Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Y is for Ypres (World War I)

“It’s impressive,” I said gazing up at the massive Menin Gate in the city of Ypres.
“It commemorates the World War I battles that were fought here,” the tour guide said.
“It’s somber.”
“It honors the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died here.” 
“It’s important.” 
“It’s…” He stopped and nodded.


Whether you’re a resident or just a traveler passing through, the longer you spend in a place the more you pull back its layers and truly discover it, which is what happened to me in the Low Countries. 

Belgium is a small country wedged between the North Sea, the Netherlands, France, and Germany. In 1830, the British encouraged the creation of the nation of Belgium to serve as a buffer-zone country between France and Germany. They’d seen how easily Napoleon had taken over Brussels and how close he’d gotten to invading England and therefore wanted to prevent the French from invading the land of the Belgae again.

With this goal, the young nation of Belgium signed the Treaty of London (1839), which guaranteed its neutrality and noninvolvement in the case of war between France and Germany.  

Nevertheless in 1914, Belgium was invaded, again, this time by Germany. The Kaiser’s troops marched over the Belgian border, and charged through the Ardennes, Brussels and Flanders fields on their way to the North Sea. Militarily out-matched, the Belgians still fought valiantly against the German military machine who unleashed a two-pronged war: one on the Belgian Army and the other on Belgian citizens—including killing women and children. This shocking assault on the Belgian population in the first three months of the war came to be called the “Rape of Belgium”. 

All this bloodshed and death enacted on a population whose country was neutral infuriated the world. Thus prompted, the British entered the war to defend Belgium and the legality of treaties. To this goal the British and German forces met on the fields of Flanders just east of the city of Ypres.

Ypres is a small city—even today it counts just 35,000 residents—however during World War I its position near the North Sea and at the confluence of a network of roads and canals running to the north, south east and west made it a vital military post to control. 

If there’s any city that embodies World War I, it’s Ypres. The British fought the Germans at the First Battle of Ypres (1914). Later the British and its Commonwealth’s Armies fought the Germans at a Second Battle of Ypres (1915) at which point both sides dug trenches from which to fight (creating trench warfare) and for the first time gas was used as a weapon of war by the Germans. Two years later the British and Germans squared off at the third battle of Ypres called the Battle of Passchendaele (1917). Later that year the combatants continued in a fourth battle of Ypres called the Battle of the Lys (River). The Fifth Battle of Ypres (August 1918) occurred as part of the Hundred Days Offensive by the Allies against the Germans which finally pushed the Germans out of Belgium and France and led to the Allied victory and Armistice. 

It is estimated that over 1.7 million people died in the city and Battles of Ypres including British and Commonwealth troops, Belgian soldiers and German troops. The loss of life is staggering. While many of the dead have been identified and given a respectful burial, there are thousands of solders who gave their lives fighting the Battles of Ypres yet whose bodies were never found and identified. To honor them the Menin Gate War Memorial was created. 

The Menin Gate (called Meenenpoorte in Flemish) is the gate leading out of the city of Ypres and heading east to the city of Menin where the Battles of Ypres took place. The Monument Arch was built by the British and dedicated in 1927 to honor the missing soldiers of the British and Commonwealth countries, who have no known graves. Visitors can walk through the gate and see the names of over 54,000 soldiers engraved on the walls. 

When I passed through this gate I sensed how impressive their sacrifice was. I felt how somber the visitors were. I realized how important monuments like this are for they serve as reminders never to forget those fallen and to work toward lasting peace.