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Flanders Fields WW1 Battlefields - A Place to Pay Respects & Reflect On The Tragedy of War

On a recent European trip that included Belgium, we chose to spend a day visiting the Flanders Fields WW1 battlefields in southwestern Belgium around the village of Ypres.

This was a place that gave us the opportunity to pay respects and reflect on the tragedy of war, the meaning of self-sacrifice, the idea of a "band of brothers," and what has been called "man's inhumanity to man."

As Rick says in his Belgium guidebook, "Because American forces played a relatively minor role in the fighting at Flanders Fields, its history is obscure to many visitors from the US" (italics are mine). His book has a helpful 11-page summary of the multiple battlefields around Ypres, where at least five major battles were fought between 1914 - 1918.

The many cemeteries and monuments to those who fell here, from all participating countries, give an opportunity for the visitor to pay respects and reflect. Walking through reconstructed trenches, seeing unexploded artillery shells unearthed in the last hundred years (including recent years, the Belgian bomb squads are still kept busy), and seeing the grave of reportedly the youngest soldier killed in WW1 (he was 15) are just a few of the many memorable experiences we had.

This was one of the biggest battles, and one of the most appalling in its human cost, in WW1; the light research I've done indicates it may have been the second costliest battle of WW1 in human terms. The perfection of the machine gun, the first use of poison gas and flamethrowers, the five years of fighting, and the rainy wintry climate--these were just some of the causes of one of the more appalling tragedies in the annals of 20th century war.

We chose to visit Flanders Fields from our home base in Brugge/Bruges, using the Quasimodo bus tour out of Brugge, which was excellent. For reasons Rick explains, this series of battlefields is more challenging to do on one's own.

While it is understandable that visiting battlefields, death camps, and other places of horror and tragedy are not a priority in some persons' European vacation, we found the experience to be profound, thought-provoking, and a memorable day that was well worth the time and effort.

Posted by
5435 posts

Amazing - I did the Quasimodo tour back in 1994. That's great that they're still around and helping visitors understand the import of what happened at Ypres and the surrounding battlefields.

Posted by
2378 posts

I strongly recommend a trip to Ypres. The total dead on both sides in the 3 battles at Ypres is not far below the total for both sides in the US Civil War. It's so quiet and peaceful now that it really highlights the disruption that war brings, something that only Southerners whose communities were in Shermans path can relate to in the U.S. After our visit to Ypres, we visited a country cemetery in England and saw the graves of those lost there. WW I was mostly a footnote in US history but a huge tragedy in Europe.

Posted by
1949 posts

Thanks for the report and information. I haven't been to Belgium, but appreciate you putting Flanders Fields on my travel radar.

Posted by
248 posts

Kim,
Phillipe and Sharon, the Quasimodo couple who operate the tour, said they've been doing it for 28 years, so they were already 4 years into it when they gave you the tour. Highly recommended if you're home-basing in Brugge and want to do the day trip from there.

Posted by
248 posts

As others (above) mention, the Poppies poem ("In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place....") is still beloved in Britain, the "Commonwealth, and other countries that did much of the fighting for the Allied side.

Nov. 11th, WW1 armistice signing, will mean more to me this year. I guess with the time difference it will be early in the morning here but I think I will stay up, get the champagne out, and say a toast/prayer to the one million casualties of Flanders Fields, and the nine million total WW1 war dead.

If only it had really been "the war to end all wars."

Posted by
248 posts

Visit English villages a hundred years after WW1 and you see in the middle of town the WW1 (and WW2) monuments to the fallen of that village. Even in the smallest village, we've seen 10 or 15 names on the monument, and these monuments seem to always include several men with the same last name (brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, cousins). I have read that, essentially, much of an entire generation of British military-aged men were wiped out between 1914 and 1918.

Posted by
5308 posts

Yes, what Curious Traveler said about visiting village churches and absorbing the enormous impact which that war had on an entire generation. It was, sadly, referred to as "The War to End All Wars" -- but wars kept coming.
P.S. I learned that poem in California public schools in the 1950's.

Posted by
5817 posts

Well it's certainly sobering to see World War One (1914-1918 not 19) described as a "footnote" in anyone's history, but I suppose it is understandable from a US point of view.

If you have an interest in poetry there is a whole "genre" of war poets from that era, still taught in British schools, Wilfred Owen, being the most commonly taught.

As has been said war memorials are everywhere. Everytown, village, suburb, except for the few "thankful" villages who escaped any losses.
You will see many on office buildings and especially railway stations in London commemorating lost employees.
This news story from only last week shows how it still matters to many

https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/uk-england-hampshire-45978590.

