Observing Memorial Day in Belgium

To observe our first Memorial Day abroad, we spent a day visiting the Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, Belgium and the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper/Ypres, Belgium.

We had an educational and emotionally moving day, which is exactly how we should spend Memorial Day – learning about the sacrifices our U.S. soldiers have made, why they made them, and ensuring that we will continue to remember and be grateful for them.

We visited the cemetery first. It is a peaceful spot that is beautifully landscaped and maintained. They were preparing for their annual Memorial Day ceremony that would be held the following day. The cemetery contains 368 burials. In the center is a small, peaceful chapel. Surrounding the grave sites are beautiful gardens and areas for reflection. Unfortunately, the Visitor Center was under renovation when we visited and we could not find their temporary space.

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Entrance to the cemetery.
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Graves at the Flanders Field American Cemetery.
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Graves at the Flanders Field American Cemetery.
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Chapel in the center of the Flanders Field American Cemetery.
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Chapel in the Flanders Field American Cemetery.
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Inside the chapel.
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Inside the chapel.
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Inside the chapel.
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One of a handful of peaceful garden areas on the cemetery grounds which included seating for moments of private reflection.

From there, we went to the In Flanders Fields Museum which documents the local experience during World War I. The museum is located in the Cloth Hall in the Grote Markt of Ieper/Ypres, so don’t expect it to be in the midst of poppy laden, open fields (like I did). There are battlefield sites in actual fields you can visit, so we hope to do that in the future. That said, you learn in the museum that, while it isn’t in a field, it is on a battlefield site, since the Cloth Hall and other areas of the city were damaged during the war.

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The Cloth Hall in Ieper/Ypres, Belgium which houses the In Flanders Fields Museum, among other things.

This museum experience was one of the best I’ve ever had. Maybe I was just in the right frame of mind, ready to learn, but I also think the permanent exhibit is very well done. Through the use of personalized technology (entrance bracelets with computer chips that you can use to register your personal information), certain areas of the exhibit provide you with stories and profiles tailored to your age, gender, and nationality. The exhibit combines a mix of artifacts (propaganda posters, clothing, diaries, artillery, uniforms, etc.) with photographs, videos, poetry and other storytelling features. Through sound and lighting, you experience the exhibit with multiple senses which I felt enhanced the experience.

I had a few key “takeaways” from the museum. First, I learned more about the Belgian experience during WWI and the relationship between the U.S. and Belgium, as well as the other Allied Powers. I learned more about the basic timeline and events of the War. I appreciated the museums ability to put personal stories to the timeline and events and left with a better knowledge of what Europeans endured during the War. The most impactful story for me was one of a Belgian man and his family, told via video of a reenactor, who talked about their experience as refugees, fleeing occupied Belgium and moving to France. I immediately connected his experience with that of current refugees who are leaving their homes in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other conflict-laden and/or unstable countries.

As you exit the permanent exhibit, you walk under banners that list all (or if not all, most) of the major wars and genocides that have occurred since World War I, the “war to end all wars.” When I realized what it was, it literally stopped me in my tracks. How can these stories of war, occupations, and refugees still be repeating themselves? How has our world not learned from our history? Of course, I know the answers to those questions are complex and multi-layered. For one, I think that in first-world countries, many people are either unaware of the realities so many people are currently facing in other regions, or they are turning a blind eye, perhaps out of lack of concern, or perhaps out of frustration. I know that I get frustrated, becoming more and more aware every day, and yet feeling helpless to make a difference. That is what is so important about spaces like the In Flanders Fields Museum.

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Exiting the main exhibit at the In Flanders Fields museum. The banners list most, if not all, of the wars and genocides that have occurred since World War I, “the war to end all wars”.

We must document these events, tell all the stories, and do our best to broadcast them far and wide in the hopes that educating as many people as possible in as many regions as possible, and humanizing and personalizing the experience of war, will be the best way to prevent it in the future. As I write this, I criticize myself for sounding too wishful or Utopian, but we have to try, right? And change has to start somewhere, right? I believe the best place to start any change is through access to information and education, especially for our youth. Kudos to the In Flanders Fields Museum for doing just that on its important subject.

That said, I will end with a note that some of the more graphic content in the museum (e.g. photographs of wounded and dead soldiers) may not be appropriate for certain ages, like my six-year-old son, so parents should approach with caution and be prepared to artfully steer through certain parts of the exhibit. Parents may join me in being excited that the museum gift shop has no toys! It carries a lot of literature and does have other common museum gifts, but no tempting toys for littles. That might sound mean, but a material souvenir from every museum gift shop you visit can add up! I prefer my son leaving with some gained knowledge!

We hope to visit Ieper/Ypres again in the future to just take in the city because it looked lovely. At the end of our day, we were fulfilled, moved, and grateful for the sacrifices made by our fallen soldiers, feeling the spirit of Memorial Day.

“Greet them ever with grateful hearts.”

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