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War graves in Belgium: Living among the dead

Belgium is without a doubt the best place to learn about World War I and to visit historical sites related to the war. It has a number of museums, most notably the In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, and hundreds of cemeteries and monuments. In places, the scars are still visible of the relentless shelling and trench warfare that happened there. But it’s the Belgium war graves that struck me the most.

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Living in the Ypres Salient

As we were driving through the countryside on the way to Ghent from Ypres, it occurred to me that these people – the ones who live in the houses we were passing – live among the dead.

There are lots of war graves in Belgium. One website lists 160 of them in the Ypres Salient (the area around Ypres) alone. Scroll down on that website and you’ll see the list.

Belgium war graves in Tyne Cot cemeteray. Rows of simple white gravestones. Most have a large crosee in the center. Many have a military insignia of some sort carved above that. Many just say "A soldier of the Great War" in place of the insignia and then, below the cross, the words "Known unto God." The nearest stone in the picture has a name: It reads "29886 Private H. Bradbury East Lancashire Regiment 9th October 1917"
Tyne Cot cemetery

The war cemetery we visited, Tyne Cot, with 60,000 or so graves, is one of the best known. Like many of them, it seems an absolute sea of identical gravestones. They’re not really identical, of course: some have names, some don’t, in which case they are inscribed with “Known unto God.” Some have information about the soldier’s rank, nationality and so on. Most have a cross, and some have personal messages on them as well, presumably from their families. But we also passed many smaller cemeteries along the roads.

There are also World War I war memorials all over Belgium. This website lists 71 monuments and memorials just in the Ypres Salient.

Looking through a peephole down a trench. The trench is sided with piled-up sandbags (actually concrete filled in this restored trench). The trench ends at a rough concrete wall that also has a small peephole in it.
A view in a restored trench

And there are other sites besides war graves in Belgium: battlefields, trenches in various states of decay, bunkers, and so on. You can even spot battlefields and the remains of trenches as you drive along the road. While fields on farms have been evened out, I spotted wooded areas that looked unnaturally uneven, bumpy with craters.

The people who live in the Ypres Salient must see reminders every single day of the four years of bloody fighting that happened here: on their way to work, or grocery shopping, or visiting friends or whatever. Many also earn their living either directly or indirectly from the World War I-related tourist industry.

Text: Belgium war graves and a rumination on living among the WWI dead in the Ypres Salient (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). Image: rows of simple white gravestones
Pinnable image

How do you suppose they deal with living among the dead? Do they completely ignore it, put it out of their minds? Or do they think about the slaughter that happened here? Do they ever feel haunted by all those young men who lost their lives here, many of whose bodies were never recovered, or whose bodies were recovered but never identified? Does it affect how they live their lives? Or are they so inured to the facts and figures that it can’t move them anymore, as it does those of us who visit?

I read at the In Flanders Fields Museum that World War I artifacts still turn up frequently: plowed up by farmers, for example, or excavated during construction work. There was even a skeleton on exhibit that only recently turned up at a construction site. So the residents here, particularly farmers or construction workers, could suddenly come face to face with the remnants of the war at any time.

What is it like to live among the dead this way?

A stone wall, with an orange poppy and its leaves sticking out from a crack in the wall.
Poppies still grow in the trenches

Visiting the Ypres Salient in Belgium

If you are going to travel in Belgium, at a minimum, you should

  1. visit the In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, an excellent way to understand what happened in this part of Belgium,
  2. attend “The Last Post” at the Menin Gate in Ypres at sundown, and
  3. stop at at least one of Belgium’s war cemeteries. It’s the least you could do to honor the sacrifice these soldiers made.
A view of Ypres from a tower. It shows a road with beautiful old buildings lining it, and a large arch over the road: the Menin Gate.
Menin Gate in Ypres. The center of the old town was rebuilt after the war according to the old plans.

Looking to rent a car for your exploration of World War I history? Use this link.

If you do not have a car at your disposal, a number of companies offer tours to the Ypres Salient from various Belgian cities like Brussels and Bruges. Here is a link to a list of these tours.

If you are going to stay the night in the Ypres (a.k.a. Ieper) area – and you should – use the map below to book your accommodation:

Have you visited any war graves in Belgium? I’d especially like to hear from anyone who lives in this region; what are your thoughts on this? Leave a comment below!

Updated in June 2021.


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