Poppies in Flanders

The fallen soldiers of the First World War are a living presence at the memorial in Ypres, Belgium, dedicated to their valour.

Published : Jul 10, 2024 11:02 IST - 5 MINS READ

The grave of a solider of the Great War in the Flanders region of Belgium.

The grave of a solider of the Great War in the Flanders region of Belgium. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

The Armistice Day service at Bengaluru’s gorgeous, two-century-old St Mark’s Cathedral is a calendar event. Veterans attend in uniform, poppies on their lapels, solemnly remembering their fallen comrades from the First World War. A poem that is unfailingly read at the service is the Canadian soldier John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”, which ends with the stirring verse:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

The last three lines haunted me enough to want to make it to Flanders at some point. In December 2019, when I happened to be in Europe, I registered myself with Quasimodo Tours, which arranges day-long trips to Ypres in Belgium. This is where the Battle of Flanders between the German and the Allied Forces was fought; incidentally, July 2024 marks the 110th anniversary of the Great War (1914-18). I took the early morning train from Brussels to Bruges and was received by my host, Philippe, in a van that drove us across Ypres and its adjoining theatre of war. More than a hundred years later, live mines are still discovered there. In the biting cold, we visited the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and other cemeteries: wide, eerie expanses of lawn with hundreds of marble graves and an overhanging silence that speaks of the horrors that these grounds have seen.

More than a hundred years later, First World War bombs are still discovered in Ypres.

More than a hundred years later, First World War bombs are still discovered in Ypres. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

It was interesting to see German tombstones placed flat on the ground with no headstones. In the British cemetery, amidst rows of raised tombstones for fallen soldiers lay two flat tombstones. These, we learnt, were German soldiers given an honourable burial by their foes. Indeed, all is fair in love and war.

Some of the cemeteries had graves of soldiers as young as 18, schoolboys out on an adventure or perhaps driven by a greater calling. There was also a Victoria Cross winner among the scores of the fallen. Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning film 1917 is set among these graves, which are maintained meticulously by the Commonwealth Graves Commission.

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Our guide showed us parts of the theatre where rival troops were barely metres apart, gridlocked, eyeballing each other and waiting for the next move, which often never came. The Battles of Ypres were a test of stamina as much as of martial offence. Legend has it that the two sides would declare a ceasefire over Christmas and meet to exchange gifts and sing carols together.

Indians in the Great War

Every evening, Ypres holds a solemn remembrance ceremony where the “Last Post” is played by a bugler under the arches of the Menin Gate, a memorial to the thousands of British soldiers who went missing in action. Ypres, a quaint town heavily adorned with military plaques, also has a life-size statue of a Gurkha soldier and the Lion Capital of Asoka.

The grave of an Indian labourer killed in the Great war at a cemetery in Somme, France.

The grave of an Indian labourer killed in the Great war at a cemetery in Somme, France. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

Shrabani Basu records the role of Indian soldiers in the First World War in her absorbing book For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18. She points out how “extensive British accounts of the Battles of Neuve Chapelle, Ypres and the Somme would rarely mention the presence of the Indians”, though one and a half million fought for the Empire. The graves and plaques tucked away in these distant lands are now the only records of their service. Sikhs visiting Ypres from London occasionally carry wreaths to honour their fallen forebears.

Basu writes of Sepoy Khudadad Khan of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, who lies buried in a field in the village of Hollebeke in Ypres. Sepoy Khan was the first Asian to win a Victoria Cross for his outstanding gallantry. The Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London redeems the lopsided archival of the Great War by recognising the many Victoria Cross winners from India.

In my book The Order of the Crest: Tracing the Alumni of Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, Bangalore (1865-2015), I have profiled the fallen soldiers from my school who are buried in Flanders. As I gifted a copy to Philippe, the owner of Quasimodo, who is also a brilliant tour guide and a genuine lover of military history, I hoped that one day I would be able to trace all their graves and place wreathes in remembrance.

The statue of a Gurkha soldier in Ypres.

The statue of a Gurkha soldier in Ypres. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Mark Connelly and Stefan Goebel say in their book Great Battles: Ypres that Flanders has “faded from German collective memory and largely disappeared from tourist itineraries”. This is due to the passing of many veterans and the lower “emotional connection” that Germans have to the land as compared to, say, the British.

Yet, as Connelly and Goebel point out, French President François Mitterrand and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl shook hands over the war graves of Verdun (in France) in 1984, in a symbolic gesture announcing the restoration of ties between their countries. While many graves are forgotten, some suddenly assume gravitas when statespeople choose to remember them.

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In his lucid biography of Bombay (now Mumbai), City Adrift, Naresh Fernandes writes about understanding a city through its graveyards. He visits Antop Hill in Mumbai to find Prarthana Samajis (members of the Bombay-based social and religious reformist movement of the same name from the 19th century), Armenians, and Baha’is buried close to one another. This eclecticism is true of Bengaluru too: for instance, right in the heart of the city, in Shantinagar, you will find Christian, Muslim, and Hindu cemeteries standing adjacent to one another. They remind us of the self-evident truth that differences of religion—with which we seem obsessed—cease to matter after death.

In that sense, war graves are also a reminder of the futility of war. Yet, we must not break faith with those who died in the line of duty.

Aditya Sondhi is a senior advocate based in Delhi. He grew up in Bengaluru.

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