We were on the road by 8:00 a.m. this morning, and within an hour were stopping at the Sanctuary Wood Museum and Trenches. Here we found a small museum full of artifacts such as shell casings, barb wire, rifles, grenades, helmets, uniforms, and more. Outside, to the rear of the building, is an intact original trench system preserved since it was first dug by British troops in 1914. We’re told that after the First World War the farmer who returned to reclaim his land in this area decided to leave the trench system much as he found it after it was cleared of debris and casualties. It is now one of the few places on the Ypres Salient battlefields where an original trench layout can be seen in some semblance of what it likely looked like during the war. As Sonya and I found later in our tour, the trenches elsewhere were usually filled in and ploughed over by returning farmers, leaving only the occasional chalky outline of what had once been.
Twenty minutes from Sanctuary Wood is the Essex Farm Cemetery. Here one finds one of the most visited graves of any on the Western Front. It is for British Private Valentine Joseph Strudwick who was just 15 when he died on 14 January 1916. We’re told that hundreds of British school parties on field trips studying the Western Front come to Strudwick’s grave each year. Of course they come to Essex Farm in their thousands not just for poor Joe Strudwick, but because it was here that the legend of the poppy as the flower of remembrance began. It is here that Canadian John McCrae wrote his famous poem, In Flanders Fields. The remains of the British advanced dressing station where he worked lies just across the pathway beside the cemetery. When his friend was killed by a shell in May 1915, John McCrae penned these famous words:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with those who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
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It wasn’t far into Ypres and soon we found ourselves at the famous Ypres Cloth Hall which now serves as the In Flanders Fields Museum.The In Flanders Fields Museum presents the story of the First World War in the West Flanders front region. Dedicated to the more than 600,000 dead who fell here, the museum is more about the people who fought here than it is about the battles that were fought. It emphasizes the human side of war and reminds visitors that there are more than 425,000 graves and names on memorials in the region. For each of these and the millions affected – physically or psychologically wounded, and displaced – there is a story of suffering, pain and courage, and in many cases, there is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. This war museum is dedicated to peace, and needless to say, it is a fascinating place.
The gallery below is part of the Ypres Salient collection. The full gallery can be found in the Photo Gallery and here it highlights some of the shots from our morning in the Ypres Salient.