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