In the fields of poppies
Flanders is the focus of war centenary commemorations
Looking for help to scrape together a couple of euros to buy a round of beers in the Flanders city of Ypres, our guide Simon Louagie obliges before hesitating. “Never ask a Belgian if they have any shrapnel in their pocket,” he jokes, before pulling out coins from his jacket, and actual shrapnel. One hundred years after some of the bloodiest battles of World War I, where half a million soldiers lost their lives for just 8km of territory gained, the locals in this Belgian city are still reminded of it daily. And there’s no need for a metal detector — walk anywhere on the fertile farmlands where cows graze and munitions can be found, some shells still unexploded and deadly.
This year marks the centenary of when most of Belgium was occupied by the Germans, and Simon is taking us to sites around the city of Ypres to tell us personal stories of “the war to end all wars’’. These are tales of love and lives lost, but also how soldiers dished up drollery in the face of death.
We’re sampling the beer at the Kazematten brewery where Simon points out an old printing press. It was in this building, located within the ancient walls that surround Ypres, that British army officer Captain Fred Roberts edited satirical wartime paper the Wipers Times (unable to pronounce Ypres, the Brits gave it the name Wipers). The captain had a way with words. In his diaries he described his first romantic encounter with “a lady not from this world’’ aboard a ship bound for Gibraltar; “amongst heaps of billowing lingerie I lost my shyness”. Led by Roberts, a few British soldiers decided to make the war experience more tolerable by producing a gazette for those in the trenches. Think Monty Python-style irreverent humour where a weather report might state, “Morning — sunny; Afternoon — rain; Evening — gas”.
On a tour of the brewery, we watch a film about the paper, then take a taste test of the beer named after the Wipers Times, a blond brew flavoured with the seed of the medicinal Saint Mary’s Thistle. This “blessed thistle’’ was also on the front page of the newspaper. It’s so good, a couple of us buy bottles to take home, a commemorative glass and a bound copy of the complete Wipers Times periodicals. Outside, giant poppies bloom.
This year, the city of Ypres and surrounds is reflecting on the centenary with a number of events and ceremonies. July 31 marks 100 years since the start of the battle of Passchendaele, which began as a campaign to force a breakthrough in the front. Within three months, more than 38,000 Australians were killed, wounded or missing. October 1917 is still the worst month in terms of loss of life in any war for both Australia and New Zealand. As part of the commemoration, a recently discovered preserved dugout built by the Allies under a church in Zonnebeke will be opened, reportedly by Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. For safety reasons, only up to 50,000 people can visit and after November 10 the Zonnebeke Church Dugout will be permanently closed.
Nearby, at the excellent Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, we walk through rooms full of the uniforms of soldiers and nurses, and see displays of trench art made by servicemen to pass the time while on the frontline. Shells and bullets are intricately fashioned into vases, jugs and pots. A few flights down is a claustrophobe’s nightmare. The Dugout Experience is a recreation (without the rats, lice or mud) of how soldiers lived, fought and died in the damp, dank underground. There are examples of both Allied and German trenches.
At Hill 60, an outdoor museum, we see where a mine has blown a huge crater. An Australian couple is being photographed on its grassed lip. Here, there’s a commemorative column in honour of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company as well as a bunker built by Australian troops. Silence falls as we contemplate the scale of death while walking by rows of white tombstones, many with identities “known unto God”, at the Polygon Wood and Tyne Cot cemeteries; the latter is Europe’s largest military burial ground. They are perfectly maintained places and by each grave flowers, including poppies, bloom. Flanked by giant pines, Polygon Wood is the site of the annual Anzac Day Dawn Ceremony in Belgium, and will be the venue for the Centenary Anniversary Commemoration for Australia for the Battle of Passchendaele on September 26.
It’s here among the manicured memorials that you’re likely to run into other Australian visitors, some actively seeking out the graves of relatives, others paying tribute to soldiers unknown, all taking time to reflect. At Tyne
Polygon Wood Cemetery, main; trench in Flanders countryside, above