Canadian students offer tours of the site. Ours took us into the labyrinth of dank tunnels built to bring men and ammunition to the front lines. In one storeroom, our guide showed us a little maple leaf carved into the chalk by some Canadian soldier far from home.
Decamping from Amiens, we drove into Belgium to visit Ypres, known as “Wipers” by the Commonwealth troops and the focus of epic battles over the course of the four-year conflict. There you can tour the imposing Menin Gate, which bears the names of 54,000 officers and men who died in the area. It also marks the eastern exit from the town, through which countless soldiers marched, many to their death.
Every day at 8 p.m., a brigade plays the Last Post in the shadow of the arches, a mournful sound that brings home the sense of loss better than all the marbled monuments. The ceremony has been performed since 1929, except for a four-year break during the German occupation in the Second World War. It is an unforgettable moment.
Ypres is also home to the excellent In Flanders Fields Museum. Opened just this year in the 13th-century Cloth Hall, it is the most impressive museum of its kind I’ve seen, with videos, maps and displays on everything from propaganda to the underground war fought by miners with dynamite charges. We climbed a spiral staircase to the roof for a view of Ypres, a gingerbread town with a central square lined with restaurants and pubs. The whole centre, reduced to a heap of rubble during the First World War, was rebuilt – despite Winston Churchill, who thought it should be left as is to remind future generations of the war’s toll. Residents put the town back together stone by stone, just as before – a profound act of remembrance in itself.
In the end, we spent five days on our tour, though you could do the main sites in two or three. The car gave us the flexibility to make detours to the places our grandfathers fought, but several outfits run guided bus tours and you could just as easily do it that way. Tourists come in the thousands trying to drawn a lesson from it all. But what lesson?
The purpose of these monuments and cemeteries, of course, is to make us feel reverence for the dead, to honour their sacrifice. They do inspire awe and gratitude. I often thought of young Harry Gee and how he found it in himself to leave his battery under heavy machine-gun fire and storm the enemy position. You can’t help wondering: How would I have fared?
But it’s hard not to come away feeling angry, too. The waste of it all! Millions of men maimed and killed over a few acres of mud.
Toward the end of our week, we visited St. Julien near Ypres. It was here in April 1915 that Canadian forces met major combat for the first time in the aftermath of the Germans’ first gas attack. More than 2,000 Canadians died in the effort. A brooding soldier on a granite plinth marks the spot.
A group of British schoolchildren was taking a tour when we arrived. Their teacher was going on about how these brave men died to safeguard the freedoms we enjoy today. My wife, grinding her teeth, had to restrain herself from saying: “I think you’ve got your wars mixed up. This one was just futile.”
But if a tour of the front shows how far we can fall, it also shows how far we have come. The killing fields have been replaced by farms and towns. Germany and France are now firm allies. The much-mocked decision to give the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union seems less ridiculous when you have seen up close what unchecked national passions can do.
On our way back to France from Belgium, we passed through an abandoned border post. Now that Europe has a common passport and common entry policies, most internal border controls have faded away. You simply drive on through. That empty post was the most beautiful monument I saw all week.
Sleep with history
An interesting and lovely spot to spend a night is La Peylouse, a mansion near France’s border with Belgium that was a military headquarters in the First World War. It is now a bed and breakfast with a beautiful pond and garden. The owners will share stories about their home’s history and introduce you to their dog, Betsy, an animal roughly the size of a small pony. A grainy photograph from the period shows Portuguese officers poring over a map at the property’s big iron gate, still intact today.
Saint-Venant, France; 03-21-26-92-02, lapeylouse.fr