the names incredibly moving. I will never forget going to the American Museum at Duxford when it opened. You walk up the hill to the entrance and the snaking path is edged with glass panels etched with WW2 planes. I just thought it was a nice touch for an air museum. Until you reach the top and the sign says to turn and look back at the glass panels, each plane represents an American Airman who lost his life, and you see this endless curving line of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of small etched planes......

    1. That must have been very thought provoking and moving, Gisela. Reading all the names on the Menin Gate in Ypres is just mind boggling, you really struggle to understand. xxx

  5. What heart breaking memorials

    1. They are indeed heartbreaking, Kate. I think we cannot begin to fathom how it must have been. xxx

  6. The sheer number of graves is heartbreaking.

    'Wipers', the British soldiers called Ypres.

    1. I'd heard British soldiers called it 'Wipers'. Its actual Flemish name is 'Ieper', with is pronounced with 'ee'. xxx

  7. We've seen the war graves on tv of course but I imagine nothing prepares you for being there in person. I went to a war museum in Thailand... so incredibly moving. Thanks for this post Ann.

    1. Seeing all those graves and the names etched on the walls of the Menin Gate is quite mind boggling and very moving. xxx