October 05, 2008

In Flanders Fields

Ypres is a historic town in West Flanders, Belgium. The site of several significant battles during World War I, the town was left in ruins by the conclusion of the war. The most famous of these is the Battle of Passchendaele. Soldiers from Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations combined forces against German troops, engaging in brutal trench warfare that resulted in 750,000 lives lost.

Reconstructed after the war, several Ypres landmarks were restored to their original likeness. One of these structures, the Cloth Hall, is located in the centre of the town and houses the In Flanders Fields war museum. The original Cloth Hall was one of the largest buildings of the Middle Ages, having been constructed in the 1300's for the unsurprising purpose of storing cloth. The museum had a closing time of six o'clock in the summer months. I arrived a little after five, but was denied entry since it takes at least an hour to see in detail. My friend Bart, who was showing me around Belgium, tried to explain that I was visiting from Canada but to no avail.

We walked to the Menin Gate memorial which arches over a road. The names of 55,000 soldiers who died without graves are inscribed upon it. Its Hall of Memory, although massive, was not large enough to hold all the names of those who had perished. 35,000 other names were inscribed at the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. We drove to this solemn place on the outskirts of Ypres. The largest graveyard for soldiers of the Commonwealth anywhere in the world, row after row of white tombstones line the field. The name, rank, and regiment are given when the information is available, but the exact details of many of the men buried beneath the 11,952 graves remains unknown.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
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.
John McCrae