Saturday, August 29, 2009

In Flanders fields the poppies grow

Iepres (Ypres) is a name that lives in the collective memory of Australia.
Like many of the other town names from this corner of Europe where Belgium and France meet, where the battle for a free world was waged just out of the time of our personal memory - but in that of many of our forebears.

You know, it is a pity that we have this history with this town in so many ways. It is a delightful place that goes back to ancient times when it was the heart of a very prosperous linen trade - particularly with early England. In fact, the town is mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales!

It was going to be a hard day - I knew that.
One million dead.
Despite the larger numbers that we have so recently experienced, this one for us is perhaps more horrifying. This is our kith and kin. We lost the hopes and dreams and aspirations of generations as part of this loss by the Commonwealth - fighting for a cause not directly theirs, in a land so far from the comfort of home.

We arrived in Iepres about 11:30 am from Kortrijk. Parking was not a problem - there seems to be plenty of street parking and affordable too. Francis, bless her, finds us one less than a block from the Cloth Market in the street facing in to this impressive building. As we cross the market square, we admire the work of the modern artisan - because as old as this building looks, we know it is a reconstruction as the city of Iepres was almost totally levelled in the dying days of WWI.

We walk through the passage in the centre of the Cloth Market and out the other side to see St Martins Cathedral again standing proudly just beyond. We choose to have a look here first, knowing that if we leave it till later, there will be no time. The original church was built in the 13th century and at the end of that century nearly lost to a fire. Rebuilt, it was reduced to a pile of rubble, a few pillars and parts of the walls, when, like the Cloth Market, this building too was burned to ruins by the Germans in WWI.

Totally rebuilt to the original plans but with a few modifications (spire on tower, changes to entry doors), it is now a cavernous space of stone. Cool but not cold. A little aloof but bearing the scars of the horror of its people honourably and meekly. A memorial covered with paper poppies is the busiest spot in the whole church.

Some of its arts works were saved by a quick thinking dean, but its statues were not so lucky - most have sustained severe damage. All that beauty, destroyed at the hands of a force without thought. This new old church is quietly beautiful. There are stained glass windows in the old style next to very modern ones - and it is a pleasing marriage, neither dominates the other. There are frescoes in porticoes, and tombstones reassembled and laid in a dignified and reserved space that we can only view through glass.

I light a candle and leave a message in their memorial book. Oh God, what loss. What waste.

The Cloth Hall now houses the In Flanders Field Museum and the Visitor Information Centre. It is connected to the City Hall, now again, as it always was. You come in to the museum from the central passage and through one of two identical long courtyards. So the Cloth Hall from the air looks a bit like a squared off figure 8.

Inside the In Flanders Field Museum your senses are accosted in almost every sense of the word. Not just by the descriptions and the photos, nor just by the movies or the stories. But by the sounds of an exploding shell that rings in your ears for minutes after. And by the approaching and then receeding sound of British troops marching gaily to take on Fritz. But mostly it is the personal accounts of the experiences - the snapshots. the poetry, the letter to a loved one. And while the museum has been established to tell of the City's unwitting involvement in the war, it too pays homage to those naive men from all sides who started with such patriotic fervour and who finished broken and forever harmed, often unable to recall their own names in the moments after a shell.

There are signs of the humanity that shone through - like the Christmas truce (for which a Belgian Leiutenant was sent back to the ranks for allowing) on Christmas Eve in 1914 and the unwritten rule that shelling stopped at breakfast and tea time - for some. During the Christmas Truce men from both side left their trenches and they met in no mans land to exchange pleasantries and small tokens of friendship.

Michael has to duck out and feed the meter more euros. Two hours just isn't enough. He isn't gone long though.

And then there was the last exhibit.
I died in hell.
They called it Passchendaele

With a grim warning about the simulation posted at the entrance, I wondered whether I could even keep my emotions, aready at the brink, in check. But how could you not go in - in the safety of sight and sound when so many paid the ultimate price in this horror. You sit in a large room, glass panels in the floor light to reveal the churned mud underfoot. A piece of human body here. A bloodied helmet there, half sunk. There is a post in the centre of the room around which barb wire, rusted, is looped. Then two screens come to life.

Each show different footage and as you struggle to concentrate to keep the plot of each together, you realise that in this battle, there must have been so much happening all the time that the concentration of those poor souls must have been shattered. A yell here, a grenade there, gas wafting across the field, a mate lying dead beside. Its a wonder that any of these men returned capable of anything functional.

The large model under dim light, of the city of Iepres at the end of war in 1918 bears almost no likeness to the medieval three dimensional relief that was on display behind the glass in the cathedral. It is a flattened ruin surrounded by a wasteland that to this day continues to spew out its horrors when freshly dug.
As we are leaving, we are stopped by a young lass who is undertaking a survey. "Do you plan to see any of the other WWI sites in the area?" she asks. "Yes" says Michael. "Which ones?" "All of them." I on the other hand reply - "No, I'm going to Paris - I can't take any more."

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The Larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders' fields.

Major John McCrae 1915

We leave the carnage of WWI to its bed and head back outdoors. I just want to sit in the sun with something nice. I just want to feel human again, not inhuman.
We stop at a local pattiserie where I buy six des petits gâteaux dans la fenêtre s'il vous plaît (six of the small cakes in the window please). These are works of art in their decoration and I am sure that later we will find that they are culinary works of art as well. Boxed and bagged we are ready to go. We were going to try for some lunch (at 4:15pm) but the kitchen at the closest restaurant is closed. Bugger. Back to the car.

Then as we are driving away, we realize that there is another restaurant still serving food - and with a car space outside! We don't want anything heavy and so settle for a Croque Monsieur avec une petite salade (ham and cheese toasted sandwich with a small salad) and a Croque Madame et oeuf sur le plat (ham and cheese toasted sandwich with a fried egg). They were fresh and tasty. And Michael's coffee came not only with the standard small biscuit, but also with a shot glass of the smoothest, lightest chocolate mousse you can imagine - yep, I ate most of that!!!

While we are sitting there watching the passing parade of Iepres, I wonder where the wealth of today is coming from given that the cloth trade never recovered after the blockade of trade route during the 100 years war in the 14th Century. But there is evidence that the City has regained some of its former wealth all around us. From the restaurant prices, to the fashionable clothing outlets and the exclusive boutiques, to the fashion and jewellery of the women walking by and to the high end cars driving through the market square.

Michael goes to have a look at the Menin Gate Memorial while I check out the Belgian confectioner's pralines and buy a box to share with Hels in Paris. Yes, I need some nice things in my life. The shopkeeper assured me that they would keep - "After all, it is not so hot now madame!" Michael has also found someone who has been able to give him directions to Hellfire Corner. Turns out it is just next to the roundabout that we came in to town through. I have a conversation with the rooster and hens of Hell Fire Farm while he goes to reflect and get a photo.

So we leave for today. Michael hopes to return to Iepres in the coming days to further explore the Iepres Sallient and the Yorkshire Trench and Dugout amongst other areas. We head further west and back in to France along the back country roads to an area just outside Béthune where I will get a train from to Paris on Monday.

Tomorrow we head for Fromelles. This is how the Australian War Memorial describes it:
"The worst 24 hours in Australian history occurred 90 years ago at Fromelles. Not the worst in Australian military history, the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history. The Australians suffered 5,533 casualties in one night. The Australian toll at Fromelles was equivalent to the total Australian casualties in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War put together. It was a staggering disaster."

Another day to wear at the emotions.
And then Paris. Hels leaves tomorrow (today her time) and I am so seriously in need of bright, happy and gay company after this weekend! Can't wait.

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