In Flanders Fields

This past Monday was Armistice Day, which commemorates the armistice signed between the Allies of WWI and Germany on November 11th 1918. In Belgium, Armistice Day is a national holiday, which meant that schools and many businesses were closed. Since I didn’t have to teach, I decided to take a train to Ypres (also spelled Ieper, in Dutch), which was the center of the Battle of Ieper during World War One. Today, it is known as “the city of peace.”

I’d never been to Ypres before, so I woke up early, packed my backpack with warm-weather gear, tea, a knitting project, and an umbrella, and went to Gare du Nord (the nearest train station) to take the 7:37 train. I transferred trains in Kortrijk, and in total, the trip took about two hours. 

Upon my arrival, I basically just followed the crowd out of the train station, since I assumed that nearly everyone was also in Ypres for Armistice Day celebrations. I stood near a church for a while, chatting with a British couple, while the parade set up. Around 10:30, the parade started with bagpipes, marching bands, veterans and their families, and police departments from Britain, Belgium, and France. 

I followed the parade past the main square to the main street, where we stood for the next hour or so as the ceremony began at 11 a.m., which commemorates the hour that the armistice began (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918). I was very, very glad to be wearing fleece-lined leggings underneath my jeans, as well as wool socks, and to have my umbrella: the weather was truly miserable with a steady drizzle, wind, and temperatures around 3 degrees Celsius (~37-38 degrees Farenheit). 

The ceremony itself was very nice; I couldn’t really see what was happening from where I was standing, but there were hymns played, prayers said, and wreaths laid in honor of the veterans. Everything was said in both English and Dutch, and I heard some French and German too, as diplomats and ambassadors from different Allied countries were in attendance. At the very end of the ceremony, paper poppy petals were released from the top of the Menin gate.

Menin Gate is an enormous memorial that has the names of approximately 90,000 names of British commonwealth soldiers engraved on it. These soldiers have no known grave and died in World War One battles; the location of the Gate marks the place where these soldiers would have entered the city to fight, many never to return. 

By the end of the ceremony, I couldn’t feel my toes anymore, and decided that it was time to find a place to warm up and to eat lunch. The café that I stopped into (which was about 10 minutes’ walk from the main street, since all of the nearby restaurants were flooded with people after the ceremony) didn’t have a menu, but it did have homemade soup and a cheese sandwich, which was exactly what I needed. 

After paying for lunch, I went to two of Ypres’ museums: first, the Yper museum, which focused on the history of the town. There, I was able to see the oldest books in Ypres’ history, which date back to the 1400s, as well as learn why Ypres is called “the city of cats” : back in the 1400s, cats were thrown from the tower of the Cloth Hall. This tradition has two potential reasons, one being that cats were used as pest control to prevent mice from ruining the wool cloth… but the cats quickly multiplied and throwing them from the tower was a means of population control. The second theory is that throwing the cats was a way to symbolize the killing of evil spirits. Either way, the tradition continues each year during Kattenstoet, or “Festival of the Cats”— but with stuffed animals, instead!

The second museum that I visited was the Flanders Field Museum, which was a very well-done museum, with detailed descriptions of the maps and artifacts. The museum takes its name from the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” by Canadian John McCrae, which was written after presiding over the funeral of one of his best friends. The poem speaks of poppies, which grew in fields around Flanders, and continue to be a symbol of remembrance today. 

One of the most poignant parts of the museum was that, at the entrance, you entered a bit of biographical data, and by scanning your microchipped entry bracelet, you could read stories throughout the museum of soldiers who had things in common with you: hometown, age, etc. For me, it was really striking to read about a soldier from Minnesota who died at the age of 21, and gave me a better connection to what I was seeing int he museum. I forgot to take any pictures of the exhibits, but this is definitely a museum that I would recommend seeing if you’re in Ypres. 

Around 4 p.m. the sun came out! I decided to celebrate by getting some ice cream (Kinder Bueno, a candy bar made by the same company that makes Nutella, and “Fruits de Bois,” which was raspberry/strawberry flavored). Then I took a train back to Brussels, thankful to have had such a meaningful Armistice Day experience. 

To a recollection and remembrance–

Spotting a rainbow on the train ride home!

Rachel Beran is a 2019-2020 Fulbright Teaching Assistant to Belgium. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and French from St. Olaf College, she spent the summer working at a French immersion camp in Minnesota. Rachel will be placed at l’Université Saint-Louis in Brussels, and looks forward to working with the USL Model United Nations team.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.