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WWI Memories in France and Belgium

Peaceful fields today

Lively market square, Ypres, Belgium

Vimy Ridge Historical Site near Arras, France
by Samuel Xavier Cicci

I spent the summer in England at a British Studies program at Oxford University offered through my American college. One of the extracurricular activities available to our student group was a weekend sojourn to northern France and Belgium. It was an exciting prospect, and everyone in the group quickly signed up. Rather than a normal tourist trip, however, this adventure would focus on World War I memorials around the countryside. I didn’t realize the much larger significance that the conflict holds for Europe than the United States. In a lecture before the trip, the tutors talked to us about the concept of Thanatourism: travel to sites involving death and tragedy.

France and Belgium are home to many of these sites. World War I was a global conflict, with soldiers from England, Germany, France, Belgium, Newfoundland, Australia, Austria, the U.S., and even parts of Africa laying down their lives. War casualties ranged from over 3 million from Russia, to nearly 1 million from Great Britain. To commemorate those who perished in the War, monuments to many nationalities have been erected across France and Belgium, among other European countries.

Our first stop was the Vimy Ridge Historical Site, in the Nord-Pas-de Calais region of France. Vimy was a major site in the Battle of Arras, where in 1917, a group of Canadian soldiers overcame and pushed back the German line. Canada suffered enormous casualties here: more than 10,000 men wounded or killed in a few days. The monument itself lies within a 250-acre stretch of land dedicated to the battle. It commemorates the victory, yet is also a gravesite for Canadian soldiers. The memorial is located on the highest point of the ridge, and gives way to a sweeping view across the restored countryside. The monument is about 37 meters tall, comprised of two large pillars, each with a human statue representing Justice and Peace. It’s a magnificent site, and it made me think about the emotional connection between all of the countries involved in this War.

Vimy Ridge is near the French city of Arras. While my group was there, not much was going on in town. The main square is the central attraction and is the setting for events at other times of the year. The Main Square Festival, in early July, always brings big name artists to play, such as the Black Eyed Peas and Coldplay. In December, the city hosts a Christmas Festival, which includes a variety of activities. Delicacies are prepared, including chocolate rats; a merry-go-round entertains children, and cooking lessons are on offer. There is a large international presence at the Festival, including food vendors from Europe, as well as Indonesia, Morocco, and Vietnam.

We left France and headed across the border to Ypres (pronounced ‘eep’). Ypres is the French name for the city; it's official Dutch name is leper. The city, located in the Flemish province of West Flanders, was the site of three major battles. Chlorine, tear, and mustard gas were all used in and around the city. By the end of the War, the town had suffered extensive damage. Cloth Hall, the city's first major building, was largely destroyed by 1918, apart from a small bell tower. The city rebuilt the Hall later to look exactly as it had before. The In Flanders’s Field Museum, inside Cloth Hall, tells the story of WWI along the West Flanders front.

Our group stayed in a modest Novotel near Ypres' market square (or Grote Markt in Dutch). The square is filled with pubs and restaurants. In fact, every street has its own unique bar. Along with pubs, there are numerous chocolate and waffle shops. I couldn’t leave without trying Belgian beer and one of the famous Belgian waffles.

At the eastern side of the square lies Menin Gate. The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing lists the names of more than 50,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never recovered. Every night, at precisely 8pm, musicians gather to perform the British battle anthem, the Last Post. All traffic is stopped, and a large crowd turns out, despite the event being a daily occurrence. The practice was halted during the German occupation of WWII. However, it resumed immediately on the first day of Ypres’ liberation on September 6, 1944, although battles still raged within the city.

In addition to the extensive attention to World War I soldiers in the city center, the countryside around Ypres also is home to several memorials and cemeteries. The two largest are the Langemark Cemetery, dedicated to German soldiers, and the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Cemetery for British soldiers. The field where the Tyne Cot Cemetery is located (Flanders’s Field) was intensely contested during the war because it overlooked the rest of the battleground. Australian and New Zealand forces originally took control of the land, but after the Cemetery was built, the Germans seized it. Belgian troops later reclaimed it and gave the land to the British. The monument here is impressive, but the most revealing aspect is the quote on one headstone that reads “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war.”

In stark contrast to the large-scale, military engagements that once covered these fields, now cows graze peacefully and farm and pasture land flow uninterrupted. But death and sacrifice can’t be forgotten here; the frequent and poignant monuments are testament to that.

If You Go:
- The Vimy Ridge National Historic Site is about 6 miles north of Arras, France, 85 miles southeast of Calais, and 100 miles north of Paris.
- Ypres is located in the Flemish province of West Flanders, in Belgium. It's official Dutch name is leper. Ypres is about 80 miles southwest of Antwerp and 75 miles west of Brussels.

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