Dale goes to Belgium (aka: War is bad)

26 September 2011

I’m writing this blog entry on the train back from Brussels.

I feel that it is important to note that because it’s a stark improvement on previous locations. If I noted the various locations where blogposts have been written I would probably look like some kind of freak. ‘I am writing this blogpost next to an elderly woman on a bus’ would be one such example.

But nevermind that. You’re still here, and that’s all that matters.

So, Belgium. I didn’t really have any thoughts about Belgium before going there. In short, all I knew is that they make quite good Chocolate. Also, involved in both World Wars.

One of my earliest memories of Belgium as a country has to come from either Modern History or maybe a history task in Primary school.

We were learning about the second world war, essentially how the shit hit the fan after Germany invaded Belgium. Hitler came in with his tanks; Belgium charged towards them…on horses. Needless to say, Belgium was occupied during the Second World War and almost completely occupied during the First.

It is this history with the First World War that brought me to Belgium. Specifically, the poem penned by a Canadian medic titled ‘In Flander’s Field.’ I think most people have read about it or heard about it, but in case you haven’t, here’s how it goes:

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.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Note: to make it sound more epic try and imagine Morgan Freeman reading it. Or Morgan Freeman with a British accent. I was initially going to recommend Sean Connery, but I feel that his accent could lead to hilariousness in contrast with the solemn reflection I was looking for. Obviously this is the start of my career as a casting agent.

Ypres/Ieper is where most of the history of the First World War has taken place in Belgium. The town is literally a monument to those who died to defend it. At the end of the First World War it was said that one person could stand at one end of the town and look across the town without his sight being obscured. No structure was left which was higher than 1 metre tall.

The town has done a really good job of making itself look old though, which is kind of a stark contrast to the rest of society. In this sense, the town is a reverse-cougar.

The town and the areas around it are basically the focal point of the western front. The western front of course being the line of trenches/battle fields extending across Western Europe. Remember, this is trench warfare. It wasn’t really possible to make huge gains.

It is said that around 35 men died for every metre gained across the Western front. I would like to note that’s every metre GAINED. And the lines were constantly moving backwards and forwards between the Germans and the Allied forces.

That’s a bit of context for you anyway.

I was staying at this very dodgy hotel in Brussels. By very dodgy I mean that every trip in the elevator seemed to be a life or death adventure. Painfully tight and dim, the lights flickered and the buttons to select your floor blinked red lights. Apart from this giving off the ambience of Dracula’s coffin on a Friday night, the elevator also seemed to creep upwards or downwards. It was lonely and wanted to keep me there longer. Shaking and making a horrific noise as it reached your floor only made this worse.

The elevator did not just want company. It wanted your SOUL.

Nonetheless, I did (presumably) survive this encounter with pure evil a number of times. On Saturday morning I left for Ieper.

It was at the train station where I first encountered an actual problem with someone understanding me.

Okay – maybe it’s more appropriate to say me understanding written Dutch/French/some crazy word.

ME: Hi, I would like a weekend ticket to Ieper (pronounced: eye-per) please

ATTENDANT: 8 Euro.

*transaction occurs*

So I ran down to the train excitedly, thinking to myself along the way ‘this is going to be a great day, Dale. Got yourself a battlefield tour booked. Gonna soak up some history. Buy some chocolate – you deserve it!’

Aww internal-dialogue Dale, I like you a lot.

Jumped on the train. Train starts clickedy-clacking along the tracks. Destination: Ieper.

And then the train attendant came towards me.

*French dialogue*

*Dutch dialogue*

*I present my ticket, bright eyed and happy*

TRAIN ATTENDANT: Where you go?

ME: ieper (pronounced: eye-per)

TRAIN ATTENDANT: Where?

ME: ieper (pronounced: eye-per)

*Train Attendant screws up his face. Dale is confused.*

ME: ieper (pronounced: eye-per), or however you say it.

TRAIN ATTENDANT: Where you go?

ME: I-E-P-E-R. However you pronounce that. That is where I am going. I-E-P-E-R.

TRAIN ATTENDANT: OH Ieper! (pronounced: ee-per) You have the wrong ticket.

ME: No, I can’t. I bought it from the vendor.

TRAIN ATTENDANT: Airport.

