Flanders Field: my visit to the battlefields

At 11am on November 11th every year we pause, as a nation, along with other nations to remember the Armistice that ended the Great War.

I have marked this observation many times, as most of our Starts at Sixty readers would have. This year has special poignancy because in May this year I visited the battlefields of northern France and Belgium and the beautiful countryside through which that dreadful war waged.

As a history teacher, I knew the statistics. 19,240 killed on the British side (including the Empire troops) on the first day of the series of battles in the Somme valley; 5,533 of the AIF at Fromelles in less than two days; in a fortnight at Pozieres the AIF First Division lost 7,700, the Second had 8,100 casualties, the Fourth lost 7,100. 331,000 embarked from Australia. 60,000 were killed. The casualties from Australia were 64% of those forces. It was not until I saw the cemeteries in France and Belgium that the figures were real. There are huge cemeteries such as the one at Tyne Cot, not far from the Battle of Passchendale. There is the German cemetery, Langmark, where there are 27,000 buried in a mass grave. Most of these were students, newly recruited. There is the new cemetery at Fromelles where the bodies of Australian soldiers were discovered in a mass grave and given reburial in individual graves. Some bear messages from the families, and some are ‘Known Unto God’. From Fromelles you can see the spires of three churches. There is a large cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux where the commemorations on 25th April take place. The battle there began on that anniversary. There is the Newfoundland cemetery where you can still see and walk the trench lines, now soft and green. A small museum gives the background to this area. The Canadian memorial, completely planted with Canadian plants, faces the way the first gas attack was made as the Canadians were the first victims. At Ieper (Ypres) at the Menin Gate the walls are covered with names.

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105 Flanders poppies

What really moved me were the tiny cemeteries, at most a hundred graves that were dotted all over the area we visited. They were in the middle of fields, by the roadside, adjoining town cemeteries. These were often where first aid stations had been. These cemeteries are in the hands of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and beautifully kept. The French and Belgian governments have given this land to their allies.

The country is so peaceful now. It is very luxuriant and while we were there the first of the crops were breaking through. We have all seen the news footage of the mud and the trenches, the devastated villages and towns left in ruins, and the troops cheerfully waving at cameras as they moved towards the front.

Much has been written and filmed about World War I and historians still debate the finer points of events and motives.

56 mass grave at german cemetry

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Our family histories can tell stories from this war. My grandfather was in Belgium and at Charleroi, not that he ever spoke much about his time there. Two young great-uncles were killed. My father was named after both and the name of one has continued down three generations, the generations he and his young wife were denied.

Armistice Day is a day for remembrance and reflection. It is a day of sadness for such waste. And a day of gratitude.

By Robert Laurence Binyon

(sent in by John Reid as an addition to this article)

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

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Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

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As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.


Today is Remembrance Day. What does this day mean to you? How was your family connected to the War? Tell us your stories in the comments below.