“In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row.”
These lines from John McCrae in 1915 describe a particular set of battlefields in World War I, in the boundary area between France and Belgium. Key to this area was the town of Ieper, also called Ypres (pronounced Wipers by the British who spent five long years defending it). In the end, the town was demolished, and there are today hundreds of small cemeteries containing the remains of those who were found, identified or not.
Of course there were many (some 90,000) whose remains were never found. In 1928 the British Imperial War Graves Commission built a structure at the eastern approach to the town called the Menin Gate, which contains the names of 54,389 officers and men of the Commonwealth armies whose remains have never been found.
Several months ago I wrote about Roy Seitsinger, Puyallup High School class of 1911, who emigrated to Canada, registered a land claim in Alberta, and enlisted in the Canadian Army.
Seitsinger was sent to Ypres as a member of the 46th Battalion, Canadian Infantry. He was killed on October 28, 1917, but his remains were never recovered, or at least never identified. Accordingly, his name can be found on panel 28 of the Menin Gate, along with 32 others of his unit.
After the war the town was rebuilt, and the memorial was established. At local initiative starting in 1928, and continuing to today (excluding only the period during WWII when the town was under German occupation), there is a daily ceremony at the memorial. Every evening at 8 p.m., members of the local Ieper/Ypres fire brigade, in formal uniform, march into the memorial and play Last Post, the British equivalent of taps. This has happened more than 30,000 times.
On Monday evening, Sept. 21, a regular evening with no special significance, Ruth and I drove into Ieper through the Menin Gate about 6 p.m. and parked in the square. We found a place to eat and watched as people straggled toward the gate as it began to rain. At about 7:30 we walked slowly to the memorial, where policemen had stopped traffic. As the rain increased, people kept streaming into the memorial. I would estimate that many hundred of us had gathered for the ceremony.
At 8 p.m. the buglers marched into place, played their piece, and after presentation of a few wreaths by assorted groups, marched off. Just another night, but an unforgettable moment for us, and, I am sure for all the other attendees from all over the world.
Ieper is a living memorial to the “Great War.” It is the single tourist attraction.
Even our hotel, slightly out of town, was located between an open air battlefield museum and a British cemetery. The next morning we went into town again. The Flanders Fields Museum, housed in the rebuilt cloth hall is an unforgettable monument to man’s insanity. Displays are kept current, including recent archaeological finds from the surrounding construction sites with news of the discovery of several hundred bodies during routine utility excavation. There is an interactive computer display in which you can type in a name and get details of your soldier.
I typed in Roy’s name, and up came his particulars. We inquired about an American cemetery, and found that although there was limited American military activity in that area, the nearest American cemetery was a small one, nearly 25 miles away. We found the immaculately maintained grounds and stopped in for a brief visit. The first cross we observed marks the grave of a Washington soldier from the 91st Division, which trained at then-Camp Lewis.
Ruth and I had been stationed in Europe for years, but this was our first visit to Ieper. I would recommend everyone visit this town and pay homage to Seitsinger while you are there. His name on the wall among his fallen comrades attests to his courage in a war of carnage that would sadly be repeated scant years later.
Andy Anderson is the historian for the Puyallup Historical Society at Meeker Mansion. You can reach him through the Meeker Mansion at (253) 848-1770, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.