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Armistice events in Belgium this weekend look to both past and future
As the bells toll at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Belgium marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. As silence descends, thousands will bow their head in ceremonies in Brussels, Ypres, Mons and other towns across the country.
The first world war was among the deadliest conflicts in human history. The total number of military and civilian casualties is estimated at 40 million. While the hundreds of events, activities and gatherings that have taken place over the last four years for the First World War centenary have been singularly unique, there is a sense that they are all culminating this weekend.
Flanders centre stage
The poppy-strewn Menin Gate in Ypres is traditionally the focus of the 11 November public holiday. The massive Portland stone memorial to the World War One missing is a place of commemoration throughout the year as the Last Post is played here every evening at 20.00, whatever the crowd, whatever the weather.
This shell-pocked rural corner of West Flanders saw some of the bloodiest battles of the Great War, the most devastating of which was Passchendaele in 1917. Memorials, cemeteries and relics proliferate across the region, known also as the Ypres Salient, because the medieval town was surrounded on three sides during most of the war by the German army.
The Westhoek region of West Flanders – home to much of the war’s Western Front – is putting on a three-day programme to mark the Armistic centenary, which kicks off on Friday afternoon with the unveiling of Assembly: Memorial Chairs.
The In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres organised the installation by asking people from every nation that fought in the First World War to send chairs. The idea is that every life lost in war is an empty chair back home.
From Friday to Sunday night, the more than 100 chairs are on display in the city’s Astrid Park. Each is illuminated by a lantern that includes information on where the chair is from and how far it travelled to reach Ypres. The installation also includes white flowers and a special soundscape.
Following the weekend, the chairs will remain in Ypres “just like the fallen soldiers”, according to the museum.
Extra Last Post
The programme continues on Friday evening in Ypres with a reading by Iranian-Dutch writer Kader Abdolah and one of three weekend concerts called The Great War Remembered in the city’s cathedral.
On Saturday, visitors are invited to take part in the final leg of the annual four-day commemoration walk from the Somme in France to Ypres. There are several options, from four to 24 kilometres. Also on Saturday is a candlelight procession at the Crest Farm Memorial in Passchendaele and the concert Distortion: A Hymn to Liberty at Zonnebeke Castle. The latter is a collaboration among Flemish composer Dirk Brossé, jazz pianist Jef Neve and singer-songwriter Frederik Sioen reflecting on the unpredictable nature of both war and peace.
Back in Ypres on Sunday are a special service at the cathedral, the Poppy Parade, and a memorial at the War Victims Monument. That is followed by an extra Last Post ceremony at 11.00 at the Menin Gate. The regular nightly Last Post at 20.00 will also take place, closing out the weekend.
All of the events in the Westhoek can be attended by members of the public, though all the concerts are sold out. To attend the reading by Kader Abdolah, email email@example.com.
Mons is marking the First World War armistice commemorations with a 3D video mapping of its city hall until 11 November. Created by Charleroi collective Dirty Monitor, the sound and light show is screened twice every evening. In Eng/Fr, it recalls the irony of the city’s unique place in history; the first and last British soldiers to have died on the battlefield were both killed in Mons.
On 10 November, a crowd will gather at Saint-Symphorien for a final ceremony to mark the end of the war. This small woodland cemetery laid out on an old mine is particularly significant, as it mixes German and British graves, including those of the first and last Commonwealth soldiers killed in the war. The following day, the town of Mons will show its gratitude to Canada with a Liberation Parade. Held exactly 100 years after Canadian troops marched into the Grand’Place, the parade brings together several hundred men drawn from the same Canadian regiments that passed through Belgium in 1914, alongside troops from Britain, Belgium and France. “We are holding these ceremonies to remind young people, but also to celebrate our freedom,” Mons mayor Elio Di Rupo told the press.
The commemoration will include vehicles from World War One, historical film footage, music and readings from letters and diaries. At the same time, the local bell ringer will perform a programme of music based on the tunes played as Canadian troops entered the city in the winter of 1918. In the evening, the Grand’Place will be the setting for a light show projected on to the wall of the 15th-century town hall. It will retrace the story of the Canadian army in Europe through the eyes of a single Canadian soldier – George Price, who earned a place in history as the last soldier killed in the war, after he was hit by a sniper’s bullet near Mons at 10.58 on 11 November, just two minutes before the armies laid down their weapons.
In Brussels, meanwhile, the annual Armistice Day ceremony will take place at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier at the foot of the Congress Column. Later, at 15.00, the world premiere of War Requiem by Flemish composer Annelies Van Parys takes place at Bozar, performed by the Belgian National Orchestra.
Also at Bozar in the evening is Memory, Let All Slip: Tales of the Great War, a unique performance by seven actors reading texts written by seven soldiers from different countries during the great war. Texts are read in their original languages, with surtitles in English, French and Dutch.
The Royal British Legion Brussels branch will mark the centenary with a special ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Heverlee, just south of Leuven. The branch has a list on its Facebook page of where you can buy a remembrance poppy.
Myriad events are happening around the country, of course, such as Vergeten vrouwen in de Groote oorlog (Forgotten Women of the Great War), with experiences shared as stories, songs, poetry and images in Assenede, East Flanders; a candlelight march in Ghent; a concert of The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins in Steenokkerzeel; and a stage adaptation of the best-selling Flemish novel War and Turpentine in Antwerp.
But nearly every town is planning something. To see if there’s something near you, visit Flanders’ and Belgium’s websites dedicated to the centenary. Many exhibitions, tours and other activities last well beyond 11 November.
Finally, Flemish TV channel Eén will broadcast specials under the tagline Nooit meer ten oorlog (Never Again at War) as well as cover the events in West Flanders and in Brussels live throughout the day.
- Belgian federal site for 1914-18 commemorations, https://www.be14-18.be/en
- In Flanders Field Museum, Ypres, inflandersfields.be
- Tyne Cot Cemetery, Zonnebeke, & Saint-Symphorien Cemetery, Mons, http://www.cwgc.org/
- Plugstreet 14-18 Experience, plugstreet1418.com
- Talbot House, Poperinge, talbothouse.be
- American Battle Monuments Commission, http://www.abmc.gov/
- Langemark German Military Cemetery, vredeswakeslangemark.be
- Fort Loncin, Liège, fortdeloncin.be