I have used a few different books to find my way around the various battlefields and cemeteries. Today I was on Itinerary Two from Holt’s Guide to the Ypres Salient. This started northeast of Ieper and worked back to the west. The first major point of interest on this tour was the German Cemetery at Langmark. Like the allies, German war dead were buried in many cemeteries around the Western Front. However, following the war France and Belgium were less generous in given land to Germany for their fallen. While both Allied and German cemeteries were redone and consolidated, there were fewer places for the German dead. As a result german headstones have several names on them because of the need to use common graves.
On leaving Langmark I ran into a tour group lead by Norm Christie. Norm has written many of the guides to Canadian Battlefields as well as hosting TV shows on the subject. We had a chance to talk briefly and I made sure to that him for his great work. He probably has done more to re-inspire interest in the Great War for Canadians than anything in the last couple decades.
I then headed to Essex Farm. This is a cemetery but also has the remains of a Advanced Dressing station (the First War’s equivalent of a MASH). This was the site where John McCrae wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’. This classic verse is used extensively around Ypres. In addition to this site, there is the ‘In Flanders Field’ Museum, and ‘In Flanders Fields Autoroute’ and posters and banners all over the town. There are enough references to Lt Col McCrae to call him a local hero – that would be Belgium’s local Canadian Hero.
This was an appropriate place to end this part of my trip. Tomorrow I head toward Paris for the ‘fun’ part of the trip. I enjoyed the touring around Arras and Ypres and all the historical spots. But there is a sense of emotional exhaustion. I think of looking at thousands of graves and hundreds of thousands of names on monuments. The magnitude is not obvious at any given point but today I have a sense of the weight of what I have seen.
I am ‘proud’ of my country and in these fields a country that had never fought a war on this scale – in the words of John McCrae – took up the torch. You can’t really feel good or happy about any of this, all you can do is think about it and remember.
And in the end that is all the millions that died here are asking.
I know I will.