Cot, a woman visiting from Brisbane pulls out her ukulele and, while standing by a Queensland digger’s grave, plaintively sings And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, a poignant musical tribute from the other side of the world.
Back in Ypres, on a walking tour with expert Martial Masschelein, we learn of the annihilation during World War I; only an archway of a cathedral and the ramparts remained. A major player in the cloth trade during the Middle Ages, the city was painstakingly reconstructed brick by brick after the war, including the giant gothic Cloth Hall that now houses the In Flanders Fields Museum, which commemorates ordinary people.
Here, testimonies from individuals tell stories of the Great War through interactive displays, including giant pictures by Australian photographer and adventurer Frank Hurley. It gives us an insight into the people who lived and died in these places, and that in Ypres, history, and its connection to the living culture, is a pervasive part of the landscape.
Back under the ramparts, we’re experiencing a handson way to pay tribute to those who lost their lives here by making one of 600,000 clay sculptures for a giant art installation. The Coming World Remember Me Project plans to make a sculpture for each of the fallen and runs until next year. The completed installation will be placed in no man’s land on the frontline around Ypres.
Come early evening and the city really stirs. British schoolchildren on overnight excursions fill souvenir shops, Belgian chocolate shops and ice-cream parlours. Every table at beer gardens and al fresco cafes is occupied. The Ariane Hotel in Ypres is within walking distance of the Menin Gate and Cloth Hall; there is also a small war museum on site, which includes a giant Lego version of the Gate. From about €124 ($184) a double. More: ariane.be/en. Emirates flies to Brussels from its Australian ports via Dubai. Ypres is a 90minute drive from Brussels. More: emirates.com. • visitflanders.com • kazematten.be • flandersfields1418.com • passchendaele2017.org • inflandersfields.be • cwrm.be • toerismeieper.be/en All are waiting for the nightly Last Post tribute that has taken place in Ypres since 1928 at the Menin Gate where the names of 54,900 soldiers from Britain and Commonwealth countries who were never identified are etched into the wall.
Walking through the gate to get a vantage point, we see a familiar sight. Taking pride of place are the giant stone guardian lions that were given by Belgium to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 1936, “In assurance of a friendship that will not be forgotten even when the last digger has gone west and the last grave is crumble.” They are back in Ypres, on loan for the centenary.
Come 8pm and the crowd of about 500 bow their heads to remember the dead. The assembled military salute and relatives and schoolchildren lay wreaths. The buglers clear their throats and sound the Last Post, the echoes bounce off the Menin Gate arch and into the Ypres night. And then there’s utter silence.
Andrea Black was a guest of Visit Flanders.