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WW1 - The Trenches of Death in Flanders Fields

Updated on November 2, 2017
Titia profile image

I've always had an interest in war time stories and try to imagine how life was at that time. I don't think I can get even close to reality.

Red Poppies in Flanders Fields
Red Poppies in Flanders Fields | Source

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

show route and directions
A markerdiksmuide -
8600 Diksmuide, Belgium
get directions

B markerduinkerken -
Dunkirk, France
get directions

C markerYper -
Ypres, Belgium
get directions

D markerveurne -
Veurne, Belgium
get directions

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

The Yser Region
The Yser Region | Source

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 Trenches of Death
The Trenches of Death | Source

The Yser Offensive

trenches of death
trenches of death | Source

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

Inundated land
Inundated land | Source

70+ Million Soldiers Recruted, Including 60 Million Civilians, 9 Million Soldiers Were Killed

Red Poppies in the Fields

Lieutenant John McCrae

lieutenant John McCrae
lieutenant John McCrae | Source

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

Written after the buriel of McCrae's friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer
Written after the buriel of McCrae's friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer

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.

remembrance poppy
remembrance poppy | Source

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

we shall keep the faith
we shall keep the faith | Source

There Are Still Red Poppies in the Reconstructed Trenches of Death

Red Poppy in the trenches of death
Red Poppy in the trenches of death | Source

The Yser Tower Museum in Diksmuide

The IJzer tower monument
The IJzer tower monument | Source

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

On the foreground: the Yser Canal running through Diksmuide
On the foreground: the Yser Canal running through Diksmuide | Source

Photo of the Once Inundated Land Along the Yser River

Overview of the Yser River: at the right border of the river were the German linies, on the left the land that was flooded during the war.
Overview of the Yser River: at the right border of the river were the German linies, on the left the land that was flooded during the war. | Source

The Poppies are Red, because of Them

Thus let us not forget
to remember the soldiers,
who died for freedom.
Their fears,
their tears,
their loved ones left behind.
The photo in their pocket,
wrinkled,
smudged,
by kissing it too often,
wherever,
whenever,
on the battle fields of war.
The poppies are Red, because of them.


©Titia Geertman

© 2013 Titia Geertman

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    • Stephanie36 profile image

      Stephanie 3 years ago from Canada

      I grew up hearing In Flander's Field every year. It was really interesting seeing the photos of the real place. I went to school in John McCrae's hometown and it's still on my bucket list to get see his house. Great lens!

    • profile image

      drcarl 4 years ago

      surfing around, I see kids on a tour of the trenches, smiling and being kids. How wonderful that they have no clue. I wonder where I may have smiled inappropriately. I find it so sad how man can be so mean to fellow man. Still, there is beauty. I'll spread some poppy seeds today. Thanks.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Congratulations on getting a Purple Star for this lovely lens Titia :)

    • catmaxx profile image

      Terry Lomax 4 years ago from Rep. of Ireland

      As an ex Royal Navy man I lay a wreath of poppies at war memorials whenever I am visiting one, wherever in the world it may be. I have come across pink poppies, and I have some blue poppy seeds I intend to plant this year.

    • suepogson profile image

      suepogson 4 years ago

      This was so moving.

    • GimperBee LM profile image

      GimperBee LM 4 years ago

      History had never been my strong point, but you made the story so interesting! Thank you! :)

    • Titia profile image
      Author

      Titia Geertman 4 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      @lesliesinclair: Well congrats on your wings, I'm very honored, thank you so much. Now go spread your wings some more, lots of excellent articles to bless here on Squidoo.

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 4 years ago

      I'm a brand new Squid Angel and gave this lens my first-ever Blessing.

    • takkhisa profile image

      Takkhis 4 years ago

      What a nice lens! Wow, i am just amazed....Blessed :)

    • Titia profile image
      Author

      Titia Geertman 4 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      @ManipledMutineer: Well, if you ever decided to visit the Trenches of Death, let me know, it's only one hour from my house.

    • Country-Sunshine profile image

      Country Sunshine 4 years ago from Texas

      A truly wonderful article not only on the poppies, but on WWI. So many people today know nothing about the war, much less the people who fought there. A great tribute! **Blessed**

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      getmoreinfo 4 years ago

      Thanks for the information on Red Poppies and congrats on being selected for the Red Contest.

