After the charm and colour of Bruges, it was time for my travels to take a very different, very emotional course. I’m not travelling round the world just to ooh and aah at pretty things, I’m doing this to learn about it. I want to know more not just about its cultures and sights, but about its history, and the events that helped shape it, for better or worse, into what it has become today.
The main reason behind including Belgium in my trip was to learn more about its role in World War I, and pay my respects to those who fell during it. This desire has led me to three locations in the past few days, the first of which was a hole in the ground just outside the village of Diksmuide.
This wasn’t just any old hole, though, it was the last remnant of the trenches used in Belgium in World War I. A final, chilling reminder of what soldiers had to live through, as they prepared themselves for almost certain death.
Besides a small tourist centre at one end, and a few informational signs situated near to it, there is little here to distract from the harsh simplicity of your surroundings. You’re standing in a six-foot ditch, held together by sandbags (albeit reconstructed concrete ones), and there’s a river on one side of you, and fields on the other, and that’s it. On a suitably grey and chilly day, it was a poignant reminder of this awful phase of human history, knowing that a hundred years ago, men barely old enough to drink beer were standing in the very same spot, getting ready to go over the top and face a barrage of German bullets.
After visiting the site of the final moments of too many men, it was time to head to Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Zonnebeke, to pay my respects at the final resting place of thousands.
Be prepared, because when visiting this cemetery, one cannot help but be moved by the sheer number of people remembered here. Nearly 12,000 graves stand, side-by-side, in haunting silence (unless you happen to have arrived at the same time as whatever the Dutch for sixth-form school trip is), marking the bodies of the fallen.
Tragically, around 8,300 of those bodies couldn’t be identified, and are simply marked as “A Soldier of the Great War”. These brave men not only sacrificed their lives for their country, but, in most cases, their very identities as well.
As if standing in a field surrounded by thousands of graves wasn’t moving enough, the eastern boundary of the cemetery houses the Tyne Cot Memorial, a list of names of those who have no known grave, or whose bodies could not be recovered. Around 35,000 of these names line the memorial, a number that is difficult to comprehend even when standing next to it, let alone while sitting in the comfort of wherever you are right now reading this.
Note: The T.E. Hayward in the first picture is, as far as I’m aware, not a relation.
The vast sum of people commemorated at Tyne Cot is a visual reminder of the sheer scale of death that this terrible conflict saw. It’s easy to make one angry at the world, and question the necessity of an event such as WWI when standing amongst these fallen, and easier still when you consider that all these names only account for roughly 0.5% of the combatants to have perished during The Great War, and that doesn’t take into account the deaths of everyday civilians.
The last leg of my tribute to the fallen saw me standing at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. Built in the 1920s, despite the locals protesting against their town being turned into a giant memorial site, the Menin Gate pays tribute to those who passed through the town, only to go on and lose their lives in battle, and their bodies never to be recovered. In total, there are some 55,000 names carved into this impressive stone monument, which despite its size, still wasn’t big enough to house all the names it needed, hence the memorial at Tyne Cot Cemetery.
But whilst the size of the structure and quantity of names were overwhelming, I was there mainly to see one small part of it in particular. Stanley Arthur Hayward, who served in the 13th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, was my Granddad’s Great Uncle. On 13th June 1916, at just 25 years of age, he went over the parapet at Sanctuary Wood, east of Ypres. Tragically, Stanley was killed by machine gun fire the moment he went over the top. He never even made it into battle.
My emotional few days was wrapped up by the playing of The Last Post. Every evening at 8pm, just like it has done every day since 1928, the Last Post Ceremony is held at the gate, honouring those who made the ultimate sacrifice to help us become who we are today. It was a fitting final tribute to what has been an episode of my travels that has left me so drained, I’m turning in for the night before some of my ex-colleagues even start their night shift in the casino.
Still, tomorrow I’m travelling to a town that sounds like a woman born in the 1930s, via a country nobody knows anything about, so it will be back to business as usual.