Saturday, August 8, 2015

Flanders Fields and WWI Legacy

The "goose Foot" at Niuewpoort - flooded to prevent the German advance
After leaving Brugges we headed into Flanders fields and started to brush up on our World War I history. The area ringed by Nieuwpoort, Diksmuide, Ieper and Veurne form the region most impacted by the devastation incurred during the advent of the first world war. As 2014-2018 is the centenary of this war there are many events and displays depicting the horror, reality and devastation. Many of the museums in the area have dedicated WWI displays. Our first stop was at Nieuwpoort. This town became important strategically as it was here that partisans decided to flood the plain by opening the sea lock. This effectively halted the Germans in their tracks and prevented them from reaching the Channel ports. Apparently the Germans went to bed with the thoughts of advancing to the coast only to wake up the next morning confounded by the sight of a huge stretch of water. This made it impossible for them to move their artillery, causing them to retreat. If the Germans had managed to reach the coast, they would have effectively blocked the free flow of supplies to the allies and the war may have had a different result.
WWI "humour"
Diksmuide from the Ijzer Tower
Diksmuide was our next stop. There are a number of places to visit here including the Ijzer Tower museum and the Dodengang (trench of Death). The Tower is a great vantage point to survey the Flanders area and the 22 floors of the museum are also interested. From cartoons depicting the mannequin Pis peeing all over German soldiers, to a lifelike replica of life in the trenches to displays of the "iron  harvest". Even today farmers are digging up spent shells and live ammunition.
The "iron harvest" - shells ploughed up by local farmers
Poppies have come to symbolise the memories ofWWI
The important Dodengang trench was only 50m from the German front line and was also at the limit of the flooding from Nieuwpoort so was imperative that it be manned at all times to prevent the Germans from penetrating further west. The interpretive centre here outlines the number of Belgian soldiers who died at this spot- for many to be posted here was a death sentence. Because of the high water table, the trenches had to be built up rather than dugout. In the early days there was only a collection of sandbags as none expected the war to last longer than six months, but when it appeared that it was going to be a drawn out affair more permanent gun turrets were erected to protect the soldiers in the trenches.
The poppy has become a symbol of remembrance for the war. Apparently, once the fields had been trampled by the heavy artillery, shells and the backwards and forwards of many soldiers footfalls, the poppy was the only thing that would grow. Poppies popped up alongside the rows of graves and in no mans land. There were many poppies growing on the top of the trenches at Diksmuide.

Trench on the banks of the Ijzer in Diksmuide

Ieper was at the heart of the Belgium section of the war. Over the four years it was bombarded into a rubble pile. At the end of the war the decision was made to rebuild to an exact copy of what it was like prior to the war. They have done a great job. Walking around it was hard to tell that this town was only 100 years old and not 600 years old, like Gent or Brugges. The very fact that that Ieper was strategic in holding the advance of the Germans towards the coast means that we can enjoy the historic towns of Gent and Brugges exactly as they are and not replicas.
The rebuilt Cloth Hall, Ieper
As so many British and Commonwealth soldiers died in this area the Commonwealth War Graves commission decided to erect many memorials in the area. The most significant is the Menin Gate. This memorial stands to remember all those soldiers who died in the war but have no known grave. The names of 55000 soldiers line the walls of this memorial. In fact that number only represents the number missing up until the middle of 1917. The rest of the names are inscribed on the wall at Tyne Cott cemetery.
Menin Gate
Each evening, since 1928, the last post is played at Menin Gate. On average about 2000 people attend. We went twice while we were in Ieper and both nights it was different. The first night an Irish Military band led the proceedings followed by the two buglers. On  the second night there was no band, just a single bugler. The last post has been played at Menin gate over 30000 times since 1928 (with a break during WWII).

The last Post every evening at Menin Gate

Memorial to Ieper citizens who died in the war

The Market square Ieper
Poem written by Canadian doctor in remembrance of all the soldiers who died
 We decided that the best way to get an overview of WWI was to join one of the half day tours of the Ypres (Ieper) Salient. Without a car and another bike, this is probably the best way to get around and learn first hand some extra information that you may miss in a museum visit. Our first stop was Essex Farm cemetery and the Advanced aid station. Many cemeteries popped up besides aid stations as a natural progression. The original aid station here was made of wood as they thought the conflict would run out of steam within 6 months. However, by 1917 it was apparent that this was going to be a drawn out affair so the aid station was rebuilt in concrete. This aid station was also where the Canadian doctor, John McCrae, penned his poem "In Flanders Fields". He was inspired to write it after the funeral of his friend Alex Helmer in the second battle of Ypres.

German cemetery at Langemark
There aren't many German cemeteries in the Flanders region. While the Allies were given land in perpetuity by the Belgian government for their cemeteries, the Germans were only given a 30 year lease. After WWII the Belgians decided that there would only be 4 major German cemeteries in the Flanders region. The soldiers buried in other cemeteries were exhumed and put in a mass grave in Langemark. Also, as per the Treaty of Versailles, no German soldier was allowed a single grave (except in Commonwealth cemeteries). There are between 5 and 7 soldiers under each plaque. Those Germans buried in Commonwealth cemeteries are allowed to remain.
Commonwealth cemetery at Tyne Cott
Tyne Cott cemetery is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the Ypres Salient. This cemetery commemorates those soldiers who died trying to take the town of Passchendaele. The battle lasted 105 days and only advanced 5 miles to finally overhaul the German frontline on the 10th November, 1917. Approximately 400,000 soldiers were either killed, wounded or missing. By Christmas much of the land taken by the allies was back in German hands - what a waste!
During our tour we were also taken to another tunnel complex, a much more original version than the one in Diksmuide.
a Tunnel complex on the outskirts of Ieper

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