Friday, July 18, 2008

In Flanders Fields

Day 129

I was up early again. I seem to have gotten myself in to some sort of pattern that I am unable to break. This does not bode well for my night life. Still, I hung out at the hostel for some time because they have a really good breakfast and I didn’t want to miss it.

After about 2 hours on the train I got off in Ypres. Most of the fighting during WWI took place around here. There is a museum about it and a cemetery, well lots of cemeteries to visit. I just had one in mind though.

The actual town of Ypres is really worth a visit as well, but I think that it is often ignored for the two things I mentioned above. I felt a bit bad that I was only going to be learning about the sad bits of the towns past.

I found the museum, the Flanders Fields Museum, very easily. It’s a small town and I think I would actually have to try to get lost. I did study WWI in school, but I don’t remember much more than the basics. The museum started with a special exhibit about the different nationalities that were represented on every side of the war. I never knew that people from 50 different countries fought and died here. I never knew that there were African and Asian soldiers. It was really quite interesting. There was a section for each corner of the contentment that discussed what role they played and how many lives were lost. The countries with the largest number of soldiers had their own sections. Throughout the whole thing there were quotes. The American quote was from Eric Hoscock of Britain he said “like Shakespeare’s soldiers the yanks were full of strange oaths. The village next to where we were alternatingly resting was suddenly full of men with cowboy hats, who carried packs in the way Indian women carried babies. Their discipline seemed just as odd, with officers and rankers slapping each other on the back and drinking together. They fraternized with the local girls in a way that we could never have achieved or imagined.” I also found the one about the Australians interesting, it was quite long but basically said that the locals love them because they often bought everyone in the bar rounds of drinks.

The main exhibit was well done, but exceedingly sad. Just like at Washington DC’s Holocaust Museum I was given a person who’s story I read throughout my visit. Not only did Antoinette survive, but her family remained intact.

HG Wells said “every intelligent person in the world knew that disaster was impending and knew no way to avoid it.” This quote was at the beginning of the exhibit. Every angle of the war was discussed quite deeply. I think that it would take all day to read everything they had on offer. I just sort of read bits and pieces though, much of it was either very crowded, something I already knew, or just really sad. I did learn about the experiences of refugees, nurses, soldiers and towns people despite my skipping around.

WWI was interesting for well, lots of reasons. However what this museum pointed out was that technology had long out stripped strategy. Most of the war was confined to trenches and gaining ground always came at a high cost of life and was never very much ground. During one Christmas many soldiers laid down their weapons and made peace for the night. They shared cigarettes and food and sung silent night in their own languages. Apparently because the trenches were so close it wasn’t odd for soldiers to have conversations with each other over no mans land while waiting for new instructions.

One room had a simulated raid on a trench. I could hear bombs and screams in different languages. I didn’t stay for the whole thing. At the end of the museum they discussed rebuilding the city and refugees. Apparently people came back earlier then they were meant to and ended up living in bombed out buildings for quite some time.

I was feeling pretty down when I left. Still, I think that its important to remember these things. Europe isn’t just a bunch of pretty castles and good beer after all. I decided to visit Tyne Cot Cemetery. This is the largest commonwealth cemetery in the world and is located where the German front was for much of the war. Almost 12,000 soldiers were buried here. I really almost didn’t go. It’s not easy to get to and it was really cold, too cold for July.

When I arrived I was really shocked that there was almost no one there. I was glad that I had gone. Over a loud speaker the names ever the men buried there were being read aloud. Most of the headstones were for unknown solders, or sometimes they would just know what country they came from. They were all so young. It was a sad trip, but I think it was worthwhile.

Back in Antwerp I checked out a bar that was opened in the 1920’s and hasn’t changed much. The bartender (or perhaps owner) was named Tim. He spoke great English and we spent some time talking about different kinds of beer and travel. I hadn’t had dinner yet though and couldn’t stay too long.

Back at the hostel I made myself some dinner and spent a bit of time writing in my journal. I was hoping to run into Anke and Carola, but didn’t see them. I was tired anyway and simply called it an early night after reading for a bit.

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