The fields of Belgium and France are green and bucolic, filled with quaint villages, farms and church spires. It is nearly impossible to imagine the stripped trees, bombed-out towns and mud quagmire of those same fields, as they would have looked one hundred years ago.
The year 2014 marked the centenary of World War I. It was one hundred years since the beginning of the Great War, the War to End All Wars. Tens of thousands of British and Canadian soldiers died in the Ypres Salient, in Flanders, Belgium. This was one of the bloodiest battlefields during the four years of World War I. The war destroyed Ypres, the prosperous Flemish market town. Its most impressive symbol and landmark, the magnificent 13th-century Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) overlooking the Market Square, was burned down in the early part of the war.
The Centenary of World War I
In recognition of its terrible history, Ypres embraced the importance of remembrance; through the construction of the Menin Gate Memorial, the ritual of the Last Post ceremonies, the reconstruction of the Cloth Hall, and the creation of the In Flanders Fields Museum.
In Flanders Field Museum
Named in honour of the famous poem by Canadian doctor Captain John McCrae, the Museum is located in the meticulously reconstructed Cloth Hall. It is one of the finest museums of any kind I’ve visited, and offers an excellent opportunity to help educate oneself and one’s children about WWI, and about what life as a citizen and soldier would have been like at that time.
The Belgian government renovated the Museum in 2014 to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the war. The Museum does a masterful job of explaining the complex reasons leading to the war, the sad optimism that it would be over in a few weeks, and how things quickly bogged down, literally, in the mud and blood of trench warfare that stretched for hundreds of miles between the Atlantic coast and the Swiss border.
Every Museum visitor receives a personalized poppy wristband. It enables him/her to access age-relevant information at digital kiosks, in their language of choice. You follow the lives (and deaths) of local Ypres children, 16-year old Canadian soldiers, a British doctor, and others involved in the conflict. The past comes alive in a powerful way for those who have no living memory of battles fought so long ago.
The In Flanders Fields Museum is a highlight of World War I remembrance for anyone interested in understanding the war. It also does an incredible job at helping children learn about the conflict. War isn’t an easy topic to begin with, but travelling through Belgium or France, one is struck by the number of roadside graves, memorials, and large Commonwealth cemeteries, such as Tyne Cot, pictured above, that bring home the reality of two world wars fought in Europe and beyond.
How to teach your children about World War I
Keeping the memories and lessons of the Great War alive is vitally important for our children. Remembrance Day memorials dot every Canadian city and town. Even if you can’t get to Flanders or Vimy Ridge for November 11th, you can attend a local service. Check with your local Legion to find the closest one to you.
The National Ceremony in Ottawa is the official Canadian Remembrance Day service for the nation. It will be particularly significant this year, not only due to the Centenary, but as a result of the October attack on the National War Memorial and Parliament and the death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. My youngest son attended that service, as part of a Remembrance Week educational program. It was unforgettable.
Bring your children to the Remembrance Day services. Be prepared to answer their questions about soldiers, war and why everyone’s wearing a poppy. There are excellent resources available to help guide the discussion with your children. Here are just a few book titles about World War I in particular.
Books about World War I
In Flanders Fields: the Story of the Poem by John McCrae, Linda Granfield
War Horse, Michael Morpurgo
War Game, Michael Foreman
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
There are also countless movies – documentaries and full-budget Hollywood epics – that cover the war. While many may be too graphic for younger children, judge whether your tween or teen can handle watching War Horse, Saving Private Ryan, or the Canadian movie Passchendaele.
The CBC has also recovered and uploaded its series of interviews of WWI veterans from 1967. No Canadian combat veterans are alive to recall their experiences. These recorded recollections of those veterans are incredible and kid-friendly.
Lest We Forget.
Photo Credits: C Laroye
How do you help your children remember the past? Share your comments below.