In Flanders Fields
During the First World War, Belgium suffered greatly, as much of its countryside became an entrenched battlefield. Hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives in what became a hopeless deadlock that dragged on and on. Each side became mired in their own muddy trenches and men slowly went mad. Tales of the trenches are horrific. New and more efficient methods of destruction were being implemented, such as poisonous gas and rapid-fire machine guns.
The conditions were abysmal. They were perpetually damp due to the shallow water table and poor sanitation, inadequate supplies, and certain death going “over the top” led many men to suffer from “shell shock,” or what we call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Men returning from this theater were forever changed.
One of the most famous battle arenas came to be known as Flanders Fields and was immortalized in poetry by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.
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.
“The red poppies that McCrae referred to had been associated with war since the Napoleonic Wars when a writer of that time first noted how the poppies grew over the graves of soldiers. The damage done to the landscape in Flanders during the battle greatly increased the lime content in the surface soil, leaving the poppy as one of the few plants able to grow in the region. (Wikipedia).
After the publication of the poem, the red poppy became a symbol representing a soldier’s death. Now known as Remembrance Poppies, the flowers are worn to honor the memory of British and Canadian Expeditionary Forces, as well as other colonies of the British Empire, who lost their lives during WWI.
Passchendaele and Ypres
I’m embarrassed to say, but if truth be told, I never really knew much about the poppy symbolism until I wrote this post. Growing up in America, we just didn’t have the same view of World War I. Sure, we lost soldiers, but not nearly the numbers of the other Allies. England alone lost around one million, compared to the roughly 117,000 of the United States of America. France lost more than 4% of its total population. Even worse, although I am also Canadian, I never knew the poem was by a Canadian and never knew the losses suffered by Canada during the war.
So, all of this came as a big surprise when, after chatting with some older British women in Bruges who had just returned from a day’s trip visiting the battlefield, I decided to visit it myself. It was not originally part of my plan. I had intended to stay around Bruges and taking in the sights, sounds, and food, but thankfully, I changed my mind.
I began my day without much direction other than knowing the city name of Ypres, or Ieper in Dutch. I’d heard the name and new it had to do something with the trenches, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Using the internationally recognizable brown signs, I ended up at Passchendaele Memorial Park where groups of re-enactors were set-up and where there are red poppy installations recognizing the fallen. I was surprisingly moved by the scene. I reflected that I had nothings in my life that I felt passionate enough about to give up my life.
From there, I got directions to Hill 62, as this particular defensive salient was called. I didn’t know at the time that it was here that Canada suffered its greatest losses of the war. It was just the site recommended by the nice women I had met. Once I arrived, it all came together.
Before Hill 62, there is a memorial cemetery called Sanctuary Wood in which are tombstones commemorating the allied soldiers who died there. It was interesting to walk around and see tombstones for Canadian and Egyptian soldiers. When I think of war, i do not think of these countries, though certainly each has participated in them.
This occurred to me later as well, when I was walking under the massive archway, called Menin Gate (Menenpoort), that serves as an entry into the city of Ypres. Built after the war to honor the soldiers who died, each regiment is indicated separately. In one corner, near the bottom, I noticed a special place that honored those who served from the Sikh and Burmese regiments. Elsewhere, there were plaques for Caribbean soldiers. Again, I was reminded that all countries have experienced war and tragedy.
I left the cemetery and headed toward the salient. At the entryway, there’s an odd little restaurant/shop/museum. In the woods behind, are the remains of actual trenches from the war. They are remarkably well-preserved. The day was overcast and drizzling. The bottoms of the trenches were filled with mud. I overheard a guide explain to a group of Canadian visitors that, with Belgium being “the lowlands,” the water table is only about 5 feet below the surface. This meant the trenches were only deep enough to cover the body. Unless one was perpetually hunched over, the head was always exposed. Further, the feet and boots were always wet, thus the disease term “trench foot.” Standing there in the cold, drizzling rain, I was overcome with empathy for the men who, with youthful enthusiasm and faith in their cause stood here day after day in terror.
Leaving the trenches, and with my car facing the direction it was, I decided to go to the end of the road to turn around. Little did I know, the road led to a massive monument to the Canadian cause. Though not tall, the broad monument covered several acres. I felt a Canadian patriotism, heretofore unknown to me.
Though according to my paperwork, I’ve been Canadian since birth, I’ve only been recognized as such for a bit more than a year having, after all these years, finally filed the necessary paperwork. It’s been strange to be able to now say, “I’m Canadian” without having grown up in Canada, without having a shared national memory like the history of this battle.
The First World War, like many such conflicts, is fading in our collective memory as the last people of that generation pass away. Yet, the lessons of that war are ones we should remember. It was this war in particular in which the mythology of masculinity and of warfare itself began to unravel. The pomp and circumstance of military causes finally began to be seen for the true horror they were. I am reminded of the quotation by American Civil War General Robert E. Lee: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
Also published on Medium.
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