I have had a cosmic connection with Belgium since childhood, and this week I am finally visiting the country, in connection with the 1914-2014 Centenary Anniversary of World War One. I'm almost giddy.
•It started when I was in 6th grade. We had to do a major "country report" in the form of an extreme outline, to teach us how to outline ideas. We were assigned countries, and I got Belgium.
These were the day of having to get in the car and go to the local library to get books to do research. And it turned out the local library had almost nothing about the history or the culture of Belgium. I was quite the little student at 11, and I started to panic that I would not be able to complete the assignment.
The teacher had suggested we might contact the Consulate General of our assigned country for information, and so with a heavy heart I wrote to the Belgian Consulate General in NYC, which today is near Bryant Park, telling them my tale of woe. In a short two weeks, I received a large envelope from the Belgians with the most glorious gift: a huge sheet of images of paintings of Belgian history and photos of Belgian culture, all with generous explanatory text. It was astonishing. What wonderful people these Belgians must be.
•A few years after that the delightful romantic comedy If This Is Tuesday It Must Be Belgium was on TV, and my family watched it together. It's seared into my brain how much we laughed out loud together. A wonderful memory.
•The next touch points were in college, finding both Jacques Brel & Paul Fussell.
I memorized the Ne Me Quitte Pas album, including the lovely Marieke, the one song where Brel sings in both his native French & Flemish.
Ay Marieke, Marieke, je t'aimais tant
Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand
And with Paul Fussell I studied the literature & poetry of the First World War, where I first heard the words Passchendaele, the Ypres Salient.
Bruges and Ghent and the Last Post Ceremony in Ypres
And now I am going to "Bruges et Gand" and Ypres, with a group called Run by Singers, who gather in various cities to rehearse great choral music and then give a concert.
We will sing the Faure Requiem in Bruges, visit the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, and participate in the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres. That's a ceremony that the townspeople have been holding since November 1929, every day without fail to show their appreciation to those who died for Belgium's freedom. The Menin Gate Memorial commemorates the names of over 54,000 soldiers from the UK and the Commonwealth who died on the Ypres Salient before August 16, 1917, and whose remain were never found for an individual grave.
The photo at the top is of the Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade at the Last Post Ceremony. Lots of information about the ceremony and its history here.
My Grandfather's WW1 Was "Over Here"
Arthur Cornelius Brown was born in Brooklyn in 1892 to immigrant Norwegian parents. (The family name Jacobsen was changed to Brown as they came through Castle Clinton.)
He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, David's Island, New Rochelle, on May 10, 1917, when he was 23 years old.
Wiki: By the onset of World War I Fort Slocum had become one of the busiest recruiting stations in the country, processing 100,000 soldiers per year and serving as the recruit examination station for soldiers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the New England states.
But he was not sent overseas. Grandma said he never got out of Fort Hamilton, which is in Brooklyn. Grandpa served his two years in the 22nd Infantry, which was headquartered in Fort Jay, which is on Governors Island. He was promoted to Private First Class to Corporal in 1918 (above), and given the all-important honorable discharge in June 1919 (below).
And so I began my journey to the WW1 battlefields of Belgium by going to Governors Island in New York Harbor, a short 15-minute ferry ride from downtown, from the slip right next to the Staten Island Ferry.
Now my journey will take me from our U. S. Army fort to Flanders, in my grandather's stead. I am grateful that he was not sent into the hell that was the trenches and mud and disease and death that met far too many who served. He was able to continue his life after his war service, and get married, and have two daughters, one of whom I'm lucky to call mom.
In Flanders I will pray for the souls of all who were slaughtered during the Great War, which is thought to be about 8.5 million people, not including casualties. And for the victims of all the recent wars and war-like acts.
And I will hold one particular death in my heart. My grandfather's British Army, Royal Army Service Corps counterpart, Lance Corporal Arthur Brown. He was sent "over there" from Mother England's shore and is one of the hundreds of thousands whose bodies were never found.
The Imperial War Museum has digitzed the records of those who served on an amazing website, where the digital age let's you note "Remembering."