There is a type of macabre beauty associated with the Flanders Battlefields; after all this is where a whole generation of young men laid down their lives almost a century ago. Beauty lies in our desire to pay homage to these acts of bravery and what better way is there to do so than via a rail tour of these dramatic scenes?
One of the most memorable lines from the First World War was written by the Canadian poet John McCrae and today many visit the battlefields of Flanders Fields on World War 1 tours to see the poppies and battlefield crosses made so famous by this verse.
A typical Great Rail tour of the area includes an experienced guide who is well versed in the history of the battles. Looking at the remains of the trenches, it can be difficult to imagine the carnage that took place here in the past, but a military historian can help you make some sense of it.
Just outside Ypres lies Menin Gate, a memorial that was erected in memory of the British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives during the war. There are a staggering 54,389 names engraved on the memorial and every night the Last Post is played in tribute to the fallen. This simple ceremony is remarkably poignant and really brings home the futility of all wars, not just of this particular example.
There is nothing macabre or gruesome about the well-tended war cemeteries and if you travel to Essex Farm, where John McCrae wrote his famous poem, you’ll be given the opportunity to visit Lissenjthoek Cemetery which is the second largest British and Commonwealth burial site in Belgium.
The nearby town of Poperinge houses two very different establishments, both of which became very well known. The first is Talbot House, where both officers and men could mix together, and the second is the basement of the Town Hall, where deserters awaiting court martial were held in cells.
Both allied and opposition forces had to live in gruelling conditions and the preserved Bayernwald trenches are an example of the living conditions faced by the German troops. It’s a harrowing but educational experience, but seeing what life was like for WW1 soldiers first-hand is something no amount of words can adequately describe.
This extraordinary trip of WW1 battlefields brings home the hopes and fears of a generation, but to get the most out of it you need to find a way to engage with the subject. Perhaps take some poems by Siegfried Sasoon or Wilfred Owen with you to understand how beauty can come from destruction, or simply allow yourself to soak up the historical lessons offered to you by your own dedicated tour guide.