Last weekend I took a trip to Bruges, Belgium, a charming Medieval town situated in West Flanders characterized by winding canals, soaring bell towers and of course its top exports: lace, beer and chocolate. I was utterly taken with it from the start.
We stayed one kilometer from the city center in Bruges’ historic Old Town, now classified as a UNESCO world heritage site due to its impressive state of preservation. Walking through the city gates is like walking through a time capsule into the 14th century, when Bruges was at the height of its power and influence. It was the trading capital of all of Europe, boasting the most wealth on the continent signified by its Waterhalle, the center for its trade activities. Built right on the canal, the Waterhalle saw goods from all of Europe pass through its doors on the way to Italy, the British Aisles, France, and other destinations abroad. In its hay day, Bruges even boasted a Medici bank location, the hallmark of wealth in Europe during the Medieval period. And of course, at home Bruges had thriving industry with famed artists like Jan Van Eyck setting up workshop and residency in the town.
Upon arrival we sat down for lunch at a pub called Cambrinus which, appropriately, had been in operation in the same building for over 400 years. Then we made our way to the city’s main square, where we climbed 366 steps to the top of the 12th century Belfort and enjoyed sweeping views of the city, while hearing the ancient bells chime the hour. We then proceeded to the Medieval Torture Museum (I highly recommend this quirky little museum to anyone visiting Belgium), and closed the night appropriately with Belgian chocolate-dipped strawberries.
The most memorable part of my time in Belgium, however, had to be our day-long excursion to Ypres the next day. Situated not far from Bruges in West Flanders, Ypres (or Ieper as the locals spell it) became the center for trench warfare on the Western Front during the First World War. As a great lover of history, I fully expected my fascination and engagement with the historical sites, artifacts and museums I would encounter that day. What I did not expect was how utterly heartbroken I would be at the end of it.
Our first stop was a Commonwealth British war cemetery, where we saw 1200 graves out of which only 103 men were able to be identified after death. A common problem of war, most bodies were rendered completely unrecognizable after being ravaged by bombs, bullets or skin scorched by gas attacks. The pristine rows of white graves were uneven in spacing, as the battle raged on just over the hill not a kilometer north of the cemetery, and men were carried there to be buried as the battle continued. The youngest boy buried there was V.J. Strudwick, at only 15-years-old. The locals lie stuffed bears on his grave to honor the child rifleman who lost his life.
No British bodies were sent back to their families. The sheer number of men who died in the war (an estimated 10 million military personnel, 700,000 of them British) made it logistically impossible to spare the time and resources to send everyone’s son, brother, friend or lover back to them for a burial at home. Furthermore troops were sent to fight from all over the commonwealth, from Britain to Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand, it would be impossible to send bodies across such distances. All men were buried close to the field of battle where they perished.
Also located on site was the field hospital where John McCrae, a Canadian Doctor, worked on injured and dying men. He famously wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” after his close friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer, was brought into his hospital before dying in excruciating pain in McCrae’s care; his body had to be buried in three separate bags. The poem became the most famous piece of Great War literature, and was printed over and over again as propaganda for Allied nations. McCrae himself eventually passed not a year after the war after a sickness brought on by breathing in too many chlorine gas fumes.
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.
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.
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.
Today it is hard to imagine what mentality would lead entire nations to glorify war, and to consider it a great honor to have a son die fighting in the trenches. The famous English writer Rudyard Kipling, in fact, pulled strings and used his influence to get his son enlisted in the army, as they would not take him at first due to his poor eyesight. Sure enough, John Kipling was sent to the front and killed during his first battle when his glasses were lost in the mud and chaos in no man’s land. Rudyard continued to contribute to what he saw as the righteous war effort by writing and selecting quotes and passages to be engraved on British monuments to the war. The world had never seen a war like this one, however, and much changed after the atrocities seen in Flanders fields. Below is Kipling’s poem “My Boy Jack.”
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!
Ypres is famous for being not only the most heavily entrenched area of the entire war, but also the site where the first chlorine gas attacks were carried out by the Germans. We visited the Student Cemetery, so named because most of the men buried there were students at ages 18-25. At both British and German cemeteries I was surprised to find myself kneeling and shedding tears in front of the graves, heartbroken for young men who died over a century ago. But when you begin to imagine what it would be like to have all of your own closest friends at Penn State shipped off to die in a war, so much so that an entire generation of young men is lost, the experience of visiting these sites changes entirely.
The Student Cemetery unfortunately became a popular meeting site for the local Nazi party in the 1930s and 40s. Hitler himself even visited the Student Cemetery to propagate his war effort when the Germans invaded Belgium for the second time in less than 50 years during World War II. Understandably, the Belgians did not take kindly to this. After the end of the Second World War, the Belgian government decided to condense the German cemeteries on its soil from 11 to 4. They dug up thousands of men, exhuming their bodies to be sent to the 4 remaining cemeteries. At the center of the Student Cemetery is a mass grave of 25,000 German soldiers, relocated there from across the country. No British soldiers were buried in mass graves; all were afforded the honor of their own individual gravestones, even if their bodies were unidentified. I found myself feeling a chaotic mix of emotions regarding the treatment of these German boys after their death. Above all I would say I felt grief. Very little is black and white when it comes to war.
We carried on to a real excavated trench, discovered while attempting to build over the area where the front lines were situated. So much got lost under mud and fallen men over time that there are more artifacts and bodies being discovered every single year. It is considered very dangerous to go digging around anywhere surrounding Ypres to this day, as unexploded artillery is very often discovered. The last life claimed by an explosive fired during WWI was when a young man (a local building contractor’s son) discovered an unexploded shell, and lost his life as a result in 2012. The effects of the war are still very alive and real for the Belgian people.
As I walked through the mossy, mud covered trench I tried to imagine what it would be like to live for months on end in freezing Belgian rain, waist deep in muddy water at all times. Carrying a pack weighing 60 pounds. Carrying a heavy gun. Never daring to stand fully upright to avoid shots from the German trenches less than 300 yards away across the no man’s land. Wearing a gas mask at all times that I must be able to put on in less than 10 seconds. Knowing that even should I get the gas mask on in time to survive, I would surely suffer excruciating burns from the chlorine. Constantly worrying that I would be asleep when a gas attack came and not survive the night. Worrying that my body would never be found under the mud like so many of my friends and comrades I lost.
The highlight of the trip was the Last Post Ceremony under the Menin Gate in Ypres. The Menin Gate was erected as a monument to the 54,000 men who died in and around Ypres who have no known grave. Their names are carved in stone on the monument, and every evening since the memorial was officially unveiled on 1 July 1928 the people of Ypres have gathered under the gate for the Last Post ceremony every single evening at 8:00 pm to honor all of the boys who perished in the war. The only years the ceremony did not continue was when it abruptly ended from 1940 -1944 when the Germans occupied Ypres after marching through the Menin Gate. We stood silently under the gate and heard the bugle sound as the soldiers would have at the end of each day, and placed wreaths of red poppies on the wall.