They came in their uniforms or their Sunday best, bearing wreaths of cloth poppies and handwritten notes for fallen family members and countrymen, to be laid upon marble steps, to be read like poems by the living.
“Private Tennyson Roberts 45391, 2nd Bn. Welsh Regiment / died on 8th September 1916. / Gone but will never be forgotten, / God Bless. Love Roberts family xxx”
“In loving memory of my Great Uncle Charles Chivers. / Rest in peace. / Lest we forget.”
To come to the small city of Ypres, Belgium, is to make a pilgrimage, to be bathed in the mournful cries of bugles that sound every evening at 8, beneath a triumphal arch engraved with the names of the missing, on the same road where, during World War I, so many Allied troops marched to the front line and often to their deaths.
On Nov. 11, 100 years will have passed since the end of the war that was to end all wars. In many European towns and cities, including this one, Armistice Day will bring concerts and parades, but here in Ypres, remembrance is ritualized, steadfast. Nearly every night since 1927 — except during World War II — the city has held a ceremony known as the Last Post at The Menin Gate Memorial, dedicated to the soldiers of the British Empire who died here, and whose bodies were never found. It is a ceremony you go to feel as much as to see.
For me, the sorrow was general, and personal. Both of my mother’s parents served in World War II: Grandpa Lee Morris Lyon as a Jewish ordnance officer in the Army, moving guns and ammunition across Germany; Grandma Bernice Templeton Lyon as a Navy nurse at Pearl Harbor, post-attack. Cancer came for them, each in turn. Watching the Last Post, I cried nonstop, amid hundreds of other weeping faces.
Those who have no known grave
“We came to see me great granddad,” said Andy G. Smith from Toddington in Bedfordshire, England, after the Last Post dispersed. He pointed to a name, “Smith, G.” — one of 90,000 British soldiers memorialized on the Menin Gate, or the walls of nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery, because they have no known grave.
George Smith had worked at a cement factory when he joined the British army, was sent to the Ypres Salient, and died as a private at 30. “He left about six children,” Andy said. “Then me great-grandmother brought the lot up.” Nearly every child in the family has carried on his name in some way, including Andy’s daughter, Georgia.
A “salient,” I learned over four days of tours and museum visits, was a particularly vulnerable, U-shaped bulge into enemy territory, subject to attacks on multiple sides. And the one at Ypres was one of the most important, and bloodiest, on the Western Front. Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium, in an attempt to take France from the North, had forced Britain to join the fight. Ypres, a tiny city surrounded by medieval walls, was basically all that stood between the Germans and reaching Dunkirk by sea. Had the Central Powers taken Ypres, I heard from everyone I met, they likely would have won the war.
“You don’t want the kids to forget it,” Andy said, “because we wouldn’t be here if it had all gone wrong, if they hadn’t fought and did what they did.”
Andy’s wife, Karen, too, was looking for the grave of her great-uncle, Arthur Howard, who was buried within Ypres. This area is essentially a giant British war cemetery; in an effort to treat the sacrifices of all of its soldiers equally (“regardless of rank, race, or religion,” as a sign at Tyne Cot reads), Britain had opted against repatriating any bodies after the war.
Joining the Smiths was a contingent from the Orange Order, a sometimes controversial Protestant fraternity from Northern Ireland, in medal-covered sashes; and Member of Parliament Nick Thomas-Symonds, who’d left a lovely note on behalf of the people of his hometown, Torfaen, Wales.
At sunset, I came upon a man in uniform, Andy Boardman, carrying the standard (flag) of The Royal British Legion, a charity that supports veterans and their families. He and a friend were visiting the graves and memorials of all 64 men from their tiny village of Melbourne in Derbyshire, England, who had died in World War I — well over half the adult male population. They’d brought soil from Melbourne and were putting it on each of the graves, he said, “with the sort of view that they can’t come to us, so we’ll go to them.”
In Flanders Fields
Today, the Ypres Salient looks like ordinary farmland: fields dotted with sheep or potatoes or brussels sprouts — until you see the grooves of trenches and bomb craters.
In one of the most famous poems of the war, “In Flanders Fields,” a Canadian doctor, Lt. Col. John McCrae, described the poppies that grew next to the crosses of the dead, the sunsets that glowed above the destruction, and the larks that sang, despite being drowned out by gunfire. He didn’t make it out of the war, either.
I got many a good look at that peaceful, flat Flemish landscape thanks to a planning snafu that resulted in one of the great joys of this trip.
During booking, my beautiful Hotel Kasteelhof ‘t Hooghe had seemed like the perfect base for touring battlefields. It was on the Ypres Salient, next to a small, privately run museum of war relics. The pond in the front yard, covered in bright green algae beneath dripping willow trees, is known as the Hooge Crater — a giant dent in the ground made when the British tunneled under German trenches and blew them up. British troops died by the thousands here, trying to seize a German trench just behind the hotel where an amusement park now stands.
What I hadn’t anticipated when I arrived to Ypres by train from Brussels is that staying on a battlefield meant I was 3.3 miles down a country road, away from the city center and people and food. Walking would have taken an hour each way, cabs and buses were scarce, and there was no place to rent a car. At first, I panicked. Then I got creative. A boutique grocer downtown, Chez Marie, rented bicycles, and soon I was cruising — as is the Belgian way.
