River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Flander's Ghosts

December 2003

An insight to the attraction of World War battlegrounds to our younger generation.

I was preparing items for the Christmas Edition of the Village Pump on Armistice Day, when I came across this item on the MoD Oracle website. I thought our readers would find it of interest if only to put in perspective the views of some of our younger generation. Editor

Flanders' ghosts draw in more Britons

Night has fallen by the time the ceremony begins, and it is over quickly. Two bugle blasts sound as the silent crowd looks on under the great vaulted ceiling of the Menin Gate, its walls carved with thousands of names which "liveth for evermore".

Hundreds turn out most evenings for the famous Last Post ceremony in Ieper - Ypres in French and "Wipers" to the British and Commonwealth soldiers - but come November the numbers swell, peaking at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Nearly 90 years since it began, fascination with the First World War has never been so strong! With British visitors, especially schoolchildren, in the vanguard of a boom that has brought prosperity - and some unease - to this Belgian town.

"It just gets bigger and bigger," says Barry Murphy, of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which cares for the 140 neat cemeteries dotted across the flat Flanders landscape. "There's always been a strong British presence here, but now it's all year round."

Favourites for British tourists are the massive Tyne Cot cemetery (the name recalling the Geordies who first fought there), the bunker where John McCrae penned his haunting poem "In Flanders Field", and the superb museum of the same name. Most end their day at the Menin Gate.

Probably half of the 350,000 tourists who come to Ieper every year are British, and almost half of those are teenage schoolchildren; fleshing out the First World War topic in the national curriculum and often finding family links.

On Thursday evening Victoria Pike, a GCSE pupil from Wiltshire, was clutching a giant poppy wreath as bugler Anton Vershoot - like all the Last Post team an Ieper volunteer fireman - prepared for the ceremony he has conducted for the past 59 years. Victoria found the name of a distant great-uncle, Charles Pike, inscribed on the gate; one of the 55,000 men who have no known graves. "It's the names that make it real," said her classmate Amy Smart. History teacher Mike Garvey, escorting another group from St Clement Danes school in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, found the names of 20 old boys on the war graves website.

"I am against teaching the First World War because it's increasingly irrelevant," said his colleague, English teacher Anne Pickard. "But this does bring home the reality and when I see the reaction of our 14 year olds I think I'm wrong. It does have validity for them." Internet access to war records, cheap travel from Britain and the transition from experience to history have fuelled this extraordinary interest, which took off in the mid-90s and soared after the Queen came in 1998.

"People who come no longer come as pilgrims, but to learn about the First World War as history," said Peter Slosse, of the Ieper tourist board. "At least 20% of British visitors have a family link to the war."

Shrewd marketing by the Flanders government and improved facilities have swelled numbers. The number of hotels and B&Bs has doubled in the last five years. There are several English pubs, and a Poppy pizzeria and steakhouse is to open yards from the Menin Gate.

But there is concern about creeping commercialisation, with tacky spin-offs such as gift-wrapped Belgian chocolates with names such as Tommy helmets, and Great War mints marketed with old uniforms and union flags.

Guy Gruwez, the chairman of the Last Post association who has an OBE for his remembrance efforts, was born here in 1928 when the town was still in ruins. He dislikes these products, but adds:

"If there is a little profit it is perhaps deserved for an area that was shattered by the war."

Steve Douglas, a Canadian who works in the British Grenadier bookshop, said: "People who come to see the battlefields and memorials need feeding and watering. That's just life. This town lives on the tourists who come here for that reason." The shop stocks some of the vast and growing body of literature on the 1914-18 war, including novels such as Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong.

Belgians do come to Ieper, but only from Flanders, not French-speaking Wallonia, and the French -who lost 80,000 men in the notorious salient - have their own memorial sites at home. The Germans largely stay away. Even at their nearby Langemark cemetery, where 44,000 lie in a mass grave under sombre hazel trees, most of the names in the visitors' book are British.

Ray Thompson

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