After almost a century of poppies and poems, the Great War feels more remote than ever. But for the people of Flanders, whose fields and cities still bear traces of the conflagration, the terrible events that took place between 1914 and 1918 still loom large. In the fields, as my guide explained, it’s still possible to find unexploded shells – 105 in 2012 alone – while the last farmer to be killed by vintage ordnance died just two years ago. Yet despite the bombs and the harrowing history, Flanders remains a lovely place, a world of flat green farmland dotted with copses of straggling trees and picturesque little towns where they’ll feed you as well as they do in Paris. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine it without its war wounds – and you don’t need to look far to find them.
With the centenary of the Great War rapidly approaching, Flanders’ museums have been gearing up for an influx interested tourists. Among them is the Talbot House in Poperinge, which spent the war years as a little oasis of relaxation and entertainment for British soldiers, a home away from home where rank and regiment were forgotten. Also readying itself is the Flanders Field Museum which is housed in the rebuilt Cloth Hall, an exterior that belies its modern interior where all guests are given a personalised electronic bracelet which they can scan at various points during the exhibition to find out about the fate of people from their home town.
While new technology helps to advance knowledge, it doesn’t necessarily help convey the emotion of the period. For me, little gives a sense of the human tragedy more than an hour spent in one of the area’s many military cemeteries, where the endless rows of near-identical gravestones can’t help but offer poignant testimony of the sacrifices made by so many. There’s also, as I was to discover, a Last Post ceremony which takes place each night. The Last Post, a bugle call used in the Commonwealth to commemorate those who have been killed in war, is played each evening at 8pm under the Menin Gate arch in Ypres, whose stones bear the names of over 54,000 victims of the war.
But Ypres wasn’t the only Flanders town to witness heavy casualties. In the town of Passchendaele, recent years have brought about the discovery of a number of trenches which have been excavated and examined in detail. Although Flanders’ propensity to flooding means that it would be virtually impossible to open the real trenches to the public, the Museum of Passchendaele has been offering the next best thing since July this year, with reconstructed indoor and outdoor trenches in both British and German styles. Accompanied by a harrowing soundtrack of shells whistling and exploding, it isn’t hard to imagine the horror as you tour the complex. In nearby Pervyse, you can visit a reconstructed dug-out on what was once the front line. Stand on the sandbags and look over the top at no man’s land, where, like the soldiers before you, you’ll command a panoramic view of the flat, unforgiving fields where more than half a million perished.
But although much of the attention is on the sacrifice of the soldiers sent to face the guns and shells at the front, there’s a distinctly feminine influence on events behind the lines. Many came from the UK to run the soup kitchens or to be a nurse. Among them was Marie Curie, who, with her daughter, used her pioneering radiography techniques to help treat the injured. But Curie wasn’t the only one. Dubbed the ‘Madonnas of the Pervyse’, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm shared an unlikely passion for motorcycling which made them the ideal candidates for driving ambulances. They treated wounded soldiers day in, day out and insisted on being stationed next to the front line to treat the soldiers even more quickly. A visit to Furnes and nearby Pervyse allows you to follow in their footsteps and observe the different buildings they used.
Unlike many of the troops they helped, the pair went on to live long lives, despite being gassed along the way. But not all nurses were so lucky. British Nellie Spindler was working as a nurse at Brandhoek Casualty Clearing Station when it was shelled by the Germans. Nellie died of shrapnel wounds on August 21st 1917, aged 26, and is the only woman to be buried at the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, alongside more than 11,000 men.
Another British nurse, Edith Cavell, never made it back either – after saving the lives of soldiers from both sides and helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape Belgium, she was court-martialled by the German High Command and sentenced to death. Despite international pleas for mercy, she was shot by a firing squad, generating worldwide condemnation. Touring Flanders, it’s not hard to imagine Cavell and Curie, hard at work in their hospitals or the plight of the troops who ended up there. Visiting Passchendaele, Ypres and the other Great War sites helps bring the sacrifice closer – and reminds you of what we still owe those brave souls today.
NEED TO KNOW…
RIH stayed at the family-run, four-star Hotel Ariane in Ypres. Double rooms start at €99 per night. Eat at Pacific Eiland, a gastronomic restaurant beautifully positioned on a small island in Ypres, and De Fonderie, a modern brasserie tucked away just behind the busy main square. MyFerryLink operates 16 daily crossings from Dover to Calais. Fares for a car and up to nine passengers start from £29 each way for any duration and from £19 for a day return. To find the best fares, visit myferrylink.com or call 0844 2482 100. For more information on Ypres and the Flanders Fields see visitflanders.co.uk or flandersfields1418.co.uk