My dad has always been a military history buff so he was thrilled when we moved back to Belgium. From Brussels you can easily have a guided tour of the battle fields of Waterloo (he visited our first summer to do just this) but anyone who has travelled across northern France or Belgium can’t miss the poignant, beautifully maintained World War One cemeteries dotted amongst now peaceful farms. Visiting war sites is not everyone’s cup of tea admittedly but for expats posted in Belgium it gives an important insight into the forces of history that have shaped this mostly flat piece of land that has found itself repeatedly caught between great powers.
This year, with dad in tow, we headed for Ypres which is the epicentre of memorials for those fighting alongside the British. We were lucky enough to secure tickets to the Remembrance Service at the Memorial Church of St George and, as a result, were able to participate in the Poppy Parade and then stand directly inside the Menen Gate for the 11am service (the parade and service take place in Flemish and English and incidentally a small German delegation is also participates to underline that all sides suffered). We then headed up to Sanctuary Wood and Hill 62 to the Canadian Memorial and to visit a section of the trenches. It is a testimony to the ferocity of the fighting that shell craters can still be clearly identified around the preserved trenches.
Seeing the rows and rows of names of the dead recorded at Menen Gate is a humbling experience and almost 100 years on, this remains the most attended service in Belgium with thousands lining the streets and standing quietly in the Groot Markt to pay their respects and watch the service relayed on the big screen.
Next year is the centenary of the start of World War 1 and most hotel rooms in Ypres are already booked up. Those wanting to participate in 11th November events in Brussels should head to the memorial for the unknown soldier at Pl. du Congress (the King and Prime Minister normally attend) or, to remember the role of animals, head to the memorial to the war pigeon messenger carriers in Varkensmarkt close to Pl Ste Catherine.
Mr B lost a Great-Great Uncle at Vimy Ridge and so for both of us a visit to Ypres on 11th November is a ‘must do’ while we are posted here; to remember the horrors of the First World War. It is an incredible, extremely touching tribute from Belgium that the ‘Last Post’ is still sounds every single evening at the Menin Gate to remember those who spilled their blood to free this little country.