Despite the stomach flu and a heavy snowstorm, I got to Brussels in one piece to celebrate my looming 40th birthday in 2015. I treated myself to some delicious Belgian beer at a cozy pub close to Grand Place, and all was rosy until a pickpocket relieved me of my passport and $1,000.
I raced to my hotel and lost my patience with the concierge, who refused to let me use the desk’s phone. The cops were called and I sunk even lower. I resorted to using my junior-high French to apologize to get myself out of further trouble.
Disgusted with my night in Brussels, the next day I took a train north to the medieval city of Bruges where I walked the cobblestone streets, and tried to brush off my gloom. I wound up just feeling sorry for myself. I needed to do something before I jumped into one of the canals, so I booked a seat on a bus tour to Flanders Field for the next morning.
I didn’t mind being the only American and the youngest person on the tour; that meant nobody would bother me. As our small bus chugged through the soggy Flemish countryside, I realized that the weather personified the mood that hung over me that morning: gray and cold.
Philippe, the driver, prefaced each stop with plenty of information. He was extremely knowledgeable about the area’s history, and I was soon engulfed by his stories about what happened in this region during the Great War.
Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth burial ground, is the final resting place of 12,000 men. I instinctively removed my cap and began to read some of the names inscribed on the white wall near the entrance: J. Dunsmore, J.H. Ellis, T.A. Evans. Walking past the individual graves was even more moving. Many are simply marked with “A Soldier of the Great War, known to God” while others read “A Scottish Soldier of the Great War.” I got a lump in my throat when I read one grave marked with “Five English Soldiers of the Great War.”
The Langemark German Military Cemetery was a drab place when compared to Tyne Cot. Its dreariness is because the Treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans from using white stones; basalt was used instead. I slowly walked between the dark plaques in the ground to read the names of the fallen invaders. The names were different; some were Slavic, others German, but they all had the same second year on the stones.
The hardest thing to fathom about that cemetery was that there was a mass grave near the entrance which contains 24,917 servicemen, and then between the oak trees, next to this mass grave, are another 10,143 soldiers. The rain intensified as I stood there, trying to wrap my head around that.
As the bus headed to the town of Ypres, I thought about all of those dead young men. Each of them was somebody. Each of them was somebody’s son or brother or husband or friend. I thought about how they had to burrow themselves in the trenches like hibernating animals. I thought of the lice and the rats. I thought of the barbed wire, the mustard gas and the machine guns. I thought of the sacrifice each of them made to King and country.
My troubles seemed more trivial with each memorial or cemetery we visited. The prior six months were the toughest in my life, but at least I was still above ground, unlike these poor men, many of whom were buried with only their nationality marking their final resting place. Instead of moping, I should be grateful I was not pushing up the poppies. In an unexpected way, their sacrifice brought me strength.
By the time we got to Menin Gate in Ypres, my troubles had evaporated. The gate honors those who have no known graves and, as I read some of the names of the 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers etched on stone panels, I realized that I knew all of them.
We stopped at a battlefield as the sun began to set. I usually collect a small bottle’s worth of silt or dirt from different foreign places I’ve visited. I have rocks from Loch Ness and sand from a Portuguese beach on a bookshelf in my home, but I chose not to take anything from Ypres; too many good men bled on that earth.
All was quiet on the bus ride back to Bruges.
I was on the train to Amsterdam the next day when I noticed that my boots were caked with mud from the battlefield. I looked at them and didn’t clean them. I decided to let the Dutch rain wash the mud from Flanders Field off my boots when I got to Holland.