Seeing my last name, Christensen, on one of the smooth white marble headstones gave me pause. Walking through the American Cemetery at Flanders Field, I was not expecting to discover some long lost cousin. Not too many feet away I saw the name Todd, my wife’s maiden name, marking the grave of a young man from her home state of New York. In that moment, WWI seemed not quite as distant.
2014 marked 100 years since an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo started a series of events that sent the world to war and 2018 marks 100 years since the last shot was fired. For the people of Belgium and the region of Flanders in particular, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, is fresher in their memories. Last year the Belgium army’s well-practiced practiced bomb disposal unit collected 105 tons of unexploded shells from fields and construction sites around the country. Even today, about a dozen times a year a soldier’s body is found. Only two months ago the bodies of 3 South African soldiers were discovered and reinterred with their comrades in one of the 150 Commonwealth cemeteries maintained within a few miles of the Belgium city of Ieper (Ypres).
In Belgium, the German advance towards Paris was finally halted here at Iepor where the war ground into the standstill of trench warfare. They were stopped in part because the Belgian King Leopold I opened the floodgates to flood the lowlands in front of the oncoming army. By doing so he saved a small piece of Belgium from German occupation. In all, nearly 500,000 soldiers from 50 nations died within a few miles of Ieper.
The newly renovated and expanded Flanders Field Museum at Ieper does a wonderful job teaching the history of WWI in Belgium. One video reenacts, for instance, the thinking of the Germans as they plan the first gas attack the war and the reaction of the Canadian soldiers who endured it. Another video puts voice to a British soldier explaining the Christmas Truce of 1914 when for one day the soldiers laid down their guns, met in no man’s land and sang Christmas carols together with the enemy.
Also in Ieper is the Menin Gate which was built to commemorate 55,000 missing Commonwealth soldiers. Well into its construction it was discovered the number of missing was, in fact, closer to 90,000. A second wall was built at the nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery to hold the overflow of names.
Each night at 8 pm Ieper holds a Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. 4 buglers in greatcoats play “Last Post” before the hushed crowd, followed by a minute of silence. Visitors in the crowd who have arranged ahead with the Last Post Association then lay wreaths at the memorial. Many of the wreaths are silk red poppies with black centers in remembrance of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow. Between the crosses, row on row…”
On July 9, 2015, observed the 30,000th time they have held the Last Post ceremony. The ceremony started shortly after WWI. They did pause the ceremony during the WWII occupation by Germany but started again one hour after the German troops retreated from the city. What started as a ceremony for locals and the occasional visiting veteran now draws an average of 600 people each night, and many more on special days like Remembrance Day (November 11).
Belgium had a number of new events planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI from 2014-2018. In April of 2014, for instance, they lined the route of the trenches from the English Channel to the French Border with lights, with people holding torches. On Christmas in 2014 they commemorated the Christmas Truce. Expect some of the largest events to be held each November 11th to commemorate the armistice which began at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Walking around the smaller American cemetery it was surprising how many soldiers died in the last days, or even the last minutes of the war. The last soldier to be killed was an American. Henry Gunter was killed one minute before the cease-fire took hold because someone gave the rather pointless order to capture a German machine gun position. The German soldiers first tried to wave off the advancing Americans to get them to stop, apparently seeing no point in one more meaningless death.
Perhaps that is the lesson to be learned from WWI. It was a war that shredded many of the glorious pictures of war and replaced them with muddy trenches, poison gas, cratered landscapes, and wholesale death. It also laid the foundation for all that followed after in the 20th century.
Tourists who visit the beautiful nearby cities of Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent or Brussels should consider adding a visit to Flanders Fields.