We flitted back & forth across the border visiting quaint towns and pensive World War I sites in Belgium.
Using Roubaix, France as our base, the Belgium border was a quick 7-mile sprint north by car. Although we planned to visit towns and villages, our primary focus was to experience the World War 1 sites.
Belgium has a current population of 11.4 million people and it has 3 official languages – Dutch, French and German. Of the inhabitants of Belgium, 59% belong to the Dutch or Flemish speaking community, 40% to the French and 1% to the German-speaking community and naturally many Belgians are bilingual or trilingual.
We kept hearing and reading about Flemish and Flanders and wanted to understand how they relate to Belgium today and especially to the WWI sites.
So very briefly, we learned that the historical County of Flanders is now split into three different countries. Partly in the Netherlands, France and Belgium. In Belgium, the country is made up of three regions: in the Northwest is Flanders or the Flemish Region, in the southeast is Wallonia or the Walloon Region and in the center is the Brussels-Capital Region. Flanders and Wallonia are then each further subdivided into five provinces making a total of 10 provinces plus the city of Brussels. Dutch is the official language of the Flanders-Flemish Region and Flemish is a dialect of Dutch and widely spoken throughout the northern part of Belgium.
And that is the simple explanation; it gets much more complicated.
We passed by or through perhaps a dozen small Begiums towns and because the country has so many languages, the towns are often known by many different names. It can cause confusion if you are using multiple sources to navigate. For instance this town is called:
- Kortrijk in Dutch
- Courtrai in French
- Courtray in English
- Kortryk or Kortrik in Flemish
It is always amazing to learn of a towns history and how events still affect the town today. Kortrijk, for example, is often referred to as the City of the Golden Spurs. This reference is to an important battle the Flemish won which took place on July 11, 1302. This date is now celebrated as a national holiday by the Flemish community.
The Fox and the Crow
We found this intriguing little statue of The Fox and the Crow; a depiction of one of the Aesop’s Fables in a small square in Passchendaele.
The Fox and the Crow was rewritten as a poem by the French author Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) who collected and rewrote several of Aesop’s fables in verse during the 17th century. This fable is one of France’s favorite poems.
The Crow and The Fox
Was clutching in his bill a cheese,
Perched on a treetop, Master Crow
When Master Fox, sniffing the fragrant breeze,
Came by and, more or less, addressed him so:
“Good day to you, Your Ravenhood!
How beautiful you are! How fine! How fair!
Ah! Truly, if your song could but compare
To all the rest, I’m sure you should
Be dubbed the rara avis of the wood!”
The Crow, beside himself with joy and pride,
Begins to caw. He opens wide
His gawking beak; let’s go the cheese; it
Falls to the ground. The fox is there to seize it,
Saying: You see? Be edified:
Flatterers thrive in fools’ credulity.
The lesson’s worth a cheese, don’t you agree?”
The Crow, shamefaced and flustered, swore –
Too late, however: “Nevermore!”
Look for the book ‘The Complete Fables of Jean de La Foutaine’ if you wish to read more fables.
The fable is used as a warning against listening to flattery as not everyone has your best interest at heart. But as cute as the statue is, we wondered the significance of placing this statue in a small square and why in front of the Church of St Audomarus in Passchendaele?
Welsh WWI National Memorial Park
The unique bright reddish-bronze dragon on the top of a memorial caught our attention so we decided to pay our respects. The memorial is located near Boezinge about halfway between Pilkem and Langemark. The memorial is inscribed: “To all those of Welsh descent who took part in the First World War between 1914 and 1918.”
Saint Julien Memorial
This poignant Canadian war memorial and small park is located in the village of Saint-Julien, Langemark, Belgium. The Brooding Soldier, a 36 foot tall (11 meters) monument, is the central figure and the memorial plaque below reads: “This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks between 22nd-24th of April 1915 and where 2,000 fell and lie buried nearby.”
The soldier’s hands rest on the butt of his down-turned rifle in the ‘arms reversed’ position, a pose used as a gesture of mourning and respect for the fallen.
Canada Gate at Crest Farm Canadian Memorial
The one-tonne Canada Gate, a recent memorial dedicated and installed in 2017 is one of two so-called “portals of remembrance.”
- “Last Steps Memorial” was installed on the Halifax waterfront in Canada, where 350,000 soldiers boarded ships headed for the WWI battlefields.
- “Canada Gate” was installed in the heart of Flanders fields and marks the arrival place of many of those same Canadian soldiers.
Canada Gate is located at the edge of Crest Farm in Passchendaele, Zonnebeke, Belgium and is part of the Passchendaele Canadian Memorial. The Gate’s wooden base is marked with the outline of soldiers’ boots and steel poppies grace the memorial’s four corners.
German War Memorials of Langemark
At the front of the cemetery is a sculpture of four mourning figures that were added in 1956, and is said they stand guard over the more than 40,000 fallen and buried within the grounds of this cemetery.
