Over lunch today at my Belgian friend Veerle’s house in the Flanders region, we were discussing what to do in the afternoon. Veerle mentioned that there was a war cemetery less than five minutes’ walk from her house which she had never been to, and given our keenness for exploring and the fun of being a “Home Tourist”, we decided to pay it a visit.
Coincidentally (or not, as 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War and the accompanying media and tourist board excitement), I had meant to ask Veerle about the Flanders fields of The Great War and to think about visiting. Over Christmas, I had watched not only TV channel Dave‘s favourite ever Blackadder episodes, which included the poignant and heartbreaking final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, but also the film Joyeux Noël, a French film about the Christmas truce in the trenches in 1914, which, I think, powerfully portrays the humanity of the soldiers and the removed-from-reality attitudes and callous propaganda of their respective leaders and home countries. It’s in fact the vivid messages of this film (the same messages that are contained in Blackadder Goes Forth) that immediately sprang to mind, when I heard that Michael Gove had this week labelled Blackadder as left-wing anti-war propaganda and dismissed its use by teachers in the classroom. Ironic then, that these films are in fact depicting the humanitarian consequences of the right-wing propaganda of the time, that helped keep Europe at war for so long.
I realised that on my travels I have visited numerous memorials to the holocaust and victims of the Second World War, and various World War 2 museums, but never those of the First. I felt this was something I wanted to address, if nothing else than to acknowledge the droves of men who were killed fighting for their countries, and dedicate some of my time to their memory and loss.
So it’s serendipitous perhaps that I am here this weekend. The Lier Commonwealth War Graves house the last resting places of Belgian, British and Canadian soldiers of both the First and Second World Wars. There are memorials to the fallen who have never been identified. The Belgian flag flies proudly amongst the silent gravestones. Each stone succinctly and strikingly tells a story. It is heartbreaking, and a place Mr Gove could learn much from.