Life

A time for remembrance in Belgium

RYAN MURPHY, QMI Agency

This year marks a century since the way humanity engaged in conflict changed forever.

The First World War left countries shattered, millions dead, and changed the course of human history. It's also an event that forged Canada as a nation in its own right, and something we, as Canadians, remember and commemorate each year in November.

In the Flanders region of Belgium, they have never forgotten this conflict and sacrifice. Over the next four years, as the world marks the centenary of the Great War, Belgium (and Flanders in particular) are expecting a massive boom in visitors.

As a great deal of the war was fought and decided in the mud and fields of Flanders -- in places with names familiar to Canadians such as Ypres (now called Ieper) and Passchendaele (now known as Passendale) -- it is a must-visit for any history buff, and a wonderful region of the world to see for any traveller.

There are many commemorative events and displays planned over the next four years marking the centenary.

One such event was the Light Front, or Lichtfront, which took place on Oct. 17. It began in Nieuwpoort, a coastal town near the French border, which is home to the awe-inspiring King Albert I Monument and the new Westfront Nieuwpoort visitors centre.

The event recreated the front line as it was during the ceasefire of autumn 1914, when the plains were flooded and the combatants could see each others' lights across the field at night. Spanning some 84 km, with a volunteer holding a flaming torch every 10 metres, this ceremony was a spectacle to behold.

Within the visitors centre, located beneath the towering monument, guests can learn more about the intentional flooding that stopped the German army at Nieuwpoort in 1914. There are interactive exhibits, artifacts and displays to help educate and illustrate this key point of the war.

Management there see it as a place that should "entice visitors to visit the country (of Belgium) to learn about World War One."

The war claimed some 600,000 lives in Belgium. Those souls will also be commemorated with a massive art installation known as ComingWorldRememberMe, in which 600,000 clay sculptures will be crafted over the next four years at workshops in Flanders and around the world. Each sculpture will have a dog-tag with a name of someone who perished and someone who made a sculpture. In 2018, these will be unveiled between two larger sculptures in the No Man's Land of Ypres, with the two larger sculptures crafted by artist Koen Vanmechelen.

Thousands of those souls rest in nearby Zonnebeke, at Tyne Cot Cemetery. The largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world, Tyne Cot is unbelievable in its size and scale.

Canadian visitors will almost certainly be overwhelmed by the number of Canadian soldiers buried there, sadly many of whom lie unidentified, marked "Known unto God." Of the almost 12,000 soldiers interred at Tyne Cot, more than 8,000 are unidentified, known only by their country, or perhaps their unit, but for many, only known as a member of the Commonwealth.

A further 35,000 names are inscribed on the cemetery's rear wall, known as the Memorial to the Missing. These are names of British and New Zealanders who fell in the area and who were never recovered or identified.

Some 350,000 people visit Tyne Cot each year. Double that number is expected this year with the marking of the centenary.

A short trip from Tyne Cot is the Memorial Museum Passchendaele, which provides an intimate glimpse of this vicious battle that claimed an estimated half a million lives (on both sides of the conflict) in 100 days. Along with Vimy Ridge, it is a battle that helped forge Canada in its young nationhood.

The museum's Dugout Experience gives a realistic re-creation of what life was like for soldiers in their sleeping quarters, dressing posts, communication posts and headquarters. There is also the Trench Experience, a network of reconstructed British and German trenches and shelters that are powerful reminder of the hardships faced by warriors on both sides of No Man's Land.

Another impressive museum awaits in Ieper. Known to most Canadians as Ypres, this area saw heavy fighting over the four years of the Great War, and has the dubious distinction of being the place where chlorine gas was first used in the war. The German army unleashed noxious clouds of the gas during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.

Located in Ieper's historic Cloth Hall, the In Flanders Fields Museum is an interactive marvel, and a must-see for any Canadian visiting Belgium. With video, interactive displays, artifacts, and representations of all aspects of the war, it's a fitting tribute to the tragic events of those four years.

Visitors can also climb the belfry and get an awe-inspiring view of Ieper and the surrounding area. There are plaques and viewfinders to help locate key battlefields, buildings and cemeteries on the horizon.

Most Canadians know Flanders from the poem In Flanders Fields penned by Lt.-Col. John McCrae, a doctor in the Canadian service during the war. McCrae wrote the poem in 1915 in Ypres, on the site of the now Essex Farm Cemetery. Visitors can see the commemoration to McCrae there, as well as the dressing station where he would have worked, adorned with tiny Canadian flags left there by visitors past.

While in Ieper, head to the Menin Gate Memorial for the Last Post ceremony, which has taken place nightly since 1928 -- save for a brief four-year span during World War Two, when the ceremony was held in England because of Germany's occupation of Belgium.

A popular event, visitors should arrive early for a good view of the ceremony. Travellers heading to Belgium next summer might want to visit Menin Gate on July 9, when the Last Post will be played for the 30,000th time.

Of course all of these powerful and sombre locales just scrape the surface of Belgium. Home to art, beautiful architecture, and some of the world's best culinary and brewed delights, the country shouldn't be forgotten on any traveller's list.

NEED TO KNOW

For more information on the Light Front project and details of upcoming World War I related events, visit the Flanders department of foreign affairs at vlaanderen.be.

TRAVEL TIPS

-- Bring a rain coat and comfortable shoes, as the weather changes often in Belgium and you will be walking quite a bit to see all the historic sites

-- Learn some key phrases in Dutch, one of Belgium's three official languages and spoken by nearly 60% of the population. While most Belgians also speak very good English, it can't hurt to learn the local language in case you're in a pinch.

-- Bring Canadian flags and Canadian poppies to leave at the cemeteries and monuments -- our poppies differ from those in the U.K. and Europe, so it's a nice touch of home to leave one on a grave or at a monument.

-- Climb the Belfries. The Belfries of Belgium and France (a collection of 52 historical buildings) are on the UNESCO World Heritage list and simply cannot be missed.


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