A Travellerspoint blog

April 2012

In Flanders Fields

The Formation of the ANZAC Spirit.

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Belgium not only has a myriad of beautiful cities all in close proximity to each other, a traveller’s dream diet of waffles, fries, beer and chocolate but it is a country that played a great role in the formation of our great nation of Australia. While the infamous Battle of Gallipoli has come to symbolise the ANZAC spirit and WW1, the majority of the Australian troops were fighting and killed on the Western front, namely the Somme in France and the Fields of Flanders in Belgium. It was in these fields where our brave soldiers not only fought and died but where the poppies grew and became synonymous with the Great War.

It has been a long, bitter European winter. The Italian-born Belgian lady cooking my second waffle in one sitting is one of several to assure me it’s the coldest it has been in many years.

It is an icy morning in Brugge as I walk along the pebbled streets towards the Kruispoort, the gate in the old city walls to flag down my ride on the main road. The fog is heavy and sitting low on the canals as the sun is rising and trying its hardest to peek through.

I have arranged to travel from Brugge to Flanders and walk in the footsteps of our soldiers. What was once a battlefield, this area along the Belgian-French border is now part of rural Flanders with memorials to great battles lying in farmers paddocks and by the sides of small country roads.

To this day so much history lies under these fields, sunk so far below the surface most evidence will never be found. Farmers tilling the soil each spring and autumn still uncover masses of ammunition and weapons. Each farmer has a shed full of old rusted rifles and bullets from this artillery heavy war. We stop near St. Julien and look at a farmer’s collection from his recent harvest, a box full of misshapen rusted iron and unmistakable bullets and grenades hidden under the earth for almost a century, preserved by the bog. There is still an estimated 1.5 billion pieces still under the earth and it will take another 65 years to uncover it all.

The muddy fields provided a harsh, challenging backdrop for battle and it is said, at the time it was the mud that was the soldier’s biggest enemy. Photos from the era show the fields of mud meeting the waists of the soldiers wading through. Today the mud is gone and has been replaced by fields of grass, but even now the soft soil of Flanders sinks beneath your feet as you walk, made even worse by the wet winter.

Just outside Passendale near Zonnebeke lies Tyne Cot Cemetery, the world's largest burial site for the British Imperial Troops. Set in the peaceful flat green fields, rows and rows of identical marble headstones commemorate the fatalities on the nearby fields. An old German pill box bunker still sits among headstones of the soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Britain as well as the many nameless. Only 1/3 of the graves here are identified.

While many graves house the remains of unidentified soldiers, many more soldiers remains were never recovered. Located in the rebuilt city of Ypres and unveiled in 1927, the grand Menin Gate has the names of 102,000 Allied troops etched into its structure. These are the names of those who fought and were lost forever to the fields of Flanders. A particularly poignant reminder of the horrors of war, symbolising the sheer magnitude of soldiers lost, those who fought and never came home but vanished into the fields without trace.

The area around the Ypres Salient is so rich in history it’s an archeological race against time to uncover and protect sacred sites, Communication trenches had recently been uncovered in an industrial estate outside Ypres. The petition for preservation passed and it now sits for people to visit, a small piece of history on a patch of grass between two giant warehouses, surrounded by wind turbines and other feats of modern industrialisation.

On the outskirts of Ypres our last stop is Essex Farm, a makeshift war hospital where Canadian doctor John McCrae was stationed briefly. It was here that the symbol of the Great War came into fruition. It is believed the poppy blooms when the ground is distressed and across the battlefields of Flanders bright red poppies peppered the region, leading the doctor to pen his famous poem In Flanders Fields. His stirring words cemented the poppy as the symbol for all that was fought and lost in Flanders and in the Great War. Part of the structure that was the dressing station still stands and the adjoining cemetery is particularly unique having 95 per cent of it's graves named.

As I peruse some of the headstones two school buses were pulled over outside the memorial to see the grave of the youngest victim of the war of the western front. Valentine Strudwick was 14 when he signed up for the war. He was wounded in action immediately and returned to Britain but before his mother could visit, he was returned to the front line in Ypres and killed. These English school children are confronted with the sacrifices made by children their own age, that this boy at 14 lied about his age in order to be sent to a war, to fight in a battle against an unknown enemy with little training and few skills. A sacrifice perhaps no 14 year old today would ever make.

It was a dirty war, and the fatalities on a scale unimaginable. A war fought, unlike today, with just man power and artillery, where men ran into an onslaught of bullets. We remember their sacrifice to retain peace but for Australians we must remember that these soldiers fought to shape our nation, at a time when we were new and uncertain. A 13 year old country when the war began. It was from this war that we discovered a patriotism for our new home and got a sense of self outside that of the motherland, something defined by the ANZAC spirit which came to be our defining spirit as Australians. It was the first time people united as Australians. With ANZAC day we remember all those who fought in the wars and continue to fight but it was on these farmers field in rural Belgium that our nationalism was born. As with Gallipoli it was during these WW1 battles that the ANZAC spirit began and became so heavily instilled in the formation of our nation. It epitomised what became our nation’s dogma, a country built on mateship, courage and patriotism.
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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 08:35 Archived in Belgium Tagged australia belgium soldiers anzac ww1 flanders fields_of_flanders Comments (0)

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