Thursday, July 09, 2009

In Flanders Fields

I spent two days touring WWI sites last week and can't wait to go back. The fact that you can get to Charleroi for €8 round trip - everything included - may see me back there sooner rather than later.

I wrote about some of what I saw/did over here, but basically we toured cemeteries and monuments around Ieper (Ypres), Bethune in France and Thiepval. The original plan was to stick to the area around Ieper, but when we got the information we needed to locate my wife's great-grandfather's plot in Bethune, we went there.

Some observations:
  • The British cemeteries are a different experience to the American ones. The number of visitors is far, far greater. I guess that's to be expected given the distances involved, but still when I was at the American WWI cemetery near Chateu Thierry in 2007 we were the only people there during the entire time we were at the cemetery. This goes back to what Charles Krohn said about how few Americans visit the WWI cemeteries even though thousands go to Normandy.

  • The British do a much, much better job of explaining what happened in the various locations. Now, maybe that's because WWI had a much bigger impact on Britain than it did on America. I don't know. But, you can learn what happened at the various battles near each cemetery and there are many. I mean many. At some road junctions you might see half a dozen signs pointing in every direction. Next junction same again, but different cemeteries.

  • The 50,000+ names of those British (including Irish) soldiers whose bodies were never identified that are listed on the Menen Gate are overwhelming. Same goes for Thiepval.

  • Most of all, the Irish involvement. I know this is probably going to sound confused, but somehow being at Ypres and at the Somme - for a little while - and visiting my wife's great-grandfather's grave has really made me reconsider my view of Irish history for the period 1912-1922. I can't say I've come to any conclusions yet and I doubt it will be too shocking to me, but just the thought that far more men of Ireland were killed serving in the British Army than were in the IRA during the War of Independence never really occurred to me before last week. {And, that ignores all those Irishmen, like my grandfather, who served in the American Army or the armies of Australia or Canada or New Zealand.}