I was standing in a field of carrots, unremarkable but for the fact that a low line of hills on the horizon made it recognisable as the place where German and Allied troops played football together during the spontaneous armistice at Christmas in 1914. In quite a gentle way the sheer absurdity of the First World War became an immediate personal experience.
Direct echoes of the past can be experienced at many locations in Flanders, a very small and easily traversed area in Belgium’s northwest. The legendary Allied bastion of Ypres (now known by its Flemish name Iper) near the French border, is at the heart of the territory most fiercely contested during World War I (WWI). Between here and the exquisitely beautiful Bruges (Brugge in Flemish) are locations whose names resonate with history.
After the war, the Belgian people deliberately restored their towns and country as if nothing had happened, but this was the first war in history to receive media saturation. There are so many photographic and cinematic records that some sites become eerily familiar when compared with images from the past.
The most conspicuous evidence of the war was added afterwards – the finely maintained war cemeteries. Both Allied and German troops were buried in the field, and the contrast between either side’s commemorative methods are striking. Tyne Cot, with more graves than any other Commonwealth war cemetery, is deeply moving because of the sheer size of the area on which the white headstones stand. Yet they seem stoically resolute, advancing up a broad hillside in perfect ranks toward the monumental cross at the top. This white stone structure was triumphantly placed over a concrete German gun emplacement (its surface visible through an opening in the masonry) that was taken by the Allies on this important battle site later chosen for a cemetery.
At Polygon Wood, now fully regrown after being blasted to splinters, Buttes New British Cemetery is dominated by a stone obelisk dedicated to the Australian Fifth Division, set high on a long artificial plateau. From here visitors look down a central axis across a sacrificial altar and through the rows of headstones to the graceful colonnaded memorial to the New Zealand Division. This memorial grove in Polygon Wood turns landscape design into an emotionally expressive art form.
The German cemeteries in Belgium strongly express defeat and grief, and are more conducive to contemplation. The German cemetery at Vladslo is literally darker, in a shady forest clearing with simple rows of plaques on the ground. Each plaque marks a mass grave. An intensely poignant pair of stone figures, The Grieving Parents by the German artist Kathe Kollwitz, kneels at the edge of the bleak expanse.
On a grand elevated circular piazza in the jolly seaside town of Nieuwpoort there is an elegant equestrian monument to King Albert I, commander in chief of the Belgian army, but the main attraction here is the industrial complex of waterworks directly below. This is the ‘Goose Foot’, a set of locks for regulating irrigation and shipping, whereby Belgian hydraulic genius repelled the German advance by flooding the fields. Unlike most of the area’s historic war sites, this one is virtually unchanged.
A smaller but more evocative surviving original site is the group of large concrete bunkers of the Essex Farm field hospital. At this location the Canadian Army doctor John McRae wrote his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, in an earlier structure that the existing one replaced. The Memorial Museum at Passchendaele has facsimile trenches, but visitors may get closer to some inkling of the soldiers’ conditions by creeping through the claustrophobic and fantastically labyrinthine museum interior, which includes reconstructions of underground accommodation.
Most of these locations are about half an hour’s drive from Iper, an excellent central base for your excursions, and a faithful recreation of the destroyed original town. Here you’ll find the majestic Menin Gate, which Commonwealth countries regard as their principal WWI shrine of remembrance on European soil. There’s also the dramatic new high tech In Flanders Field Museum in the reconstructed Gothic Town Hall.
It’s almost as convenient, however, to find accommodation in the magically romantic town of Bruges, close by the medieval and renaissance magnificence of Ghent and Antwerp. Bruges was almost unharmed in WWI. The loveliness here, with fairytale architecture interspersed with quiet canals, is astonishing. It also provides an antidote to the sombre memories that surround it.
Detailed advice on locations, events and accommodation is available at visitflanders.com