In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow
I have been intrigued by stories of the First and Second World Wars since I was a very young girl after reading Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword and watching The Waltons every Sunday morning throughout my childhood.
Despite my interest, I knew little about the First World War, also known as the Great War, so I decided to embark on a trip to Ieper in West Flanders, Belgium, ahead of Remembrance Day to find out more.
I took the train from Cornwall over the Tamar Bridge and made my way to London St Pancras to take my first journey on the Eurostar to Brussels. I was a little apprehensive about being under the sea in a tunnel but within two hours the train had arrived in Brussels Midi. Despite a bit of ear popping, the journey was no different than a normal train ride but with much more comfortable seating. A far more eco-friendly and stress-free way to travel!
I should have chosen a different outfit that day because while I was waiting for my connecting train to Ieper, also known as Ypres, I was approached by three different people asking me where to get their trains. Perhaps my navy military-style coat led people to believe I was a member of staff at the station or a policewoman from ‘Allo ‘Allo but I think I did quite well pointing them in the right direction (my apologies to those who ended up in Amsterdam). After a short wait, my double-decker train to Poperinghe arrived and it took just 1 hour 40 minutes to reach Ieper.
One thing to remember when you arrive in Ieper is that there is no taxi rank at the station so if you need one, try and book one in advance before your journey. I was prepared to take the short ten-minute walk into the town centre but when I stopped a young couple to ask for directions, they were kind enough to offer me a lift to avoid getting wet. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Stranger Danger, Stranger Danger, but I got a good vibe from this couple who were students from the next town and I wasn’t wrong. They took me straight to my hotel, the Albion, and told me that the main languages in Ieper were Dutch, French and English and that I should perhaps just stick to English after I demonstrated my Franglais.
The family-run Albion Hotel is a charming hotel just five minutes walk away from the Menin Gate and the Grote Markt (main square). I was greeted by the friendly hotel owner Christiane and her lovely husband and it wasn’t long before I was settled into my spacious room watching an episode of Eastenders on TV. I know, Eastenders in Belgium!
The next day, I enjoyed my delicious complimentary breakfast in the dining room before heading off on my first tour with Genevra from Flanders Battlefields Tours. The minibus meets you next to the bus station in the Grote Markt and takes up to nine people per tour. We headed off to the outskirts of Ieper where Genevra shared her expertise and emotional stories of the First World War.
The tour takes you to Essex Farm where John McCrae wrote the famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, and you can see the original bunkers that were used in the former Advanced Dressing Station. McCrae’s original poem has been copied and is presented on a bronze plaque next to a printed version of the poem. You cannot help but be moved to tears as you read the words of a man who had lost his best friend and describes the blood red poppies that blow between rows of wooden crosses. As you look around the cemetery, the crosses have been replaced by row upon row of pure white headstones that mark the resting place of fallen soldiers, some as young as 15 years old.
During the tour, we visited the St Julien Memorial where the tall granite “Brooding Soldier” soars above the green foliage below and marks the spot where 2,000 Canadian soldiers were killed during the first ever gas attack.
We visited Hellfire Corner on the Menin Road, the furthest point the Germans advanced towards Ieper; the Sanctuary Wood Trenches where you can walk around original zigzag deep trenches and retrace the steps of soldiers through mud and rainwater and visit the museum; and the Tyne Cot Cemetery where 11,954 Commonwealth soldiers rest.
You cannot fathom the scale of devastation and loss caused by the First World War until you visit these cemeteries and see the thousands of white gravestones, some with names on and some just engraved with “Known unto God”.
One cemetery that seemed to stay in my mind was the Student Cemetery in Langemark, the largest WW1 German cemetery in Flanders. More than 44,000 German soldiers are buried at the cemetery, 3,000 of which are the graves of young student volunteers who died in the Battle of Langemark in 1914.
It is at this point that you forget about the politics behind the war and whose side you would have been on and you witness the scale of the loss of human life, whether they were British, French, Belgian, Australian, Canadian or German.
The bronze statue of the four soldiers that stands at the back of the cemetery is a replica of a photograph taken in 1918 of German soldiers standing by the graveside of a comrade. Two days after the original photograph was taken, the second soldier from the right was killed.
At one point during the tour, I felt like a bit of a fraud. I wasn’t visiting Ieper to find the grave of a brave relative and I had no story to tell. However, I do hope that if more people visit these cemeteries and understand the devastation, courage of soldiers, and human sacrifice from both civilians and soldiers, there is less chance of history repeating itself.
Maybe if this war had not happened, I would not be living the life I lead today. A life of freedom and choice and for that I will remember the 10 million soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War and I will be eternally grateful.
How to get there: Eurostar offers nine Brussels Midi routes a day and any Belgian station tickets start from £81 return and include Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and stations along the Belgian Coast. www.eurostar.com or 08432 186 186.
Where to Stay: Albion Hotel, Sint-Jacobsstraat 28 – 8900 Ypres – Room and complimentary breakfast from €75 per night.
What to do: Ypres Flanders Battlefield Tour . Daily tours from 30 Euros with English speaking guides, transport and a museum ticket included.