Most gravestones in this German cemetery are laying flat and are a shade of dark grey. Like all cemeteries we visited it is very quiet and exudes sadness.
Tyne Cot Cemetery
Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing are located near Passchendaele in Belgium. This is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war. There are nearly 12,000 graves precisely lined up with row upon row of sparkling white headstones and each with a red rose planted next to it.
We thought this was one of Belgium’s most elegant, tranquil, yet profoundly sorrowful World War I cemeteries. Could there be a more poignant advocate for peace?
Ieper or Ypres
‘Missing and presumed dead’ soldiers from WWI was far, far too common. All missing soldiers, whose bodies have never been identified or found, were to be listed exclusively on Menin Gate Memorial in Ieper/Ypres, however it was discovered that Menin Gate was not large enough to engrave all the names. The cut off date used was August 15, 1917 so any Commonwealth missing soldiers after that date were inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing instead. The Menin Gate Memorial contains 53,000 names of the missing and an additional 35,000 missing soldiers names are engraved at Tyne Cot.
The Dutch “Ieper” is the official name (pronounced ee-purr – roll the r’s). The English version is Ypres. It is known for its fierce battles during WWI but there is more to discover in this charming small town of 35,000 inhabitants.
The city looks quite medieval but in fact it was completely rebuilt to look exactly how it had been before following WWI.
We arrived late in the afternoon in Ypres so unfortunately the highly recommended In Flanders Field Museum was already closed for the day as was the Cloth Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site we had wanted to tour. However viewing the front of the Cloth Hall and the Belfry was still impressive.
We walked along the medieval-like streets and enjoyed the ambiance of the town. We also learned what the bronze rivets we kept spotting on street corners were for. They mark a pathway and if you follow them, via a tourist map or an app, they will lead visitors past each of the towns main attractions. Other cities we have been in have painted lines you can follow.
The large Main Square in Ieper is flanked by shops and restaurants and we had to pop in to our first Belgian chocolate shop to sample the goodies. Did you know that praline chocolates were invented in Belgium in 1922 and that the world’s biggest chocolate selling point is Brussels National Airport? I have been there a couple of times this year and may have contributed to that statistic. 😁
We were also lucky to find the doors open at the beautiful St. Martin’s Cathedral. After enjoying a wonderful, albeit quick dinner, we rushed off to join the crowd at Menin Gate.
The Last Post at Menin Gate Memorial
Each night at 8.00 pm ‘The Last Post’ ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate in Ieper – Ypres. The Menin Gate with its large Hall of Memory, containing the names of 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers who died but whose bodies have not been identified or found, was unveiled in 1927.
The Last Post Ceremony first began in 1928 and initially continued for four months. The Ceremony was reinstated in 1929 and continued nightly up until the Germans occupied the city between 1940-1944 (the ceremony was temporarily moved to the UK where it continued). On the same day forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at Menin Gate.
We were lucky to be in attendance when a Scottish band marched in with the wonderful sounds of their pipers playing. Wreaths were then laid followed by the usual ‘Last Post’ bugle call. The ‘Last Post’ symbolises that the dead soldier has finished his duty and can rest in peace. It was a simple but moving tribute to the self-sacrifice of those who died in World War I.
Peace Monument – Poppy Cenotaph
In 2016 a WWI Peace Monument was created in Ypres and installed adjacent to the German War Cemetery at Langemark. Made of metal this striking 23 foot tall (7m) Peace Monument was made with one Flanders poppy cut from the metal. Beneath it is a field of 2016 steel poppies handcrafted by blacksmiths from around the world. There is a single white poppy amongst the red ones, acknowledging all those who suffered from shellshock.
In Flanders Fields
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was a soldier, physician and poet who wrote the popular “In Flanders Fields” in 1915, after presiding over the funeral of his friend and fellow soldier.
In Flanders fields the poppies grow
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.– Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae
By the way, the bright header photo is the Passchendaele Memorial Park. Seven remembrance gardens of the Battle of Passchendaele were created, each in the symbolic form of a poppy and one garden for each nation that took part in the battle.
The past two weeks took us to World War II sites in Normandie and World War I sites along the French and Belgium borders. The total number of military and civilian deaths in World War I is estimated at ~40 million and in World War II at ~75-80 million.
As usual, our knowledge of history has sharply increased but so has our apprehension of the destructiveness of war.
Let us hope we continue to strive for peace, tolerance and understanding.
Paix from these Roubaisiens
Ted and Julia
- Tyne Cot Cemetery
- Peace Monument – Poppy Cenotaph
- German War Cemetery of Langemark
- Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
- Crest Farm Canadian Memorial
- War Memorials of Langemark-Poelkapelle
- St Julien Canadian War Memorial
- Welsh National Memorial Park (WW1)
- Ypres, Belgium: The Last Post at Menin Gate Memorial