My first day took me to Ypres’ magnificent Cloth Hall, a sprawling Gothic former textiles warehouse and market (destroyed and then rebuilt after the war) that now houses the excellent In Flanders Fields Museum. There is your best bet for getting an overview of the war and the city. My favorite part was a video installation of actors reading diaries from the Christmas Truce of 1914, when both sides laid down their weapons to sing carols, share rum and bury bodies. Terrific views can be had from the belfry tower, famous because back in the Middle Ages, citizens used to throw cats from it to control overbreeding, and, perhaps, to ward off witchcraft. (Ypres still has a triennial festival called the Kattenstoet, but they throw feline stuffed animals.)
My trusty bicycle got me everywhere: to a World Cup viewing party in the Grote Markt square (this was late June — Belgium beat England; it was nuts), to dinners of beef stew and frites at traditional restaurants like In ‘t Klein Stadhuis and De Ruyffelaer, which brews its own beer. I couldn’t wait for my 20-minute commute to town and back: bumping along cobblestone streets, filling my basket with fruit from the farmers’ market, waving to cows in fields lit by moonlight.
Clay soldiers and Trappist brews
As happens when riding a bike around an unfamiliar city, I made wrong turns, one of which landed me outside a local pub, De Zwarte Leeuw (The Black Lion). A friendly English speaker, Jan Cardinael, 51, gave me a lesson on Belgium’s Trappist beer tradition as he helped me decipher the menu.
Five of the country’s six official Trappist beers, Cardinael said, I could find anywhere. One, though, called Westvleteren, required a drive to the isolated Sint-Sixtus Monastery, the only place that sold it. “It was two times the best beer in the world,” he said, “and you are lucky, you are 10 miles away from the abbey here, directly toward the coast.” Did I want to drive there with him and his wife, Fabienne, the next day? Of course I did.
The beers were indeed incredible; we drank an array of strengths and colors (it comes in Blonde, 8 and 12 — my favorite) and made friends with a retired couple in spandex who had biked there. “This beer don’t get you drunk here,” said Jan. “You get happy.”
But what I remember more was the detour we made before getting there, at the “ComingWorldRememberMe” exhibit in Palingbeek Park, site of the second of five battles of Ypres. There the artist Koen Vanmechelen has created an incredible installation of “land-art”: 600,000 red clay sculptures of soldiers, made by people all over the world, representing the 600,000 people who’d lost their lives in Belgium in World War I. (Make sure to see it at a distance from the viewing platform.) The soldiers, each around the size of an orange, are abstract, hunched over and pouring out across a huge expanse from a giant cracked clay egg. On Nov. 11, the field will be cleared and the makers of the soldiers invited to claim them. A bronze egg, also from Vanmechelen, filled with dog tags bearing the names of the victims will remain in Palingbeek.
They don’t make them like that anymore
Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world, is 7 miles east of Ypres: row upon row of white headstones arranged in a semicircle so big it looks like an illusion. Surrounding it are walls with thousands more names of the missing — a continuation of the Menin Gate, which couldn’t fit them all. Over 70 percent of the graves here, too, are unidentified.
I had come with Jacques Ryckebosch of Flanders Battlefield Tours, the most entertaining and knowledgeable guide I have encountered in all of my 52 Places stops. His passion, and compassion, was infectious, and his stories, many of which he’d heard from World War I veterans, were mesmerizing.
“This is Holy Ground, the whole area,” said Ryckebosch as I joined a group of five Englishmen in his tour van.
We’d begun our day at Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station, where Ryckebosch had worked with local groups to help excavate concrete bunkers. One headstone there belongs to Rifleman V.J. Strudwick, age 15.
Down the road was the Carrefour de Roses (Junction of Roses), where the Germans, in violation of a 1899 peace conference, had unleashed the first chemical warfare the world had seen in the First Battle of Ypres in 1915. Using chlorine gas, they’d liquefied the lungs of 1,200 French soldiers, and tore open a hole in the front line that nearly led them straight to Ypres. Canadian soldiers closed the gap by fighting through the next gas cloud with urine-soaked cloths covering their mouths to neutralize the chlorine.
We saw one of Belgium’s four resting places for the German dead, Langemarck Cemetery, and learned about the area’s danger to farmers and builders uncovering unexploded shells. One killed two men earlier this year; a phosphorus bomb showed up in July. Archaeologists are in the process of identifying 125 German skeletons found in a mass grave where a housing development was meant to go.
In between sites, I asked Ryckebosch to elaborate on the role colonialism played in the war. The In Flanders Fields Museum had touched on the contributions of the many Indians, Egyptians and South Africans from the British Commonwealth who had come to Europe to fight. I’d seen little acknowledgment, though, of the some 140,000 poorly paid laborers from China — nonmilitary personnel who had come to free up British and French support workers to fight on the front line.
Many died on the three-month journey; others, Ryckebosch said, “got bombed by aircraft, and don’t forget the Spanish flu.” But most of the deaths came from clearing ammunition after the war. The spot the Chinese had occupied in an enormous canvas, “Panthéon de la Guerre,” which depicts France surrounded by her allies, was painted over to make room for a representation of late-arriving troops from the United States.
By a riverbank was a plaque I never would have found myself. Ryckebosch launched into the story of Harry Patch, the last-surviving British infantry soldier of World War I, who died in 2009 at age 106. In 1917, while crossing this riverbank as part of the horrific Third Battle of Ypres (also known as the Battle of Passchendale), he had been struck by a shell that killed three of his friends and sent him to the hospital for a year. Ryckebosch was among those who accompanied Harry on his first return to a battlefield, at 100, and to the dedication of this memorial, which Harry paid for himself, a year before he died.
At the end of the tour, I remarked to Ryckebosch how incredible it had been to see the battlefields with someone who truly, deeply cared.
“It’s a human tragedy,” he said. “When I do a tour, I always have a vet in the back of my head, telling me his story.”