A few weeks before I left Canada for Belgium, I read a Globe and Mail article that discussed the issue of people forgetting the sacrifices made by WW I soldiers, since the veterans are no longer alive to tell their stories. For me, the deep emotional connection that I feel towards the second World War, thanks to the personal involvement of my parents and my uncles, was missing when I thought about the Great War. That changed after I experienced the museums and landmarks in and around Ypres, dedicated to giving voice to the now-silent soldiers and civilians who were plunged into this senseless “war of attrition.”
We joined the multigenerational, multicultural lineup inside the “In Flanders Fields” museum, located in Ypres’ 13th centre Cloth Hall. Our poppy identification bracelets, each embedded with a computer chip, allowed us to log in and receive stories about people who matched our age, gender, or nationality, as well as detailed information about items on display throughout the museum.
As we wandered through the exhibits, the mood kept sombre by shadowed light and instrumental music, we had many opportunities to learn more about World War I. Most impactful for me were the video encounters with Belgian civilians, soldiers from both sides of the conflict, priests, nurses, and doctors who told their stories, then disappeared into the dark screen. I was riveted by their experiences: becoming refugees from their own country; enduring the horrors of gas attacks, struggling with the pain of losing friends, laboring to help the injured and the dying, finding the magic in the all-too-brief Christmas truce.
The most personal experience of all came close to the museum’s exit. I logged into one final computer and found screen after screen of fallen men who shared my surname. Could some of them have been distant British or Canadian relatives, lost on a broken branch of my family tree? Could my life have been different if they had lived?
After more than three hours inside the museum, we re-emerged into bright sunshine on the cobbled square outside the Cloth Hall and headed out of town. Our first destination was the Saint Juliaan memorial to the Canadian troops who perished during the first gas attack on Ypres in 1915. The Brooding Soldier monument watched over us and a few others who gazed up at him in the quiet afternoon. I don’t view myself as rampantly patriotic, but I wished I had a little maple leaf flag to add to the others at the soldier’s feet.
A short distance down the road brought us to Tyne Cot, the final resting place of close to 12000 Commonwealth soldiers. Once inside the gates, I stood for a long time, trying to take in row on row on row on row of bone-white headstones, many without names, known only “unto God.” If, as Albert Schweitzer once observed “the soldiers’ graves are the greatest preachers of peace,” I can only hope that more world leaders find their way to this cemetery.
We made one more stop before heading back to Ypres – Essex Farm Cemetery, site of the medical station where John McRae wrote “In Flanders Fields” I recited the poem’s words aloud, connecting with their meaning in a way I’d never felt before.
We finished our day back in Ypres, standing under the Menin Gate, where tens of thousands of troops marched out to battle. Many of them would never return, their whereabouts unknown. The gate is inscribed with the names of almost 55000 soldiers who went missing in action.. During the 1927 Menin Gate inauguration ceremony, Field Marshal Herbert Plumer offered this reassurance to the families whose sons, brothers, husbands and uncles were never heard from again: “He is not missing. He is here.”
We joined hundreds of people from around the world to witness the ceremony that has occurred every evening at 8 p.m. since 1927, interrupted only by the WW II German occupation. The multilingual buzz in the crowd hushed, and even the small children on their fathers’ shoulders fell silent. An honor guard bugled “The Last Post,” a bagpiper skirled a Celtic lament. The military band played “Abide with Me” as dignitaries laid memorial wreaths. I felt a tear slide down my cheek. Next to me, a father wrapped his arms around his young daughter, her face buried into his chest.
The ceremony lasted less than 15 minutes. We watched the band and dignitaries march away, and drove back to Brugge in compatible silence.