For those of a certain age — and we know who we are — we remember memorizing the poem, Flanders Field, in elementary school that teachers taught us around Remembrance Day, now known as Memorial Day
The poet was written by Lt. Colonel and Dr. John McCrea, a Canadian doctor sent to the front lines in Flanders, Belgium, during the Great War to administer to wounded and dying young men from France, Belgium, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India. Dr. McCrea penned Flanders Field in May, 1915, as an elegy after witnessing the death of a close friend, Lt. Alex Helmer, age 22.
Battle Fields of Flanders
The poem has a deeper, more haunting meaning after we took an all day tour of battle fields in Flanders where nine million died in the carnage of 1914 – 1918 during World War I, or the Great War , as it is more often called in Europe.
Flanders is a pastoral setting, where cattle and sheep graze in green pastures, fields of grain wave in the breeze, and tall trees line the roads and shelters around modern farmhouses. Flanders has an almost post card atmosphere and one can imagine how peaceful life is there today. But not during the Great War when fields were blasted by artillery and gunfire, farm houses and barns blown up, and forests destroyed by constant bombing. Every sign of life was obliterated — except for poppies that grew in the spring from the muddy soil.
On the hour drive from Brugge, our guide gave us background on the political dynamics of late 19th and early 20th century when monarchies still reigned in Austria, Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman empire. These monarchies were tottering institutions that claimed their God-given right to rule with little involvement from pesky parliaments, unruly voters, or demonstrators seeking safe work places, unemployment and health benefits, and the right to vote.
These monarchies had aligned themselves with alliances that were largely defensive to keep rival nations at odds. Their armies were prepared to mobilize and go to war to defend these alliances negotiated without the involvement of parliaments or popular vote.
The alliances united France, Russia, and England in the Triple Entente against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia, later joined by Turkey and Romania. When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo June 28, 1914 by a Serbian nationalist, the house of cards crumbled. France, Germany, and Russia mobilize the armies and prepared for war to defend their alliances.
A million Russian peasants were called from farms and mobilized into a poorly trained and equipped army that was incompetently led. The Russian peasant army marched east toward east Prussia in August and were cut down by German machine guns in swamps at the Battle of Tannenberg. The slaughter was the subject of a history by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in “August 1914,” largely an indictment of the corrupt Romanov dynasty and their weak General Staff led by General Samsonov.
But that’s another story . .
Germany’s strategy was designed at the beginning of the 20th century by General Alfred Von Schlieffen. The Schlieffen plan called for German troops to sweep through Belgium and invade France in 39 days. With this quick assault and the anticipated surrender of France, Germany would not be confronted with a protracted two front war with France on the west and Russia on the est.
But war plans are often deeply flawed by the egos and braggadocio of generals, the vagaries of war, the resilience of invaded nations, and the tendency to fight current wars with the model of the previous war, in this case, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, when armies wore bright uniforms, and troops rode into battle in cavalry charges brandishing swords.
But with the French stalwart defense at the Battle of the Marne and the speedy Russian mobilization and invasion of east Prussia, Germany was forced to move troops from the western front across Germany on rail cars to Russia. This decision left them with a two front war that lasted until 1917 when the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and withdrew from the war.
As a result, the war on the western front bogged down into a four-year slog in muddy trenches and across bloody ‘no man’s land’ in wet clay soil, principally in southwestern Belgium and northeastern France.
Ypres and Passchendaele
Most of the bloodiest fighting in Belgium took place near two small towns in Flanders, Ypres and Passchendale where we visited. The distance between the two towns was less than thirty miles. The battle front shifted a few miles each year, with heavy casualties on both sides. By 1915, once rich Belgium farmland and forests were blown up by million of rounds or artillery and mortar barrages. The landscape was barren with craters filled with bloody and muddy water, ugly stretches of barbed wire, spent artillery shells, and bombed out bunkers.
Soldiers on all sides lived in trenches dug into wet clay soil that filled with water, and infested with rats, vermin, and filth. Diseases were wide-spread and many died of infections. Those healthy enough to climb over the trenches and attack the enemy across barbed wired fields faced almost certain death from machine guns, deadly mustard and phosgene gas, artillery and mortar fire. Thousands died on the battlefield, their bodies never recovered.
It was a terrible war. Senseless and brutal.
Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the history and battlegrounds in Flanders. He drove down country roads, pointing out movements of troops, strategies, battlefields, monuments, and cemeteries. This riveting history lesson was made more vivid when we stopped by one farmhouse where two artillery rounds were laying by a fence post. The explosives were left by the roadside by a farmer who had recently uncovered them plowing a field. Our guide said that farmers even today — almost a hundred years after the Great War — uncover bombs, grenades, rifles, and other relics. Belgian bomb disposal units routinely visit rural areas to pick up undetonated armaments found in farm fields.
