“In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row”
– Major John McRae, In Flanders Fields
Until I’d started planning my trip to Belgium I’d only heard of Flanders Fields in the famous John McRae poem and to be honest, I hadn’t given it a lot more thought than that.
As I started to research my trip to Bruges, I discovered Ypres (or Ipres) – about an hour’s drive from Bruges where the Flanders Fields battles took place in World War One. Ypres is also directly accessible from Brussels on a two-hour train trip via Ghent. The Thalys rail line also services Brussels from nearby countries, so an international rail trip to visit the amazing Flanders Fields is also completely possible.
Being a descendant from an original ANZAC as well as being a pretty fierce history buff I instantly knew this was a place I wanted to visit. So much so that I was willing to sacrifice a day of my two-day Bruges adventure to make it out there.
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Where To Stay To Visit Flanders Fields
If you’d like to explore Flanders Fields on your own, rather than as part of a tour, then basing yourself in Ypres is a great idea. It also means you’ll be able to witness the Menin Gate Ceremony at 8pm where The Last Post is played each day to commemorate the fallen.
Finding a Flanders Fields Tour
There are a lot of Flanders Fields tours happening – many tour operators seem to have it on offer, so choosing the right one was the biggest headache for me.
I really wanted to do the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres which happens every night at 8pm, but I also wanted to see a number of the museums and war sites. In the end it came down to compromising the Last Post Ceremony for a tour run by a local man, Nathan, who knew the land, lived in the area and had such knowledge of the Great War and the different sites in Ypres Salient that I have absolutely no regrets about missing the ceremony. It was well worth it for all the extra things I got to see.
Nathan’s Flanders Fields Battlefield Daytours is a small group tour which is very important to me as I hate those giant 60 people on a bus type tours where you’re herded on and off like cattle. It also has all the extra convenience of being picked up at your accommodation and dropped back there at the end. I had contemplated trying to do Flanders Fields on my own but wouldn’t have been able to cover anywhere near the distance with any of the knowledge that Nathan had to share.
Literally as soon as I was in the car Nathan had his headset on and started taking us through the history of Flanders and Europe in the lead up to World War One. This guy’s knowledge of the topic, the land and the history including EXACT dates of important events was unbelievably good.
For the entire hour’s drive he regaled us with stories of the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany as well as his knowledge of the individual soldiers from everyone on the tour’s respective countries until we arrived at the first stop of the day – the Langemark German cemetery.
Langemark German Cemetery
It’s a weird feeling, entering a place of mourning for those men who fought on the other side and a pretty sombre one. This German military cemetery is one of only 4 in the Flanders region. The Germans were not allowed to use white for their headstones as that was a colour reserved for the victors, so the entire cemetery is just rows and rows of dark grey slabs in the ground. At first glance they look just like paving stones, but in actual fact over 44,000 German soldiers are buried here.
Tyne Cot Cemetery
In contrast to Langemark, the Tyne Cot Cemetery for the Allied Forces is white all over. Rows and rows of white headstones, inscriptions of eternal glory carved into the walls surrounding the field made even more heartbreaking by the fact that a huge number of these graves are for unknown soldiers. Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth military cemetary in the world, with just under 12,000 soldiers buried here.
Passchendale Memorial Museum
The first museum stop of the tour is the Passchendaele Memorial Museum – an enormous collection of war time soldier’s uniforms and artillery with the highlights of the museum being a replica of a dugout to walk through and experience life underground. There is also a replica of the trenches of Flanders Fields that goes a long way to help really understand what the soldiers were subjected to in WW1.
Not as many people come to this museum compared to the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypes, but I’d say that Passchendale actually gives a very physical demonstration of the conditions in the dugouts and trenches, more so than the Flanders Fields Museum does. Add it to your itinerary if you can.
The town of Ypres is a perfect spot to stop for lunch. Surrounded by the battlefields, this beautiful town has been meticulously returned to its former splendour with many buildings restored including the impressive Gothic cathedral in the town’s centre.
Lunch in Ypres is included as part of the tour as well as a local beer (which was really needed after quite a full-on morning). Nothing helps shake off the war like a Belgian beer, cheese and (of course) some fries – the Belgians LOVE their frites.
Flanders Fields Museum
Then it was off to the Flanders Fields museum which is located in one of central Ypres’ most gorgeous buildings. It’s a museum with a very different edge – it’s mostly interactive so the poppy bracelet put on my wrist to get into the museum is not just an entry ticket, but it also opens up stories of individuals caught up in the war. It’s an incredible visually stimulating museum with some wonderful content presented in a really unique way.
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing
The enormous white curve of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, is impressive and moving with the names of all the British and Allied forces who went missing in the war carved into its huge walls. With the Belgian blue sky behind it, the whiteness of the arch looked beautiful especially in contrast with the wreaths of poppies laid at its base.
Human remains are still found in the Flanders region today and if they can be identified, the name is then removed from the Menin Gate.
Hill 62 & Frontline Hooghe
At Frontline Hooghe, it is extremely hard to believe that this picturesque lake covered in green with Autumn leaves falling around us was the site of such horror. This serene and peaceful mossy lake is actually a crater and behind it are the remains of the trenches and bunkers from the conflict.
The last stop of the day is Hill 60. I can’t help but to feel a swell of patriotism as I learned about the tunnelling done by the Australian soldiers and the impact that it had on the war. I had a similar sense that I felt years ago at Gallipoli – terrible sorrow for the people lost on both sides, frustration at the futility of war, but a surge of pride that Australia has such a proud ANZAC legacy.
My only criticism of this kind of tour is that I never quite feel like I have enough time to really take in all the things I want to – it’s impossible to go at my own pace, read everything and not feel rushed when being managed tightly to a timeframe. For example, with only a limited amount of time to split between the museum and the Menin Gate in Ypres I didn’t really feel like I’d taken in enough at the museum but had to leave to see the gate before the tour took off.
However, if you want to see Flanders Fields with a local who really knows his stuff, then you should get in touch with Nathan and take his tour. I think you’d be extremely hard pressed to find a more knowledgeable guide.
And in closing, I think it is worth calling out that sadly, for the Flanders region, the war is not nearly over. Farmers are still killed by grenades and shells that are lying dormant in their fields and the army still run a collection and blow up explosives found on the land once a week. It goes to show that the damage war does continues on throughout the years, long after the last shot has been fired.
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