WW1 - The Trenches of Death in Flanders Fields
Why Poppies for Remembrance Day?
Red Poppies for Remembrance day is related to the events that took place during the World War 1 (1914 - 1918) in the South-West area of Flanders in Belgium, known as the Yser region.
I'm not pretending in any way to be a historian and I'm not giving you a full report of what happened in WW1 and why. I'll just try to give you a little insight of why red poppies are forever connected to this small part of our big world and why the Red Poppy has become a worldwide symbol for the WW1 Remembrance Day.
World War I In Belgium 1914-1918
Before I moved to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen which is part of the province Zeeland in The Netherlands, I didn't know much about the World War I. However, driving through Northern Belgium (I live right on the border), I came across these many War Cemeteries in the region of the city of Diksmuide in West Flanders, which is known as the Yser Region (IJzerstreek in Dutch) and I got curious as to why there were so many of them in a rather small area.
Of course I should've known from my history classes at school, but somehow those facts had been stashed away in some dark corner of my brain as so many facts, that seemed not so relevant at the time you learn about them in school.
I did some research and found out that this region had played a key role in the first World War. The Germans were marching to France and Belgium was in their way so to speak. The Germans thought they could pass through easily but that was not the case. This War is also known as the Trench Warfare.
The South-West of Belgian, Known as the West Corner
The West Corner
The West Corner (Westhoek in Dutch) Region includes the districts of Diksmuide, Ypres and Veurne in Belgium and runs all the way across the French Border (French West Corner) to Dunkirk.
The River Yser (IJzer in Dutch) Frontline
Important Scene of a War That Should Never Be Forgotten
The river the Yser (IJzer in Dutch), which originates in the French West Corner and runs through Diksmuide to Nieuwport where it flows into the sea, has been a well guarded frontline during the first years in WW1. For the Germans, who thought they could march victoriously through Belgium, the fierce resistance in the Ardennes and the West Corner was a major setback.
Diksmuide fell in November 1914, but with the help of the French and British soldiers, the Germans never succeeded to conquer that small last part of Belgium.
Photo credit lower photo: I was very pleased to get permission to use a few photos from this site World War 1 Locations (written in Dutch) by Willem Brouwer.
Flooding the Land
The Belgians Opened the Sea Gates and Inundated the Land
In order to accomplish a big obstacle for the Germans, the Belgians in the West Corner had flooded their land after the first three months of the war, between Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide. They had opened the sluices at Nieuwpoort and the level in the river rose high enough to overflow the dykes, which made it very hard for the Germans to cross over and march through.
As the Northern part of Belgium lies below sea level (just as The Netherlands) the Flanders people opened the gates and flooded the land to make it very difficult for the Germans to march forward in high speed.
The Trenches of Death
The Yser Offensive
The Awfulness of a War for Which the Belgian Army Was Not Prepared at All
It was October, start of the cold season, when this war started. The Belgians had build trenches along the river Yser from Diksmuide to Nieuwpoort at the North Sea Canal. These trenches weren't deep and safe enough to be able to walk through them standing up straight and not get your head shot off by the Germans across the river. So they had to walk bended over. Also the sleeping quarters had low ceilings and no windows or doors. You had to crawl in and lay down on the dirt. Building good and reasonable comfortable trenches was not their first priority.
Translation from the Dutch Wikipedia: In the British and French trenches during the first World War, the building of shelters was more or less discouraged, as a result of which most of the soldiers had nothing more than a hole of about 1 meter deep, dug out in the side of the trench.
Not being prepared at all for a war that would last 4 years, the soldiers were lacking of good and warm uniforms, blankets and everything else that would've been required for a long stay in those trenches. Winters came and went and nothing changed. Those poor men must have suffered terribly in the cold winters without proper clothing, food, water and what more.
The land behind the trenches had been flooded to the height of watery swamps where all the garbage, urine, faces and dead soldiers found their last resting place. One sure could call this place Hell.
They build long wooden paths over the water to the nearest dry land and all supplies, beverages, clothing, guns (if there were any) had to be transported over those small wooden paths, through winter, through summer and through more winters again and again.
