New Mill Male Voice Choir toured Flanders in May 2014. The Flanders towns Ypres, Bruges and Ghent were the principle destinations, both to take in the sites, to sing and to search for connections with the West Riding. Wool was king here long before Huddersfield, Leeds and Bradford took centre stage during the industrial revolution. Sadly, many Yorkshire men lost their lives here, during WW1.
In the early middle ages, Flanders was an important trading centre. Merchants, becoming very rich in the process, bought raw wool from England and employed artisans to make highly desirable cloth for export. Canals, fine merchants’ houses and large cloth halls were impressive, though the Ypres buildings were modern reconstructions of structures razed in WW1 by the Germans. Ghent also had factory remains from a 19th century textile revival. These reminders fitted snugly with 21st century bars and bistros.
Two cathedrals, Bruges and Ghent, hosted the choir on successive days. Bruges’ Sint-Salvator, whilst built in the 10th century, obtained cathedral status after Belgium’s independence in the 1830s. The organ was massive, expanded and rebuilt three times in the 20th century. Saint Bavo of Ghent was consecrated in 942, completed in 1569, becoming a cathedral in 1559. It houses the masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Bruges was the more intimate space, but both had exceptional acoustics.
We spent a day with a guide, exploring Ypres and Passchendaele; the battlefield and the cemeteries. At Essex Farm, the cemetery was next to a dressing station, manned by a Canadian surgeon called Lt Col John McCrae who wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields. One of the poignant moments here was at the graveside of a sixteen year old. At Tyne Cot we were reminded of the 100 days it took to advance 5 miles prior to the third battle of Passchendaele when over 250,000 British lives were lost. We were told about excess rain, artillery bombardment, mud and murderous machine guns. And executions for cowardice. Beyond our experience, hard to imagine. It’s a peaceful place now.
We sang Let There Be Peace On Earth and Abide With Me at the Menin Gate, which with Tyne Cot, are memorials to those who have no known grave. Adam, our chairman, read an extract from Robert Binyon’s poem. The names of soldiers from The Duke Of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding) appeared regularly on the memorials.
Everything we reflect on in the present is already history. Making sense of personal history depends on our first memories and the memories of relatives, personally known to us or known to the generations we grew up alongside. This living history goes back maybe to grandparents and their siblings, many of whom died in Flanders. Most of us abhor violent conflict on any scale and the heartbreaking loss of young lives. Yet there was dignity here in Flanders, in the white symmetrical stones and the neat names carved on walls. Row on row, just on the edge of our personal histories, still not a remote date in a history textbook.
Flanders was a great place to visit, and to sing, and to catch up on history some of us might not know a lot about, until now.