Cemeteries in the Belgian Cold

We woke up and it was snowing. Nothing dramatic, just a few flakes that refused to stick to the ground. We had seen worse in Boston, but that still didn’t bode well for the weather that day. We had to hit the road at 9:15am, but our professor enthusiastically described the Saturday morning market, insisting that we shouldn’t miss out on this piece of authentic Belgian culture. That was enough to convince us to wake up early and walk to the market.

The stalls were mostly still being setting up when we arrived, so a friend and I grabbed a fresh pastry from a bakery stall and walked around, watching the Belgians set out their local fruits, smelly cheeses, pre-prepared meals, mass-produced clothing, and more. It wasn’t a farmers market nor was it a tourist-y market. It was just a place for locals to do their weekly shopping, to gather everything they needed for the week. We understood what our professor meant by describing the market as a slice of the real Belgium. After we finished our pastries, licking the cream and crumbs off our fingers, we bought some bread, apples, and cheese. This was going to be our lunch or dinner. In total, it was one of the tastiest and cheapest meals I’ve had in Europe so far.

When we got back to the hostel, it was time to leave. We gathered our belongings, took one last look at Ieper in the early morning light, and boarded the bus. We drove through muddy fields and greying skies to a cemetery. It was a relatively small place. Headstones unevenly placed on a grassy knoll that, a hundred years ago, used to be a battle field.

As the snow that morning suggested, it was cold, a bone-chilling cold that made us shiver and stamp our feet. Our professor said to imagine staying out in this cold, covered in mud and water, for ten days and then we would understand what the soldiers in the trenches went through. We shivered some more. He then proceeded to give us all the gruesome details of the conditions in the trenches and medical facilities. Afterwards I gave a presentation on Fritz Haber, the German Jew who invented manmade fertilizer and chlorine gas. (To learn more, listen to this RadioLab episode.)

We then hopped back onto the bus, desperately trying to warm up before we had to go back out into the damp Belgian landscape. Next stop: An actual trench…so to speak. They had recreated it above a real underground headquarters in order to semi-mimic what that part of the Front looked like. The trenches were built of concrete and wood instead of mud and sandbags. The view was not of endless fields, but of an industrial park with wind turbines towering over us. Nevertheless, our professor said the place is typically covered with school groups and tourists. It was empty that day, the cold and the fear had made sure of that.

After a quick student presentation on trench diseases, it was back onto the bus. It was now time to see the other side of the conflict. After WWI, the Belgians gave acres and acres of land, scattered throughout the country, to the British so they could bury their dead. The Germans on the other hand were allowed only two cemeteries. Langemarck is one of them.

It’s a particularly gloomy place. The grave stones are a somber black, set flat into the ground in neat, sharp rows. Tower-like trees spread their meager branches over the sight, plunging it into darkness even on a bright day. At the entrance to the graveyard is the Comrades Grave, meant to mark the masses of Germans buried here without headstones.  It’s a small oak paneled room covered in names. They surround you. Many of them were student volunteers who were slaughtered during the First Battle of Ieper. The British weren’t the only ones to suffer mass causalities. The rain started while we were standing outside, gazing over the graves. We quickly hurried back to the bus.

But there was still more to see. Next stop: Tyne Cot. Placed on one of the few hills in the area, the cemetery and memorial is one of the biggest and most grandiose graveyards devoted to the British dead in WWI. In the center is a large white cross that sits on an old German gun post, and thousands of orderly white headstones circle around it. Our professor equated the place to Arlington Cemetery in terms of the amount of significance and emotional weight that this graveyard has for the British people. It was certainly overwhelming to behold.

The rain had continued as we stood upon that hill, getting chilled to the bone looking at the graves. So to warm up before we headed out again, we briefly stopped in the one-room museum located just outside the cemetery. We all stood in there, trying to get feeling back into our fingers and hoping and praying that the rain would stop. It didn’t and the wind picked up.

We rushed to the bus, and headed off to Poperinge, the village just behind the frontlines where the Allies gathered to take a break from the trenches. After a quick lunch (I had shrimp croquettes, which were good but not the best thing for my still recovering stomach), we headed to the military jail and execution sight.

Inside this little dank room, the florescent light bouncing off of the white-wash, cinderblock walls, our professor detailed how and why nearly two dozen British soldiers were executed by the British army. (He had literally written the book on the subject.) Many of the deaths were due to “cowardice.” They were soldiers who just couldn’t take the fighting and left. It was a consequence of what they later called “shell-shock” and what we now call PTSD.

It was then off to Talbot House and the adjacent museum. We were to end on a light note: learning how the soldiers relaxed. After briefly walking through the museum and watching a video of a recreation of the shows that were performed for the soldiers there, we entered into Talbot House. The purpose of Talbot House was to give an egalitarian, non-secular space for soldiers to relax and recollect themselves after the horrors of the trenches. It wasn’t a place of sex or booze like everywhere else in town, but a place of reflection, learning, prayer, and games.

Today, it’s still a functioning space. As well as being open to visitors, it also serves as a hostel, continuing to offer weary travelers rest and solace. We ended our tour in the chapel in the attic. It was a small, carpeted room full of simple furniture and natural light. Even after a hundred years the place still felt homely and safe. A perfect way to end our tour of one of bloodiest areas in WWI.

After a quick stop at a local bakery and grocery store to pick up our last minute Belgian sweets and beer, we stepped back on the bus for one last time and headed off to Calais. As easy as it was getting into France, it was twice as hard to get into England. Not only were there more coaches coming in and therefore more of a queue, the border agents were also much more suspicious. There was this one guy in our class who got grilled by the agent because he had been traveling around Europe so much in the past few weeks, trying to get the most out of his time here.

We eventually made it all through security in one piece, but then the real wait happened. The wind had gotten so bad that the ferry was delayed. Not only did it take longer for it to arrive, but it had to wait until the water was calm enough so it could dock safely without damaging the boat or the port. In the end, we waited on the bus for three and a half hours.

Our professor had brought the Blackadder WWI series, Blackadder Goes Forth, for emergencies such as this. I ate my bread, cheese, and apples as we all sat in the darkened bus, watching and eventually getting tired of the intensely black humor. We ended up finishing the series before we were able to drive onto the ferry.

The boat was ready in due course. We all cheered when the bus finally moved. The celebrations were a little preemptive though. The wind had not completely died down and we, consequently, had an extremely rough ride through the channel. The boat rocked and swayed the whole time. Occasionally booms could be heard as waves smacked into the sides of the boat. My still tender stomach couldn’t handle it. I didn’t throw-up, but if I hadn’t sat down and closed my eyes the whole time, I certainly would’ve.

It was 1:30am by the time we got back to London. Needless to say, when I got back to my room, I threw my stuff onto the floor and I collapsed into my bed.

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