For many Americans, World War I is foreign to them even though over 116,000 American soldiers lost their lives in it. While numerous American tourists flock to the beaches at Normandy, site of the Allies’ invasion into Europe in June of 1944, far fewer visit the battlefields of the Somme in France in which one million soldiers on both sides died, or Passchendaele (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres), where 300,000 allied soldiers alone were killed. While it took almost 60 years for a World War II memorial to be erected, there is one now on the National Mall in Washington D.C. But what of remembering the World War I veterans or doughboys as they were affectionately known? The last known American veteran from World War I died in 2011 at the age of 110. Frank Buckles lied about his age and enlisted in the army at the age of 16. He was sent to Europe where he served as an ambulance driver. Save for local and state memorials, there is no national memorial to the men and women who served in World War I.
In contrast in many Western European countries it’s difficult to go anywhere without coming across the red poppy, a symbol that would come to represent the fallen soldier in World War I. The destruction done to the landscape on the Western Front during the battles greatly increased the lime content in the soil, leaving the poppy as one of the few plants able to grow in the region. Canadian John McCrae most eloquently describes the symbolism of the poppy in his poem In Flanders’ Field-“we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders’ Field.” The efforts of an American teacher, Moira Belle Michael, to assist disabled World War I veterans by selling silk poppies as a way of raising funds to help them resulted in the poppy being adopted as a symbol of remembrance for war veterans by the American Legion Auxiliary. Michael had been so moved by the words in McCrae’s poem that she wrote her own poem in response to it and also decided to always wear a Flanders poppy to “keep the faith.”
When I visited Belgium in 2010 part of our visit included a stay in the medieval city of Brugge, commonly dubbed the Venice of the North for its many canals. Brugge is also only an hour away from the Belgian town of Ieper or Ypres which is most commonly used in English. Ypres was the site of horrific fighting during World War I, with a total of four battles taking place there although the largest, best known, and costliest in loss of human life was the Third Battle of Ypres. Ypres was also the site of the famous unofficial Christmas truce between Allied and German soldiers in 1914, when troops temporarily ceased fighting, laid down their arms, sang Christmas carols together and exchanged small mementos. We didn’t make it to Ypres since we were only in Brugge for two nights and there was too much I wanted to see and do there. Although some World War I battlefields are more remote, Ypres is definitely accessible and so on a return trip to Belgium I would want to include it in my plans. Here are some sites at Ypres one should check out if interested in World War I history:
–In Flanders Fields Museum:
While the museum discusses the universal theme of war, its focal point is World War I. All visitors are given a smart card which recounts the life of a solider or civilian throughout the war (similar to what the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. does). Interactive displays bring to life the unimaginable horrors of trench warfare with use of such technologies as computer screens, sound effects, scale models and videos.
Around 300,000 British troops died on the Menin Road corridor. The British built the arch in memory of them. The names of 55,000 soldiers who died before August 15, 1917, and whose bodies were missing, are inscribed. Since 1928, every night at 8, traffic is stopped at the Menin gate as the Last Post is blown on silver bugles. It’s described as an unforgettable experience.
When people think of World War I they think of Europe, yet one of its costliest battles did not occur on the Western Front, but rather place thousands of miles away in Turkey, a country that entered the war on the side of Germany. The Gallipoli Campaign lasted for eight months and cost the lives of more than 100,000 men. The campaign was initiated by the Allies to capture the Ottoman capital of Istanbul and secure a sea route to Russia. The attempt failed with the Allies being soundly defeated by the Turks, and yet both sides endured heavy losses. The Gallipoli Campaign was the first undertaken by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) which suffered some of the heaviest losses. The physical terrain in Gallipoli and the weather conditions greatly contributed to its being one of the worst fighting grounds ever.
-Lone Pine Cemetery:
The memorial at Lone Pine Cemetery features the names of 5,000 of Australian and New Zealand soldiers with unknown graves killed at Gallipoli. Gruesome, hand-to-hand fighting took place on the battlefield where the cemetery was established. Seven Victoria crosses, the highest award given by the British government for bravery, were awarded after the battle.
Gallipoli and Ypres are certainly not happy places to visit, yet it is important all the same to remember the catastrophic losses of human life that occurred there in modern history. I hope one day to pay respects at many of them.