All Quiet on the Western Front

In keeping with our recent little dive into history, we went further back in time two weekends ago to Belgium.  More specifically, the sites along the Western Front of World War I.  The Fall has settled right in and with it brought grey, cloudy, rainy days.  That weekend was no exception unfortunately.  But we battled the weather and trucked on visiting a number of sites and towns in the West Flanders, Belgium and Northern Paris.

We took the train to Lille, rented a car and went straight to the Ypres Salient and started a driving tour.  We visited the site where the poem, “In Flander’s Field” was written by Canadian Colonel John McCrae, a Breton Memorial called Carrefour des Roses, a German cemetery, Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof and to the Canadian monument, St. Julien Memorial also known as the Brooding Soldier.  The German cemetery was quite a contrast to the commonwealth ones with large trees soaring above (a practice in the German culture so the dead are ‘protected’) and the dark tombstones.  In this cemetery there were a couple tens of thousands just in a common grave.

We then spent the afternoon in Ypres, visiting the In Flanders Museum.  It was a large, modern museum with many artifacts, stories, photos and also many tourists.  Not as impressive as Juno Beach Centre (nor the Passendeale Museum which we visited later) but still quite moving.  What struck me the most was at the end of the visit, after learning about all the hardships, the trench warfare, the underground battles in tunnels (which I didn’t know about), and the hundreds of thousands of men who lost their life for the Great War, the one that was supposed to end all wars, panels draping from the high ceiling listed over 50 wars (both large and small) that have occurred since.  Makes you think, what was the point… was it really worth it?  So many lives lost.  How naive to think it wouldn’t happen again… and yet 20 years later another great war scarred that generation.

Later that night, we went to the Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate at 8pm, a tradition that has been going on every day since 1928 (except during the German occupation) to commemorate all soldiers who have no known resting place.

The impact of how deadly this war was is evident by the countless cemeteries in the area.  It seemed every few kilometers there was another one.  And even more unimaginable, are all the names, hundreds of thousands, on all the monuments of the soldiers they never found.  I can’t believe that that many people just disappeared… never found.

And when Menin Gate was built, they ran out of room to put all those names, so the list continues at Tyne Cot Cemetary which we visited the next day.  Tyne Cot is the largest war cemetery in the Commonwealth…it leaves you speechless.

We later visited Passchendaele, where quite a slaughter of a battle took place for the Canadians.  We went through this fantastic small museum which had a lot of artifacts and stories focused on the Canadian effort and included a recreation of trenches and tunnels.

It was hard looking at the photos, seeing the smiling faces at the start of what was perceived as a great adventure.  And then later even harder to look at other photos, faces sullen, legs covered in mud up to the knees, knowing the lives that were lost and would be lost.  Some came back from it alive but the incredible disfiguring damage to their faces and bodies is only a fraction of the state of their spirits.

We took a break from our tour of history and drove to Bruges to spend the afternoon.  Overall I was not impressed with Belgian food (not including the chocolate and waffles of course).  And just when I thought service couldn’t get any worse in Paris, I was wrong and every establishment we went to, we faced rude and slow service.  It was one of the few times both David and I couldn’t wait to get back to France, and that’s what we did staying just outside of Arras in Northern France.

Our last day, we continued our journey and visited the very impressive Vimy Ridge Memorial, a Canadian monument that is not to be missed and was a highlight of our weekend.  The memorial is so moving, the statues are beautiful and it stands apart atop the ridge overlooking the rolling hills of the French countryside.  It was a triumph in Canadian history, the birth of our nation and a tribute to the many Canadian lives lost.  After all the history lessons about Vimy Ridge, I was a proud Canadian visiting this unforgettable site.  Not only was there a monument, but the crater filled land and some trenches have been preserved.   One of the main parts of the war I didn’t know until this trip is that both sides dug tunnels under the trenches and would strategically blow up the tunnels in the hopes of destroying and debilitating the enemy’s trenches.  These same tunnels also posed risks to those miners digging them.

Later that afternoon, we went to the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment for the horrific miscalculated attack on the first day of the Battle of Somme, one of the deadliest battles during WWI where over 1 million were killed or wounded.   This and Vimy are the only two Canadian National Historic Sites outside Canada.  We learned so much this weekend, something we’ll never forget.

Before heading back to Lille, we spent the last part of the afternoon in Arras.  A small town that was destroyed during the war and now contains Flemish-French architecture with Spanish influence.  It was quaint and quiet, a nice change from the tourist filled Bruges, and a good place to get some good old French crepes (with mediocre service).

Here are some of the places we stayed:
B&B Demi Lune:  a beautiful old guesthouse just a few hundred meters from the centre of Ypres.  The hosts were very helpful and the breakfast was fantastic.

Ace Hotel in Noyelles-Goyelle:  a super cheap (46 euros) motel by the highway that was incredibly comfortable and perfect for a quick stop.  I couldn’t believe that they didn’t charge me when I mistakenly booked (via our stay for the previous night and was technically a ‘no-show’.

We didn’t eat anywhere that was worth recommending! Hence there are no pictures of food!

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