When our bicycle trip began, our first memory sites from World War I focused around Belgian sites. From the Brussels Airport, which was festooned with a field of poppies hanging from the ceiling, it was impossible to ignore the war's centennial. Belgium made cycling the front accessible, with marked signs on roads and bike paths, and many interpretative signs helped explain the significance of what we were seeing. Our small group was lucky enough to have guides the first day from one of Nieuwpoort's local cycling clubs, the Kon. Vrolijke Wielrijders Nieuwpoort. Roger Maes and his three cycling friends escorted us for about 30 kilometers to important sites in Belgium's war history on our way from Nieuwpoort (on the coast) to Ieper.
When Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, the Belgian army fought back. Cemeteries from Liege to Antwerp testify to the early losses of Belgian and German soldiers in the first months of the war. As the front moved through Belgium, the government under the leadership of King Albert I made plans to withdraw to a safe location. For most of the war, the government presided over a small coastal strip of Flanders from its headquarters in De Panne, where we started our cycling on May 16, 2015. Just up the coast at Nieuwpoort, there is a memorial to King Albert. Also outside Nieuwpoort, one finds the sluice gates that controlled flooding in the plain around the IJzer (Yser) River. In 1914, Belgian army engineers opened these gates and flooded the plain between the German and Belgian armies, creating a flooded No Man's Land that would remain for the entirety of the war. Other memorials, such as the Dodengang 'death trench' museum and the memorial to the first poison gas attack in April 1915, provide more context for the Belgian war experience. Finally, the IJzer tower, located just outside Dixmude, promotes peace today with its "No more war" slogans, but it also reminds visitors of the divisive nature of the war within Belgian's linguistic and cultural communities.
Our first two days from De Panne-Ieper ended with visits to sites on the outskirts of Ieper, many of which were British, German, and French, so I will discuss those in subsequent posts.