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Reliving World War I in Flanders

Written by  Monique Burns

Europe-Flanders
It was called “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars.” But, before long, World War I became “The Forgotten War,” eclipsed by the even greater atrocities in World War II. As Belgium’s Great World War I Centenary approaches in 2014, the spotlight shines once again on West Flanders, the country’s westernmost province, where many of the war’s most iconic battles were fought. In the Westhoek region, explore as far north as Nieuwpoort and the North Sea beaches, where nearby plains were flooded to repel German invaders, as far south as Ypres, where the Ypres Salient became one of the Western Front’s most active war theaters, and as far east as Flanders Field American Cemetery, where our troops lie buried not far from where Canadian doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae penned the immortal words: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.”

With hundreds of monuments and military cemeteries - as well as scores of concerts, lectures, art exhibits and other special events in 2014 - Flanders Fields Country is sure to attract history and military buffs. But the area holds great appeal for families, too. Expanded museums like In Flanders Fields offer hands-on history lessons, stories of living, breathing human beings, both military and civilian, men and women, who demonstrated courage, perseverance and sacrifice. 

Most special events begin in fall 2014, including October 24 commemorations marking the First Battle of Ypres, and continue through Ypres “Armistice Remembered” ceremonies on November 11. Some events continue into spring 2015. Already underway until June 30, “War and Trauma: From the First World War to the Present” is a joint exhibit at Ypres’ In Flanders Fields Museum and Ghent’s Dr. Guislain Museum examining shell shock and other psychological costs of war. Special events outside the Westhoek include the major “Avant-garde and The Great War” exhibit at Brussels’ Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in fall 2014; the “World War I Centenary” commemoration in Antwerp, October 3-5, and “Flanders’ Song for Peace,” featuring a specially commissioned Philip Glass oratorio at Brussels’ Flanders Festival in October.

Ypres: World War I’s Flemish Heart

History aficionados could spend weeks poring over memorabilia in museums, crawling through trenches, and honoring the war dead at sculpture-adorned military cemeteries. On a weeklong stay in Flanders, visitors can spend 3-5 days touring the Westhoek’s World War I sites, and another few days exploring other regional attractions, including breweries and brasseries, leafy canals and lush countryside, or nearby cities like Ghent or Bruges. 

Arriving in Brussels from the U.S., spend a night or two at The Dominican (www.thedominican.be) whose arched passageways, stark black-and-white furnishings and piped-in Gregorian chants create a medieval mood. From Brussels, trains depart regularly for Ypres, mid-point of the famous Ypres Salient, the sickle-shaped front where some of the war’s key battles were fought. En route to Ypres, you’ll change trains in Ghent. Consider overnighting at the Ghent Marriott (www.marriott.com), then spend a couple of days exploring this lively university town’s tree-lined canals and medieval masterpieces. 

Once in Ypres - or Ieper, in Flemish - check into the 122-room Novotel Ieper Centrum (www.novotel.com), with its inviting Foodsquare brasserie. A short walk away, on the main square, at the Grote Markt, take in colorful, interactive World War I exhibits at the recently renovated In Flanders Fields Museum. 

Steps from the heart of Ypres are Essex Farm Cemetery and the Advance Dressing Station bunker where Canadian doctor and professor Lt. Col. John McCrae scribbled his historic “In Flanders Fields” poem. In nearby Langemark, the beautifully somber German war cemetery, with thick basalt-lava crosses, immortalizes young student-soldiers, many interred in a sprawling mass grave. Farther north, near Diksmuide, at the Vladslo German military cemetery, see “The Grieving Parents,” a stunning sculptural tribute to her 18-year-old son Peter by famed German Expressionist Kathe Kollwitz. Honor all the war dead at the massive Menin Gate in Ypres, where each evening at 8 p.m. buglers from the local fire brigade sound the Last Post in a simple yet poignant ceremony.

Just east, in Passchendaele, 12,000 white tombstones march in semi-circular formation around the iconic Cross of Sacrifice monument, built atop a German bunker, at Tyne Cot, the European Continent’s largest British Commonwealth military cemetery. In nearby Sint-Juliaan is the enormous statue of “The Brooding Soldier,” depicting a Canadian infantryman with head bowed and rifle butt downturned in tribute to fallen comrades. For American visitors, perhaps the most poignant site is the six-acre Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, 30 miles east of Ypres. Here 368 U.S. soldiers lie buried around a chapel whose mosaic ceiling is adorned with a golden lamp and those most hopeful symbols, white doves of peace. 

For more information, visit the websites www.flandersfields1418.com and www.visitflanders.us

 

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