Category Archives: Belgium

End of Our November MDTs…

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GHENT (Gent)

Saturday – Monday (November 5-7, 2016)

We were finalizing our MDTs (Max Disaster Tours) with a non-diaster, at least not an apparent one, just the typical Middle Age bloodshed.  We were headed to Ghent, the largest city in Flanders (Belgium) during the Middle Ages thanks to cloth, where we landed for two nights and one full day.

Our hotel, which included a tiny kitchenette, sat conveniently within the historic center one block from Vrijdagsmarkt Square or “Friday Market Square”, so-called from, you guessed it, hosting Friday markets beginning in 1199. Amidst the shops and cafes a pointing statue dominated the square, which turned out to be the city’s famous citizen, Jacob van Artevelde (1290-1345).

Ghent’s ‘hero’ wasn’t a military leader, a royal personage, or religious figure but a businessman. I’ll abbreviate his place in history here because trying to explain who’s who to get to why this, why that is too convoluted for my taste…

You know this area of the world during the Middle Ages was raking in the dough from cloth. So much cash was being generated that Ghent, along with Bruges and Ypres, were floating in wealth. Those making this possible were the Guilds, specifically the Cloth Guilds. They’d import English wool, weave it, and sell it back as finished cloth. A wonderful and tidy circle of funds created a wonderful and productive income for all, well, at least for the owners and higher-ups.

But, inevitably all good things come to a close… and, it begins in 1332 with the Count of Flanders, Louis I, leaving Flanders after choosing sides in a power struggle between two kings , King Philip VI of France

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and King Edward III of England.

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Louis left a power vacuum, and in steps Jacob, a wealthy man, who now becomes a prominent business leader in the city.

But, back to the power struggle… Why the King of England would claim ownership to a French throne is due to an unclear line of succession.  The French King Charles IV died in 1328 without a male heir. There happened to be a widow, but, no surprise, her title didn’t count. Philip, a cousin of Charles IV, however, became regent and was then crowned king when the widow-queen begat a daughter, not a son.

But, whoa, here comes England’s Edward III, King of England as well as a vassal of France (ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066 by William, the kings of England are also dukes of Normandy, which further adds spice to this French-English monarchy stew.) Seeing an opportunity to expand his realm, Edward states his claim to the French throne via his mom who happened to be the daughter of Philip IV, a previous French King.

Well, Philip VI and Edward III ended up sniping at one another resulting in Edward III boycotting Flemish cloth. Well, as we know, money Trumps all. Jacob, the one immortalized in the Friday Market Square statue, convinced the Federation of Guilds to back Edward III. After all, that’s where the all mighty dollar lay (and why this 19th century statue is pointing towards England).

FYI:  Historians say this is the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), a war of constant back-and-forth with England and France fighting over who’s going to sit their royal hinny on the French throne.

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Returning to our rebellious Jacob, he didn’t do so well in the end. He became unpopular among all the Cloth Guilds and ended up being hacked to death by the head of the Weavers Guild in 1345. But, hey, he still has an imposing monument in one of Ghent’s beautiful squares.

Leaving Jacob behind we continued our self-guided walking tour. Ghent is a lovely city but definitely a city with an modern, urban feel if you step foot outside the historic district. Yet, within the confines of the medieval cobblestone streets and squares magnificent buildings abound.

As we wandered around the city we passed by buildings, some easily identified, such as the 17th-century gateway to the fish house featuring Neptune with his trident…

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and some not so easily id’ed such as these frolicking figures danced their way across a roofline (it turned out to be the Mason’s Guild Hall).

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One of the most noticeable buildings is the Cloth Hall and its Belfy. In 1313 the people of Ghent decided to build a tower as a symbol of independence, and the Belfry was constructed. Approximately 600 years later the flying dragon was added to its peak. Remarkably, the civic privileges from 1180 still reside here under heavy guard.

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Another symbol of town pride is the huge brass drum in the belfry belting out tunes.

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We took a stroll around the balcony circling the tower obtaining some city views. Let me rephrase that:  Max took a stroll. I, on the other hand, stuck to the stone wall with my back never leaving it until I scurried from one portico to the next all the time thinking ‘this, too, will pass’.