Inundated Land Around Yper
70+ Million Soldiers Recruted, Including 60 Million Civilians, 9 Million Soldiers Were Killed
Red Poppies in the Fields
Lieutenant John McCrae
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae 1872 - 1918
You see, there was this Canadian Military Doctor, who also was a Poet. His name was John McCrae. Why would a Canadian doctor be serving in the British Army you ask? Well in 1914, Canada was still a Dominion in the British Empire and as England had declared War to Germany in 1914, also Canadian men had to enlist as soldiers in the British Army. So that's why Lieutenant John McCrae ended up in the Flanders Fields in Belgium.
One day, after he had buried his friend Lieutenant Alex Helmer, he wrote this poem about the man who died and lay buried in the fields around Diksmuide. Those fields were covered with blooming red poppies in summer, due to the fact that poppies are actually pioneer plants who love to grow on fresh worked on soil. The soil in Flanders Fields got ruffled up each time they had to bury the thousands and thousands of soldiers, Belgians, French, British, Canadians and Germans.
His poem became the most famous poem ever written about the World War 1 in the Fields of Flanders in Belgium.
In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow
In Flanders Field - The Song
Reconstruction of the Trenches of Death near Diksmuide
Preservation and Reconstruction of the Frontline near Diksmuide
Close to Duinkerken the Germans succeeded in 1916 to cross the river Ysel, but didn't get much farther than digging themselves in on the banks of the river about 60 meters (65 yards) from the Belgian detached post.
After the war this part remained and got preserved and restored and turned into an outdoor museum, to show visitors how the life of the soldiers had been during WW1. I've been there two times and each time I got goose pimples on my arms, because even while seeing it with my own eyes, I just couldn't imagine for a bit in what kind of hell these soldiers must have lived.
Standing up straight was as much as asking for your death penalty. Only a few lucky ones had a mattress. They mostly lived outside through summer and winter. You won't find the 'best' pictures when hitting trenches of death in your browser, try clicking this link Loopgraven België and it will show you all the pictures you maybe don't want to see, but must see to know.
The Trenches of Death - a Tribute by Ruben Heynderycx - He Beautifully Mixed Reality with Monumental Remembrance
The Soldiers Who Had Fought Their Best
I Walked the Path of Poppies Red
I visited the Trenches of Death in Diksmuide twice. This Monument of Death made a huge impression on me and I just had to write this poem.
I walked the path of poppies red
and felt my heart turn in my chest,
when I came there where they had lived,
the soldiers, who had fought their best.
I crawled where they had crawled before,
when trying hard to hide their fears.
I saw the places where they had slept,
the soil still drained from fallen tears.
I felt the cold of winter's snow,
penetrate my sleeveless shirt,
when I was told they had no coat,
to keep them warm in this war's dirt.
I looked at pictures of flooded land,
the wood planks used to get supply.
I turned my head and saw green meadows,
but heard the screams of soldiers die.
I've touched the stones that they sat on,
to have a smoke or just a rest
and in this silence my heart was crying,
for soldiers, who just fought their best.
The Red Poppy Became a Symbol
Red poppies originally stand for the blood spilled in Flanders Fields.
In 1918 the YWCA worker Moina Michael wrote a poem We shall keep the Faith, which was inspired by John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields and she promised to always wear a red artificial poppy to remember the dead soldiers. She handed them out on a conference of War Secretaries and eventually the red poppy became the symbol of those who fell for freedom in the commonwealth countries.
November 11 is Remembrance Day in many countries.
We Shall Keep the Faith - by Moina Michael - November 1918
There Are Still Red Poppies in the Reconstructed Trenches of Death
The Yser Tower Museum in Diksmuide
When Politics Get Mixed up with Remembrance
At first the tower was build by an organization of Flemish soldiers, right after the World War I had ended. This tower was blown up by dynamite in the night of 15 and 16 November 1946. A few years later a new tower was build, higher than the old one. With the remains of the old tower, a monumental arch was build, known today as the Pax Gate or the Gate of Peace.
Actually the Yser tower was build and is rebuild as a monument for the Flemish emancipation, which 'battle' is still being fought up till this day.
The Tower symbolizes the demand of 'Never again War' which words are inscribed in four languages in the tower.
Photo of Diksmuide Taken from the Yser Tower
Photo of the Once Inundated Land Along the Yser River
The Poppies are Red, because of Them
Thus let us not forget
to remember the soldiers,
who died for freedom.
their loved ones left behind.
The photo in their pocket,
by kissing it too often,
on the battle fields of war.
The poppies are Red, because of them.
© 2013 Titia Geertman