In Flanders Fields…no poppies grow, between the crosses where the mowers mow!  At least not in the Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in Waregem, or around the town of Ieper, where the In Flanders Fields museum is located.  Still, both are worth a stop and made a good start to our “military history trip”.

From Brussels, we headed to the town of Waregem to see the Flanders Field American Cemetery.  At 6 acres, it’s the smallest of the permanent American cemeteries in Europe, and holds “only” 368 soldiers who gave their lives to the cause of liberating Belgium in World War I.  It’s reached by driving through a very commercial/industrial looking part of town; you’re driving through big blocky buildings and then suddenly there you are at the entrance to a beautiful little plot of green.

We were the only ones there, except for the gardeners who were mowing and manicuring the lawns, and the old gentlemen who was acting as the superintendent.  Apparently he’d been the superintendent for a number of years, and was sitting in as the superintendent had recently left.  He’d been stationed in Germany for a number of years (many years ago) as well.

2010_06dsc_0324We spent a little while looking around the grave plots and the garden area, and visited the little chapel in the center of the cemetery.  Inside, several people had left poppy wreaths around the base of the altar, in honor of those who fought for freedom.  It’s a beautiful, peaceful little place now–ironically built on what was once a battlefield.

Upon leaving the Flanders Field American Cemetery, we headed for Ieper (Ypres) to the In Flanders Fields Museum.  This museum is set in the main square (another Grote Markt) of Ieper, which is another very attractive square, although it’s naturally smaller than Brussels and appears to be undergoing some renovation right now.  We had a little trouble finding the entrance to the museum among all the construction, but we made it in and it was worth the effort.  The museum has the expected wartime artifacts, but it focuses on the life of the people during the war.  It pulls no punches on the horrors, either, as in the exhibit where they talk about the poison gas.  Toward the end, there’s a room that is supposed to “simulate” going through “no man’s land”.  It’s an interesting concept–videos on three sides, it’s dim and goes dark in several places, and the videos run concurrent soundtracks that give  you the “surround sound” feeling.  There are also a couple of areas on the “ground” that have light falling on them at certain points; they don’t go quite as far as showing a lot of gore but there is an impression of a dead soldier.  Rebecca noted the semi-crushed poppy in the trench as well.

One of the most interesting things about this museum is a little card you get from a machine when you enter.  This card has the name of a person who experienced the war (I believe these are actual people).  There are three points during the museum tour where you put the card into a machine and it gives you information on what that person experienced during the war.  The final machine tells you what happened to the person.  Roy had a doctor (a brain surgeon!) who actually lived through the war but suffered from aftereffects.  My person was a woman whose husband was in the war and who experienced much of the deprivation herself, including being separated from her children.  She also lived through it, but died not too many years afterward.  Rebecca had a little girl who, along with her family, was a refugee.  She was lucky and was taken in by a rich family for a while; her family was able to return to Belgium after the war.  She married and ended up having to leave Belgium again for a short time in the 1940s, presumably during WWII; she lived until 1986.

2010_06dsc_0358After leaving the museum, we had a nice lunch in the square (Roy and I had Flemish stew and Rebecca had a really good steak).  We then set off for Dunkirk.  Dunkirk (or Dunkerque, as the French spell it, since it IS in France) was a bit of a disappointment.  We drove by the port, but there doesn’t seem to be anything anywhere showing or memorializing where the Dunkirk evacuation took place.  There is supposed to be a memorial around the town cemetery, but we couldn’t find it.  We did take a look at the Commonwealth areas in the cemetery.  I also found a poppy by the side of the road and took a picture of it.  Side note: about the poppies – they grow where the ground has been disturbed (they are actually a “weed” in the corn fields).  Since the ground was torn up due to the war, the poppies grew everywhere.  Now the cemeteries are maintained and manicured, so there aren’t any poppies growing there.  They do grow in the fields and along the side of the road–we saw patches of them in several places where construction was going on.

Our final stop for the day was Calais, France.  We were staying a little outside Calais (very close to the Chunnel entrance, actually).  The hotel was almost  like an American motel; there was even a big parking lot!  We went into Calais and looked at the port and the lighthouse, then found a restaurant, which was also very American like–it appeared to be a sort of chain and was along the road and not a little place crammed into the town.  They even took credit cards.  Roy said it was almost like Applebee’s.  The food was pretty good, though.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a short detour over to Dover, then on to Normandy.

See photo gallery.

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