Today was a busy day. We began at the Menin Gate to memorialize two soldiers, then on to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, St. Eloi Craters, Hill 62, Sanctuary Wood, and Passchendaele. We also went to our first of many (many!) cemeteries at Railway Dugouts, Tyne Cot, and Essex Farm
As we traveled from memorial to cemetery, from battlefield to museum, I was reminded of something author William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Everywhere I looked there was a reminder of the thousands of men who died trying (and often failing) to hold positions on the Ypres Salient. In Ypres itself, commemoration of the Great War has become an important industry in its own right; every shop window has postcards, model helmets, or other war-related souvenirs for sale, and of course, the image of the poppy is omnipresent. As well, battlefield tours are offered by companies all over, and there is the nightly Menin Gate memorial ceremony (which members of our group got to take part in today) Even Cloth Hall, which once stood as a monument to Ypres’ prosperous wool trade, has been rebuilt as a museum which recounts the brutal reality of life and death in the trenches. On that note, all of Ypres has been rebuilt, it had to be, after its near total destruction over the four years of shelling and attack. However, rather than starting over and building a new town, citizens of Ypres decided to built it exactly as it had been before the war. Today, this gives the town an even greater sense of history past the twentieth century. Nevertheless World War I is still the defining feature of the region.
Th past is not only visible in Ypres, but fills the hills and seeps through the cracks in the cobblestone roads in the surrounding countryside. Although a hundred years have past, the efforts of farmers and developers have not completely erased the effects war had on the landscape, while ridges that once held important strategic value have been covered over by field and pasture, shell craters are still found on former battlefields although they appear in the form of overgrown depressions or circular ponds. More purposeful commemoration is found in the numerous cemeteries which dot the landscape and hold the bodies, or at least headstones of, soldiers from all around the globe. The white headstones and bright flowers stand in stark contrast to the lush forest and sprouting fields, and stood out especially on this overcast and rainy day.
Coming from a place where the only memory of the Great War can be found in an archive or at the cenotaph, it was an interesting and ultimately sobering experience to walk in the actual physical space where so many men had fallen, to learn their names, and see their belongings and their burial sites. The unintentional reminders, as well as the concerted commemorative efforts in area allow the intangible, not to mention unfathomable, experiences of the past to live on, both physically and in the collective memory those who see them.