Friday, 1 November 2013

Ypres diary, day two

Over ten years ago on my first visit to Ypres I wandered along the medieval battlements to the intimate Ramparts Cemetery overlooking the town's moat, the remains of one conflict grafted onto the ruins of another.

And today, two children in tow, a wife I barely even knew back in 2001 and I'm here, a new man with a new life grafted onto the ruins of the old. It's hard not to  think in personal terms when confronting the scale and horror of the war. A failure to do so is probably what bores the Belgian schoolchildren who seem to be corralled into the Flanders Field museum by the bus load. Those we saw there this afternoon certainly lacked empathy for the subjects of the  distant history they were allegedly studying. They probably lacked empathy  for the rest of the museum patrons,  come to that - boys all posturing nonchalance and the girls, chewing, texting and laughing.

Perhaps that is the way to approach the war; maybe I'm being stupid thinking of my own life, the progress since then, the things I've seen and done that those graves with their white slabs of remembrance stopped the names inscribed on the white slabs from doing... marrying, having children, watching them grow up. Too much to ask? Yes. Far  too much. Remember your place, young man. In the  trench. Remember who you are. And if you're lucky, we'll remember you once a year or so.

The Menin Gate this evening, however, seemed different. For a start, Australians - dignitaries as  well  as soldier, sailor,  airman. There's something especially poignant about the Commonwealth (or Empire, as they were then) troops, exemplified by the Aussies, barely a nation themselves at the time and fighting on what might just as well have been another planet. Although the crowds (myself among them) were mainly tourists keen to get their pictures, the quiet dignity of the Last Post, silence and wreath laying ceremony was more moving than the museum facts and artefacts, the lists of names and even the memorials themselves because here were real people stopping for a moment  to consider those long dead, but not forgotten.

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