World War One appears surprisingly infrequently in films and TV drama. Maybe it's too harrowing or probably more likely, trenches just aren't particularly photogenic and with less awareness in the US less interest from writers and film companies. I'm having a bit of a mental block but the only "big" film I can think of is "Gallipoli", which is Australian. I think the new Peter Jackson film using colourised footage from the era will definitely be worth a watch. As both these films demonstrate the impact was global. I could be wrong but I think statistically Australia and New Zealand were hit even harder than Britain.

If you haven't already seen it I highly recommend "Blackadder goes Forth" from the BBC. Very funny, as you would expect but the last episode rips your heart out and stomps on it.

As a historical side note, there was a very interesting documentary on the BBC last month about the Spanish Flu Epidemic that wiped out many more millions at the end and just after the war. Apparently they have tracked it right back to single chicken farmer in (I think) Kansas who took bird flu with him when he joined up. US troop ships brought it to Europe and returning soldiers took it back around the world.

Posted by
12099 posts

Keep in mind that on 11 Nov because of the Armistice arrangements the guns finally fell silent at 11am. That only applied to the Western Front. In the East the killing went on, continued between the various nationalities and civil war too.

On my trip in 2009 it was the first of the post-retirement trips. That year was also the 90th anniversary of the Versailles Peace Treaty that Germany had to sign with the Allies.

Because of this momentous anniversary, I saw the renowned German news magazine, "Der Spiegel" run a special section consisting of articles on the war by German and British historians.

That special edition of "Der Spiegel" had on its front cover a title referring to the war that would catch one's attention, "Warum nach dem ersten Krieg, mußte es einen zweiten geben?" (Why after the first war there had to be a second one?")

@ cala...Very true in terms of historical comparison.

Posted by
679 posts

Thank you for your trip report. It is a good way to honor and remember the 100th anniversary this year.

Posted by
6798 posts

And monuments in every French village, too. So many men were casualties that the population of France did not attain pre-World War I size until the 1970s, due not only to deaths but also to a whole generation of women who didn’t have children.

Thank you for your post.

Posted by
2378 posts

A couple of months ago, PBS had a 3 part series on The Great War-I think it was American Experience. It mostly focused on the home front. The Museum in York has a really engaging WWI exhibit and of course the Imperial War Museum also features it, for Americans who wish to educate themselves.

Posted by
5008 posts

The US National World War I Memorial and Museum is located in my hometown, Kansas City, Missouri, where there have been many commemorative events and internationally-represented ceremonies hosted over the last few years. There will of course be a major event coming up on November 11. It is a first-class museum worth a visit for anyone interested in the not-forgotten war that can't make it to Europe. National WWI Memorial

Posted by
2378 posts

Stan, thanks for posting. My husband goes to Kansas City on a regular basis for work.

Posted by
248 posts

traylaparks,
We took the Quasimodo Flanders Fields tour with pickup at our Bruges hotel.
We chose not to stay for the final ceremony because we didn't want to be walking through Bruges at night, they don't offer a drop off at your hotel option on the return trip.

Posted by
248 posts

Emma,
I'd add to your list the novel (and Hollywood movie made from it) All Quiet on the Western Front, written about ten years after the war's end by a German soldier. The movie was made in 1930 and, yes, is a talkie.

Posted by
2378 posts

@Curious traveler I'm impressed that you liked All Quiet.... My daughter was assigned to read it for school and it was one of the most boring books I've ever tried to read-and I'm someone who was required to read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in the 10th grade and couldn't put it down because it was such a compelling read!

Posted by
578 posts

I found 'All Quiet' a stunning book, heart wrenching, read it with tears in my eyes.
Also totally agree re Black Adder, think when that last episode showed we all sat there in stunning silence, our faces wet from crying. I think the written word is often more powerful than film, certainly 'The Vintage Book of War Stories' edited by Sebastian Faulks is very powerful, a lot of the stories are from WW1 and eventually I had to walk away from it as it was too painful to read. Obviously you cant forget Sebastian Faulks 'Birdsong' which is a stand alone book in my eyes, believe that has also been made into a film.

Posted by
5008 posts

Its too bad that the Blackadder series is not very well known in the US (its on our local PBS station) but that episode to which you refer is one of the most memorable and poignant things I've ever seen on television. Well done to the makers of that show.

Posted by
5817 posts

I'm not sure if this will work but this is the final 5 minutes of Blackadder being discussed.

https://youtu.be/IglUmgYGxLM

Apparently it was completely unplanned and made in desperation. They had 10 minutes to film the scene before all the technicians had to finish because of union rules. All the footage they got was dreadful so they added some very simple but brilliant effects in post production. TV genius.

