So begins the poem by Lt. John McCrae, a Canadian surgeon who witnessed the worst of World War I and tried to repair it. It is because of this poem that poppies are the universal symbol of World War I and military sacrifices everywhere.
“Flanders Fields,” I tried to explain to someone not familiar with World War I history, “is kind of like the Omaha Beach of the first world war.”
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Your Remembrances of World War I
Visiting Flanders Belgium
Flanders Belgium was, before the war and again today, a bountiful agriculture region. But for four years, between August 1914 and November 1918, it was a killing fields.
This is where Germans first used chlorine gas as a weapon of mass destruction, one of numerous atrocities in Flanders Fields.
Still today, 100 years later, the people of Flanders remove about 60 tons of unexploded artillery from this region every year. In the spring of 2014, two Belgian farmers were killed as they came across yet another live shell.
It’s not uncommon for projects that require digging to expose human remains, lost for nearly a century. World War I is a daily fact of life in Belgium.
So anyone who hopes to appreciate the lessons of World War I must visit Flanders Belgium.
Bicycle Tours of Flanders Belgium
Numerous WWI tours showcase the region, but I got a little energetic and chose to do so by bicycle. Belgians are fanatics for biking, so it seemed like a good idea — a fresh and exhilarating way to learn about the World War I.
But it was a beautifully sunny spring day as Kurt and I pedaled along. An iPad attached to his handlebars included 100-year-old photos of the precise area we biked.
At one point, we stopped near a lovely farmstead, complete with John Deere tractor outside the barn. Kurt pointed out an unusual structure that apparently the farm family used as a storage shed.
As it turns out, this was a concrete German bunker built in 1914. Perhaps it was a field hospital or dining hall, but it was still there after 100 years and incorporated into modern life. Yes, WWI is a daily fact of life in Flanders Fields.
We pedaled for about 12 miles — it felt more like 100 to me — but it was a fabulous day and I’m glad I tackled this history lesson on two wheels.
Visiting Ypres Belgium and the Menin Gate
Base yourself in Ypres Belgium, an ancient city that dates to the first century. Ypres is pronounced like Oprah only with an E. But to confuse thing, the Dutch spelling is Iepers. During WWI, the British troops simply called it Wipers. The nickname lingers a century later.
You’ll see all three names in places, but it’s all the same city. Note: If you’re taking the train from Brussels, look for the train to Iepers. I had a brief panic as I searched for the correct platform.
I stayed at the Novotel in the city center and can highly recommend it. It’s within easy walking distance to everywhere you want to go, and just about a 15 minute walk from the train station.
Historically, Ypres was a center for textiles, although that is not the case today. The former Cloth Hall, which was almost completely destroyed in the war, is now the Flanders Fields Museum. It is an emotionally-intense destination that explains WWI in all of its ugliness. Seriously, it’s tough.
The Last Post at The Menin Gate in Ypres
A major reason to visit Ypres is the Menin Gate, an ancient pathway through which Belgian soldiers passed on their way to battle. The gate was rebuilt after the war and became a memorial to those missing in action.
Every night since 1928, except for a few years during WWII when the German Army was back in town, a volunteer honor guard has played “the Last Post.” The heart-wrenching tune is similar to “Taps” in U.S. military parlance.
At 8 p.m. in all sorts of weather, a crowd gathers at the gate in memory of those whose names are inscribed on the wall. It is a beautiful ceremony, as you would expect.
Although my Grandpa didn’t fight in Belgium, I laid a wreath of poppies in his honor at the Menin Gate, paying our respects to those who died for their respective countries.
This was one of many times on my journey that tears openly streamed down my face. I quietly gave thanks yet again that my Grandpa came home and raised a family, one that today frequently visits his grave in Anna, Illinois.