With the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme being remembered today, it is somewhat coincidental but fitting I feel that I’m also writing about my recent experiences of Ypres, in Belgium.
When I was out at the café in Brussels with my fellow hostel goers, talk turned to the places that we had visited in Europe and where we intended to move on to next. One of the girls said that she had recently been to Auschwitz, but she wasn’t sure how she felt about the fact that it was being classified as a “tourist destination”.
The group had a long discussion about our own feeling about visiting places where a large scale loss of life had occurred in relatively recent history. Some felt that it was important to let people visit these places so that the next generation could learn from the mistakes of the last one, whereas a few others in the group felt that when a place became a “destination” on a revolving door tour, it lost all its poignancy and became just another box to tick. We all agreed that “selfies” and a picnic lunch on the lawn were totally inappropriate, but we were then forced to consider how far back does that privilege extend? I mean, there are plenty of battlefields in Ireland which are also gorgeous picnic spots!
Respecting our History
All things considered, I joined a few of the others on a trip down to Ypres to visit some of the trenches, battlefields and a World War I Cemetery. I’m glad I went, because I really feel as though it helped me to understand a lot more about World War I, and to understand the enormity of the events. I feel as though a lot of younger people have actually been dulled to the events of World War I because they are so far removed, mainly because of time and location.
Other people of my age have told me that they have almost developed a kind of “memorial fatigue” due to the sheer number of Centenary events that have taken place over the past few years. For me, the practical aspect of this trip was far more important than any book learning has ever been.
Some trenches around Ypres have been reconstructed so that visitors are able to walk through them. Whilst it is impossible to fully understand the horrors that soldiers must have experienced when they were faced with vermin, mud, live munitions, unsanitary conditions and the constant worry that they were about to be sent over the top, these trenches helped me to understand just how claustrophobic many of these soldiers must have felt. When taken with many of the famous war poems about the trenches near Ypres, it feels far easier to understand the personal aspects of the war, rather than just seeing the conflict as statistics.
I am told that there is also a German trench and a German war cemetery near to Ypres, but I did not get chance to visit. History is often written by the victor, and it can be easy to forget that the old “enemy” were people too. Most of the German soldiers must have been as scared and frightened as the Irish, British and French soldiers were, and they were required to follow the same mindless orders from people on high. It is nice that there are some facilities to remember them in this area.
Outside of the battlefields, Ypres was a pleasant enough place to visit. Almost all of the historic sites were destroyed during the War, so there is much less to see than there are in some other towns and cities in Western Europe. If you enjoy a good walk, the Ramparts walk is a very interesting trip. Despite the destruction that the rest of the town experienced during the war, the ramparts are some of the best preserved examples in the whole country. Taking this walk will give you the opportunity to see that Ypres is much more than just a World War I site.