There are almost 12,000 headstones — white as snow, perfectly maintained — in the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Passchendaele, Belgium. The cemetery’s white marble walls bear the names of an additional 35,000 Allied soldiers, all missing in the Great War, the centennial of which will be marked starting in July. Their remains are still unfound.
Tyne Cot is the largest World War I cemetery of the Commonwealth Nations. It is a heartbreaking memorial, and it is, most of all, a powerful testament to the folly of war. So many young lives lost. A whole generation scarred by war.
Not far away is the much smaller but equally moving Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial, near the small town of Waregem, Belgium. The American cemetery is marked with 368 identical white Carrera marble crosses, with here and there an occasional Star of David. An additional 43 names are recorded on the Walls of the Missing.
At 6.2 acres, Flanders Field is the smallest of the eight American World War I cemeteries in Europe, in large part because many of the American fallen were repatriated, if their families so chose. The other American World War I cemeteries include six in France and one in England.
The Flanders Field cemetery today is a lovely, green and peaceful resting place, shaded by linden trees. In fact, if a tree dies it is immediately replaced by an identical tree. The cemetery, however, actually stands on land where terrible fighting took place in in 1915. The Canadian poet Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields after seeing a close friend die in action there.
Twelve years later, Charles Lindbergh flew over the battlefield, tossing poppies from the plane to honor the fallen. Even today, some 3,000 people visit the cemetery every year to remember the dead. On Memorial Day, the U.S. Ambassador, a representative of the King of Belgium and other luminaries gather, along with local schoolchildren, to honor the fallen and to sing The Star-Spangled Banner.
This year cemeteries and museums throughout Belgium — and elsewhere — are holding special events to commemorate World War I, which officially began on July 28, 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
For years, American and Canadian school children memorized the poem In Flanders Fields. In fact, the poem is so well known that its text is engraved on the lobby wall of the Novotel in Ypres, Belgium. Guests checking in can frequently be heard reciting the poem that they learned in elementary school.
While the landscape of Flanders is dotted with World War I cemeteries, many graves of the fallen are yet to be discovered. Several years ago, a mass grave containing bodies of many Australian soldiers killed in action was found. Perhaps the good news is that many of the soldiers could be identified through DNA testing.
Not all of the World War I victims perished in battle. Many soldiers whose remains rest in the cemeteries of Flanders succumbed to illness, as they passed their days and nights in the cold, damp trenches that virtually defined life on the front.
Today, every one of the military cemeteries along the Western Front in Flanders is beautifully groomed, well-managed, and treated with utmost care and respect. It would take many days to explore all of them.
At the Flanders Field American Cemetery, visiting family members are escorted to the grave by the American resident manager. A white stone chapel stands in the center of the meticulously groomed landscape. Every one of the white headstones is carefully washed every single morning.
Each of the World War I graveyards has its own beauty. Some even have small museums, displaying artifacts of war found in the area. However, there are other ways to experience the history of World War I in Flanders.
The medieval city of Ypres, at the center of the action during the war, was utterly flattened in 1915 by the Germans. Thankfully, the city has been totally, and authentically, rebuilt. A lucrative cloth trade had flourished in Ypres since A.D. 1200. The city’s 600-year-old Cloth Hall was destroyed in the war but now looks as proudly and accurately medieval as ever.
The Cloth Hall houses the immensely popular In Flanders Fields Museum. The structure is a classic restoration. The exhibit space is as modern as tomorrow, packed with interactive teaching devices and lively displays, including a remarkable reconstruction of what the World War I trenches looked like and how the soldiers passed their days and survived in them.
The museum pulls visitors into the powerful story of World War I on the Western front from the moment that they enter. Upon entry, each visitor receives a “personal poppy” bracelet that lets each guest experience the story of a real person who participated in the events of war. As they progress through the museum, they gain more information about their “person,” until, at the end of their journey, they learn about their individual’s outcome.
Visitors can also read pages of soldiers’ diaries, look at art created during the worst days of the war, view a variety of uniforms, and see a fascinating reconstruction of trenches of that time. Through films, relief maps and black-and-white photographs, the museum tells the story of flame throwers that sprayed fire into the trenches, of periscopes used to see over the trenches, and of the incredible bravery and determination displayed by the soldiers. A special exhibit about Medical Care in World War II will continue through June 30.
For a small additional charge, it is possible to climb the reconstructed bell tower to gain a superb overview of the “new” Ypres and the surrounding countryside — a near-perfect replica of what was there before the war.
For many visitors to Flanders, one of the most moving events of their visit comes every night at 8 p.m. at the city’s Menin Gate, part of ramparts built in the 12th century and that still surround 75 percent of Ypres.
People come to hear buglers play Last Post under the arch of the handsomely restored town gate. It has been played there every night, without fail, for the past 85 years (except during World War II, when the Germans barred it from taking place), reverberating under the enormous arch, where the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers — all victims of World War I — are displayed.
On many nights, visitors who are relatives of someone who was lost to the “War to End All Wars” arrive with red poppy wreathes, which they tenderly place on the monument. Poppies, after all, grow well in terrible soil, in severe conditions. They are then an apt symbol for endurance and triumph in this small corner of Europe, where so much carnage occurred, and yet where freedom triumphedfor the Allied forces.
As for the author of the poem In Flanders Fields, McCrae, a military doctor, died of a cerebral hemorrhage during a very severe bout of pneumonia while still serving in France in 1918. He was never to know about the hordes of school children who would memorize his poem, who would learn from it, and who, perhaps, would gain from it a sense of the powerful imperative to maintain peace.