I was in western Belgium in August 2014. What I saw and learnt about the First World War while I was there has stayed with me.
I was in Belgium because I was playing at the Dranouter Festival with Wilful Missing. The rolling green landscape that surrounded the festival site was a very pleasant setting indeed. However, I kept thinking back 100 years to the war that was about to begin, and that would turn fields like these into appalling battlefields.
The day after we played at the festival we had a trip into Ypres. That was a day I will never forget. The festival staff were kind enough to give us a driver called Patriek, who turned out to be a thoroughly nice chap. On the way to Ypres we stopped at two Commonwealth cemeteries. There are over 100 of these cemeteries in the area. The first cemetery we visited, Locre No. 10, had the following inscription at the entrance:
The land on which this cemetery stands is the free gift of the Belgian people for the perpetual resting place of those of the Allied armies who fell in the war of 1914-1918 and are honoured here.
Not everyone buried in cemeteries such as Locre No. 10 had been successfully identified, such as the “five soldiers of the Great War” buried beneath the gravestone in this photo:
While cemeteries such as these offer a sobering reminder of the human cost of a war that took place 100 years ago, that war still affects the daily lives of Belgians living in the area today. Patriek told us that local farmers still refer to the “iron harvest “. They still occasionally find remnants of weaponry in the fields, and it isn’t all that many years since the last fatality due to a previously unexploded bomb.
In Ypres I spent a couple of hours at the In Flanders Fields Museum. I could easily have stayed the whole day. The exhibition had the effect of humanising the tragedy of the First World War. More than 600,000 people were killed in the battlefields of the West Flanders region. When you read that, it is just a number. A big number, but still just a number. But every single one of those 600,000 lives was as important as mine is and as important as yours is. Seeing artefacts such as these sketches and the diary left by German soldier Rudolf Lange really brought home how every single victim of war has a story:
Our next stop in Ypres was the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing.
This vast arch has the following inscription over one of its entrances:
Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres salient but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death
The 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers whose names are inscribed in this memorial are only those who died in this region, and whose bodies have never been identified or found.
Just being there, and seeing all those names of people who died anonymously was moving enough. But what really puts a lump in my throat is this: every evening at 8pm the road underneath Menin Gate is closed temporarily while The Last Post is played by the local fire brigade. This ceremony has happened every evening since July 1928, with an enforced break during German occupation in the Second World War. That’s more than 30,000 times and still counting. That really is quite remarkable.
It has taken me nearly five months to find the time to write about this. But my feelings about it have not diminished during that time. This is not the first time that I have felt so moved while learning about an atrocity from the past. I felt similarly when I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia in 2002. I can still remember how I felt as I stood transfixed by this photo, wondering about the main subject’s story:
I feel that so long as we remember, and so long as we have the capacity to feel compassion, as the people of Ypres have shown, there is hope for a future with less suffering.
As a footnote, it is only recently while browsing in Jumbo Records that I learnt what the music is that accompanies the exhibition at the In Flanders Fields Museum. It turns out it was written and recorded by Tindersticks, who happened to be one of my favourite bands. I’ve been listening to it while I write this.