29 March 2024

Out of Bruges


I am not a big fan of war.  I have not taken part in one, and I don't think I would be very good at it..... And now I have reached an age when should there be one in the vicinity I am more likely to be a civilian casualty than an active participant.

However, the history of mankind is written in blood, and it seems as though there has been more war than peace since homo 'sapiens' first hit his neanderthal cousin on the head.  

I grew up in the shadow of war.  Both my grandfathers were soldiers in the First World War.  I knew men who had been gassed in the trenches. Both my parents were in the RAF/WAAF in the Second World War.  I played in air raid shelters and on bomb sites.  I read story books and comics and watched films about war actions and heroes.  My school room had bound copies of magazines full of photographs of bombing raids and battles....  And later the whole school was marched to the Rex Cinema to watch Lawrence of Arabia when it came out (for more on this, please see https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2012/12/colonel-t-e-lawrence.html)

I have visited many scenes of battle and War Grave Commission cemeteries, but I had never seen the Menin Gate  and so, when I came across the possibility of visiting Ieper (Ypres) and Passchendaele and Tyne Cot with Riviera Travel, as an option on their Bruges for Solo Travellers trip, I thought I would go for it.....

But not (partly because of the timing) before I had made a quick sortie to Ghent, where I wanted to see the complete and recently restored van Eyck altarpiece in St Bavo's Cathedral.  

As Daniel Boffey explained in The Guardian in 2021, the Ghent Altarpiece (also known as the Polyptych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) has, during its near 600-year history, been nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon for the Louvre in Paris, cut in half after falling into the hands of the King of Prussia, coveted by Hermann Göring and taken by Adolf Hitler before being rescued by a team of commando double-agents from an Austrian salt mine where it was destined to be blown apart with dynamite.

This work, completed in 1432 and one of the first ever oil paintings, is one of the great masterpieces of European art.  The central panel is dominated by the Lamb which represents Christ, and he is surrounded by angels and the faithful.

Blood flows from the Lamb into a chalice as a reference to the foundation of the Christian faith - the Messiah gives his life to save humankind.

But then, continuing my trip, to Passchendaele, where, from July to November 1917, almost 600,000 men shed their blood for the world to live in peace.....

The trouble is, at least this is what I felt, nothing can really convey the appalling discomfort of the trenches, let alone the noise, the filth, the agony of wounds or the pain of death. In the Passchendaele Museum, in a dark but completely dry and odourless reconstruction of a dugout, a man, who could have been my grandfather, sits on a toilet seat above a bucket. I am sorry, but this just doesn't begin to show the sacrifice each soldier made - even the ones who survived.

In a room upstairs in the chateau, students are told about the weapons used in the war to end all wars. These young people, even the teacher, are too young now to have known relations who took part in this slaughter. There is now a whole industry, an educational industry yes, but one that now profits from the exploitation of a ghastly memory. Are we better for it? Has the memory of the war to end all wars done anything to stop further wars?

New in 2024 is an Immersive Experience, where visitors are supposed to find themselves, according to the brochure, 'right in the middle of the landscape of 1917.'  To be honest, I think the final five minutes of Blackadder goes forth is more effective.....

Don't misunderstand me. Please. I don't think it wrong to remember the dead. I don't think it wrong to have museums that collect memorabilia of bygone times. But I find myself strangely unemotional as I pass through these chambers.


It is fittingly grey and wet in Ieper (Ypres).  The Menin Gate is under wraps, itself the victim of time and the weather.  The glorious Cloth Hall and Belfry have been miraculously reconstructed after the almost total destruction of this town in the war (to end all wars).  Inside the 'In Flanders Fields Museum' (Now more than ever, the brochure tells us) 'you can explore the Great War through authentic artefacts, videos,, projections, and personal stories.  You'll journey into the memories of the First World War.  The past has never been so close.....'

I wonder. It is a more effective museum (in my opinion) than that at Passchendaele, and some of the technology (for example videos of actors dressed as soldiers explaining such things as the use of gas, with subtitles in four languages) is impressive. 

But in nearby St Martin's Cathedral (also a complete reconstruction) I find this picture which tells an earlier story of death and destruction, and which also brings the past nearer:

The Siege of Ypres in 1383. Joris Liebaert, 1657. 

Poor old Ypres. Attacked by the Bishop of Norwich and his men in 1383, it managed to resist the siege, but, according to Wikipedia, Ypres never really recovered. The entire hinterland of the city had been destroyed and trade with England was seriously compromised.  Over the centuries the place was conquered by the French and later given to the Hapsburgs.  Then, in 1914, it stood in the way of the Germans and the Schlieffen Plan, so it got razed to the ground.

As I said, the history of man is written in blood, and perhaps the worst thing is that it is usually the blood of the poor that is sacrificed so that the rich get richer.... Think Alfred Nobel. Think Lord Armstrong (of Cragside). Think British Aerospace (the largest defence contractor in Europe).

Tyne Cot Cemetery

(the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world in terms of burials)

Please don't misunderstand me. I mean no disrespect. The commemoration of war and its dead probably is a good thing, even though the human race still seems intent on destroying itself. Perhaps Putin and Trump et al should spend some time at Tyne Cot and Ypres (though I suspect they would shrug and dismiss the experience on some pretext or other)?

However desensitised we have become it is still inevitably moving to stand amongst the graves, and to hear the recital of names and ages in the visitor centre. 

I think of my grandfathers, and think of their suffering, their sacrifice. My father's father was about thirty when he, a schoolmaster, joined up. My mother's father would have been about the same age but had previously served in the Boer War. The Great War (to end all wars) didn't kill either of them, but it marked them, and they sacrificed a part of their lives, their peace, for all of us.

And there is no escape. On our return to Brugge I pass a plaque on the wall near our hotel

Here in this crypt
rest the ashes of
political prisoners
from the Dachau concentration camp

When will we ever learn?

In Flanders Fields

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.

John McCrae

*   *    *    *    *

This piece is dedicated to all those everywhere who were sacrificed in war for others.

If you found this at all interesting, the following link will take you to a memoir I wrote in remembrance of my paternal grandfather who was wounded in the First World War but who died at the age of 86 with a piece of shrapnel still embedded in his arm:


I also recommend the following:

Edmund Blunden: Undertones of War

Robert Graves: Goodbye to All That

Siegfried Sassoon: Selected Poems 

R C Sherriff: Journey's End


King and Country, a film directed by Joseph Losey, with Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay 


  1. Hello Richard, I too have never had to fight a war, but my father (not my Grandfather) was in the WW1 trenches. For complex reasons he was in the Army at 16 when WW1 started. He was shipped at high speed via French cattle trucks to Mons. He was thus an ‘Old Contemptible’. Like many, he did not say much until just before he died. He mentioned a few things that clearly haunted him and that most ‘reconstructions’ do not: the smell - dominantly of rotting bodies mixed with equally rotting latrines; the screaming of wounded horses and the men (from both sides) who would crawl out of the trenches to shoot them. There was an unwritten rule that these men were not shot at - but there was a lot of dodgy ordnance lying around. Horrible - however you look at it.

  2. Prof K Kennard4 April 2024 at 14:14

    Hi Richard, I finally read your observations concerning your trip to Belgie. As someone who has lived in Ghent for the last 20 odd years my perspective, understandably, will be a little different from your good self. However, I will agree that the First World War 'industry' has seemed to have taken over the visual representation of Passendaele et al. It has just become a sanitised and safe model. As someone who has experienced conflict the abiding memories are one of confusion, chaos and carnage. You certainly get little sense of that reality in its present form. I fear that visiting school children will misunderstand what war is often about. Just look at the bloody battlefields in Eastern Ukraine and the continuing arbitrary misery that is Gaza. These 'reinactments' in Belgie have just become a purile extension of post modern 'entertainment' and therefore, do little to recognise and recall the hundreds of thousands who gave their lives in indescribably conditions. Kindest KK