War is the least beautiful sight, yet the intricacies of such atrocities and the magnanimous impact that this imparted in the lives of people at that time until today can be overwhelmingly heartrending and at the same time, indescribably compelling.
2014 is the year that marks the first hundred years after the first Great War in Europe began. We came to visit Belgium again in the springtime and we put Ypres as a priority on our itinerary. More officially called as Ieper, Ypres is actually the Belgian town where the most intense and sustained battles between German and Allied Forces occurred.
Ypres was a flourishing city in the middle ages because of its important role in the Flemish textile industry and particularly its strong linen and wool trade with England (it was even mentioned in The Canterbury Tales). The magnificent Cloth Hall, built in the thirteenth century, is the obvious symbol of the city’s prosperity, where trade and merchants from all over came here to buy and sell their cloth and other goods.
By the start of the twentieth century, Ypres was a city in decline, but it occupied a strategic position during the First World War as Germany planned to sweep across parts of Belgium and into France from the North. Ypres was heavily damaged as the British and French forces fought hard to prevent the German force to advance through. After this first battle at Ypres, both armies dug in and the famous Ypres Salient was born. For the next four years, the war went on in this battlefield.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The Last Post
We arrived in Ypres just in time for me to see the “Last Post” ceremony at the Menin Gate.
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial in Ypres that is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the salient during the First World War. Designed by Reginald Blomfield and publicly unveiled in 1927, the Menin Gate’s Hall of Memory contains names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died but whose bodies neither identified nor found.
After the Menin Gate Memorial was finished, the citizens of Ypres expressed their gratitude by setting up the Last Post Association that is responsible for performing the Last Post, the traditional final salute to the fallen soldiers of the former British Empire and its allies. Every evening at 8’o clock sharp, a group of buglers plays the Last Post under the Menin Gate Memorial.
The “Last Post” is used in British Army camps to signal the end of the day when the duty officer returns from the tour of the camp and quarters. At the close of a day of battle, it also signaled those who were still out and wounded or separated that the fighting was finished, and to follow the sound of the call to find safety and rest. In recent times, the “Last Post” has been incorporated into military funerals as a final farewell, symbolizing as well that the duty of the dead soldier is over and that he can rest in peace. It is now also used in public ceremonials to commemorate the war dead.
The Last Post has been played in the Menin Gate Memorial since 1928. As of today, the ceremony has been made for 29,791 times.
In Flanders Fields Museum – Snapshots Inside
Visiting In Flanders Fields Museum has given me a much clearer perspective of what the soldiers and ordinary people went through, and how horrifying, gruesome and costly this war brought upon.
Named for the famous poem made by Canadian soldier John McCrae at the eve of the war, the In Flanders Fields Museum occupies the second floor of the rebuilt Cloth Hall. As we entered the museum, I got an interactive poppy bracelet that allowed me to follow the life stories of individuals who I could most likely relate to, given my family name, age, and nationality.
Given these imageries, it is difficult to fathom why and how this brutal, senseless war happened.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Talbot House – Every man’s club
Not so far from Ypres is the town called Poperinge, which during World War I, was the only one of the two Belgium towns that were not been occupied by the Germans. The town became a safe haven for British troops and field hospitals as it was just very near the front line. In Poperinge as well, the house at number 43 Gasthuistraat opened its doors on December 11, 1915, for the first time to welcome British soldiers to a new club. Reverend Philip “Tubby” Clayton, the Army’s Chaplain opened an Every-man’s club, where soldiers could meet and relax regardless of rank.
Talbot House was named after Lieutenant Gilbert W L Talbot, who was serving at the rifle brigade when he was killed at Hooge in the Ypres Salient at age 23. The house soon became known to soldiers at the salient and came up with a signal code amongst the British Army as “TOC H.”
The loft was converted into a chapel and became known as the “Upper Room” where it became a peaceful place for hundreds of soldiers taking a brief respite from the trenches.
Our tour around the battlefield of World War I ended with a visit to Tyn Cot Cemetery that is the burial ground for the dead of the First World War on the Western front. Located outside of Passendale, it is also the largest war cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world to date.
In recognition of the sacrifices made by the British Empire in the defence and liberation of Belgium during that war, the land on which the cemetery stands is the free gift in perpetuity of the Belgian people.
There are 11,954 graves, of which 8,367 are unnamed. Originally it contained only 343 graves, but since it was completed many were moved from surrounding cemeteries.
The stone wall surrounding the cemetery was built when the builders of the Menin Gate discovered it was not large enough to contain all the names of missing fallen soldiers as originally planned with the said gate. Now, the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot contains the names of men killed after August 15, 1917 – 33,783 from British forces and 1,176 from the New Zealand Army.
The Cross of Sacrifice that also marks many of Commonwealth cemeteries was built on top of a German pillbox in the center of the cemetery.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.