15 May 2015
Today we arrived in Ypres for our first day in Belgium. It’s a beautiful city, clean and bright, with more bicycles than cars.
In the morning we visited In Flanders’s Fields Museum, named of course for John McCrae’s famous poem. It is an interesting space. The building itself was reconstructed following the First World War and reflects the older style of most buildings in the city, featuring in particular stone archways, high ceilings, and a clock tower. Guests at the museum are given a bracelet embedded with a microchip which is programmed to display content in the museum based on the person’s age, gender, and country of origin. These bracelets are scanned at various electronic stations throughout the museum, which then display related content. Being Canadian, I was given a great deal of information about Canada’s role in the First World War. The museum also featured several videos of actors portraying persons known to have participated in or been affected by the First World War, telling individual stories about that person’s experiences. The overall effect gives guests a true sense of life in wartime Europe, whether they be a soldier, refugee, or civilian.
Our next stop was Langemark German War Cemetery. This is one of only four German cemeteries in the Flanders’s region and it is the final resting place of an astounding 44,000 German soldiers, including a mass grave containing 24,000 men. Headstones and several large metal tablets surrounding the mass grave list the names of those buried there.
We visited Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest of all the Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries, where there was a small but very well presented visitor’s center. A screen to the right of the door displayed the photos of men who are buried at Tyne Cot, a narrative voice stating their name and age. The exhibit included the personal effects of soldiers who had served in the First World War, such as letters, books, photos, rosaries, and equipment. Explanations for these items accompanied in four languages. Outside, it takes a full five minutes to walk around the wall of the cemetery and up the center of the headstones to the Cross of Sacrifice that is standard in CWGC cemeteries. Tyne Cot is the final resting place of 11,957 soldiers.
We ended our travels for the day at the Menin Gate, a memorial to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient of World War I and whose graves are unknown. There are 56,000 names listed on the walls here. There is a nightly ceremony at Menin Gate at 8pm. The story of one of the people listed on the walls is told to an audience that has showed up without fail every night since the end of the First World War (with the notable exception of the years during which Belgium was occupied in World War Two). The people of Ypres have taken to heart the Ode of Remembrance: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
What strikes me about the locations we visited today is that there is a great emphasis placed on the names of individuals lost in the Great War. Their names are carved by the tens of thousands in stone, wood, and metal in cemeteries, memorials, and monuments across the continent. With some reflection, I believe I have come to understand why this is the dominant form of remembrance here. I have walked through more than a dozen cemeteries this past week. I have seen the graves of tens of thousands of men. I understand why we remember them as the lost generation. The numbers of dead in the First World War are incredible. It is overwhelming and impersonal to try to pay respect and properly commemorate hundreds of thousands of lives at once. When we see a name, we see a person. As I walk through the headstones every day I find myself in a strange mourning. I do not know any of these men, I have no connection to them, and yet I mourn the. The cemeteries are peaceful and the dead there are at rest. But a sadness lingers over the perfectly maintained gardens and rows of white headstones. This sadness comes not from the dead, but those who were forced to carry on without them. Every single person in every single cemetery in every single grave was loved dearly by someone and missed dearly when they died. Their parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends grieved for them and wanted nothing more than for them to come home. This is the sadness that hangs over the war dead. Their names, however numerous they may be, make them human to us who never knew them, and this humanity allows us to truly understand and appreciate their sacrifice and the pain of their loss.