I arrived in the Westhoek today, a region on the French-Belgian border. I wanted to come here because we cleared out granddad and grandmother's house. I found the letters that mum's granddad sent to my great-grandmother when he was involved in the battles around the Kemmelberg here in WWI. That was a part of our family history that was completely unknown to me. And I didn't know this region and this part of 'our' national history either. Those letters inspired me to get to know the region. It is so quiet here now. You can hardly imagine that this was such a war scene a hundred years ago. But the traces of the Great War are omnipresent. You can't drive 5 kilometres here without seeing a military cemetery or a war memorial.
I visited the Kemmelberg and the Ossuaire yesterday. This must have been a strategic place during the war. And although I think war is pure horror, I have to admit that war strategy interests me. How did the battles progress? How could that war go on for so long? I want to know all the details... because I want to understand. I want to understand how so many young fellow countrymen lost their lives on and around the Kemmelberg. Why did the frontline come to a standstill here in this region? Maybe I will find the answers tomorrow and the day after.
Saint-Charles de Potyze. I had never heard of it. It is the largest French military cemetery in Flanders. It is only by coming here that you realise that you only learn part of history in every country. Our history books only teach us the part that 'concerns us'. We only view history from our own country's perspective. Whereas in a conflict like the First World War there are not one or two, but endless sides to a story. I continue to be amazed by the large number of cemeteries and monuments here. I didn't realise that this region in Belgium and the North of France was that marked by the war.
I circled Ypres yesterday and today as it were. Followed the Salient. From cemetery to monument, from bunker to trench... I find it incredibly fascinating to walk around here and I try to imagine what my great-grandfather must have felt when he was here. And what did all those soldiers from overseas and the colonies feel? It is difficult to grasp that young men, barely my age, came here from all over the world to defend our freedom. And although I feel a certain excitement and a sense of adventure, I honestly wonder whether we would do the same today.
My visit to the Westhoek comes to an end. Ypres was on the agenda today. I started with a visit to the Menin Gate and a walk on the ramparts. Everything seems so quiet and peaceful here. In the afternoon I went to the In Flanders Fields Museum. I think most people do the opposite and first visit the museum before exploring the region. In any case the museum was a beautiful and fascinating end for me. Everything I saw and learnt here was simply new to me. And the way it is presented is simply sublime. The aerial photos in particular I found extremely fascinating. Like Google Earth. I could follow the story of French stretcher-bearer Basile Cailleau with my poppy bracelet. Frère Basile’s regiment was deployed in the Battle of the Kemmel near Dranouter. Basile was seriously wounded and evacuated to Poperinge. He died on 26 April 1918.
I also climbed the Belfry and thus could see the original destination of my journey, the Kemmelberg, again. I'm now sitting on a terrace waiting to complete the circle today too. Later I return to the Menin Gate for the Last Post. And tomorrow I return to Brittany and tell my brothers and parents about the battlefield where our great-grandfather fought.