    • ManipledMutineer profile image

      ManipledMutineer 4 years ago

      An excellent lens, well written - my only comment would be that in the section "The Trenches of Death", "discouraged" would probably be a better alternative to "disheartened"; British and French (and, no doubt, Belgian) troops were not encouraged to build shelters as their focus was supposed to be on offensive action and forcing the Germans off Franco-Belgian soil; thus their trenches were supposed to be 'temporary'! This lens has reignited my desire to visit the preserved trenches at Dixmunde, as I have done with those on the Somme and around Ypres. Even though I have an example of the Yser/Ijzer Medal, awarded to Belgian troops for participation in the first crucial battles of the race to the North Sea, I hadn't associated that with the "Trenches of Death", so now I have all the more reason to visit!

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 4 years ago from San Francisco

      World War I vets used to sell their artificial red poppies for a penny every Memorial Day when I was a child, and it always came with a tiny copy of the poem, "In Flanders Field the Poppies Blow," but I had completely forgotten about that and the connection to World War I. Thank you for the reminder, and for sharing the horrors of war, lest any of us forget, in this day of unmanned killing drones, what it means to the lives on the ground.

      My grandfather was a WWI vet, and I know the war changed him. The last time I saw him, he brought out a small wooden box and showed it to we older grandchildren. It contained his medals, along with a few other mementos of the war and of a life lived quietly ever after, despite a vibrant wife and a household of eight rambunctious children. I wish I had been less preoccupied with boys and being a teenager and had paid more attention to this exceedingly rare gift of his trying to share some of the most important moments of his life with us.

    • choosehappy profile image

      Vikki 4 years ago from US

      Beautiful and informative; I learned so much here today. Thanks so much ;) And that little poppy growing out from underneath the rocks is gorgeous. #blessed

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      aquarian_insight 4 years ago

      I always wear a poppy and here you explain exactly why! A wealth of information here - thank you. *Blessed*

    • victoriuh profile image

      victoriuh 4 years ago

      Wonderful lens. I have always wanted to visit there. Blessings.

    • Loretta L profile image

      Loretta Livingstone 4 years ago from Chilterns, UK.

      A very beautiful lens. One that brings a tear to my eye.

    • PinkstonePictures profile image

      PinkstonePictures 4 years ago from Miami Beach, FL

      Wonderful emotional lens. Fantastic

    • Jo-Jackson profile image

      Jo-Jackson 4 years ago

      Lovely lens. I really enjoyed reading it. I have linked to it from my gardening lens on Red Poppies.

    • profile image

      BeyondRoses 4 years ago

      I know why the Poppies are Red, but did not know all of the history. You presented it lovingly. I remember from childhood, my Daddy, always wearing a red poppy when they were sold at Veterans Day. He was in the first World War.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 4 years ago from Canada

      Titia as is always your style you have covered your topic completely and totally. Your version of why the poppies are red is informative, emotional, and beautiful. It is a delight to read.

    • Mistl profile image

      Mistl 4 years ago

      I have been wondering about this, but never taken the time to research why red poppies is the symbol so thank you for creating this article.

    • jolou profile image

      jolou 4 years ago

      This is beautifully written and moving to read. Most of us wear poppies at Remembrance Day in Canada. To be honest, I didnt' know the whole history of Flanders but I do now. blessed.

    • kindoak profile image

      kindoak 4 years ago

      Hej Titia. I heard stories from relatives (now long dead) about the horrors of the trench wars. I think the WW1 ground fighting was such a abomination that many people have erased it from their memories.

      Thanks for making a fantastic lens!

    • AshleysCorner profile image

      AshleysCorner 4 years ago

      Really nice lens Titia!

    • Stuwaha profile image

      Stuwaha 4 years ago

      Fabulous lens from a content perspective :) I love the poppy dividers as well.

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 4 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      I found this page very moving. Here in the UK, in the weeks running up to Remembrance Sunday in November, most of us wear a special artificial red poppy to commemorate the war dead. They are sold by the British Legion, an organisation that provides help and care for injured men and women of the army, navy and air force.

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      seosmm 4 years ago

      Another beautiful lens Titia. Great job!