We covered a lot of ground during our road trip through Belgium.

The first thing I want to say is that after years of fairly frequent traveling, I may have finally learned how to pack. This is the bag I took with me for a 6-night trip.

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I put my phone next to it for size comparison. I started off using this as a weekend bag but found that I could just as easily use it for a week-long trip. Not that I’ll always do that, but yay me! They may make a backpacker out of me yet. (But I doubt it.)

We left home on a Saturday and made a few stops on our way to our destination of Ypres, Belgium.  Some of them are covered in the write-up about the UNESCO sites we visited during this trip.

The first place we stopped was the Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial.

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It’s a World War II cemetery where over 5,000 people are buried. Many of them died during the Battle of the Bulge.

The limestone memorial you see upon entering the cemetery contains an impressive eagle that is 17 feet high. The 3 figures to the right represent Justice, Liberty and Truth, while the 13 stars at the bottom left represent the original United States.

The cemetery, maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, is open every day from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Admission is free.

Just after we arrived there the bells tolled and rang out America the Beautiful, which was quite moving.

Sean, who is retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, was talking with the assistant superintendent.He was kind enough to take us to see the one Coast Guard grave in the cemetery.

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He also pointed out this gravesite.

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As indicated on the headstone, Katherine Rothwell was a civilian. I believe she is the only female buried at this cemetery. She was also a child who died while traveling with her active duty father. Little is known about her mother.

Following the visit to the cemetery, we drove to the town of Ypres and checked into the hotel where we stayed for 3 nights.

We walked around town a little bit and then went out for something to eat.

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When in Belgium, why not have Belgian fries, a Belgian waffle and a Belgian beer?

The next day we started off with a visit to three places maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

The first of these was the Flanders Field American Cemetery.

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This is a World War I cemetery. For some reason I’d expected it to be huge, but it’s actually the smallest of the cemeteries run by the ABMC.  There are 368 headstones at Flanders Field. Just as at the Ardennes Cemetery, the employee on duty that day was very helpful and even gave us some good tips about Belgian beer.

The next stop was the Oudenaarde American Monument (also spelled Audenarde American Monument).

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The inscription on the monument reads “Erected by the United States of America to commemorate the services of American troops who fought in this vicinity Oct. 30–Nov. 11, 1918”. The troops were attached to the Belgian Army and some of them are buried at the Flanders Field cemetery.

The gentleman at the Flanders Field cemetery had told us that this monument was sort of the bane of their existence because it was difficult to maintain. It’s in the middle of a park and also at a bus stop. I kicked away several pieces of trash as well as numerous empty bottles before taking the photo, and you can see that the dead leaves are built up around the monument. It was kind of sad to see.

The last of the three ABMC sites we visited that day was the Kemmel American Monument.

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The inscription on that one reads “Erected by the United States of America to commemorate the services of American troops who fought in this vicinity August 18–September 4 1918”. These troops were attached to the British Army and again, some of them are buried at the Flanders Field cemetery.

We then visited the Tyne Cot Cemetery.

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It is a World War I cemetery maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and is the largest one they maintain in the world

Just under 12,000 men from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Newfoundland, South Africa and the British West Indies are buried there, as is one from France.

There are also 4 German soldiers buried here and 3 of them are unknown.

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That headstone marks the grave of two of the unknown German soldiers.   I thought it was really nice that someone placed a British flag there as well as several “In Remembrance” crosses with poppies on them.

The walls surrounding the cemetery are called the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. There are a total of just under 35,000 names of missing service members inscribed on them.

New Zealand chose to have the names of their missing – 1,176 out of the almost 35,000 – inscribed separately at the cemetery and you can see them here.

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There are books placed behind little doors throughout the cemetery so you can look up a name and see which panel contains the inscription of that name. I always look up those with my current last name as well as my maiden name and my mother’s maiden name.

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In this case I managed to find all of them before I even looked in the book, which is no small feat with almost 35,000 names on the walls.

I liked the sentiment on this inscription.

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The cross that you see in the background is called the Cross of Sacrifice. It’s built on top of a former German pillbox. I thought it was a little disrespectful that people were climbing on it, but maybe it’s just me.

Notice the inscription on this headstone.