ME: No, bought from Brussels. Ticket Attendant. Booth. Bought. Purchased.

TRAIN ATTENDANT: This ticket to Airport. I give you another.

*Train Attendant operates this weird device. Prints out ticket*

TRAIN ATTENDANT: 17 Euro

*I continue to hate myself.*

So obviously when I pronounce Ieper as (eye-per) the French guy at the train station thought I said Airport in a very bad accent. Little did he know that I was trying to say Ieper, incorrectly, in an Aussie accent.

I’m finding new ways to disappoint myself and cause havoc upon the general population.

So I got to Ieper eventually, and walked up the street to the ‘In Flanders Museum.’

I cannot begin to describe how beautiful the museum is. When you purchase your ticket you get the name and a barcode of a person who was impacted by the war. There are heaps of possible options, including both soldiers and civilians.

The museum is set-out in chronological order. There are 3 scanners throughout where you scan your card and they tell you a little bit more about the person. I ended up getting this British soldier called .

The first scanner said the following.

‘Idwal Williams is born in the mining village of Tanygrisiau in North Wales. Most ther people in the village work in slate mines, speak only Welsh and are very poor. Idwal’s father dies when his only son is still young. However, because of his good school results Idwal is offered a career as a civil servant, to his mother’s great delight. At last someone from the family seems to be succeeding in life. When war breaks out in 1914, Idwal is working at the Board of Agriculture. In July 1915 he joins the Royal Welch Fussilers.’

The guy kind of sounded like me. Mummy’s boy, single parent home, not the most successful family in the world. I don’t think it’s too offensive to say that. Law isn’t exactly the most common choice for Emu Parkians/Yepponites/CQlanders.

That kind of sounds arrogant, but I could relate a bit I guess.

I really wanted him to survive, though I guess the point of the exercise was to feel this emotional connection and then feel it ripped out. Which is lovely. BUT I heard a couple of kids rejoicing their person had survived as they left the museum.

Walked through the museum a bit more. Heaps of pretty amazing artefacts, pictures and facts. Too much to really comment on. Lots on the town’s history.

Idwal served well on the frontlines and in training. He got offered a promotion. DON’T TAKE THE PROMOTION. He took the promotion. Went home for some training. Came back. Everyone’s so proud of him. Lovely. Work hard and maybe you’ll be promoted out of the front lines. That would be good. Go home, take care of your mother.

Through the next part of the museum there was a lot on the actual history of the poem ‘In Flanders Field,’ including a very scary voice over of the poem. Lots of red lights. And this gas exhibit which was ferocious. The gas kind-of rose out behind these gas masks and then they spoke. Spooky.

The horror was only amplified as I walked through this room which is designed to make you feel like you’re walking through no man’s land (the name given to the land between the opposing trenches.) Standing on a tile made these sounds come across the room calling for help. The sound of bombs overhead was crazy and made me jump. I can’t even imagine what these people went through, and so young too.

There was also a lot of displays of weapons, a nice display for Christmas – the Germans and Allies calling a truce on that day in many of the frontline parts – and also a memorial to all the horses which died. I really liked that.

There were heaps of documentaries on the way too, which was interesting to sit down and watch.

Before I knew it the museum was over. Wasn’t as overly sad as I thought it was going to be or how the website warned it would be; It was more scary than anything. It’s sad to imagine how those men, well, boys really, felt.

The last scanner was before me.

Idwal had gone back to the front and had been shot during a battle. Four medics went to grab him out from no man’s land. A shell fell on them though. They all died. The damage was so horrific that there was barely anything which could be returned to the family. The mother was never the same. She suffered heavy anxiety.

How emotive. That was saddening.

I walked downstairs towards the giftshop. There was this pile of photos sitting near the window, spread out across the stone.

A little note overhead stated that no one really won the war. Everyone lost, but especially the men in these photographs who never returned to collect their photographs taken in Ieper.

There were so many photos. They all seemed so happy and young too. Posing in the photos in heaps of different funny ways. No different than our modern day Facebook profile pictures. And yet where are these men now? They might be buried in a marked grave, but they probably aren’t. They’re probably somewhere out underneath the dirt in an unmarked grave.

