In the fields of pop­pies

Flan­ders is the fo­cus of war cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - AN­DREA BLACK

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

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