The Iron Harvest

On Thursday we did a WW1 Belgian battlefields tour with Visit Bruges. We were picked up at 8:30 by Nathan in a nice comfortable van. Normally there would be more people on the tour but he had a cancellation so we were the only ones one the tour, so it ended up being a very personalised tour.

We hit the Belgian motorways and zipped off into the old battlefields, with Nathan telling us a lot about the war, the local area and more about the participants in the war and his opinions on why it all happened. It’s quite amazing that everywhere you look there are remnants of the war. The Allied and German stakes used to hold barbed wire in the war are still used in wire fences, as are old narrow gauge railway tracks.

Nathan showing us the concrete from ww1 used in post war reconstruction

The are old concrete bunkers all over the place, and depending on which way the entrance to the bunker points you can work out if it’s Allied or German. Some bunkers have been incorporated into houses, there are concrete blocks from the war everywhere and they are used in all sorts of builsomgs

Over the last 30 years they have started to find a lot more things as basements and foundations of modern building go even deeper into the soil than they used to and they still find around 40-60 bodies every year.

All throughout the area they have metal boxes around trees with either red or blue colouring around them so you can follow the old front lines, blue being Allied and red German

Our first stop was a German war cemetery at Langemark. During the war the Germans put 25,000 school aged students on the front line most of them are buried here. The German government hid the slaughter from the news back in Germany and it was later used as a propaganda tool during WW2.

All commonwealth war graves are maintained and owned by the well funded commonwealth war graves commission. Almost all the commonwealth sites we visited were being cleaned or having some maintenance done on them. Apparently The German sites are owned by the local municipal governments and get some funding for maintenance from Germany.

Whilst we were there, there was a group of German school students on a school trip, and some soldiers from the German army doing some pressure cleaning. I had a chat with the sergeant on duty, he mentioned they were medical officers on a 2 week trip to clean the cemeteries. He was a little surprised an Australian would bother to visit a German cemetery and showed us some sections that had non Germans there and also pointed out on the wall one particular name that was more shiny than the others since many people visit and rub that one name, one of WW1s flying aces. Werner Voss, something I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t bothered to chat with him.

German Cemetry
Soldier who showed us around the cemetery
Flying Ace named touched by many visitors

After this visit we visited The Brooding Soldier, A Canadian memorial to the 18,000 soldiers killed in the first German gas attack. This was the first chemical warfare attack in the world and historically had no direct impact on the outcome of the war, except to make it more horrible for everyone involved. The gas was unreliable and would often blow back onto those who let it off. The injuries and pain it inflicted was horrifying.

Brooding Soldier undergoing maintenance

Nathan then stopped at a friends garage and showed us all the things he had collected over his lifetime since childhood, Grenades, Shells, guns, shoes etc. His grandfather had shown him as a child how to disable unexploded ordinance.

People are still Injured or killed from time to time, and he stopped by the side of the road at one point to show us an unexploded shell someone had left out for the army to collect and safely dispose of.

Live shell awaiting army collection

We visited Tyne Cot cemetery which is the largest commonwealth war graves cemetery in the world and has 1353 Australians buried there, the most Australian soldiers buried anywhere in one place. I was a little confused as first as I thought Villers-Bretonneux in France held that record but Villers commemorates all Australians who died on the Western Front in WW1. The cemetery has an amazing visitors centre with speakers all around that play back the names of all the soldiers killed. It’s a very moving experience

Tyne Cot Cemetry
Hits you when you see it up this close

We drove over to Zonnebeke to visit the Passchendaele museum. Went through the Dugout and Trench experiences and smelt the different types of gases used in chemical warfare. Parts of the trenches are damp and smelly to give you a more realistic idea of how horrid they would have been. They also show the various construction techniques that differed between the Germans and Allies. There was also a great display on some of the different artillery equipment and shells. Also talked about how modern military equipment combined with 19th century tactics and the inability of the senior command to understand what was happening led the massacre that WW1 really was.

Trench experience

This area had been so utterly destroyed during the war it resembled a moon scape and there were doubts it would ever be agriculturally productive ever again. Farmers returning after the war couldn’t find their farms as all landmarks had been obliterated. Farmers still pull up tonnes of iron every year during harvest and it’s called the Iron harvest.

Items recovered from a small area where recent construction took place

We drove into Ypres for some lunch and Nathan took us to a cafe where we had a meal of ham and salad, beer and of course Friets.

After lunch we went to the “In Flanders Fields” museum, another fantastic museum with so much to see. We had less than an hour here, but I could have spent all day. At least we loaded up on a few maps and books to look through later even though I’ll regret it probably when trying to get all this luggage home.

230 year old tree that has scars from WW1

This museum is close to the Menin Gate with the names inscribed of all the Australian soldiers lost in Flanders, as well as replicas of the lions that were relocated to Australia after the war and are in our war memorial in Canberra.

Last stop- Hill 60. This is the site of the explosion detonated by the Australian Tunnelling Company. It was the largest explosion in the world at that time, was heard in Paris, and registered as an earthquake. There is a memorial here to the Australian Tunnelling Company.

Crater in Hill 60. It’s massive.
Walking around Hill 60
Memorial at Polygon Wood
Entrance to Memorial at Polygon Wood
Another view over Tyne Cof
Lest We Forget

Waffles and Mussels in Brussels

When we were coming to Bruges, I started looking for waffle making classes, I thought I’d found one, and in the excitement booked and paid for it. It wasn’t till later I realised I’d booked one in Brussels not Bruges. The cities are 88km apart. Not a massive problem since trains run frequently and take an hour, but it would mean we lost a day really in Bruges.

I’d thought about cancelling it, but since rain was forecast in Bruges anyway, which would have made the cycle ride I wanted to do horrible, we thought we would keep it and just spend the afternoon in Brussels.

I should have pre-purchased the ticket from Bruges to Brussels as it worked out to be €60, almost as much as it cost us to get all the way here from Amsterdam.

We got of at Brussels Zuid (south) and let’s just say it’s not the nicest area in Brussels. Was kind of regretting the decision to leave Bruges at this point but eventually found the place holding the event. It looked great inside, but I had reservations at first as it had 16 people on the course, and it was a bit crowded around the table, but it worked out to be heaps of fun. Learnt all about the different types of waffles make in Belgium. Southern waffles are sweeter and more doughy, Brussels waffles are crisper and designed for coating with icing sugar. On the course we made the Brussels kind. Heaps of toppings available to add, one of the weirdest is Speculaas paste, which is basically ground up Dutch Speculaas biscuits in a past with the consistency of thick peanut butter. It’s delicious and I’m sure it’s deadly.

Later in the afternoon we found the Belgian comic strip centre /museum. Think Asterix and the Smurfs and you get the idea.

Sharon had “Mussels in Brussels” on her foodie goal list and we found a place for dinner where that one was achieved. On the way out we decided to get the train back to Bruges from Brussels Central (as it was closer to where we were) and we found the “nice” part of Brussels. It was warmer and dryer than it’s been and walking around this part of the town at night was just magical. Glad we found this as my opinion on Brussels had been pretty low at the start.

Sampling all the various toppings

Coffee and Tower

Another day that started with rain, however we were heading to Brussels for a waffle making course in the afternoon (more on that later) so we thought we would just meander down to the station though the “egg” of Bruges (the shape of the old city is an egg inside the moat).

Started with coffee at Cafune, which according to the internets does great coffee. We had lattes, and can concur that yes they do.

Walking towards the station, Emma and I decided we would climb the Belfry, which has 366 steps to the top. Sharon decided she would check out Michelangelo’s Madonna and child, at the Church of our Lady, which is the only known Michelangelo outside Italy.

The Belfry tower was worth the climb, but not for the feint hearted as the stairs get steeper and narrower towards the top and its two way traffic. Passing people going the opposite way isn’t easy. The bells chime every 15 minutes and luckily we were out of the bell room with about 30 seconds to spare before they chimed. Even a few metres down in the tower it was extremely loud. Got to the station and then off to Brussels for the rest of the days adventures

Looking up at the tower
Looking up to the stairs
Selfie at the top
View over Bruges