Discovering a history of hope in Flanders

A tombstone in memory of a soldier during the First World War.

A tombstone in memory of a soldier during the First World War.

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On a late autumn evening, the watery sun low in a greying sky, Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery is beautiful, bleak and completely overwhelming.

It might be nearly a century since the last earth was scattered on the last grave, and you might have read the history books, studied the poetry of Wilfred Owen and watched the grainy BBC documentaries, but nothing can ever really prepare you for the jolting sadness of actually standing here, in a war cemetery, just 12km from the infamously bloody Ypres Salient.

What’s perhaps even harder to absorb is that Lijssenthoek was a hospital cemetery, serving the biggest evacuation hospital in the Ypres Salient.

So the 10,784 men lying here would not have died in some romantic, baying glory on the battlefield, but in slow lonely agony with wounds modern medicine would baulk at, let alone the meagrely equipped tents of the First World War.

There are the unnamed graves too – 24 in total. That’s actually relatively few for a war cemetery, and yet that’s still 24 families who never knew where their sons, fathers and brothers lay.

On the southern tip of the cemetery, you come to 223 German graves. They are all neatly kept, but they lie – unsurprisingly – a little apart.

You can understand it, of course, and yet, whatever the rights and wrongs of Germany’s part in the Great War, there’s no escaping the enduring loneliness of men buried apart from comrades, unwelcome outsiders even in death.

In what seems like endless sadness though, one headstone in Lijssenthoek gives out a strange ray of hope. ‘That one is Nellie Spindler’s,’ our guide smiles.

Nellie, a staff nurse with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, was just 26 when she died while she was sleeping, bombed by a German shell at 11.15am on August 21, 1917.

At first her story seems an unlikely one to lift the mood. But her role in the war effort was very admirable.

Because in 1917 – a year before UK women over 30 got the vote – women undoubtedly had less rights than men. And yet there was Nellie, fighting with an equal honour to men.

Throughout the war, thousands of women were ‘doing their bit’ in hospitals across Europe’s battlefields.

And although history lessons might not have told us much about them, in the centenary year, it’s perhaps about time that changed.

All over Flanders, you don’t have to search very hard to find similar stories of female heroism.

Most local guides can tell you about how Marie Curie drove her radiology vans for miles, training other nurses.

Flanders Field Museum, just off the enormous town square in Ypres, has video reels with actresses reciting nurses’ letters.

There are new interactive display pods too, that let you ‘be’ famous names from the war, such as Edith Cavell, the nurse executed by German soldiers after helping Allied soldiers escape from Belgium.

A visit to Flanders makes you truly remember and appreciate what both men and women lost.

It is perhaps summed up most simply on another headstone, which reads: ‘With the angels now, rest in peace, my dear, dear husband.’

TRAVEL FACTS

Nel Staveley was a guest of Ariane Hotel (ariane.be) in Ypres, where doubles start from 99 euros per night. For more information about visiting Ypres and the Flanders Fields, go to visit flanders.co.uk/discover/flanders-fields and flandersfields1418.co.uk. The easiest way to reach Flanders is ferry and car. MyFerryLink (myferrylink.com; 0844 2482 100) operates 16 daily crossings Dover to Calais. Fares for a car start from £29 each way and from £19 for a day return.

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