Mark Rowe: keeping the memory of Flanders Fields alive

You can't beat a decent pint, or, since I was in Belgium at the time, a decent 330mls, after a day's walking. I'd been meandering around the battlefields of Flanders, outside Ypres. Hiking is too energetic and purposeful word for what I was doing: the landscape is not physically demanding and essentially comprises a network of endearingly bucolic trails that undulate almost imperceptibly as they rise to Sanctuary Wood, where I suddenly found myself looking down on Ypres.

So, meandering is the right word, and I took my time completing the circuit I had engineered for Walk's autumn edition. And I had one more thing to attend to before that beer. I returned to the centre of town, where the cobbled Grote Markt was dominated by a large screening showing the national team playing a World Cup match. Anyone who wasn't wearing face paint in the national colours was headed in a different direction, towards the Menin Gate.

World War 1

Get there early, I'd been advised. The Menin Gate is where the Last Post was first played in 1928. The tradition continued for four months, and was then restored in the spring of 1929 and, with the exception of the German occupation of 1940-1944, has been played every day since. The Last Post was reinstated on the same evening the town was liberated by Polish forces.

By the time I got there, the crowd was seven or eight deep and I cast my eye across the walls, the roof, the pillars of the arch that bears the 54,405 names of soldiers whose graves are unknown. The crowd was an eclectic coming together of different people there for many different reasons. There were World War Two veterans, smartly dressed visitors, perhaps relatives or others simply wanting to pay their formal respects. Others wore Bermuda shorts.

There were tour groups wearing their locator-beacon style red caps and playing follow-the-leader, their guide, as always seems to be the case, carrying an oversized umbrella that blocked out the views of those behind her. A last-gasp Belgium goal raised a cheer among the crowd. The same smart phones that had relayed that news were then raised in a synchronised and very modern salute to capture the arrival of the buglers.

A hush descended. The sudden solemnity of the moment I think took some of the casual visitors by surprise and by the time the last notes were sounded, everyone seemed to have shuffled to attention. After the minute's silence I looked at the bouquets of flowers and messages left along the walls and steps of the Menin Gate. Many had been laid by UK schools that make educational trips here, and the wreaths that same night had been laid by British pupils.

We're always told how important it is to pass the message and experience about war to the younger generation pour encourager les autres, so it's hard to do anything other than applaud and welcome this.

World War 1 memorial

But I'm still left wondering just how long the Menin Post ceremony will endure. I was told that officials in Ypres wonder whether, once the centenary of the 1918 armistice comes and goes, if the conflict will somehow suddenly seem more distant, more blurred. My taxi driver, whose living depends on ferrying hundreds of Britons around the fields every year, said the same thing. He felt that 1918 might draw a line under the war and that, consciously or otherwise, society might begin to relinquish its ties to 1914-1918.

I was born 100 years after the Franco-Prussian war, an event that, even if people have heard of it, seems and feels consigned to distant history; as contemporary as Samuel Pepys or the Holy Roman Empire. I'm not suggesting that is how World War One will come to be regarded, but if the Menin Gate ceremony is regarded today by some visitors as a selfie opportunity, how will those born today interpret an event that will be 115 years old when they learn about it?

That applies to locals as well as visiting Britons. At some point developers - for sake of argument - will push the case that the time has come to 'move on' and that so much land cannot remain sacrosanct in perpetuity. Will politicians and the community continue to feel the same way as they have in the past?

In a very roundabout way, I found myself thinking again about walking. Coach tours do a busy trade around Flanders but, as a way of bringing it to life, you just can't beat walking this landscape. Flanders has an advantage, in that the scenery is fetching. This is partly because of the number of war monuments, cemeteries and preserved battlefield sites, which together mean much of the landscape looks the way it did 100 years ago. The compendium of war poetry will retain its piquancy for some time yet. The towns are engaging too, and it's more or less impossible to have a bad meal anywhere in Belgium. And did I mention beer?

So the country has a default appeal to the visiting walker. Done judiciously, with thoughtful interpretation and literature to guide the walker along the way, World War One may retain its clarity in our collective memory. I suspect that those who walk Flanders' fields, keeping the footpaths between the graves and frontlines open, will have a role to play in that.

Mark Rowe is a journalist who writes on walking, the great outdoors generally and environmental issues. Read his previous blog posts. Follow him on twitter at @wanderingrowe and via his website www.markrowe.eu.