So heartbreaking. Especially when you remember that these guys were as young as us, sometimes joining war simply to get a feed.

It’s probably apt to note that I am now writing this at the desk in my home. My ‘study’ as i shall call it. The train back to Rotterdam was soooo quick I didn’t realise we were even approaching when we arrived.

So, I visited the Menin Gate, which was built by the Brits after WWI for all the missing. Their names line the sides of the building. Sad thing was though, when the Brits finished building it they realised it was too small to fit all the names of the missing. A lot of them are on another war cemetery around here.

I went on a battlefield tour. I don’t really know how to describe the experience. We drove from point A to point B, which is like 1KM. It was basically the entire distance the fighting had taken part in. Between those two points 500,000 men died. I don’t even know what to say or do, how are you meant to react but be sad?

We went to these cemeteries where there were just rows and rows of people. So many of them unidentified. Just breaks your heart. The guide took me to two Australian VCs. I was choking back tears by the end of it. One of the men was 23, and he managed to take 70 Germans prisoner on his own. And from the cemetery you could see how far he must have ran, and just where he took the Germans prisoner.

And he did all this, got back to the camp and was just randomly killed by a shell.

The machine gun box which they left in the cemetery was taken by the second Aussie VC. I have no idea how he managed to take it considering how flat the land was and how easy a shot the machine gunner would have been able to take at him.

The Aussies did so much for the people here that they gifted the Australian government the two lion statues which used to stand where the Menin Gate now stands. They’re now standing guard at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

I just felt so unbelievably sad but so proud as well. At the base of the big cross they have in the middle of the cemetery is this carving into the old concrete wall of the building the aussies took there. The building isn’t there, it’s just this little bit of concrete commemorating the aussie battalion which secured it. To think that there’s so much honour for these Aussies in what is the world’s largest Commonwealth War Memorial makes me proud to be an Australian.

Probably the worst part about this whole experience, certainly one of the most emotional, was visiting the German cemetery at Langemark (I cannot for the life of me think of how to spell it.)

At the end of WWII Germany was pretty screwed economically. It had to pay reparations for both of the world wars. They couldn’t afford to maintain (and Belgium kind of didn’t want them to) have so many cemeteries across the western front. So, they exhumed a bunch of cemeteries and moved them all to this small space at Langemark.

Now it is the crampest cemetery I have ever seen. People are buried on top of one another in the same plot. Some of the stones marking places have over 10 names on them, but that’s not even the worst thing.

In the middle of the cemetery is this little decrepit garden. The bushes don’t seem to even want to grow there. Surrounding this maybe 5x10m patch of dirt are these huge iron (I presume) pillars, which have this tiny script all over the front and back of them.

They didn’t have the space for all the men, so they bought what is essentially a giant metal box and buried it into the earth. They exhumed the bodies, put them in sacks and just threw them into this box. It’s below this tiny patch of dirt, with all the names on both sides of those big stone pillars around it.

Over 27000 men lie there. In what I understand to be hessian bags, inside some box. There’s still a manhole to get into it, so I don’t think they’re covered in dirt. I presume by the horrid look of the garden that the roots of the plants and the dirt haven’t reacted too well with the metal of the ‘vault?’

I don’t know. It just feels so inhumane to me. I would never wish that upon anyone. The German soldiers never started the war.

I just can’t get it out of my mind. I just think it’s sooo wrong. It’s essentially a mass grave, but these men don’t even seem to have been given any dignity.

We went to this little private museum after and it just got worse. There were these pictures which showed horrific things. You could tell they were bodies, but I couldn’t tell you what part of the body was what. Soldiers were stuck in trenches around just the body parts of their comrades.

There’s this image of this horse impaled in a tree. It must have been blasted up there after shelling, or something. It was almost 4 metres off the ground.

Horrific.

We hear about these stories and we’re told how bad it was, how bad war is, but it’s such an understatement.

I don’t even know how to feel after all of this.

Words evade me.

 

Dale

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1 Response to Dale goes to Belgium (aka: War is bad)

  1. Marleen Berkhout says:

    Hi Dale,

    I’m very much enjoying your blog entries 🙂
    I myself am applying for Border Crossings in Australia. Any advice? (I’ll trade you for a stroopwafel)

    xx Marleen, Utrecht

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