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A ‘you-HAVE-to-see-this’ piece of art awaited us at the Cathedral of St. Bavo; and, it was definitely worth seeing. “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (the neck-bleeding lamb symbolizes crucified Jesus dying for mankind’s sins) was painted by two brothers, Jan and Hubert van Eyck (1420s-32).


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Jan, whose patron happened to be Philip, Duke of Burgundy, is credited with being the father of oil painting; and, if you’re like me wondering what did they paint with if not oil, it was the ‘tempera method’, pigments bound together with various liquids, the most popular one being egg (to which they would sometimes add myrrh to offset any offending odors…).

To view this momentous work we were ushered into a tiny room, which quickly filled up as more and more visitors filed into an ever-increasingly small space. But, we could still see it, and with an audio guide learned something about this piece of art composed of twelve panels painted front and back. The NEW YORK TIMES recently covered the ongoing restorations, so it was fascinating to see it in person.

With our one, must-see destination completed, we began our walk home taking a back street

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to where we spotted a small courtyard enticing my husband to perform his obligatory peep, this time into a medieval well.

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In another plaza we mingled with tourists and locals alike as the afternoon morphed into twilight.

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And, one of my favorite Belgian works of art tempted us as we slowly walked home…

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The second and last morning we had our first meal out in Ghent (all others being picnic-style in our room). Consisting of dual cups of excellent coffee and freshly baked items, our breakfast not only provided nourishment but also an opportunity for Max to snap me at my best.

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Or, worst, as the case may be. And, just so you know, I haven’t looked this bad on a passage…

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After feasting on freshly brewed java and aromatic croissants we drove back into the Netherlands with a planned stop at an engineering marvel, the Maeslantkering, a moveable storm surge barrier. As one of the 13 components comprising the North Sea Protection Works, this surge barrier is the largest in the world.

A display featured an explanatory exhibit (all in Dutch so we basically gazed at the models while scratching our heads) demonstrating why it was constructed (the devastating 1953 flood and the  potential for more) and how (for engineering brains).

Since I will never do this justice, check out this link that describes the project and this water baby in concise and non-engineering terms:  http://www.amusingplanet.com/2014/04/the-netherlands-impressive-storm-surge.html

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After the indoor explanations, we headed outside to get an overview of the site and the immense floating arms.

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all while a cold wind buffeted us, hence the shoulders clenched to the sides and hands stuffed into coat pockets.

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Back in the car we commented on how cool it’d be to actually witness the annual-test closing of the gates. Hmmm… another road trip!

Next: ’tis the season in Netherlands!

The Lion’s Tale

IEPER (Ypres)

November 2016

The sculptors stood next to a stone lion composed of two blocks forming a regal pose. The older man leaned against the immobile flank poised for the next chisel. The younger appeared in mid-stroke as he glanced up at the camera while an assistant seemed to be measuring the plinth. A second lion, serving as part of the sculpting process, completed the tableau.

A black & white photograph captured this scene, one which caught my eye as I waited for a glass in the breakfast room of our inn, Demi Lune.

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When Greet, one of the owners, returned I asked her about this large photograph, and she began to tell me a story that her husband, Peter, finished the next morning.

Most visitors know this town as a landmark of WWI, one completely destroyed and later reconstructed based on historical plans. Yet, Peter spoke of a much older history of this area beginning with the Romans raiding the Belgae people during the 1st century. By the way, the town’s name came from the Belgaes’ word “Iep”, their name for the elm trees, which grew along the banks of the river “Ipre” or “Iepere”; so, it was a natural progression to name the settlement along the river:  Iper, which was altered by the Romans to “Ypra”, the latin derivation.

Located along key transportation routes including easy access to the coast and England’s wool, Ieper began a lucrative trade in textiles. By the 13th century, it became the third largest city in Belgium after Ghent (Gent) and Bruges. Guilds formed to support the trade resulting in the construction of the magnificent Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall), a dominant feature of this medieval town (Ghent and Bruges were the only other Flemish cities featuring this symbol of prosperity).

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Built of stone, Ieper’s Lakenhalle provided a safe storage for both imported wool and the finished cloth stowed for export. However, the stone building also provided a habitat for those furry animals called rats. To help reduce the rodent population cats were introduced. This created another problem at the end of the season when no wool or cloth was stored resulting in a heavily reduced rat population and an over-abundance of felines. So, a tradition began that occurred on the last day of the annual fair (Cat Wednesday): cats, also considered evil spirits, would be bundled into burlap bags and tossed from the hall’s bell tower by the city jester.

Thankfully, this tradition stopped in 1817 only to be reinstated in 1930, but the meowing sack is now replaced with a furry, inanimate object.

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If you’re interested, you can experience this festival every three years (next one is 2018).  And, if you’re wondering about cat karma, just think of how the bubonic plague spread.

Ieper experienced an economic decline in the late 1300s due to the annihilation caused by the Bubonic Plague roaring through Europe and to the effects of a devastating siege in 1383 waged by an English bishop (yeah, really, he was a ‘holy’ man). But, I’m only mentioning this decline because of that ‘the world is a small ball’ moments:   In 2014 I saw a special door at Canterbury Cathedral for the Flemish weavers who headed over to England and started a competitive cloth trade. Due to the economic benefits of these immigrants, the rulers and religious heads allowed them to open a church in the underbelly (crypt) of the cathedral.

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Another example of how the threads of history weave together, the warping and wefting of time flow through the loom of life, lives intertwine amidst the carpet of the earth…  Okay, I’ll stop.

Ieper attracted the attention of power-hungry forces way before the Germans tried to take it in 1914. Eventually earthworks morphed into stone fortifications, some built under the direction of the famous French military engineer, Seigneur de Vauban, after King Louis XIV (1638-1715) invaded and overtook the city in 1678. Below is a mock-up commissioned by the French king in 1701.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t visit the remaining walls but we did stand on the site where the eastern road led to the town of Menin, and, so we return to where I began this tale…

Peter, who can trace his ancestry back 16 generations, told me how the sculptors were his great-great-grandfather and his great-grandfather, Alphonse and Josef Pollee. He pointed out how the work was being done on top of the gate to avoid any difficulty placing the lion in its final position when completed. Peter also mentioned how his great-grandfather took off on a new motorbike to see the coast only to be fired upon his return. The reason? His father felt his son should have been marching in the May 1st Socialist Parade.

This lion isn’t to be confused with two carved in the 17th century holding Ieper’s coat of arms. Those stood guard at the gated, eastern entrance to the city. Eventually the gates were dismantled in the mid-1800s but the lions, placed on plinths, remained on either side of the Menin Road, the road on which thousands of WWI soldiers marched on the way to the Salient and, in many cases, towards death. (Many may know this already, but a salient is a military term for a battlefield bulging into enemy territory resulting in being surrounded on three sides by the enemy.)

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The two lions survived the shelling with some damage but intact enough to maintain a regal presence. In 1936 these limestone sculptures were donated to the Australian government in gratitude for the sacrifices that country made during WWI. They were placed in the Australian War Memorial and later repaired in the late 1980s based on historical photographs. In 2014 they were loaned to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa along with the 1927 painting of the Menin Gate Memorial by the Australian war artist, Capt. William Frederick Longstaff who served in WWI (this painting is at the top of this post). In 2017 the lions will be returned to Ieper for commemorating the 100th-anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.

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I found it quite astonishing that we were meeting the grandson of sculptors who had their hand in honoring those who had fallen during WWI. Their lion sat in repose atop Menin Gate, the memorial constructed in 1927.

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Yet, Max and I discovered even more of a connection between our hosts and the war:   the photographer of the iconic photo of Peter’s sculpting ancestors was none other than Greet’s great-uncle, Daniel Pynck.

As a young boy, Daniel lived with his family in Ieper. It was here, during WWI, where he lost his leg when a shell struck their home. His brother was killed and his mother and sister, wounded.

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Daniel was transported to a hospital on the coast to recuperate. An English nurse then took him to England while the war raged throughout his homeland.

While in England he learned the art of photography. As a young man he returned to the home of his birth, arriving on his relatives’ doorsteps speaking fluent English. He opened a shop on the main square, Photo Daniel,

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and began a successful career, being one of the few photographers in the area (we noticed his photo credit in an exhibit at the Flanders Field Museum).

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The store only recently closed but the building still stands, yet another landmark in Ieper’s history.

Peter and Greet also shared with us the historical significance of Demi Lune, the name of their B&B. Demilune, french for ‘crescent’, has several meanings:  it’s the name for a crescent-shaped island standing in the middle of water that one has to cross to enter/exit a city gate (if you look again at the 1701 mock-up of Ieper you’ll see several of these demi lunes); it’s the shape of a half-moon, a time when one is suppose to sleep well; and, it means little croissant, one of those delicate, flakey pastries offered as part of your B&B breakfast. A perfect appellation for this inn.

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Thanks to Peter and Greet, our understanding of Ieper’s history stretched way before the devastation of WWI. If anyone is planning a visit to this town, it’s definitely worth booking a room at this welcoming inn, Demi Lune (http://www.demi-lune.be). And, if you can spend some time with the owners, you, too, will feel the breath of history.

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MDT 3

French:  YPRES / Flemish:  IEPER

Thursday-Friday, November 3-4, 2016

Our final MDT (Max Disaster Tour) encompassed another key battle site, Ypres, a town destroyed or, more aptly described, obliterated during World War I.

Just a brief overview:  In spite of some advocating for peace and disarmament, such as the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Czech-Austrian pacifist and novelist Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914), European countries were marching towards war due to… world powers struggling for (a) economic power, (b) gaps between the have and have-nots were expanding, and (c) nationalist feelings were soaring due to some international confrontations. [Yikes, I just reread this. does this sound as familiar to you as it does to me?] These ingredients created a bellicose soup with the opening salvo occurring August 4,1914 when Germany invaded neutral Belgium.

And, it’s where we found ourselves preparing to be horrified and goose-pimpled awed as we walked on and around some very hallowed ground.

The chilly raw temperature seemed appropriate for a gray November day spent touring another tragic area. Following in friends’ Marcia and Steve’s footsteps, we also made reservations for a guided tour. And, boy, did that turn out to be an informative way to hear about the war here in Ypres, formerly a fortified-medieval town where wealthy Belgians escaped the city streets of Brussels.

We joined a family of three from Glasgow (the daughter happened to be working for the Scottish government in Amsterdam), two Brits composed of a son-in-law taking his father-in-law to various war sites, and a young Polish woman studying in Amsterdam, all of us being led by Jacques Ryckebosch of Flanders Battlefield Tour. Friendly and extremely knowledgeable, you immediately know you’re in the hands of someone who wants to ensure you, as guests at these sites, understand why those who fought here deserve our respect and honor. And, his manner is such that you, too, feel respected by this kind soul.

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NOTE:  Woven into the narrative below is information obtained from a visit to the Ypres’ Flanders Field Museum the next morning. 

Over the next four hours Jacques guided us to seven sites. He introduced us to this part of the world with a light-hearted anecdote:  The allied soldiers changed Belgian town names to creative nicknames:  Ypres became “Wipers”… Etaples became “Eat Apples”.  Our wry smiles quickly turned to somber faces as he told us all, and I mean all, of Ypres’ buildings and streets are only 80 to 90 years old.

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WWI had left this fortified-medieval town

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and its pastoral surroundings…

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and a muddy, cratered desert after four years of artillery shelling and trench warfare.

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The Salient (a battlefield created by one army being surrounded on three sides by the opposing troops) is a term you hear when discussing the fighting at Ypres. Similar to WWII the Allied forces needed to keep the Germans from gaining access to key seaports, such as Calais and Dunkirk. This would protect the Allies’ flow of supplies while preventing Germans access to an easy-to-defend new front, one that would include harbors.

The front lines stalled around Ypres, trenches were dug, and hundreds of thousands would lose their lives here. In some instances enemies were within shouting distances of one another as they survived (or not) fighting from these filthy and disease-ridden ditches. A soldier’s rotation of duty typically entailed four days at the front, which could include a night patrol or a stint in no-man’s land, followed by a tour as a reserve further from the front lines, and, if lucky, some time when they were billeted even further from the front.

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WWI witnessed the transition from cavalry and imprecise canon shots to tanks and accurate, rapid-fire machine guns, artillery that created shrapnel and carried a much greater range than in prior wars. WWI also led England to create a large infantry force, having previously relied on their navy; and, in the Flanders Museum we saw a vehicle used by England’s Minister of Defense, Lord Kitchener, for recruiting volunteers (aka, canon fodder).

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The Germans had a slight elevation advantage, even though higher ground might mean just a few feet, and in driving to the various sites Jacques was quick to point out when we were on an incline. Yet, the allies managed to hold Ypres during the war with the exception of one day, October 7, 2014, when the Germans made it into the town before being expelled.

The Germans managed to gather excellent intelligence on the Allies. I don’t remember any of the specific examples quoted by Jacques, but it was uncanny. I’m not sure how it was communicated, but we did see a photo of one of Britain’s ‘signal companies’, which included Radio telegraphy, telephone, and carrier pigeons (!).

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The Salient has the dubious fame of being where the first poisonous gas was used. This occurred on April 22, 1915 with the French and Algerians being its first victims followed by the Canadians two days later. Use of a chemical weapon broke two Peace Treaties signed 1899 and 1907, causing the Brits to retaliate with the same on September 25, 1915. Ironically, the creator of this chemical weapon was the German chemist Fritz Haber (the one pointing in the photo below), who happened to be Jewish.

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In 1918 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (?!). His legacy lived on with this same gas later used in the Nazis’ gas chambers. At least one of the Habers realized the Pandora’s box he had opened:  On May 2, 1915 Fritz’s wife Clara Immerwahr, a pacifist, committed suicide.

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Live gas canisters are still being found today along with all the other unexploded ordinances (about 240 tons are collected and safely detonated each and every year). Jacques and a friend of his, an archaeologist, were documenting a gravesite in 2007. The next day Jacques got a call from his friend saying he was at the doctor’s due to a huge, nasty blister appearing on his forearm. Come to find out it his friend’s forearm and hand had come into contact where the gas had seeped from its 100-year-old-container.

One of the first sites we visited was Essex Farm (again, non-local soldiers called their battle locales by names familiar to them). Here, there were bunkers serving as an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS). Here, on December 8, 1915, the Canadian Dr. John McCare (1872-1918) wrote the famous poem, “In Flanders Field” just a few days after one of his good friends, Lt. Alexis Helmer, died. And, since I can’t speak of WWI without also offering his words, here they are:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Another famous doctor serving in WWI was an American professor of neurosurgery, D. Harvey Cushing (1869-2939), an eye witness to the third battle at Ypres (July 3, 1917 – November 10, 1917). It was when working at a French military hospital he experimented using magnets to extract shrapnel from brain tissue. In addition to doctors, there were nurses, many who sacrificed their lives as they treated the wounded, and the Flanders Museum shows a well-done video with actors portraying Dr. Cushing and several nurses as they speak of this war and its affects on humanity. One recollection that Max noted hearing during the video was “Can one grow used to death? Is it unsafe to think of this? For if death becomes cheap, it is the watcher, not the dying, who is poisoned.”

Jacques would mention some conversations he’s had with this war’s veterans over the years. Several of these recollections, in particular, stood out due to contradicting some general assumptions about this battle, and I paraphrase: One veteran strongly disagreed with the phrase ‘all quiet on the western front’… if anything, it was a continuous hell; and, another hated when he heard people say there were ‘five battles at Ypres’… he felt there was nonstop fighting with battles killing and maiming thousands.

While death and destruction wasn’t limited to a particular fight, one location became synonymous with the wanton wastefulness of human life on the Western Front:  “I died in hell, they called it Passchendaele”, a battle fought in 1917 to capture a ridge held by the Germans.

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The last site we visited was Sanctuary Woods Hill 62. The woods still have some of the original trenches that have been reinforced to ensure they don’t deteriorate over time, and trees have grown up where once the landscape was a quagmire of filthy mud.

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Jacques told us that most veterans he’s had the honor of guiding here refused to enter the trenches. I can’t really imagine how it must have been standing in one of these trenches with shells exploding and bloodied soldiers being carted into bunkers. Especially knowing you may get an order to ‘go over the top’.

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On March 3, 1918 the war ended on the Eastern Front, but it wasn’t until eight months later on November 11, 1918 that fighting ceased on the Western Front. Soon after Winston Churchill suggested Ypres remain in ruins as a reminder of the horror of war; but, the residents, all who had to forsake their homes, proclaimed a decidedly forceful “NO”, and with that Ypres began to rebuild itself using plans drafted by an architect extremely knowledgeable about all the original town’s buildings.

It’s no surprise most of the sites we toured had either a cemetery or were right next to one. Jacques told us the entire area is one big graveyard with bodies, like unexploded shells, still being unearthed. Nineteen have been discovered this year alone.

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Fortunately there is an organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), headquartered in Maidenhead, England, whose purpose is honoring the soldiers who died during WWI and II. Working in partnership with local groups, they maintain existing cemeteries while ensuring any found body from the war is identified (if possible through a DNA match) before being buried. When a body is unearthed, a funeral is given by the CWGC. To give you an idea of just how much the residents still think of those times and those who died there, the services for these soldiers are packed by locals in spite of never being advertised.

The CWGC even cares for the German cemetery, Langemark. Over 40,000 Germans are buried here including 3,000 from a German Student Battalion. These inexperienced soldiers fought against battle-tested and professional British soldiers during the first battle of Ypres, with the Germans’ death called the “massacre of the innocents”. These young soldiers played a part in WWII’s propaganda when Hitler visited the cemetery in 1940 to promote German bravery.

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Hitler had also fought near here during WWI and a big “what if… we had seen his name on one of the gravestone?” popped into, I’m sure, a lot of our heads.

We viewed a 16th-century cross from the plague years, which had been erected near a memorial for the French soldiers killed in the first gas attack.

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We also saw other memorials such as the famous ‘Brooding Solider’ in honor of the Canadians who held a key piece of ground despite being gassed two days after the French.

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We drove by the Welsh one, which stands where their soldiers fell versus where they were buried.

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One of the largest memorials was the Menin Gate with names of 55,000 fallen soldiers carved on its wall. Later a Wall of Remembrance was placed at Tyne Cot cemetery with 35,000 more names listed.

At Menin Gate there’s a ceremony that Seppe told us about; so, at 8:00pm Max and I witnessed this moving tribute, one that’s been occurring every day since 1927. It continued during WWII in England then returned to Ypres September 6,1944 the day the Polish forces liberated the town. A bugle is sounded playing two traditional tunes: , first is the “Last Post”, a final salute to the fallen, followed by “Reveille”, the wake-up call and celebration of the living. After a moment of silence, relatives of those whose names are on the walls may lay wreaths.

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In spite of this WWI guided tour and excellent exhibits at all the war sites we’ve seen these past there days, I’ve only grasped a cursory understanding of the events at Waterloo, Bastogne, and Ypres. Yet, one doesn’t have to see too much to know war is a curse on humanity.

After touring the Flanders Field Museum the next day, I believe both of us were ready for much lighter fare. We headed to Ghent for our last Belgium stop of our road trip.

But, before we left this area, there’s one more story to be told.

Until next time…

MDT 2

WATERLOO

Thursday, November 3

Once again I’m astonished at just how interesting I found another one of Max’s Disaster Tours, and this MDT 2 covering the Battle of Waterloo fell into that bucket of ‘whoa, this is well done!’.

From what others had mentioned, we thought we’d be trotting on a section of the battlefield and reading a few displays about what occurred, then we’d be out of there; but the museum captured our interest from the get-go and the expected 60-minute visit turned into a four-hour tour.

Memorial 1815, the museum site, combines a hilltop panorama (as well as a mural housed in the circular building below) with a modern, underground museum (just visible to the right of the strollers), all excellent tributes to this battle.

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Similar to the one in Bastogne, Memorial 1815 enhances a visitor’s experience by using a mix of visual and audio tools. After sitting through a ten-minute film with 3-D glasses, Max said he got a good idea of just how it might feel to be an infantryman charged by a cavalry. Based on the progression of exhibit experiences, I wouldn’t be too surprised if in the next ten years (or less) I’ll actually be able to take part in a historical event though virtual reality (NOTE:  I’d opt out of France’s Reign of Terror and chopped heads, and many more, no doubt).

For two hours we walked chronologically through rooms explaining…

the background of Napoleon’s rule (French Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, aka Age of Reason)…

some interesting aspects of his time as emperor:  he honored the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827 ) with the title of count due to Volta’s work in electricity; he championed beet sugar production in answer to the British blocking the Caribbean sugar cane trade; and, one of his most influential legacies:  he authorized the creation of the Napoleonic Code, a modern legal code with no religious content and written in language people could actually understand…

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as well as a brief primer on all the forces escalating against Napoleon:  his enemies sat on many thrones, so this Corsican’s rise to power based on merit and not on inheritance sent shivers throughout all of Europe and Great Britain. The museum Id’ed the prominent rulers opposing this upstart:

Francis II, the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1768-1835) – detested any whiff of constitutionalism and waged war against France in 1792-97, and fought in subsequent battles against Napoleon; to his family’s dismay his daughter, Marie-Louise, later became Napoleon’s second wife and mother of Napoleon’s only legitimate son.

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Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily (1752-1814) – pushed out of Naples by Napoleon (whose brother Joseph was then made King of Naples, then later replaced by another Bonaparte sib, Caroline); oh, and Maria Carolina was one of Marie Antoinette’s sisters… need I say more?

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Frederick William, Prussian Duke of Brunswick and Wolfenbuttel (1781-1815) – was humiliated by Napoleon’s crushing defeat of the Prussian army in 1806 and looked forward to retaliating.

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John VI, King of Portugal (1767-1826) – his country was invaded by the French and the Spanish during Napoleon’s rule with the royal family escaping to Brazil in 1807; interestingly, Britain under the command of Arthur Wellesley (who becomes THE Duke of Wellington) restored the Portuguese throne in1808.

John VI of Portugal

Williem I, Stadholder/Governor of the Netherlands (later King when Austrian Low Lands, now Belgium, was added to the Netherlands) (1772-1843) – his country was invaded by Napoleon (Napoleon’s brother, Louis, ruled the Netherlands 1806-10).

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Ferdinand VII, King of Spain (1784-1833) – first sought out Napoleon for protection from his father, Charles IV, then was taken prisoner by Napoleon who installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as king of Spain (the latter was so ineffective as King of Naples, big bro Napoleon made him King of Spain instead; go figure).

Ferdinand VII

Louis XVIII, King of France (1755-1824) – brother of the beheaded French king and hoping to take back his family’s throne.

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Quite a club, eh? Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall if all of them ever got together in one room. Actually, I’d rather be someone at the table for I can only imagine the food feast served.

With Napoleon invading so many of his neighbors, you wonder who wouldn’t rise up against him? Add the fact he made himself Emperor (so much for abolishing despots) and populated squashed countries’ thrones with his siblings, one would have to be a dummkopf (aka, blockhead) not to realize this was poking a hornet’s next with an extremely short stick. Scratch that:  change ‘poking’ to ‘whacking the hell out of’.

Actually, Napoleon was just continuing the tradition begun with the first (1792-97) of seven Coalition Wars when monarchies tried to stifle the French Revolution. During that time Napoleon was proving his military genius as he ascended from soldier to general to commander of France’s army. Six more coalition wars were fought with the seventh in 1815, ending with the vanquishing of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Oddly the museum used historical paintings to cover earlier battles fought by Napoleon. It was fascinating from an artistic perspective but not too clear regarding the chronology leading up to this auspicious battle. However, one that caught my interest depicted a ball in Brussels given by the Duchess of Richmond, the Commander of the Reserve Troops’ wife, on June 15, just three days before the fight.

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She invited top dignitaries, including Wellington and his commanders.  Although the French had already begun preparations for battle, the Duke ordered his officers to attend in order to stave off any panic their absence might have caused.

When we got to the museum’s area covering the actual battle, a timeline adorned each side of a long hallway while soldiers marched towards the battle. Here the information was so detailed you could press a button on your audio guide to hear about soldiers’ belts and other minutia. Must admit I skipped a lot of those for my eyeballs were starting to spin in my head.

Prussian officers led by Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher (1742-1819) were instrumental in winning the Battle of Waterloo;

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as were those led by Willem I, King of the Netherlands (mentioned earlier). Without the Prussian and Netherland troops, the French would have won the Battle. FYI:  I’ve seen so many conflicting numbers of troops per army I won’t even begin to try to figure it out. Suffice it to say, the French were outnumbered.

It was a singularly bloody fight with Wellington aptly saying “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”

While the actual, June 18th squirmishes didn’t attract my attention too much some specific incidents related to this Battle did, such as…

  • a painting of the capturing and looting of Napoleon’s military carriage (we actually saw his battlefield hat in Berlin’s German History Museum);I later discovered the carriage was shipped to England’s Prince Regent (later King George IV), eventually landing in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (!) where it was destroyed by a fire in 1925;

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  • sketches by Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842), a surgeon and anatomist who visited the battle field 10 days later to document some of the wounds, possibly to use as part of his medical teachings;

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  • hearing Napoleon went to Mal Maison, the manor he had shared with his ex-wife, Josephine, seven days after escaping capture on the battlefield (and, which Max and I visited with Betsy just before New Year’s Eve in 2014);

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  • and, due to the heroics and victory at the Battle of Waterloo, veterans received free beer for a long time at any British pub.

With all of the information provided several categories seemed to be missing: the personal lives of the main characters; and, the period of Napoleon escaping Elba only to return to lead the French back into war. But, we were definitely ready for a break and some fresh air, so we headed to a key battle site:  Hougoumont.

A short shuttle bus landed us at the site where at 11:30 a.m. on the morning of June 18, 2015 the first shots were fired. This walled farmhouse stood equidistant between the two lines of engagement, and, for that reason Wellington positioned his troops there. Supposedly, when asked what his orders would be if he died in battle, he said “hold Hougoumont.”  And, they did,  but not without a lot of fighting as the French tried over and over to win this piece of land.

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At one point during the fight, the French caused the buildings to burn. Later, the French managed to push in the gate and storm the grounds. Several soldiers then rushed to the wall and, in a heroic moment–one of many, i’m sure–closing the gate, thus keeping their enemy out. This action is credited with ensuring Hougoumont remained in the Coalition’s possession.

Remarkably, a chapel remained intact after this horrendous fighting. What was deemed a miracle was a 16th-century Flemish crucifix in the chapel actually starting burning but mysteriously stopped at the feet. Some writers whose names I recognized visited this site:  Lady Shelley, friend and confidante of Wellington, travelled there in September 1815;  the following year Lord Byron scrawled his name on the wall (not there now); and Victor Hugo must have been there for he included the manor’s well in Les Miserables.

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Since then the crucifix has gone through a theft of a leg and several restorations.

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Both Max and I found Hougoumont particularly interesting, and moving when you consider the bravery of the few who held this vital site. Where once a woods stood three trees remain, left by the owner, Chevalier de Louville, after the battle due to the heavy damage incurred. Not only humans but nature, too, is befouled by war.

But, time to catch the shuttle back where we both walked up the numerous steps to look across the battlefield; however, I with my shuddering fear of heights climbed up step by step while talking to myself to tamp down my nervousness. Once atop I quickly scooted my backside along the base of the monument only to rush back down the numerous steps, talking to myself with catch-and-release death grips on the metal hand railings.

Do you see the dot in the middle of the picture way down below? That’s moi feeling oh so much better.

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Meanwhile Max took in the view and snapped a diagram of the lines of engagement.

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Lastly we drove to the Waterloo Inn where Wellington stayed during the nights of the 17th and 18th. Here we saw where he slept and wrote his report of the Battle. More interesting, we saw some of his handwritten field notes.

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Other than seeing his room and his orders, this Wellington Museum didn’t offer a lot of information unless you were into weapons of that time. (I had actually seen the chair in which he died, or so they say, with my friend Carol in southern England.)

And, with that our MDT 2 was over, and I was ready to head home to our Belgian Family. Yet, like I mentioned at the beginning, Museum 1815 and Hougoumont are definitely worth exploring if interested in the Battle of Waterloo.

Tomorrow, our MDT 3…