And now for something completely different.
Last week, I attended an International Week at the HoGent university in Ghent, Belgium. It was my sixth visit there, and the first after a five year pause in the trips. This time, my allocated schedule happened to have Thursday free until 6pm, so I hopped on the train and rode to Ypres, the site of fierce fighting all through World War 1.
I have always been fascinated by military history, and WW1 is one of the periods I have looked into in more detail. A chance to actually visit the fields of Flanders, and see the memorials for myself, was a really welcome one. The train ride is only about an hour long, and already from the train you see small, enclosed war burial grounds. Most of these are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission or its German counterpart. Even then you start to get the feeling that there will be many more to see in Flanders, and that is indeed the case, for soldiers died in their hundreds of thousands there.
When you get off the bus at Ypres, it’s a handy place to take the Bus 95 to Poelkapelle. It passes the Canadian soldiers’ memorial at St Julien, and the larger German memorial at Langemark. You can hop off at either one and visit them in detail. The Canadian one is home to some 2,000 soldiers who fell in the first chlorine gas attack by the Germans on 22 April, 1915. My visit was therefore only one day off the 101st anniversary of the horrific attack.
I watched the Canadian memorial from the bus, but did get off at Langemark, to visit the German site. On it, there are 44,061 soldiers on an area of you average parking lot at the Lidl. Many of them are unknown, but many are recorded by name on the bronze plaques that are attached to slabs of stone that form a courtyard in front of the very solemn statue of four soldiers honoring their dead comrades.
At Langemark, you can download an app that is able to enhance your experience of this solemn and sobering war monument. As it happens, it’s only available for iPhone and Android, so as a Windows Phone user I wasn’t able to use it. It was said in the signs to provide more detailed information on the units and men who fought here, and it would have been really interesting to try it out, as it was also able to pick the location of the user to focus the extra information better.
As I was visiting this site, a large amount of schoolkids roamed the cemetery, mostly ignorant of the solemnity such sites usually evoke; they had been issued tasks to complete while at the site, so they hopped around the graves and tried to find certain units or names of soldiers. But then again, that is the duality of these sites – the dead are there to remind us of what will come, and the young and the living to tell us to keep living while we can. I walked back to Langemark to have a snack and wait for the bus, which only goes by once every hour, so don’t miss it while you eat at the Munchner Haus.
You can then return to Ypres, and get off the bus at the Marketplace. The “In Flanders Fields” museum is a poignant, modern, well run, and thought-provoking museum for the bitter fighting in Flanders 1914-1918. It takes its name from the eponymous poem of John McCrae, and it is based on the modern museum concept of bringing history to life to you, instead of just presenting names, guns, pieces of clothing and ammunition – there’s plenty of that too, but it is the personalized experience you get that makes it all very true to you.
When you sign in at the door, giving your name, age, sex, and email address, you are given an RFID tag for the visit. It opens the belfry door for you, if you pay the extra 2€ (absolutely worth it), and it modifies the content in the displays for you when you pass the RFID by the receiver. Thus, kids get a very different, but appropriate, experience from, say, someone like me. The only thing I want to mention is that while the information boxes, with custom data for each visitor, are reminiscent of the trench periscopes used in the war, they were not very well suited for multifocal lenses such as I wear. Reading the texts was a little hard. But that is a minor thing: the displays of original items are well managed, impressive, and they completely bring home the reality of war.
The most enthralling thing in the museum were the large displays.There were many of these around the museum, and as you stood around one, it’d come to life, with a soldier, local person, army doctor, refugee, or other person afflicted by the war would appear, played by an actor. They’d walk in from the black into the spotlight, speak the original words of real people, and then fade away into the black again. These frequently gave me the shivers, for example the one where a German and an English officer told their stories of the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914.
Another fine display was the theatre, where three actors delivered their lines fading in and fading out, and in between actors, a film of charging soldiers and fleeing refugees running atop a muddy ridge brought home the awful reality of World War 1, the suffering of everyone in the quagmire of Flanders. After that it was again very interesting to follow the multimedia displays of the fighting; even if the front line was fluid for most of the time, the movements were always limited to a few hundred yards, and countless lives were lost in futile attempts to capture just a few more yards of real estate.
As you leave the museum, there is a changing display area, which today houses the “Canada in Flanders” exhibition. I spent an extra half hour scanning through it, to get a sense of the Canadian effort that was so terribly afflicted in the 2nd battle of Ypres. After that, one exits to the large and very well stocked Museum shop, as well as a large cafe area with good products for your appetite.
Ypres is a wondrous testament to human endurance. Not only is the military courage magnificently remembered in all the graveyards and memorials, but as the entire town of Ypres was utterly flattened and destroyed, its re-emergence after decades of rebuilding (it only ended in 1965) exactly as it was pre-war, is nothing short of spectacular. So, when you walk the little distance between the marketplace and the train station, you can pay one last homage to this plucky little town with such a gigantic slice of history behind it. And by the time you get home, the RFID-generated, personalized museum experience PDF is waiting for you in your email. It’s a long way from 1914, but it works.