In Flanders’ Fields

On Monday morning (7th July), in fresh showery sunshine, we headed inland to the towns and fields of French Flanders.  As we drove out of Dunkerque we stopped at the main cemetery in the town, to visit the ‘British Memorial’, This commemorates the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Forces who fell in the campaign of 1939 to 1940.

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Lining each side of the central avenue are columns bearing the names of the 4528 British Army and 6 Indian Army soldiers who rest in unmarked graves.  Next to this memorial are the graves of 810 soldiers from both World Wars, the majority of whom fell defending the perimeter of Dunkerque or during the evacuation operations in May-June 1940.

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The town cemetery also contains the graves of both French and Belgian soldiers who fell in both World Wars.

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After a brief lunch stop near the walled town of Bergues, we headed to the pretty town of Esquelbecq.

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Just as you leave the town, you take a right down a small road between fields to ‘La Plaine au Bois’.

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Here on 28th May 1940, over 90 British soldiers defending the strategic crossroads at the nearby town of Wormhout, were attacked and taken prisoner by German forces and were forced to stand shoulder to shoulder in a small barn.  A few hours later, in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention, members of the SS Adolf Hitler division (the Führer’s personal guard) threw hand grenades into the barn and then continued the massacre with machineguns! Only 12 survived and were later discovered by the local farmer’s daughters.

DSC01135The site has become a place of remembrance and an exact replica of the barn was built along with planting 80 commemorative beech trees.

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As we drove through the fields to our night stop in Hondschoote, we saw a variety crops being grown: – potatoes, corn, wheat, turnip and flax.  Unfortunately we were just too late to see the fields cover in blue flax flowers. Our wander through the fields also produced bounty for our dinner table; wild potatoes and a very tasty horse mushroom – Yum!

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Flemish Architechture - Hondschoote Town Hall. Spot the 'bottle arches'

Flemish Architecture – Hondschoote Town Hall. Spot the ‘bottle arches’

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The next morning we crossed the border into Flemish Flanders, to find that our Garmin Sat Nav seemed to think Belgium didn’t exist! Fortunately we were able use our laptop and good old Autoroute to reach our destination; Diksmuide, Belgium.

The town of Diksmuide is dominated by the monstrous and oppressive looking 84m high IJzer Tower. Built by Flemish nationals it bears the letters AVV, VVK; “Alles voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen voor Kristus”.

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The tower contains the Museum of the IJzer, it costs 8 euros each for adults, but was very informative and interesting, we spent four hours there! When you first enter the museum, you’re whisked up 22 floors in a lift for fabulous views of Diksmuide and the Flanders fields.

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Then by taking the steps back down you’re taken through all aspects of the First World War;

Life in the trenches:

As the Germans surround the Allies, the Belgians stop their advance by opening the locks and floodgates at Nieuwpoort

As the Germans surround the Allies, the Belgians stop their advance by opening the locks and floodgates at Nieuwpoort

 

"The mud, the horrible mud, the worst thing in the world, in which crawls an army..."

“The mud, the horrible mud, the worst thing in the world, in which crawls an army…”

Life continues in the trenches for almost THREE YEARS of ‘stalemate’:

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Comeradery - All the trenches were inches deep in water. Clearing out the rats was a constant task.

Comradery – All the trenches were inches deep in water. Clearing out the rats was a constant task.

There's even time for art - working on the spent shell cases!

There’s even time for art – working on the spent shell cases!

Life of civilians in both occupied and unoccupied Belgium:

Refugees from Holland and Belgium fleeing to unoccupied territory.

Refugees from Holland and Belgium fleeing to unoccupied territory.

What would you take?

What would you take?

The ‘Propaganda Machine’:

Belgian Resistance paper ..perhaps they wished they had. Opening the floodgates was more efficient!

Belgian Resistance paper ..perhaps they wished they had. Opening the floodgates was more efficient!

Cartoon in British paper. The Vlaamshe Stem (Flemish Voice), a Flemish paper, was bought by the Germans, whereupon the whole staff resigned, as it no longer represented its title!

Cartoon in British paper.
The Vlaamshe Stem (Flemish Voice), a Flemish paper, was bought by the Germans, whereupon the whole staff resigned, as it no longer represented its title!

The current exhibition runs from 2014 to 2018, well worth a detour.

 

Just up the river from the tower are what were once called the Trenches of Death. Although very sanitized now, this 400m length gives you some sense of the scale and size these trenches which formed the 400km of the Western Front.

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Flanders Fields

4 thoughts on “In Flanders’ Fields

  1. Julian Chappell

    My grandfather was in the first world war – just. He was born on Christmas day 1899, so he would have been too young at 14 when the war started but joined up near the end. Like so many of those caught up in these horrendous conflicts he rarely talked about it, but on those occasions that he did it seems that atrocities such as those in ‘the barn’ were not uncommon. It must have been really traumatic for the farmer’s daughters to come across such a scene.

    The resilience of mankind never ceases to amaze me. Those soldiers living in such appalling conditions with the knowledge that they will inevitably be called upon to suicidally charge across open ground into the face of machine guns – and they are laughing and joking!

    Reply

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