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April 12, 2002
BelgiŽ: Ieper (Russell)

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Ieper: the great Cloth Hall

During our tour of Europe, we have seen and learned a lot about World War II.  This is a subject of great interest to us -- Cameron studied WWII in fifth grade last year, and Gail and Russell did a large amount of WWII research for one of Cameron's school projects.  While in BelgiŽ, we also had an opportunity to learn about a subject that we previously knew almost nothing about: World War I, also known as "The Great War" and "The War to End All Wars."

Learning about the Great War provided a wonderful sense of completeness to our trip, tying up and connecting many of the other things we have seen.  The war started when the Archduke Ferdinand -- nephew of our friend Emperor Franz Josef and his eccentric wife Elizabeth ("Sissy") from Wien -- was assassinated in Sarajevo by Serbians who disapproved of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire.  One thing led to another, and before you knew it, just about every country in Europe was at war.  In the end, the losers were made very much to suffer.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up and the "artificial countries" of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were created (almost a century later, Czechoslovakia finally had a "velvet divorce" that created the Czech Republic and Slovakia, while the pieces of Yugoslavia are still fighting it out).  Germany was made to pay for the war both territorially and economically -- the country's devastating recession led to the rise of Hitler, who promised his people that they would have their revenge.

The country of BelgiŽ was supposed to be neutral during the war.  In fact, the French counted on it; they knew that if Germany invaded Belgium, they risked having England enter the war.  Therefore, the French concentrated all of their forces at the German border, and left the Belgian border virtually deserted.  So naturally, the Germans invaded through Belgium.

It was at the town of Ieper (Ypres) that the enemy forces met.  It was here that the Allies and the Germans both engaged in "trench warfare" -- holding their ground by digging elaborate and muddy tunnels over a period of four years (!) to fortify their positions.  It was here that the famous "Christmas Armistice" occurred in December 1914, when British and German soldiers spontaneously crossed no-man's land -- without weapons -- to give each other Christmas presents during a brief break in hostilities.  It was here that John McCrae wrote his famous poem, "In Flanders Field," and Wilfred Owen wrote his devastating poem about mustard gas warfare, "Dulce et Decorum Est."  And it was here that the British -- when finally ordered to attack through no-man's land in 1918 -- experienced some of the bloodiest fighting in the war in nearby Passchendaele (Passendale).

We paid a visit to Ieper on our way out of BelgiŽ.  In the gigantic and magnificently restored Cloth Hall (burned practically to the ground during the Great War), there is now an outstanding exhibit devoted to World War I, the "In Flanders Field" Museum.  Through interactive computers, films, audio-video displays, and exhibits of memorabilia, we learned about the first war where a soldier didn't need to look into his enemy's eyes in order to kill him.  This was the war that gave birth to the machine gun, the airplane, and of course the deadly chemical mustard gas.  At the entrance, we were each able to assume the role of an actual participant in the war and follow their progress:

In one of the museum's best exhibits, we entered a darkened room that recreated -- rather graphically -- the feeling of crossing no-man's land during the infamous confrontation at Passchendaele.

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The "In Flanders Field" museum

Outside of town, we drove further northeast to visit Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British war cemetery in the area.  As we drove there, we were amazed at the number of WWI gravesites along the sides of the road -- apparently, many of Ieper's inhabitants who returned to their farms after the war found them filled with graves.  "Tyne Cot" is named after a barn that was used as a German stronghold, and today there are 11,456 military graves neatly arrayed on the grass.  As we walked through, we were greatly moved by the large percentage of anonymous white headstones that stated only "A soldier of the Great War... known unto God."

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Tyne Cot Cemetery

Ieper -- and BelgiŽ -- provided a dramatic climax to our tour through Central Europe.  We are now making our way back to France, where we will explore the northern part of the country before returning our leased car.  But first, we will make a side trip back into Germany, where we will rest, reorganize ourselves, and visit with our friend Jayne one last time.

 

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