Fields of remembrance

The Great War is never far away in a region where thousands of Canadians sacrificed and are buried. Photo essay by Phil Koch.

A hundred years ago, Canadian soldiers endured some of the First World War’s most horrifying combat in the fields of Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. The Ypres salient, a line of the front that curved around the city of Ypres, near the French border, was the scene of particularly terrifying and bloody battles. Known locally as Ieper, Ypres was shelled to a point where barely a tree or a building was left untouched.

But in the decades after the war, a painstaking effort was made to rebuild the historic city in traditional architectural styles. The In Flanders Fields Museum — housed in the carefully reconstructed medieval Cloth Hall — is a great starting point for comprehending the scale of the conflict and its consequences for the region and for the thousands who came to defend it.

In April 1915, the fields near Ypres saw the first large-scale use of poison gas in modern combat. German forces unleashed the deadly and terrifying weapon, first against French and Algerian troops, then against Canadians, who had stepped up to hold the line.

That May, at the Essex Farm medical station, just outside of Ypres and not far from the front, Canadian medical officer John McCrae wrote his poem “In Flanders Fields,” which eventually made the poppy a symbol for commemorating war dead and of the region around Ypres. Many thousands of combatants lie in the more than one hundred Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries within a short distance from Ypres.

The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, at nearby Zonnebeke, brings visitors closer to the experience of First World War soldiers and provides insight into a battle that saw countless German and Allied soldiers, including more than four thousand Canadians, killed in one horrific summer for little gain.

Flanders’ cities, towns and countryside are dotted with memorials. And, for the war’s centenary, museums throughout the country are hosting special exhibits that examine aspects of the war in greater detail.

A long-running exhibit at the military history museum in Belgian capital Brussels looks at the political structures in place before 1914, how they led to conflict between nations whose royal families were closely related by birth and marriage, the deprivation of Belgians during the war, and the conflict’s social and political aftermath.

Belgium is a country that won’t forget either the consequences of war or the sacrifices of the many combatants — including thousands of Canadians — who came to defend the land and its people.

Read more in the April-May 2015 issue of Canada’s History magazine.

And contact Visit Flanders for details regarding exhibits and events that commemorate the war’s centenary, or for information about the region’s many other cultural attractions.