Bloodied fields of Flanders

Flanders Fields Museum creates the First World War experience and Ypres.

ROLLING hills, scattered woodland and quaint towns known for their breweries in South West Belgium are the very picture of rural charm.

Admiring a kaleidoscope of grazing cattle, sleepy hamlets and red roofed farms on the horizon, it is hard to believe these tranquil lush green pastures were once steeped in blood and mud.

Barbed wire, artillery, machine guns, vermin, disease, cold and wet — not to mention poison gas, flame throwers and tanks — here was the huge hellhole known as the killing fields of Flanders.

Indian tribes who regularly visit these parts are perceptive in their sense of place, calling the spirits home with fires and ceremonies.

Unending reminders of the area’s tragic horrific past are uncovered to this day by farmers all over West Flanders and beyond, into northern France where heavy machinery and ploughs deliver a regular grim harvest of human bones and tons of shrapnel.

Part of a dug-out here, remnants of a trench there, the bleak souvenirs of war still emerge ghostlike from the topography. Mounds of unexploded shells, dating from the First World War, are recovered every year.

Ninety-five years ago this month (Nov 11, 1918) the guns fell silent in the war that failed to end all wars.

The last remaining survivor of the First World War departed this life some years ago. Yet, interest in the Great War, far from fading, continues beyond the horizon of living memory.

Generations later we know from the books and films about those shocking years of death when unthinkable casualties occurred as doomed soldiers waged war from the trenches in the call of duty for the gain of a few miles of territory.

Now, thanks to all the latest online tools and social media it is easy to delve into the genealogical past, discovering family who fought and died in the Great War.

More than 200,000 Irish men had joined up. There were 10 million military casualties, of whom many met their deaths in Flanders, with countless more injured or shell shocked for the rest of their lives. Up to 45,000 Irish lives were lost during the Great War.

The bravery and suffering of the Irish was for many years ignored, their legacy consigned to biscuit tins in which medals and memorabilia were hidden away in attics afterwards in a politically changed Ireland, says Belgian guide Erwin Ureel who is a local expert in the Irish involvement in the Great War in Flanders.

First World War battlefield tourism is flourishing, he adds. Up to 3m tourists are expected to visit the Fields of Flanders during four years of a worldwide commemoration, from 2014 until 2018.

We meet Erwin among fine gothic buildings and cobbled streets in Ypres. Called "Ieper" in this Flemish speaking area and "Wipers" by the troops of yore, it has been completely re-built stone by stone.

The town was destroyed in artillery fire throughout the First World War. "You could sit on horseback and look over the town without a single building interrupting your view", one eyewitness reported after the Armistice in Nov 1918.

Ypres is the centre of remembrance of the Great War. Most visitors begin or end their journey around Menin Gate where every evening at 8pm the ‘Last Post’ has been sounded since 1928 under its imposing facade shaped like a Roman Triumphal arch. It stands on the spot where the troops marched out to face the German enemy. The names of 54,896 soldiers who went missing in action, and whose remains were never found, are displayed here.

On my recent visit the large crowds who came to pay their respects stood behind cordons marshalled by uniformed volunteers. A musician broke the silence playing the haunting strains of ‘Danny Boy’ on a violin.

It was a moment of emotion, to shed a tear and watch others do the same. I was remembering the earlier stop off at the Ireland Peace Tower — a replica of an old Irish round tower — where the names of the fallen from North and South, many of them still teenagers, are stored at Messines.

The battlefields of Messines are pastures and tillage fields with a small lake — the crater left after a massive explosion in an allied attack— a reminder of the victory of the Messines Ridge. Here, Irish troops of the 16th division covered themselves in glory, fighting side by side with the 36th Ulster division surprising the enemy after an audacious plan of tunnelling dug over many months, the tunnels filled with explosives which blew up German defences on high ground.

It is said that the blasts could be heard in London and Switzerland where lamps shook and it took five minutes for the debris to return to earth.

Months later came defeat in one of the bloodiest encounters of the Great War at nearby Passchendaele where 325,000 (including many Irish) lives among the allied forces were lost.

The area recreates these events in many ways, including a powerful multimedia series of personal stories at Ypres’ superb In Flanders Fields museum, aimed at generations since, using new technology and personal exhibits. In these installations actors re-enact personal and eyewitness accounts bringing the Great War to life. Visitors can log in to computers to discover relevant personal stories and family members they seek. At Lijssenthoek Military cemetery on the site of the largest field hospital of the war in Flanders, visitors can search the database for a name, a regiment, a battalion and a grave, or browse the diaries of the hospitals in search of relatives.

The Passchendaele Experience, a couple of miles away, has just completed a series of dugouts close to a battle where 500,000 casualties fell in 100 days. Life underground is faithfully recreated using realistic models. These trenches and dugouts, brought to life again, also convey a powerful message of tragic human history for future generations.

Getting there
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) Dublin and Cork to Brussels. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies into Charleroi. There are good train connections to Ypres from Brussels. P&O ferries (www.poferries.com) offers up to 23 return crossings daily between Dover and Calais, 53 kms from Ypres.

Where to stay
Ypres has a good range of accommodation and restaurants. I stayed at the Novotel, doubles from €90. See www.visitypres.be and www.tourismflandersfields.be You can visit museums, battlegrounds and the war cemeteries on guided tours or at your own pace, using maps and booklets.

What to see
Over the Top Tours (www.overthetoptours.be/irishtour.htm) do half-day tours of Irish interest where the 36th and 16th divisions from North and South historically fought side by side at Messines. It includes a visit to Nationalist MP Major William (brother of John) Redmond’s grave and the Island of Ireland Peace Park Round Tower erected to their memory. For events from 2014-2018 marking the centennial commemoration www.visitflanders.co.uk/discover/flanders-fields

The Peace Village hostel in Messines is within walking distance from the tower ,with breakfast, €35 per person. See www.peacevillage.be