Visiting Flanders Fields
December 6, 2010
My adventures in Belgium included a visit to Ieper in west Flanders, you know, those Flanders Fields where the poppies grow. Some will tell you that the town is Ypres (and in it is in French), but to those of us who are Flemish Belgians it is Ieper. From my cousins in Bruges I learned that we had relatives who were involved in the four-year-long siege of Ieper.
The city is strategically located and battles had taken place there as far back as the 16th century. During World War I, however, it became a key area known as the Western Front.
After the Germans were defeated at the Battle of the Marne in 1914, there was a “race to the sea” by both Germans and the Allies. By October of 1914 the Allies reached Nieuport on the North Sea coast, but the Germans were intent on launching an offensive into Flanders and they captured Antwerp, which forced the Belgian defenders of that city to retreat across the country to Nieuport and ultimately to Ieper.
Between October 8 and 19, Belgians joined with the Allies, primarily the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and the French to set up a defense at Ieper. Their position took the shape of a small salient (or bulge) in the trench lines, which could be more easily defended. The BEF held the 35 miles in the center of the salient, with the French army along the flanks to the south of the city. (Canadians also later were involved, though no Americans took part in the defense of the salient.)
There were three major battles at Ieper. The first in 1914 began on October when the Germans began an advance to break through the Allied line. Their intent was to capture the ports of Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne. In the fighting the weakened Belgian Army put up a mighty defense, but was in danger of being overwhelmed when Belgian King Albert opened sluices that held back the sea. This flooded a 20-mile strip of land between Dixmude and Nieuport. The flood waters spread two miles wide, and forced the Germans to halt their advance.
But soon they reorganized and began a series of assaults against the city of Ieper. The fast and deadly accuracy of the British defenders helped the Belgians retain control of the city. The fighting continued until late November, when winter weather forced a break in the fighting. But before that cessation of hostilities, more than half of the men in the BEF were injured or killed. This fighting in “First Ypres” led the British to call the trenches around the city “the Salient.” Those Brits would remain in the city and the area for the duration of the war. There were two other major battles on the Western Front.
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In 1915 the Germans launched another major attack in the area as they attempted to divert Allied attention from the fighting farther east, and also to test the use of chlorine gas. When these efforts were unsuccessful the Germans launched a new tactic: destroy the town by constant bombardment. As a result by the end of the year most of Ypres was rubble. The magnificent Cloth Hall, a market center dedicated to the textile trade in West Flanders, was destroyed along with many other buildings. But the Belgians and the British did not give up.
Fighting continued, punctuated by gas attacks, with the deadly substance settling into the trenches either killing or disorienting the troops. Losses during the Second Battle of Ypres are estimated at 69,000 Allied troops (59,000 British, and 10,000 French), and 35,000 German. By far most of the casualties on the Allied side were the result of the use of chlorine gas.
The third battle at Ypres took place in 1917 intended as an Allied offensive in Flanders. Begun on July 31, the fighting continued until November 6 when Passchendaele village fell. This offensive resulted in Allied gains, but at a great price. The British Expeditionary Force incurred some 310,000 casualties, and there were some 260,000 German casualties.
We took the train from Brussels to Ieper and I knew we were in those Flanders Fields where this fighting had taken place when the first patches of white crosses flashed by the train window. I had not expected it to be like that. I guess I envisioned one large cemetery where those who died in the fighting at Ieper were interred. But what I saw were small areas, some right beside the train tracks (in fact perhaps the tracks crossed over the locations of some graves), and others at a distance where men were laid to rest. The white stones that mark their graves could be seen for miles before we reached the city. They literally were in the fields of Flanders scattered about among the corn and the hay.
In the fighting Ieper was almost completely destroyed. But the Belgian people are resilient and following the war they rebuilt their city – including the Cloth Hall – which now houses a tourist information center and the wonderful In Flanders Fields Museum.
Visiting the museum was like being in the city during the War since it is an experiential place where shells “explode” beside you, the sound of soldiers marching comes from a distance and sweeps over and around you then quiets, the drone of airplanes is barely heard but also crescendos before there are the sounds of bombs bursting.
A walking path circles the city, taking you past pillboxes where soldiers had guns set up to defend the city. The British have constructed an impressive archway memorial on which are carved the names of the thousands of soldiers who died or disappeared during the fighting at the Ieper Salient, but whose bodies were never recovered. These are members of the BEF (not Belgian forces), and among them was C.W. Moulton of Northamptonshire, England. Possibly, quite probably, he was some relation to Steve whose family had immigrated from that region of England to Utah in 1856. And knowing from my newly-met cousins in Belgium that some of our own relatives had been involved in the fighting and defense of Ieper made this visit to a World War I site not just history, but something quite personal.
To be continued …