I spent a week as a guest of #visitflanders at the end of September visiting Brussels, Bruges, the Flanders fields area and finishing in Gent. Although I had visited the cities before ( a very long time ago) it was my first visit to the fields where so many very young Australia, New Zealand, British, Canadian, French, Belgian and German men gave their lives in the war that was supposed to end all wars.
It is difficult to imagine what it would have been like for these young men in the trenches. We were very privileged to see an actual Australian trench that has been rediscovered as a result of an archaeological dig to find the crypt of the Zonnebeke church. It is only open for a few months and will be resealed in November. The neighbouring museum of Passchendaele (#passchendaele100) has a recreation of the trenches, but the real thing is different.
Cold, dank, slightly smelly, the corridors are streaked with blue clay and orange and yellow lines of the minerals the trenches were cut through. It is a bleak place. We were there in September on a lovely day – in the trenches in December mid winter would have been a freezing hell.
There are 600 cemeteries in Flanders Fields. Some are huge – Tyne Cot has almost 12,000 marked graves and thousands more names inscribed on a memorial wall. Far too many are inscribed “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.” Some are tiny – a few gravestones at the back of someone’s farm. Some you can see from the road, some you have to search out, as we did visiting Toronto Avenue (named by the Canadians but the only cemetery which is entirely Australian.) You walk through beautiful woods to the end and the cemetery is there, peaceful and beautiful.
We participated in the Menin Gate ceremony,and then were very privileged to attend the 100th commemoration of the Battle of Polygon Wood (#passchendaele100). Even the 1 am start for a 2 am drive to Polygon Wood did not dampen the sense of occasion. The walk through the wood along the path of remembrance took us on a journey telling us about the battle. We saw the short distance between enemy lines; people re-enacted soldiers bringing the wounded back to the dressing station and cooks in the mess tent. We saw Scott’s bunker, taken during the battle and then joined the service. There was music from the army band and a Queensland children’s choir, a viewing of a short film called The Telegram Man which was very moving, and readings from current servicemen about the men who preceded them so long ago, and how the VC winners won their medals. Everyone had their spine chill moment. For me it was the Spirit of Place when an Aboriginal man played the didgeridoo in the darkness, filling the space with a deep thrum from ancient times half way round the world, to bring those men home.
I do not have a direct family connection to the fields of Flanders to my knowledge, but it does not matter. Anyone and everyone will respond to something about the fields of Flanders. It might be the sheer beauty of the gentle countryside as time has healed many of the wounds inflicted by war. It might be the sense of sacrifice seen in the myriad rows of headstones. It might be the Last Post at Menin Gate, held every night at 8 pm whether there are people there or not. This place is worth your time and your reflection. It might be the place to be on November 11th 2018 when the centenary of the Armistice will take place. Book now.