A Visit to Belgium – and World War I: The Cost of War

by Kim on July 26, 2013

Retracing-fathers-steps-WWII.jpgMy husband I started our journey into the WWII past in Ieper Belgium. My father was not ever in this town that we know, though he did get R&R in Antwerp after the war and likely was in Brussels transporting trucks after the war was over. Our daughter’s fiancé’s parents live in this quaint town in northwestern Belgium and we decided to visit them to start our trip. We thought it would be mostly a social visit with our daughter’s future in-laws – and it certainly was a great visit. However quickly, my husband and I realized that Ieper as a very important WWI battleground where for 4 years the Germans – and the rest of the world would battle over essentially 2 – 3 miles of land. The lessons we learned here about war in general and honoring those who serve was an important introduction about war for the beginning of our trip. What is the Dutch word for serendipity?

The first night we visited with our hosts the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate where the names are inscribed of over 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers that died fighting in WWI – and whose bodies have never been found. At the ceremony that has been held nightly since 1927, buglers in uniform play the “Last Post” bugle call at 8pm to a somber crowd. There is a moment of silence. We witnessed this with over 500 people, including many school children, attending and there was complete silence as the soldiers were honored. School children laid poppy wreaths at the base of the memorial while these words are said “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.” The buglers close by playing Reveille. I was astounded that the ceremony was attended by so many and has been a nightly event for 86 years. There was a genuine appreciation for all soldiers who fought, but particularly those who gave all.

Ieper-cemetery2-WWIThe next day this lesson in the reality of war further sunk in when we visited several of the 200 cemeteries in this small town. Seeing those white headstones of the Commonwealth soldiers near the former battlefields marked my first steps into my pilgrimage of my Dad’s experience. It was sobering in a way that I had not previously internalized. The memorials were so beautifully kept. There were flowers everywhere and the cemeteries were visited my many. There were soldiers that were only 15 years old. School children had made homemade wreaths and were given the instruction to find “their soldier” that had died and lay a poppy wreath on his grave (there were 4 women buried in the largest Tyne Cot cemetery however). 500,000 men lost their lives in one small town in Belgium. What a high price for trying to attain power and control over other countries.

We also visited the German cemetery with mass grave of 20,000 soldiers and the headstones of others that did not contain a name. It was my first heart-felt realization that war causes mothers of enemy soldiers to grieve as well. Were these soldiers fighting in something that they believed in? Or were they forced to do something they didn’t want to do? The wall around the memorial contained the names of the fallen and one last name was the same as my father’s German heritage surname with an “e” at the end. The officials at the cemetery keep an opening to the mass grave as they are still finding bodies from almost 100 years ago. We left the next morning to meet my sister in Calais, France with a new understanding of results of war. This lesson would serve me well on my trek across Europe visiting the hallowed ground of the battlefields that my Dad and many others sacrificed to keep free. The personal toll of war was sinking in for me.

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