Anyone with an interest in UK history, and a sense of humour, should definitely hunt out all the Blackadder series. I'm not saying they are accurate but they are hilarious.

Having been taught about the war poets at a very (too?) young an age they put me off poetry for a very long time! I remember a question in class "Miss, why wasn't Wilfred Owen killed earlier then we wouldn't have to study him?" Teenage humour at its best......
I'm still not a fan of the genre but I do love the poem Adlestrop, which is included in many war poetry anthologies. A truly evocative moment captured just before war started. I am sure all the nations involved have their equivalents.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adlestrop_(poem)

Posted by
248 posts

cala,
I was required to read the book in high school. But after I recently visited the WW1 battlefields at Flanders Fields (a different but similar battle as the setting for All Quiet), I decided it was well worth it to spend the hour and a half viewing the All Quiet movie--time well spent.

Posted by
671 posts

Other WW1 films: "Sgt. York", "Joyeux Noel", "The Lost Battalion", "Paths of Glory", and some portions of "War Horse" and "Legends of the Fall".

Posted by
12099 posts

Yes, absolutely..."Joyeux Noel" and the granddaddy of WW1 films, Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" (1937), not just from a war perspective but from a sociological perspective, going beyond politics of war. The bulk of the film takes place in 1916...historical clues in the film indicate that.

Posted by
1949 posts

Funny how something will show up again when brought to your attention. I picked up Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel to read. It is set in Weimar-era Berlin. One of the characters, Dr. Otternschlag is a WWI vet who is described as having only half a face -- the other half is all scars with a glass eye. "'A souvenir from Flanders,' Dr. Otternschlag was accustomed to calling it...."

Posted by
12099 posts

The movie is a classic too with two of the famous Barrymores and Garbo.

Posted by
5498 posts

...to Pay Respects & Reflect On The Tragedy of War

A very relevant title in today's saber rattling (or should I say missle). Thank you for the report.

As the folk song lyrics say: "When shall we ever learn". We can only hope that we as tourist use the tragic lessons of history to avoid futre tragic. We can only hope.

Bike touring through the countryside of northeast Germany took us through many small villages. The ones with "Klien" in their names were often villages of only 10 or 20 homes. Many had monuments to the village's WWI losses where it appeared that half the houses had lost members of their families.

Our bike tour took us past the Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. Our German friend insisted on visiting the camp and commented on the importane of preserving history as a reminder that we not repeat the mistake.

Posted by
275 posts

Thanks for this thread, Curious Traveler.

I loved All Quiet on the Western Front and am rereading it in honor of the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1.

This is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut that I like about what was then called Armistice Day.
"I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy ... all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God."

Posted by
407 posts

As a Canadian, the Ypres area is hugely important in our WW1 history. We stayed there for 4 nights on a 2 week WW1/WW2 tour we took last year with Canadian historian and film maker Norm Christie. Very sobering tour of the many battlefields and monuments. Another movie that might interest folks - a Canadian movie - is Passchendaele, filmed in 2008. It takes place both on the home front and on the battlefield.

Posted by
248 posts

Dorothy,
You're welcome.
And thanks for the good quote from Vonnegut.
I saw the All Quiet... film before my trip.

Posted by
248 posts

Susan,
Your WW1/WW2 tour must have been memorable.
And thanks for the tip re the film Passchendaele, I'm going to look for it tonight.

Posted by
578 posts

I dont know if this has come State side but 'They shall not grow old' directed by Peter Jackson is amazing. Have just come back from it, and i feel every secondary school child should see it. Its original footage from the Imperial War Museum from the trenches on the Western Front. Its been restored, the speed corrected, coloured and made 3d. If you can do see it. I cant recomend this enough. I tried to share the trailor link, but it went weird...

Posted by
5498 posts

Interesting PBS Newshour story about WW1 from a personal family perspective:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/for-families-of-soldiers-lost-in-wwi-a-legacy-of-sacrifice

Carried along on a wave of patriotism and propaganda, Swansbury
[great-grandfather of PBS special correspondent Malcolm Brabant]
headed for the front lines in Belgium and Northern France, and four
years of carnage.

The volunteers are venerated as lions, led by donkeys, the generals.

With victory just eight weeks away, Charles Swansbury's luck ran out
here in Northern France in September 1918.

Posted by
5817 posts

For any one in the U.K. it’s on BBC2 tonight at 930pm

Posted by
248 posts

For those in US, 11 am today (Sunday) will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1. Of course it really happened earlier (maybe 3am?), given difference in time.
I understand many in UK and Canada still observe 2 minutes of silence, think I will do the same here.