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Most of the headstones make reference to “The Great War”. Of course at the time there was little inkling that there would be another world war less than 30 years later. The war from 1914 to 1918 was therefore not commonly referred to as World War I until World War II started.

After spending quite some time at this cemetery, we headed back to the hotel.

Let it not be said that Belgium has boring sights along their roads.

This one was pretty cool.

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It was in the middle of a traffic circle and it appeared to be a running water spout suspended in mid-air.

But this next one, I just don’t know.

It may be too much for some people to take, so don’t look at it unless you have a strong constitution.

Seriously, don’t scroll any further unless you’re not easily shocked or offended.

Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

You can scroll down a little now to see one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen in my life.

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That hairy, flabby Cyclops with his junk hanging out was in front of what appeared to be a forklift business. I have no idea what he has to do with forklifts but he certainly is eye-catching. Ha ha. Pun intended.

After dinner we went to a fabulous pub near our hotel called The Old Bill, where we had the Tipple of the Day.

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We sampled several Belgian beers and ended up chatting with three British guys who were on a tour of all the World War I British cemeteries and monuments in the area.

Ypres was chock full of British tourists doing the same thing. The Commowealth lost an incredible amount of men in the area during the war and people are very dedicated to remembering them still.

The next day we started off with a visit to the Essex Farm Cemetery.

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You may be familiar with the poem “In Flanders Field” or know of the tradition of using remembrance poppies to commemorate soldiers who died during wartime.

The poem was written by John McCrae, a Canadian military surgeon, during World War I at the site of what is now the cemetery.

Driving down any road in the Ypres area you will see a monument or memorial from one of numerous countries.

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We spotted that Irish flag and the plaque underneath reads “On this spot was killed the Irish poet and soldier Francis Ledwidge”. He died there on July 31, 1917 and his poem “Soliloquy” is etched on the memorial.

Nearby we also saw this Welsh monument.

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Beneath that rather frightening-looking dragon-devil is a plaque that reads “In remembrance of all those of Welsh descent who took part in the First World War.”

The next stop was the Langemark German military cemetery.

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That monument is called the Statue of the Mourning Soldiers. It is based on a 1918 photograph of German soldiers mourning the loss of a comrade.

There are over 44,000 German soldiers buried at Langemark.

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There are just rows upon rows of stones like that marking multiple burials. Some of the stones had 15 or more names on them.

You can see on that stone that the word “Jäger” appears after each of the eight names and no, it has nothing to do with the drink. The word means “hunter” and the military term originated in 1631 when professional hunters were recruited to form infantry units.

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I thought that was a nice sentiment. Every cemetery and memorial that we saw had poppies and notes left by visitors.

Leaving Langemark, we next headed to a Canadian site.

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That massive monument is the St. Julien Monument, also called The Brooding Soldier. A plaque on the side of the 98-foot high granite column reads “This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks.”

The attacks took place from April 22 – 24. 2,000 Canadians were killed by the chlorine gas and are buried nearby. The Brooding Soldier faces the direction of the gas cloud and has his hands folded over his rifle in a salute to those who fell in the attacks.

We next visited a place called Hill 60.

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The hill was taken and lost alternatively by the Germans and British several times during the course of the war.

As you might guess by the little koala bears on the monument shown above, it’s dedicated to Australian soldiers. The Australians helped to dig tunnels under the German trenches in the area. The tunnels were then used to detonate mines.

At Hill 60, about 30 Australians were either killed in action or died from illness or accidents. Carbon monoxide poisoning and flooding were two of the dangers encountered when digging the tunnels. More than 650 Germans were killed as a result of the tunneling efforts. All told, about 42,000 troops from Germany and the British Empire were killed during one 8-day battle here.

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Almost 100 years later, you can still see the holes and craters in the area.

After leaving Hill 60 we drove to the town of Poperinge.

This town is famous for being the place where the British Army executed its own soldiers for desertion.

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That memorial marks the execution spot and you can also visit the cells where the soldiers awaited their fate. You can also read about some of the deserters including one 17-year old from Jamaica who was with the British West Indies Regiment. I can’t imagine being 17 years old and terrified so far from home. What a sad fate.

The next destination was a fun one, the Saint Sixtus Abbey.

