21.04.2014 - 21.04.2014 10 °C
21 April 2014—Part II
As I promised you this morning, today’s report has been divided into two parts: Antwerp and Flanders Field. Hopefully you’ve read Part I of this document—I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any spoilers. This afternoon, we again boarded the motorcoaches for the ~2 hour ride to the town of Ieper, Belgium. That’s the Dutch spelling, anyway. The French spelling is Ypres, which, if it’s okay with you, I will use since Ieper in a non-serifed font looks like LEPER, and that will never do. So it was off to Ypres. Ypres is the site of the vicious battles commemorated in the poem “In Flanders Field.” It is also the origin of the British custom of red poppies for war remembrance (you’ve likely seen pictures of William and Kate wearing them) because poppies were the first flowers to grow on Flanders Field after the tragedies there. (Unfortunately, the famous poppies don’t bloom until late summer.)
Our target was the In Flanders Field Museum, which endeavors to explain the battles (there were actually three) and the strategic importance of Ypres to both the Germans and the Allies (hence the three battles). It also delves into the horrors of the fighting in the Great War, including the first uses of chlorine and mustard gases as chemical weapons, as well as the absolutely primitive conditions under which the soldiers lived. We were to tour the museum, then have a private, after-hours dinner at the museum.
When we arrived in Ypres, we were a bit early for our after-hours visit, so we walked the few short blocks to the Menin Gate, which is the monument erected to memorialize all the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed. It is vast, and every vertical surface is covered with names of soldiers. At various spots, red poppies have been tucked into the walls by particular soldiers’ names, and wreaths of poppies are also laid along the walls and staircases (it’s that big). The sheer volume of life lost (according to one exhibit, Britain lost 10% of their army, over 1,000,000 soldiers) the Menin Gate represents is heart-wrenching. And those are just the Commonwealth soldiers. The Belgians, French, Germans, and Americans are remembered elsewhere. According to our guide, a bugler plays “The Last Post” every night at 8:00 pm. Fortunately for my tear ducts, I wasn’t around to hear that—we headed back to the Museum for our tour and dinner.
The town of Ypres itself is a marvel—it was completely razed during World War I but was rebuilt as an exact duplicate in only five years time. That includes an enormous cathedral and the Cloth Hall that now houses the museum. You would honestly never believe that those buildings had not been there since the 1500s, it’s that good. As with yesterday, most everything was closed, but there were a couple of shops open and I was able to snag some postcards for my stash. (And the museum had a gift shop. You know I love a good gift shop!)
Now to the museum…I am without words to adequately describe the emotional impact of the experience, but I will try to capture some of the technical aspects. You were given a wrist-band with an RFID chip inside when you went in, and you could swipe it at various stations and get remembrances/information about a soldier from your country and in your native language. (And the wrist-band is really cool—the RFID chip is hidden in a large red poppy—and they let us keep them!) Next, there was a giant topographic map of the area that was completely white. The various battles, campaigns, and troop movements were projected on it from overhead in color, and there was a museum staffer there explaining all the key dates and troop movements as a function of time. There was a really neat movie feature about the doctors and nurses who served at the front—I think it might have been taken from diaries of real people, but it featured actors doing reenactments. It was heart-breaking as they talked about the types of injuries they were treating, and even more so when you consider the state of trauma medicine at that time. That’s why there was usually a cemetery outside the field hospital. There was a great exhibit showing the evolution of uniforms throughout the war, and for the multiple armies, and a discussion of the introduction of chlorine and mustard gas as chemical weapons. It made the point that, while chemical weapons killed far fewer soldiers than conventional weapons, they were so effective because they instilled such fear among the troops. And I’d say that may still be the case today. Another case showed how the soldiers lived in the trenches—not well, in case you are wondering. Water, rodents, poor rations, and bad hygiene were common. I could go on and on, but I will say that, though the topic itself was incredibly heart-rending, the execution of the exhibits and the incorporation of technology into them was OUTSTANDING. That’s why I nominate them for the Museum Hall of Fame, which puts them in the same class as the Musee d’Orsay, my most favorite museum in Paris and possibly of all. This may not be something that’s in every guidebook, but if you find yourself in this part of the world, it’s a must-see!
Dinner was served in a reception space at the museum itself (sort of like when we went to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Mom). Lovely asparagus soup (I know—I was shocked, too), followed by vegetable curry for me (YUMMY!) and guinea hen with veggies for Julie, then chocolate mousse for dessert. All of it was delicious. But the best part was that the gift shop was right around the corner! Of course I couldn’t pass it by…more postcards, a lovely book about the “In Flanders Field” poem, and the museum guide, which I will gladly share with any interested parties, were procured. There were some lovely poppy statues made of enameled iron that I wanted, too, but they were just too big to fit in my suitcase!
After dinner, it was back on the motorcoaches for the ride back to the ship, which had sailed a little ways down the river while we were gone. As a result, we were double-docked with a Viking ship and had to trek through their lobby to get to ours! Is this the cruise equivalent of hot-bunking, or whatever it is the navy calls it when one sailor gets out of a bunk as the next comes off shift and crawls in??
Anyway, tomorrow we are headed for Middelburg, in the Zeeland province in the Netherlands where we will have (you guessed it) a walking tour in the morning, then a tour of the Delta Water Works (where they manage to hold back the ocean) in the afternoon. Should be an excellent engineering geek sort of stop! Stay tuned…