Today we left the beautiful Chavasse Farm and travelled through the French countryside to Belgium, where we will be spending the next few days. Today we focused on the battles of the Ypres Salient during the First World War. This area was the front line for much of WWI, as German troops invaded, French, Belgium, and British Commonwealth troops counterattacked, and a system of trenches were set up that saw the use of new and deadly technologies, such as poison gas, and the death of thousands of people in the mire of Flanders Fields. Our first visit was to the “In Flanders Fields Museum”, in Ypres, which described the local history of WWI. Unlike other museums we have encountered so far, such as the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, this museum did not attempt to portray a national narrative of the Belgian people during the war. Rather, the museum represented the shared responsibility for the outbreak of the war in the nationalism, imperialism, and militarism of all European powers; the shared suffering of the soldiers of both sides during the treacherous trench warfare in the area; and the shared mourning we now have for the victims of the First World War. Journal entries and poetry, arms and technology, and uniforms and kit from each of the combatants were shown side by side, illustrating the similarities of experience for members of the Allied and German armies in Ypres.
The tone of the museum was very much one of reconciliation and collective mourning, as shown by an installation displaying the names of all of the men who died in the Ypres Salient, regardless of rank or side in the war. A similar tone was felt in the Menin Gate ceremony this evening, where, inside the massive arch containing the names of Commonwealth war dead of the region with no known grave, many groups of civilians and soldiers (including a group from the German military) laid wreaths of poppies in remembrance of the war dead. Clearly the battles of this region were a tragedy to the people of Belgium and to the soldiers and families of soldiers who fought here, and we remember them as individuals who died in this grand venture.
This was not always the way that the war was remembered. At the time, many of these young men (of Britain, Canada, or Germany), believed that they were fighting to defend their country and to preserve the values of civilization, for freedom and honor. In the years after the war, the Germans continued to be vilified as the aggressors of this war, and sharp distinctions are made between the German and the Allied war dead. The names carved on the Menin Gate only represent British Commonwealth Troops, and the grandeur of the monument suggests the glory of victory that was possible because of these men’s sacrifice, not the horrors of trench warfare. Our visit to Langemarck German War Cemetery and Tyne Cot Cemetery also showed how people in the 1920s and 1930s continued to remember the war as a conflict between two hostile, opposing parties. Langemarck is one of the few existing cemeteries for German war dead, as the Belgian people were unsympathetic to German losses incurred during the invasion of their country. Forty-four thousand German dead of the First World War are buried in Langemarck, many in a common grave, in an area half the size of Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Cemetery with 12000 dead. In the first years after WWI had ended, the monuments and cemeteries commemorating the war dead of the Ypres salient were shaped by the idea of the nobility of sacrifice, the need to defend your own country from foreign powers, and to promote the values of civilization that would be destroyed if the enemy won. Only in more recent years have we shifted the focus from the triumph (or failure) of our national interests to the tragedy of the massive loss of life at Ypres.