I’ve mentioned how my classes are required to field trips (see Day 10, 12, and 25), the same is true for my history class. However, unlike the other courses, we were not limited to London. As the topic was the history of the World Wars (with a particular focus on England), the Belgian section of the Western Front was a logical location to take us.
The plan was to take a bus to Dover, a ferry to Calais, then a bus to Ieper, the site of three major battles and the first use of chlorine gas in WWI. It’s a long journey but fairly straight forward (and cost effective on the part of the university). Usually, according to the professor, the trip goes off without a hitch. Only this year, we didn’t exactly have the best timing.
Brussels, the capital of Belgium, was on lockdown the weekend we were in the country as they attempted to search for the conspirators of the Paris Attacks. To make matters worse, both France and the UK were on high alert, hyper-sensitive to anyone coming in and out of the country. We found out later that the government had even stopped all UK field trips (both grade school and university) to the continent from now until Christmas. How we were still able to make our way to the Western Front, I have no idea. Perks of being American, I guess. Regardless, we were still, at the very least, expecting long security lines, and we were reminded to bring all necessary (and not so necessary) papers so that we could make it through border controls.
With all that in mind, we gathered outside the classroom building in the early morning to wait for the coach that would ferry us around for two days. The coach was late, a consequence of miscommunication. Then just as we were about to leave, someone released he had forgotten his passport. We had to wait as he sprinted back to his dorm.
My professor was worried. He knew London well enough to know that even in 10 minutes the amount of traffic can drastically increase, especially in the moments leading up to rush hour. He needn’t had wasted his energies though. We ended up on an earlier ferry then the one we had intended on getting on. We were quite literally one of the only coaches coming out of the country. The UK government had made sure of that.
Once on the ferry, we all headed to the café to grab a bite to eat. Most of us hadn’t had breakfast. We sat next to the window and watched the famously white cliffs of Dover shrink into the horizon. We eventually made our way onto the upper desks and braved the biting sea wind to witness the French coast slowly make its way towards us. It was the first time I had been on a ferry and I gazed out at the waves with wide eyes. Security problems or no, I knew this was going to be a great trip.
Once off the boat we wasted no time in heading off to Belgian boarder. On our way, we passed a refugee camp a few miles from the coast. We all saw the tent city: obnoxious blue tarp shelters, sticking out from the brush in semi-organized rows. We could spot people walking the improvised streets, hunched from the cold. It took us a moment to register what we were seeing. This wasn’t just a picture or a video from a newscast. These people were right there in front of us. It was hard to accept. Learning about news is quite different from witnessing it. But before we could fully understand what was in front of us, the refuges and their shelters were gone, pushed off into the distance by the speed of the coach. There was a moment of silence after that.
Needless to say we arrived in Ieper before schedule. After checking into the hostel, which we basically had to ourselves, we were allowed to roam until we had to meet up to go to the In Flanders Fields Museum. Nearly all of us headed to the waffle shop in the town center. I don’t think I have to tell you how good the waffles were. Let’s just say that we were all thoroughly sweet sick when we walked into the doors of the WWI museum.
The museum, like the rest of the town, was fairly new. During the fighting the whole of Ieper and the surrounding countryside was turned into a marshy wasteland. Everything was destroyed. It took 40+ years to rebuild each building brick by brick (with the Germans paying for all of it), so while the architectural styles of the town may be older, the buildings themselves are well under a hundred.
The museum is even younger than that. Refurbished in 1998, the place is full of dramatic lighting, interactive videos, and engaging displays. My professor happens to be one of the leading English experts on the Great War at the moment, and he even helped to write the captions for the museum. So while we were given free rein to wonder about, it was helpful to stick next to him as he explained the intricacies of the front and the battles that took place here.
It’s hard not to get moved by it all. Looking at and learning about how millions of men lived and died within a span of a few years, you’d have to be heartless not to feel moved. At the end of the exhibit, there is a list of all the wars that have taken place after the War to End All Wars. There’s dozens of names.
After we finished, we split up once again for a couple hours before we had to meet for a second time at a memorial. Zoe, who was also in the class, and I grouped together and headed out to a bar at our professor’s suggestion. We wanted a real meal but the bar wasn’t serving food yet, so we ended up gulping down our Hommel Biers and heading to a Belgian fast food place for some fries. Then after wondering around some shops and buying some chocolate, we met up with the rest of the class at the memorial.
The memorial, called the Menin Gate, is basically one big grave marker for all those, on the British side, who were never found either because they were blown to pieces or sunk deep into the mud or were never identified. Thousands of names cover the walls of this massive stone arch. Poppies and wreaths, mostly placed there on Remembrance Day but are normally renewed throughout the year, decorated the interior of the gate.
Before the ceremony, a local historian (who happens to be close friends with my professor) gave us a brief lecture about the memorial. He mentioned that when they were planning the structure, they realized there wasn’t enough room for all the names of the missing. Thousands were left off and other memorials had to be built. Add this fact to the overwhelming number of names already on the structure, and the Menin Gate should be a sobering sight for anyone, but that didn’t stop some of our classmates showing up mildly drunk and late to the ceremony. Zoe hated them for that.
The ceremony is nothing fancy, but meant to be extremely poignant. It happens every day at 8pm, a moment to commemorate the millions who were killed during the fighting. Trumpet players from the local fire brigade play the Last Post followed by a minute of silence. Everything stops (including the construction going on in front of the gate) and people gather from all around, crowding under the memorial, struggling to stay quiet as the wind blows.
Afterwards, my professor treated us to a drink at a local bar. We hung out for a little while and then a couple other people and I went to another Belgian fast food place to get some sausage. We were all craving it for some reason. But it was so fatty and rich, and along with the beer…my stomach was not happy. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling nauseous. But I forced myself back to sleep. I had a long day ahead of me.