After 10 days in Courseulles sur mer, we drove east towards Belgium, spending time in some WWI battlefield areas. We stayed in Ypres so we could attend the sunset ceremony at the Menin Gate. We had a wonderful hotel room, quite posh, located in the center of Ypres.
To explain a bit about the Menin Gate and why it is so significant – “Menin Gate (Menenpoort) is an impressive gateway in Ypres, Belgium which commemorates those British and Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in action in Belgium during World War One.” We took the time to walked about the gate and read the many names, focussing on Canadian soldiers. It is staggering to think these are the names of the missing British and Commonwealth soldiers only (it does not include those who are buried in the surrounding areas) and yet those names number 54,896. Every night, at sunset, a ceremony is held which includes the Last Post. People come from other countries to attend the ceremony but also represent different regiments such as those we met from England.
“At 8 p.m. every evening, volunteer buglers from the fire brigade assemble under the Menin Gate to sound the “Last Post” in tribute of those who fell, so the city may live. Since the first ceremony on the 3rd of July, 1928, the only time the ceremony was not held was during German occupation in World War Two, when the ceremony was temporarily moved to Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, England. In fact, the very evening the city was liberated, despite heavy fighting still occurring in other parts of the city, the ceremony was brought back to its proper place.” (https://www.historyhit.com/locations/menin-gate/)
The next day, we made sure to visit the local museum located in the completely rebuilt town center. That building had been reduced to rubble during WWI but the townsfolk convinced the authorities to rebuild it to its original grandeur. The pictures don’t begin to convey the detail of the exterior. The museum housed inside described the events leading up to WWI from a Belgian point of view. It was a very intense experience that brought home, over and over again, just how little the soldiers’ lives were valued and the magnitude of the death toll.
We continued our drive in the Belgian countryside, stopping at some of the important memorials (when we could find them without our GPS). Two notable stops were the bunker where John McCrae operated from. You’ll know him as the author of the poem In Flanders Fields. The other notable memorial we found was the Brooding Soldier. It is part of a series of memorials honouring Canadian soldiers. It includes the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, which we unfortunately missed the turnoff for.
The St. Julien Memorial, also known as The Brooding Soldier, is a Canadian war memorial and small commemorative park located in the village of Saint-Julien, Langemark (West Flemish: Sint-Juliaan), Belgium. The memorial commemorates the Canadian First Division‘s participation in the Second Battle of Ypres of World War I which included fighting in the face of the first poison gas attacks along the Western Front. The memorial was designed by Frederick Chapman Clemesha and was selected following a design competition organized by the Canadian Battlefield Monument Commission in 1920. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Julien_Memor%5Dial)
The countryside in these areas, including further west in France in places like Arras (near Vimy Ridge), is so pock-marked from artillery shells, that you can’t forget the fighting that went on here for 4 years, over a century ago. Every road seems to lead to a monument, a memorial, a plaque or a cemetery. It got to be quite heavy after a while and I was happy to move back into France as our car rental was almost over and we would be moving to the next phase of our trip – the sun-bleached south of France!
We did visit The Vimy Ridge Memorial once more and stayed overnight in Arras where we walked through the lovely old city centre (much of it rebuilt after being destroyed in WWI). We enjoyed a wonderful dinner outdoors while listening to an impromptu concert from what seemed to be a rehearsal studio in one of the many apartments in the town centre buildings.