Friday, November 13, 2009

Ypres - Honoring the Sacrifices TWICE!

It seems odd thinking back, but this famous war poem, In Flanders Field, by John McCrae was one I memorized in grade school. Not sure when or exactly why, but it seems one I have always known the first few lines too. Mr. McCrae wrote the work in 1914 for a friends' wartime funeral.

Flanders is a region in Belgium in the west. It was our last stop on our whirlwind road trip from Le Havre. We were pretty pooped by this time. The sun was getting lower in the day and the in and out, in and out of the car was wearing on us. But the town of Ypres made us think twice about our exhaustion and discomfort. During World War I, Ypres was the centre of intense and sustained battles between the German and the Allied forces. Today it is a city devoted to honoring the soldiers who fought and died here. War graves, both of the Allied side and the Central Powers, cover the landscape around Ypres.

It is a city and countryside that will leave you breathless with the sheer number dead within a few months. An entire generation gone in a matter of days. As a mother, these memorials make me remember that each marker was a child birthed, loved and cared immensely for. And each a life cut much too short.

The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres commemorates those soldiers of the British Commonwealth who fell in the Ypres Salient during the First World War before 16 August 1917, who have no known grave. The memorial's location is especially poignant as it lies on the eastward route from the town which allied soldiers would have taken towards the fighting - many never to return.

Every evening since 1928, at precisely eight o'clock, traffic around the imposing arches of the Menin Gate Memorial has been stopped while the Last Post is sounded beneath the Gate by the local fire brigade. This tribute is given in honour of the memory of British Empire soldiers who fought and died there. The ceremony was prohibited by occupying German forces during the Second World War, but it was resumed on the very evening of liberation — 6 September 1944 — notwithstanding the heavy fighting that still went on in other parts of the town.The Menin Gate in Ypres only records the soldiers for whom there is no known grave. As graves are discovered, the names are removed from the Menin Gate.
After spending some time in Ypres' town proper, we headed to the British Tyne Cot Cemetery. While not an American Cemetery, it was equally as moving. WWI seems like ages and ages ago. It is easy to disassociate from it with the shadow of WWII more recent---that is until you visit this part of the world.I declare there were more graves of unknown soldiers than of those identified. I guess these match headstones somehow match to the names on the Menin Gate.We left Ypres that October day determined to make it back again to spend just a little more time, not on the tail end of a marathon day. So this past Wednesday was Veterans' Day in the USA and Armistice Day in Belgium. We returned to Ypres to pay our respects. First stop on this second trip was to the American Cemetery in Ypres - where Connor again found her flag.In Ypres the town was festive and full of remembrance. This trip we made it to the In Flanders Field museum. Connor and I were a little grumpy with the museum. It is very informative, but war museums are sometimes hard for me - especially with many words in many languages and many people to wade through. Kirk turned to me and said exactly what needed saying, "Reid, It's Veterans' Day. You're supposed to honor the troops today." And you know, he was exactly right. Made my tired frustration from navigating a toddler through a busy museum disappear.Ypres sold these poppies; the ramparts were covered with them and made it look just like the poem's imagery.

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.
Here is a video of the "Last Post" from this Armistice Day. Quite a tradition. This one understandably a bit more pomp because of the holiday.

No comments: