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In Flanders’ fields

by
24 January 2014

This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War; so a tour of Flanders feels like a necessary pilgrimage, says Diana Bentley

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Graves: Tyne Cot, the world's largest Commonwealth War cemetery

Graves: Tyne Cot, the world's largest Commonwealth War cemetery

IT IS early. Soft morning light falls on farmland and wheat fields, grazing cattle and quiet towns. Where thousands of young soldiers once toiled in mud-laden trenches, peace now prevails.

But beyond them the landscape of "Flanders Fields" - the battlefront in Flanders, northern Belgium, that was concentrated around Ypres - still bears vivid scars of the tragedy that unfolded here a century ago: from fields ripped up for trench warfare to legions of white crosses rising in military cemeteries.

Today, Ypres is a good starting point for a tour of the region. But walking around its pretty medieval townscape it is hard to imagine the devastation of 1918, when it lay in mud and ruins. Thankfully, Ypres rose again, and it is a delight to explore, from streets lined withcosy cafes to the airy Grand Place marketplace, where the Cloth Hall - once the main market for the city's prosperous cloth industry - soars up in vast splendour, painstakingly reconstructed after the Great War.

Inside the Hall, the In Flanders Fields Museum, now located there, tells the story of the killing in arresting, grainy film footage, and chilling audio accounts. Later, in the velvety light of the approaching night, I join a growing crowd to hear the strains of the Last Post ring out under the arches of the majestic Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, remembering those who passed this way to the Front.

Next morning, in the cold, crisp air, I discover where many now remain: about nine kilometres north-east of Ypres lies the renowned Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world.

From 1919 to 1921, almost 12,000 of those who died at other battlefields were laid to rest at Tyne Cot, and gleaming white headstones fan out far into the distance. Today, there is tranquillity: flowers bloom in tribute, and birdsong punctuates the silence.

Other vast cemeteries lie close by. Lijssenthoek sprang up around a casualty clearing-station, and its museum tells the compelling taleof the huge task of caring for the injured. The German military cemetery at Langemark, resting-place of more than 44,000 soldiers, is dark and quiet, and presided over by bronze statues of four German soldiers.

Other places are more intimate, but just as compelling. Essex Farm cemetery lies on a country road several kilometres from Ypres, beside the old concrete shelters of a dressing station where the Canadian surgeon John McCrae, inspired by the loss of a good friend, wrote In Flanders Fields. And here, one ofthe war's youngest casualties -15-year-old Joe Strudwick - lies among many who are not much older.

Venturing south-east of Ypres, sheep are grazing quietly over the famed Hill 60, where the Allies and Germans used underground mines to destroy each other's trenches. So many remains still lie here that itis, effectively, a mass war-grave. Alongside the bumpy path, flanked by trees, eerie, empty trenches and craters scar the hill.

The war springs to life at other places, too. The Memorial Museum Passchendaele, in Zonnebeke, housed in a stately chateau, commemorates the ghastly slaughter of the battles of 1917. Photos and memorabilia tell the story vividly, but downstairs, creeping along the recreated dug-out, viewing crowded bunks and tiny first-aid rooms, I find it hard to imagine how men could endure the subterranean life that they were forced to live for years.

At Poperinge, with its narrow streets and sturdy churches, lies a place where battle-weary soldiers found respite. Talbot House, run by two army chaplains as a rest centre, and the origin of the movement Toc H, is largely unchanged, and in its pretty, light-filled rooms you can almost hear the chatter of young men, and the piano playing.

HE voices and the guns are silent now, and the land green again, but memories of the sacrifices made by the young on the Western Front are all around the visitor here, just an imagination away. And, quite rightly, as the next few years are set to demonstrate, they will never be forgotten.

  

TRAVEL DETAILS

EUROSTAR operates services from London St Pancras Inter­national to Lille, from £69 return. The "Any Belgian station" ticket from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi (and beyond) costs from £79 return.

Special museum and gallery passes are available. Phone 08432 186 186, or visit eurostar.com. Avis offers car hire from £58 a day, picking up from Lille Flandres train station.

Phone 0844 544 5566, or visit avis.co.uk.

Spirit of Remembrance Tours offer general and special-interest bespoke tours that include coach travel from UK, guides and accom­modation. Phone or 01420 475 567, or visit spiritofremembrance.com.

The website Visit Flanders lists details of special commemorative events taking place during 2014-18. Visit visitflanders.co.uk.

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