At another farmhouse, we viewed a cache of shells, grenades, unexploded bombs, artillery shells, and rifles dug up by a local farmer. A few of us picked up the rusted weapons, turning them over, feeling their hefty weight, imagined how they came to be buried in fields so long ago. It was chilling holding the rusted weapons, deadly artifacts of a bloody and tragic war.
Tyne Cot Cemetery
We spent more than an hour at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British cemetery in the Commonwealth. It is on a small rise looking over the rural countryside, but a strategic military vantage point that changed hands several times during the war. German troops built heavily fortified bunkers on the site for machine guns and artillery. To British troops who attacked the site, the bunkers looked like Tyneside cottages, earning it the name, Tyne Cot. When Australian and New Zealand forces took over the bunker in 1917, they began a small cemetery for fallen comrades. The site was retaken by German troops, but recaptured by Belgian troops in the final stages of the war.
The Tyne Cot cemetery is a sacred site for the British; Belgium deeded it to Britain which maintains the cemetery. Buried there are several soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military award in the Commonwealth.
A curved white marble wall at the entrance to Tyne Cot cemetery includes the names of more than 33,000 British soldiers whose bodies were never recovered. It was chilling, walking down rows of white marble gravestones with the names, ranks, regiments, and dates of birth and death. More chilling was seeing how many gravestones were simply inscribed: ‘A Casualty of the Great War.’ The fallen included troops principally from Britain, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.
Another site we visited was Hill 66, where German troops commanded the high ground for most of the war. The site was virtually impossible to attack so Allied forces dug underground tunnels more than a thousand feet long and deposited tons of high explosives under the hill. When large numbers of German troops occupied the hill, the buried bombs were blown up, sending bloody bodies, limbs, weapons, dirt, mud, and debris flying over the landscape.
Hill 66 is a lumpy patch of high ground in a wooded area where craters mark where bombs were detonated. Other lumpy areas contain buried bodies, bombs, and equipment considered too dangerous to excavate.
Neat Ypres, we stopped at an industrial park where new warehouses, offices, and buildings had recently been built. When the site was under construction, evidence of British wartime trenches were uncovered. Archeologists began excavating and found remains of buried British soldiers, weapons, and an elaborate tunnel network from the war.
The site has been restored with interpretive displays and planks above ground showing the layouts of the tunnels thirty feet underground. The actual tunnels have flooded, but one can walk the wooden ‘duckboards’, peer out with periscope like devices used to survey the battlefield, run your hands over wooden supports poking out of muddy walls, and crawl down to see the dark, oily water that fills the trenches. A guide at the site gave me a bullet that had been fired from a British Enfield rifle and found a hundred yards from the tunnels. The bullet is the size and shape of a pencil point, about an inch long, made of brass, and still bearing grove marks at the end.
I was given another memento of our tour. Our guide carried a plastic bucket that rattled beneath his seat as we were driving. When we stopped at one site, he held it up and asked if anyone wanted battlefield souvenirs. The bucket held a couple hundred pieces of shrapnel, the size and shape of small grapes, made of steel. He poured a dozen in my hand, and I was amazed at their weight. They still felt dangerous, round, hard, and black from rust. The shrapnel was carried in artillery shells that exploded over the battlefield, showering hot steel pellets that would penetrate uniforms and soft skin
Touring Flanders Field was a haunting experience. Every day since, whether enjoying a meal, taking a shower, or just talking with my wife, I carry the memory of World War I soldiers who struggled to survive in filthy trenches, wearing heavy, wet woolen uniforms, exhausted from too little sleep, exposure to rain, snow, and freezing temperatures, and the constant terror of artillery, machine guns, poison gas, and grenades.
I read about the Great War in graduate school at Georgetown. The more I read, the more appalled I became at the foolishness and idiocy of the governments and military commanders. Millions of young men were machine-gunned, bayoneted, blown up, gassed, drown in filthy craters, and buried in mud. Tens of thousands of German, French, Belgian, British soldiers are still buried in Flanders. Their families never learned the final resting place of their lost sons, brothers, and fathers — an entire generation that couldn’t be replaced.
Resources: Flanders Field Museum
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Next destination: Wales
In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
My first thriller, Thirteen Days in Milan, is an ebook at all digital publishing sites as well as a paperback at Amazon and at bookstores by ordering.
The sequel, No One Sleeps, was published as an ebook in December. The paperback will be available in June at Amazon and at bookstores by ordering.
I’m writing Book 3 in the series, Cadorna Station, and will be researching this summer in Italy. If you’d like to follow my travels and research, sign up for my email newsletter at my web site.
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