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That is the place that brews Westvleteren Trappist Beer, which has been voted best beer in the world more than once. We bought 4 of the 6-packs of Westvleteren 12 and would have bought more, but they limit you to two 6-packs per person.

I have to agree with the voters that it’s a pretty damn good beer.

After that we visited another cemetery called Lijssenthoek.

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After Tyne Cot, which you read about earlier, it is the next largest cemetery in Belgium that is run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Almost 11,000 soldiers are buried here, including a few Americans.

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There is a gold medal Olympian buried here as well as one woman who was a nurse.

There are also some French and German soldiers buried here, in addition to members of the Chinese Labour Corps.

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I had not heard of that group before. Over 140,000 men were recruited from China to perform manual labor.  The purpose was to relieve those types of duties from the soldiers and allow them to concentrate on fighting. Among other things, the Corps dug trenches and graves, recovered bodies from battlefields, performed construction work, repaired roads and cleared mines.

Approximately 2,000 members of the Corps died during the war – mainly from the Spanish flu – although some died from landmines, shelling or mistreatment. Another 6,000 or so settled in France after the war. Of the rest who survived, most returned to China.

After this we went back to the hotel for a short rest following a long day.

At about 7:00 that night, we walked over to the Menin Gate Memorial.

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That’s what it looks like during the day.

At night it’s quite a different scene.

Every single night at 8:00, the Last Post ceremony is held. The Last Post is a bugle call that is used during wartime to mark the end of the day. It is also used at military funerals and at ceremonies commemorating those who died during wars.

For the Menin Gate ceremony, you have to arrive there at least an hour beforehand to get any kind of decent spot to observe it. People come by the busloads to see it.

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Since November 11, 1929, this ceremony has taken place every single night, with the exception of 4 years during World War II when Ypres was occupied by the Germans.

Vehicle traffic can normally go through the gate, but it’s stopped every night 30 minutes before the ceremony starts. At 8:00 exactly the Last Post is called by buglers and then there is a minute of silence. And I mean silence – you could hear a pin drop during that time.

The ceremony takes place regardless of whether anyone is present to see it, but there are usually crowds on every night of the year.

When we saw it, there was an extended ceremony which means that visiting individuals and groups are escorted to lay wreaths at the memorial.

The buglers are like celebrities and people get their photos taken with them after the ceremony.

It’s amazing and touching to me that this ceremony is still held nightly and still so well-attended 85 years after it was first started.

The Menin Gate Memorial itself is inscribed with the names of 54,000 missing soldiers of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces.

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The following morning we checked out a few more sights in Ypres before leaving to go to Antwerp.

The first was the Saint George’s Memorial Church.

We probably wouldn’t even have gone there but the British guys we’d met a couple of nights earlier had highly recommended it.

I’m so glad we did go because it was well worth seeing. It was built from 1927-1929 in memory of the more than half a million British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres area during World War I.

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Everything from the stained glass windows to the flags to the plaques on both the walls and the backs of the chairs are dedicated to fallen soldiers – either a regiment or an individual or group of individuals such as brothers.

Each of those chairs also has a needlepoint seat cushion on it with the name of a regiment.

Our last stop in Ypres was St. Martin’s Cathedral.

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This stunning church was built between 1230 and 1370 and is one of the tallest buildings in Belgium. It sustained heavy damage during World War I and was rebuilt in the original style.

Walking around that morning we saw several more plaques and memorials from various countries.

Just think of all the numbers you’ve seen in this post: 368 buried at the Flanders Field Cemetery, almost 12,000 buried at Tyne Cot and another 35,000 names of the missing inscribed there, 1,204 buried at Essex Farm, 44,000 buried at Langemark, just under 11,000 at Lijssenthoek and 54,000 names of the missing commemorated on the Menin Gate.

That’s over 150,000 World War I dead in just this one small section of Belgium, and we visited only a small number of sites. When you think about the numbers it’s just staggering. And again, it’s so moving to see the crowds of people still visiting all these sights 100 years after the start of the Great War.

I like Belgium more and more every time we go. It’s clearly full of history but also has scrumptious chocolate, world-class beer, delicious fries, wonderful waffles and breathtaking scenery.

It’s an easy weekend trip for us so I foresee more travels there this year!

 

About the author: Trish

 

Website: http://travelsandtipples.com