Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 11 in Belgium

While Americans celebrate November 11 in a generic way as Veteran's day, and typically do not even bother to take off from work, Europeans see November 11 in a very different light. To begin with, November 11 is a bona fide holiday across most of Western Europe and there are big celebrations in every village and town in Belgium.

To Belgians, November 11 commemorates the armistice in the Great War. The Great War of course is World War 1. November 11 is therefore known to Belgians as Armistice Day, and 11 AM is remembered as the hour when fighting stopped across the Western front. Nearly every village, town and city has a monument honoring their victims of the great war.
Waardamme plaque listing WWI victims, both soldiers and civilians

World War I left a devastating scar all across Europe and England. An entire generation of young men, driven by romantic ideals volunteered and ultimately largely perished in the trenches across France and Belgium. Hence the poem, In Flander's fields the poppies blow.

Flanders has very visible scars of World War I and it is possible to this day to visit (restored) World War 1 trenches in the southwest corner (Westhoek) of the country. There the Belgians -but in reality the Brits- held on to what was probably, in the overall scheme of things, a strategic mistake, but nonetheless a highly emotional bit of territory.
WWI Trenches Diksmuide

It was emotional to the Belgians because it represented a small part of the country that was free of enemy occupation, a well deserved piece too because the Belgian king, Albert I had been one of the few who saw what was coming in 1914. To the Brits it was highly emotional because they, after all, were responsible for the creation of Belgium and the ruling family were relatives of the British monarchy. So too was Wilhelm by the way, but Wilhelm, Der Kaiser, was clearly the bad apple now.

The Belgian organization fietsroute has a 60 km (37 mi) ride called Dwars door het IJzerfront  that visits all the important spots of the WWI battlefield. There is no GPS map yet and all the info is in Dutch but you can buy a gadget, called bikepointer that will guide you through a series of milestones (knooppunt) all along the route. The numbers are listed on the fietsroute website. The website has another 24 km route in Diksmuide, that avoids the battlescars but nonethless gives a great overview of the landscape. There is a Google map here. Just north of that route you will see the dodengangstraat, where the above shown trenches are, and just below and southwest of the southernmost tip of the same route you will find Westvleteren, where the famous Trappist beer brewing abbey is located.

World War I destroyed several of Belgium's great treasures. The library at the University of Leuven, one of the oldest on the continent was burned to the ground by invading Germans. It was an act that was widely condemned across Europe and did much damage to the reputation of Das Deutsche Heer. The Lakenhalle in Ieper (Ypres), a splendid medieval market hall succumbed to repeated bombardments and ultimately had to be completely rebuilt after the war.

The Ypres salient was the site of many famous battles. It is also the place where poison gas was used for the first time in modern warfare.
Lakenhalle Ieper
Ever since Ieper remembers the fallen and every night a bugle plays the Last Post under the Meense Poort (Menin Gate) to remember the missing of World War I.

World War I also left other deeper and lasting scars. Many believe it sowed the seeds for the Nazi movement and World War II. WWI was also the time when Flemish separatism took hold, a movement that aligned itself with the Nazi occupiers in WWII. Many took part in Operation Barbarossa, which the Flemish catholics viewed as the best way to destroy communism. Volunteers were often recruited by parish priests who believe it was their duty to destroy evil.

To remember the roots of the Flemish movement, supporters built the ijzertoren in Diksmuide. The original monument was destroyed after WWII -many Flemish militants were collaborators- and a new tower was built later on the same site. Every year in July the movement holds a pilgrimage (ijzerbedevaart) there that has attracted various extremist groups and is still viewed with suspicion by many Belgians.

The Westhoek is rich in war history -it also has many American and Canadian WWII grave sites. The country is below sea level, totally flat and exposed to a constant sea breeze. It is a favorite among local cyclists and an ideal place to practice waaiers or echelons. It is also a place with many excellent local beers and famous beer-lover's bars. It is a region of hops and a place to savor Poperings hommelbier.

No comments: