As first seen in GI Money magazine
It’s coming up on the 100th anniversary of World War I and there are no longer any living veterans. The last WWI veteran was Florence Green of the UK, who died in 2012 at the age of 110. The last American vet was Frances Buckles, who died in 2011, also at the age of 110. A Russian Empire vet, Mikhail Krichevsky, died in 2008 at the age of 111. There were several more US and Allied vets who lived way past 100, but they’re all gone now. It’s incumbent upon us to honor them and to remember “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars”. GI Money made the journey to this moving and sobering part of the world to report on it for our readers.
WWI brought about the modern fighting era with chemical weapons and airplanes. The U.S. entered the war for its final 18 months, beginning in 1917 and ending on November 18, 1918 at the Armistice (cessation of hostilities) on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Forevermore, that’s when America celebrates Veterans Day, while our allies call it “Remembrance Day”.
The battles that took place in the region of Belgium known as Flanders – including the town of Ypres — are known as “Flanders Fields,” attributable to the poem of Canadian surgeon and Lt. Col. John McCrae. His poem, called In Flanders Fields, was written to commemorate his fallen friend. Later in the war, Lt. Col. McCrae succumbed to pneumonia on the battlefield. Many of our allied vets wear silk poppies on November 11, dating back to that time. Congruency of nature blood-red poppies were the only living thing that would grow in the area, fertilized by decomposing bodies. The poem was considered both stirring and inspirational, later used for recruitment:
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.
Many American citizens – 55,000 — actually entered the war earlier than the government’s involvement. They signed up for the Canadian forces, many having Canadian family ties or European heritage. 5,000 American troops were killed or died of wounds while fighting with the Canadians. When America did enter the war, they fought in Flanders under the leadership of the King of Belgium, who served as General. Primary divisions in the region included the 27th NY Div., the 37th Ohio Div., the 91st Montana/Western Div. 1043 of these were killed, of which 368 are buried at the American Cemetery in Waregem.
The U.S. Government, through the American Battle Monuments Commission, maintains the American Cemetery in Waregem. The Gold Star Mothers’ Room is preserved as a Visitor’s Center; people can ask questions and find out where a loved one may be buried. In 1930, General Pershing came for the dedication. Col. Charles Lindbergh visited when he flew to Europe. The cemetery, though amongst working farms, is landscaped in such a way that it seems sheltered from the rest of the world.
There are several Allied and also German cemeteries in the area; Adolph Hitler fought in Flanders Fields.
In the actual town of Ypres, there’s a new museum dedicated to WWI, In Flanders Fields Museum. The collection includes uniforms and weaponry from many different countries, rare multi-media and contemporary artifacts, explanations of the political entanglements and much more. There’s a bell tower to climb and a café serving regional fare.
Every single evening at 8 pm sharp, at Menin Gate in Ypres, The Last Post is played. This is the traditional final salute to the fallen, played by the buglers in honor of the memory of the soldiers of the former British Empire and its allies, who died in the Ypres Salient during the First World War. Menin Gate is an impressive, huge structure . . . but even as large as it is, its walls were found to be only big enough hold the names of half of the 90,000 soldiers killed in the region. Other names had to be added to an Allied cemetery. The moving Last Post ceremony is free; it’s been attended by vets, civilians and dignitaries from around the world since its inception in 1928. Wreaths of poppies are placed at the monument. People wishing to commemorate veterans, loved ones, etc., can ask permission to be part of the wreath dedication ceremony by contacting The Last Post Association.
For more information on visiting the region, contact Ypres Tourism or the offices in New York, Visit Flanders.