Minutiae #9: Flanders Fields

They arrived from Calgary in Amsterdam. We arrived from Vancouver in London. Over the course of the next few days we travelled by trains and buses to find each other in Bruges, a beautiful small town in Belgium.

And when we met in the hotel courtyard for the picnic they had prepared, the year that had passed since we had last seen each other  melted away as it always does with the best of friends. We giggled about how thankful we were that someone other than me had booked the hotel because it was unexpectedly lavish and nice and so different from what we usually have when we travel. “And thank god you didn’t book it because we’d be in a tent with an outhouse for facilities.” And it’s true, I say. I can’t help it, I say. My mother is Dutch. You know the Dutch. We’re frugal. And we continue on the first of our many picnics in the hotel garden eating our own cheeses, drinking our own beers, feelingl a little illegal and sheepish but not enough to stop. We are having fun.

And over three days we walked kilometres and kilometres and sat in each other’s rooms like they were school dorms and giggled. So after a few days instead of going our own way again as we had planned we decided to go to the next town together, Ypres, or Ieper depending on who you are. Because Dave has been on a mission to fulfill his life goal of paying homage to those people who fell in The Great War, Vimy, The Somme, the Western front that at one time stretched 800 km and where unspeakable numbers of young men gave their lives.

We had already been to Ypres but wanted to go back. We had visited Menin Gate where a tribute to the men of that war has taken place every single day since 1918. And we went to that gate and we paid tribute. And it was hard to imagine the thousands who passed the gate to go into the fields beyond to fight an unspeakable war.

Bicycling Belgium

We decided to rent bikes because we wanted to bike to the fields and to the memorials. We rented our Euro bikes, so different from north American bikes, and we rode the cobble stone streets giggling having no clue where we were going in spite of the map the bike rental lady had given us. And we decided to do the full route backwards because we were short of time and so we did. And we rode to Flanders Fields and stopped at a memorial for Dr John McCrae who wrote a poem, a resounding eulogy to the dead and fallen, a beautiful sad poem that traverses the inevitable journey between life and death, a haunting tribute to those who gave their lives in Flanders Fields.

And we kept biking and biking in Flanders Fields even though the storm clouds threatened ahead. We biked with the wind in our faces, our voices falling behind us as we laughed and pedalled our way through farmers fields that were at one time host to a terrible war.

And we watched as the clouds gathered ahead and grew darker and more menacing and we lost our way again and then again. And we stopped at a field by accident where the Second Battle of Ypres took place and where a man was honoured with the Victoria Cross for saving lives, and taking Germans prisoner and then dying on the day his wife came to meet him for his first day of leave. She came to meet him and he died. This was his life.This was where we stood while the wind blew and we knew we were lost.

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Tyn Cot. We needed to get to Tyn Cot. So we rode caught somewhere between lighthearted giggles and the knowledge that we were passing here on sacred territory. That the rain clouds didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. We stopped again and I asked a woman in Dutch where we were. And I thought of my mother during the Second World War riding her bike in the countryside just like this, riding and riding to find food for her family.

And we biked again and suddenly there was a sign for Passendale. Terrible Passendale – the town that holds the grief of thousands of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, uncles, friends and lovers. Passendale – Flanders Field. And it seems extraordinarily ordinary that there’s a cheese factory there now – a cheese factory built on the soil of blood, bravery, tears and sorrow.

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But we weren’t there yet so we continued on.  And there we saw it, uphill and behind a small wood, amidst kilometres of farmland there it was up on the hill. You couldn’t miss it. It is just one of many, many war memorials that dot the Belgium and Northern French countryside, The memorial contains the names of 33,783 soldiers of the UK forces.

And we stayed and paid tribute each of us wandering through the memorial lost in our own thoughts. The lightness of great friendship stood aside while we absorbed the enormity of what took place in these fields.

And when we were finished we got back on our bikes and we rode like the wind as fast as our legs could take us back to Ypres, and in some ways back to the present, away from these fields of sorrow.

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And we giggled at how Deanna had the legs of an iron woman, leaving the rest of us behind in the dust. And we captured this moment in time, the four of us, we captured ourselves carefree, healthy, happy, at least for this moment. And I felt honoured to have taken this trip with Dave who has been reading and studying the Great War since I met him. I felt honoured to have visited this sacred place with our greatest of friends.

But I also felt and still feel enormously sad thinking about the scale of human loss during this war.

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And I think about the the personal message at the foot of the headstone of Second Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young which reads “Sacrificed to the fallacy/That war can end war”and I know that remembering and knowing won’t stop humanity from tumbling again. And sometimes in  spite of moments of great levity and beauty I sense that we as a species are  in many ways so broken.

Photographs by Dave Vanderkop
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