Now we get to the focal point of this trip–the Western Front. Talk about classroom on location! We had three days in Belgium and Northern France. Needless to say, this was a much different pace than our time in London with very long days, and being together with the group all day.
First, a note on our amazing tour guides. Our “head guide” was Carl (yes, the one who is quoted in the title of this post), who is basically a walking history book, and the landscape of Belgium is his reference. The first two days I rode in his van in the front middle seat, so as we drove between memorials and monuments, I got so much additional information! Driving along, every other minute he’d see something in a field or along the skyline and be telling a story about its significance in his Belgian accent (which, fun fact, sounds a lot like a Scottish one, with its long, rolled r’s!). The second was Lucas, who was in his late-20s, but was also a fountain of knowledge. Carl did most of the talking on the tour, but when I rode with Lucas on the last day, I found that he had just as much knowledge and stories to share…plus his commentary on Carl’s driving was hilarious too!
Overall, Belgium is very different from England. First of all, it is almost completely flat except for a few ridges (which were, understandably, very important during the war). Also, Belgium is farmland! I was feeling very at home that first day when we stepped out of the vans and inhaled that very distinct farm-smell. ;) We could still find fields of leeks, cabbages, and brussel sprouts growing in the wet, clay soil (and I’m pretty sure I was the only one constantly fascinated by this aspect the whole time!…haha).
Belgium also has much more of an “old Europe” feel, with rows of red brick houses and patches of cobblestone roads. This is actually a little surprising, however, since pretty much the entire area of Ypres had to be rebuilt after the destruction of the war, with full reconstruction not ending until 1984.
There are so many stories I could tell from these few days (so please ask sometime! :)), but a couple stand out.
On the second day, we stopped by an Australian Memorial that was pretty much surrounded by fields. As we were looking at the monument, Carl ran out into a field to pick up a few bits of shrapnel that he had spotted. Lucas too told us how farmers today still continue to find live, unexploded shells in their fields–100 years after the war began! They then have to call the army to pick them up and dispose of them safely. And even as we drove around, Carl was constantly pointing out remains of German bunkers in fields. As someone who lives on a farm, this was all so crazy to think about. When we rock-pick, we always collect our ‘treasures’–golf balls, bits of glass, pretty rocks…but I can’t even imagine finding bits of shrapnel, or worse, possibly dangerous shells. I don’t usually consider the impact history can have on our landscape.
The second memory/story will probably seem a little strange at first–basically, it’s a really miserable day. Our second day was characterized by lots of rain, 30-40mph winds, and just all-around cold. While we stood outside in the wide-open landscape and listened to Carl talk. Yeah. Super interesting stuff, but super miserable weather, with no chance to go inside or warm up or dry off. But that afternoon as we had a chance to walk through some preserved trenches, I had a little realization which was this: This is real. This is the climate of this place. This is exactly what the soldiers had to deal with as they fought 100 years ago. At least we get to go back to the van after 30 minutes. They were stuck here for 4 years, never to feel completely dry or warm. Or safe, for that matter. Their lives were on the line as well.
So…classroom on location isn’t always fun, happy, easy. But neither were the things we study; we get just a small taste…
Western Front Highlights:
-Everything Carl and Lucas said!
-Being back among farmland ;)
-Really getting a sense of where this history happened and what it was like
-The Welsh dragon WWI monument
-Walking through preserved trenches
-Endless rounds of WWI-themed Mafia with our group every night at the hostel