Normally I’d hesitate to describe something as a road trip that begins with a transatlantic flight. The driving tour of the Ypres Salient* is an exception.
The Belgian town of Ieper (Ypres in French, “Wipers” in British Tommy) was the center of a series of bloody battles in World War I. The kind of battles where 500,000 men die to gain eight kilometers of ground and a lush green landscape is reduced to black mud. By the end of the war, Ieper and the surrounding towns were no more than rubble. (Winston Churchill suggested that Ieper should be left in ruins as a war memorial. A local minister responded, “Belgium does not need to keep its ruins to remember its misfortunes.” I wonder if Winnie remembered the exchange after German bombers destroyed large portions of London in WWII?)
Today thousands of visitors, most of them from the UK and the Commonwealth, drive through along a well-organized tour of Ypres Salient. For many it is an act of pilgrimage.
My Own True Love and I set off in the morning, planning to drive the north loop of the tour in one day and the south loop the next. We had a self-guided tour brochure, a battlefield map, two Belgian road maps, and a great deal of enthusiasm. We immediately overshot the first stop on the tour by 30 kilometers, thanks to a badly written tour brochure (honest!) and our own confusion about the scale of things in Belgium. (It’s a really small country.)
Driving the Ypres Salient is very different from touring a Civil War battlefield in the United States. Instead of battlefields you see cemeteries, memorials, cemeteries, the occasional reconstructed trench, and more cemeteries. The British Commonwealth War Graves Commission does an amazing job. More than 160 small cemeteries are beautifully maintained. The largest of them include interpretive displays that use modern museum technologies to bring the war, the destruction, and the young men who were lost to life.
Highlights (if you can describe war memorials with such a jolly word) include:
- The Essex Farm Cemetery, located at the site of the medical dressing station where Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Field”, which inspired the use of the poppy as the symbol for remembering those lost in foreign wars.
- TheTyne Cot cemetery, where a solemn female voice intoned the names of the dead as their pictures were displayed, life-sized, on a wall
- The Deutcher Soldatenfriedhof at Langemark, where 45,000 German soldiers are buried in a mass grave and we saw poppies growing wild against the memorial wall. (I was close to tears for much of the day. Those dang poppies did me in.)
- The Yorkshire Dugout Site, an archaeological site that made the misery of trench warfare more vivid than any trench reconstruction or war memoir ever could. The water was up to the edge of the dugout. Even with constant pumping, the trenches and dugouts were wet all the time. We knew this in our heads before; now we know if for real.
By day’s end, we were heart-sore, overwhelmed, and very glad we’d made the trip. We abandoned the southern loop of the driving tour.
If you make it to Ieper, be sure to visit
- In Flanders Field Museum. Probably the best World War I museum I’ve ever visited. (And given our interests My Own True Love and I have been to a few.)
- The Last Post: Every night the volunteer fire brigade of Ieper plays the traditional bugle salute to the fallen soldier at the Menin Gate. The gate itself is an imposing memorial to soldiers whose gravesites are unknown. The nightly ceremony is moving. Bring a hanky.
* In military terms, a “salient” is a battlefield feature that is surrounded by the enemy on three sides, making the troops occupying the salient vulnerable.