Oct 26, 2009

In Flanders' Fields

Resilience & Remembrance
By Kimberley Lovato

If you haven't visited the town of Ypres (Iepers) in Flanders, you should. At least once. And with Remembrance Day (Armistice Day, Veterans Day) just around the corner on 11 November, why not now? It's only a little over an hour's drive from Brussels, or about the same train ride. I went this weekend and took my daughter who hopefully will never know the ugliness of war. But it's important not to forget the sacrifices made by soldiers past and present, as well as take the opportunity to appreciate the history that is in our own back yard.

Ypres occupied a strategic position during World War I because it stood in the path of Germany's planned sweep across Belgium and into France from the north. The neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed by Britain, and Germany's invasion of Belgium brought the British Empire into the war. Ypres these days is called the "city of peace" and maintains a close friendship with another town on which war had a profound impact: Hiroshima. Though oceans and decades apart, both cities witnessed warfare at its worst: Ypres was one of the first places where chemical warfare was used, while Hiroshima suffered after the debut of the atomic bomb. The city governments of Ypres and Hiroshima advocate for cities never to be targets again and campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, a triumphal arch and gateway into the city center, commemorates those soldiers of the British Commonwealth who fell in the Ypres Salient during the First World War, before 16 August 1917, and who have no known grave. From October 1914, British and Commonwealth troops began to march East through the Menin gateway from the city of Ypres onto the Menin Road and into the battlefields. It's a fitting location for this memorial gate under which over 58,000 names of soldiers, who never returned and were never found, are etched in stone.

Most touching is the 8 p.m. Last Post. Bring tissues because you'll ball like a baby. Every evening since 1928, at precisely 8pm, traffic around the Menin Gate Memorial is stopped while the Last Post is sounded by buglers from the local fire brigade. The ceremony was prohibited by occupying German forces during WWII, but it was resumed on the very day of liberation — 6 September 1944.

Tours of surrounding battlefields are offered in town, as well as to nearby cemeteries. www.Overthetoptours.be

Why the poppy?

Flanders is the name of the whole western part of Belgium and it saw some of the fiercest fighting in WWI. The area was completely devastated, razed beyond recognition. Buildings, roads, trees, and natural life simply vanished, leaving only muddy terrain, the graves of men, and the living men who fought there. Only one other living thing survived: The poppy. Poppies flower in uprooted and disturbed soil. Disturbed is an understatement. A Canadian doctor, John McCrae, wrote the now famous poem In Flanders' Fields, about the poppies.

I can only imagine he was inspired by the beauty of these delicate flowers, brave like the soldiers who dared to stand where others had died. The poppies, blood-red, are so symbolic to me of the life lost here. But most astonishing, however, is the resilience of these blooms to grow anew in such horrific surroundings. Is there anything that could symbolize hope more than these flowers? It's fitting then that the poppy became the symbol the world over of soldiers who have died in battle, of remembering their sacrifice, and of hope.

Today, a poppy is worn in remembrance for two weeks before 11 November, or sometimes, for the whole month of November.

I bought a few pins and will wear them proudly and with great appreciation for those who have died in battles around the world. And equally as important, in thanks to all those soldiers at war today. I hope you come home soon.

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