Belgium; a country of chocolate, waffles, fries and beer. But more than its famous junk food, it is a country rich in Australian war history.
Seven or so years of school history, I thought I had an okay understanding of World War I history… that was until I visited Flanders Fields in northern Belgium.
I was lucky enough to spend two days touring around Zonnebeke and Ypres(Ieper), standing on the exact sites of the battlefields, listening to stories of civilians and soldiers, understanding how the battles were fought, and only scratching the surface of the enormity of death and devastation.
Starting in Ypres, a medieval town that was completely destroyed by the war, so close to the battlefront, it had been shelled until there was nothing left but rubble. The town has risen and been reconstructed, dusting itself off and starting again.
Whether it’s part of your family history or not, a visit to Flanders Fields is a powerfully moving and incredibly eye-opening experience. An experience I would recommend to any Australian, or anyone for that matter, here are the places very worth the visit:
In Flanders Fields Museum
An award-winning museum, it does not set out to glorify war, but to suggest its futility. A beautifully curated and respectful war museum, housed in the reconstructed former Cloth Hall, it tells the entire war story and how it started. It deals with the consequences of war particularly for the Flanders region, and focuses on the stories of individuals, really connecting you to the devastating evens of 1914-1918. With animated maps, videos and interactive displays, it is the perfect place to start your battlefield tour.
Toronto Avenue Cemetery
There is a stillness to Ploegsteert Wood that only hints at the resting souls amongst its trees. One of three cemetery’s hidden amongst the woods, Toronto Avenue is the only all-Australian cemetery in Belgium. Holding 78 graves, standing in 3 rows, this little group of Australians is almost hidden at the edge of the forest.
An extremely emotional and solitary experience, it was hauntingly beautiful to be alone in the cemetery walking amongst the Australian gravestones with only the sound of the wind through the trees.
What Ypres is most famous for is The Last Post Ceremony under the Menin Gate. At 8pm every night, the road leading into the city is closed and people gather to pay their respects, with some laying wreaths of poppies in remembrance of fallen ancestors.
Memorial Museum Passchendaele
This museum tells the story of the war in the Ypres Salient, particularly the Battle of Passchendaele 1917 – one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. With over half a million casualties for a gain of only 8 kilometers of ground, attention is paid to uniforms, battlefield archeology and artillery.
Dugout Experience (outside the Memorial Museum)
The impressive reconstruction of deep dugouts from the fighting on this battlefield gives a scarily accurate experience of the war trenches. Using the same materials and methods of construction as the real dugouts, you get a life-like replication of what life in the trenches would have been like.
A cemetery and memorial to the missing, Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, and of any war. Here rest 11,953 men, of which 8,369 are unnamed. The overwhelming amount of gravestones is beautifully and solemnly chilling.
The way into the memorial lies along a narrow grass path bounded by a rubble wall. This is Australian land, acquired by the Fifth Division after the war. A stone obelisk sits atop a tall bank known as the “Butte”, approached by a steep set of stairs. The view from the Butte is quite breathtaking. The neat rows of headstones count 2,103 of which only 428 are identified by name. A memorial to the Fifth Australian Division, Polygon Wood holds an air of earthly and solemn respect, the regrowth of the forest masking the devastation and death of 100 years before.
Where to stay: Bed In Boat
When I heard boat accommodation, I was more than a little apprehensive. But this is no ordinary boat; in fact it’s a very large barge!! The former flour barge has been converted into luxury accommodation, with 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, lounge, kitchen, dining area and a beautiful top-deck terrace.
Where to eat: de Fonderie
All that war touring definitely builds an appetite, and the best place to satiate your hunger is deFonderie. In an old brewery site, the brasserie has a lofty industrial feel, serving hearty and rustic fare.
History buff or history bluff, a trip to Flanders Fields should be a bucket list item. To walk through the countless cemeteries scattered across the countryside, and to sit amongst the graves of all the fallen immerses you in the history and the stories of the war. I felt a profound respect for those who fought and fell. A respect and understanding that is easily detached from on the other side of the world, decades later.