As the centenary of the Great War approaches, it’s fair to say that things are already hotting up on the tourism and publicity front.
Whilst I unfortunately missed the WWI talk at World Travel Market last year, due to clashes in my schedule, I did manage to pick up some poppy seeds from the Visit Flanders area and I will be planting them (despite my not-so-green fingered gardening ‘abilities’) in an effort to bring a part of this very real, global event home – I think that offering poppy seeds is a great marketing tool, but also a really personal way to get people involved. After all, the Great War was something that touched the lives of normal citizens and changed the future and fortunes of a whole generation.
Flanders was altered forever by the conflict, with its cities, towns and countryside practically ripped to shreds as men fought amongst them. Ypres became ‘The Ypres Salient’, a cluster of battle locations immortalised in paint by Paul Nash; Passchendaele was no longer a spot on the map but was suddenly the site of major action and was left unrecognisable (the Daily Mail, which I wouldn’t usually consider a reliable news source, has a good ‘before and after’ photographic comparison of Passchendaele).
As a lifelong pacifist I find it incredibly important to make sense of WWI, and I can see that understanding the history and events must be a cause close to the hearts of many Belgians, whose ancestors had their lives and homes destroyed. Over in Britain we lost men and families were left broken, but we didn’t have to deal with our towns being razed to the ground.
How I’d Experience It
I’d look to incorporate a flight over the battlefields, to really get some perspective on how events unfolded between 1914 and 1918, particularly the slaughter of millions of men in order to gain a few precious metres of territory. By heading into the air, I would be able to better understand the physical landscape and the vastness of the area.
I would also want to spend time on the ground at key locations such as Messines, the Menin Gate, Tynecot Cemetery and Ypres. There’s so much to be gained from seeing these places up close, either as part of an organised battlefield tour or on a self-guided tour. One of the best resources I’ve found is a site called WWI Battlefields, which covers the main places to visit in Flanders and really puts them in context.
Aside from all of this, I’d want to spend time in Antwerp, which I’d already earmarked to visit as I’m a huge fashion lover, but the city also has its own part to play in the centenary of WWI. In 2014 it will focus on three main themes in its remembrance: refugees, avant-garde art and historical narrative. The MAS Museum (currently showing the popular ‘Happy Birthday Dear Academie’ exhibition) will stage a new exhibition in the autumn, looking at Belgians forced to seek refuge abroad. This should be a real eye-opener.
Recommended WWI Reading
- Strange Meeting by Susan Hill – although not set in Belgium but in France, this novel is essential reading about friendship in war. Barton and Hilliard are two very engaging characters and the story will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book.
- WWI Poetry – take your pick of the war poets, from Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg to Wilfred Owen, with his bitter and powerful Dulce Et Decorum Est, putting to rest the very dated romantic view of dying valiantly for your country instead of dying in vain and in agony. With lines like ‘He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning’, this is the reality of the conflict.
- Regeneration by Pat Barker – set in a real Scottish hospital, Craiglockhart, and featuring the very real Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, as well as a host of fictional figures traumatised by serving in the war, this book deals with the mental effects of combat. In an age where there was no such thing as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, psychiatric approaches to mental disorders were clumsy and tentative at best, and invasive and painful at worst.
- Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson – a very well researched book looking at the ‘surplus women’ left after WWI and how they dealt with the effects of losing an entire generation of men.
There’s so much to take from the centenary, and it seems like 2014 is the perfect time to experience it in Flanders. The Tourist Board is clearly passionate about educating visitors, bringing us one step closer to reconnecting with the past.
Have you been to Flanders? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience.