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In Flanders' killing fields


Diana Bentley uncovers poignant memories in the town of Ypres, 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War

The haunting strains of The Last Post peal out into the still night. Under the tremendous arches of Ypres' Menin Gate, those of us making our pilgrimage to the killing fields of Flanders are gathered, shoulder to shoulder. Looking up, I see the names of the fallen of the Great War etched in lists that disappear deep into the ghostly shadows of stone.

The Gate soars from the ground in the place where thousands of young men passed on their last journey to the front, and here, each evening, they are remembered. Not a murmur is heard. Then suddenly, the service is over, the crowd disperses, and I make my way back towards the gleaming lights of the town square.

I have come to Ypres to see the land where some of the most tragic dramas of the war unfolded; where countless thousands of young men fought and where many now lay. For my native Australia, the war not only resulted in an horrific loss of life but also forged the national identity of the young, emergent nation, becoming etched forever on its national psyche.

The town of Ypres makes a wonderfully alluring starting point for such a journey and lies resplendent the following day in the morning light. Admiring its magnificent Cloth Hall, looming before me in Gothic splendour, I struggle to believe that the building is less than 100 years old. The war exploded here in August 1914 and by 1918, the city lay in ruins. While the British wanted it to remain as it was, as a monument to the dead, the Belgians felt otherwise. By 1967, Ypres' reconstruction was complete and walking around its cobbled streets, flanked by gabled houses, it is impossible not to be charmed by the result. A visit to the Cloth Hall is a must, its Flanders Fields Museum a galvanizing introduction to the sites beyond.

I soon find the ghostly echoes of the mighty conflict. Near Ypres, beside a narrow road, lies the Essex Farm Dressing Station. The bleak bunkers here served as a first aid post. And here, in one of the simple dug-outs, in May 1915, Canadian surgeon John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields. Penned after he lost his closest friend in action, it transformed the poppy into the symbol of remembrance of the fallen. Walking among the graves of the 1,185 Englishmen buried in the cemetery here, I find the grave of the war's youngest casualty, Valentine Joe Strudwick, who died in 1916, at 15.

a place of serenity

This is indeed the land of the fallen. Small cemeteries dot the landscape beside pastures of grazing cattle. But it is the larger ones that are emblazoned on the memory. Walking along the path into Tyne Cot, the largest British war cemetery in the world. I listen to the names of the fallen being read out. The graves of 12,000 soldiers lie here, over 8,000 of them unknown. White headstones roll out into the distance. A long, semi-circular wall bears the names of nearly 35,000 more who have no known grave and who died after August 1917, as there was no more room on the Menin Gate. But flowers bloom before each headstone and the cemetery is a serene place.

A vast, red sandstone gate ushers visitors into Langemark, the renowned German cemetery and resting place of over 44,000 soldiers. Flat markers and stone crosses punctuate the grass and the bronze statues of four soldiers solemnly stand guard. The arms of massive oaks spread protectively over the enormous graveyard, but give it a dark, haunted feel.

Places that once saw action are peaceful now. Sheep graze on the famed Hill 60. Control of the hill swayed back and forth from the Germans to the Allies from 1915 to 1918. Both sides used tunnels to detonate each other's lines. The great crater from the 1917 explosion still scars the landscape. Following the simple track around the hill among the trees, I try to imagine the thousands of soldiers who perished here in this quiet field.

In other places, the war springs to life. In the Memorial Museum Passchendaele, I can almost hear the shelling as I walk along the reconstructed dug-out, passing its first aid post and cramped sleeping quarters. Upstairs, an array of photos and memorabilia tells the tale of the bloody five battles of Ypres. In Peperinge, I find Talbot House, a delightfully comfortable home run by two British army chaplains as a soldiers' club. In its pretty rooms, I can imagine the sound of the piano and the smoke and chatter, and think what a haven it must have been; some respite to those who would give their lives in acts of incredible courage and sacrifice, almost 100 years ago.

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