Europe’s war memorials fight to survive pandemic drop in tourism

POPERINGE, Belgium – Simon Louagie feared losing Talbot House, a World War I soldiers’ club turned into a remembrance tourism institution on the Western Front where soldiers from around the world fought amid untold carnage a little over a century ago.

For months last year, a COVID-19 lockdown shut down the club which had always been an open house. It used to be for Commonwealth soldiers fleeing the fear of battle in the Flanders fields that was within earshot. For generations people have found at Talbot House the history, solace, wisdom and understanding of why the motto of this region of western Belgium is “Never Again”.

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A man casts a shadow while looking at the names of those missing from World War I on a wall at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, November 4, 2021.

Since the end of World War I in 1918, millions of visitors – from as far away as the United States, New Zealand and South Africa – have flocked to memorials in northern France and of Belgium to pay homage to the dead.

Now, with two years of the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions approaching, the tourism industry that welcomes them is crippled. Closures and travel restrictions, many of which remain in place, keep foreign visitors away.

Another armistice day looms on November 11, and the outlook remains bleak.

The manager of Talbot House, Louagie, remembers that when funds were low and the doors were closed, a single thought crossed his mind: “Not under my supervision. With nearly 500 guests a day, he sometimes found himself alone.

The house, he said, “needs noise. She needs piano music. She needs visitors, schoolchildren, people playing chess. .

“We cannot disappoint all these generations before us by letting it shut down,” he said. The thought echoed throughout the region where hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in the four years of fighting that ultimately led to the victory of Allied forces over Germany.

A photo, badge and uniform of a Canadian soldier from the First World War are on display in a display case at the Hooge Crater Museum in Ypres on November 4, 2021.

Nick Benoot, who runs the small Hooge Crater museum not far from Poperinge, couldn’t believe it when, at the end of 2019, schools began canceling trips due to reports of a virus in Wuhan, China.

Like Louagie, he had invested money in the business and needed all possible income. “Seriously, do you mean that?” It’s in China. It’s far, very far from us, ”he recalls having said. But the reality of the pandemic, which has since claimed at least 5 million lives worldwide, quickly collapsed and he had to shut down on March 13, 2020 – a dark day he remembers well.

From 65,000 paying visitors in 2017 to just 3,000 last year, the numbers have shown how much memory tourism has collapsed across the region.

“It was like we were going bankrupt. We had to close everything, ”he said.

But everyone handled it in their own way and are always there to tell their story.

Crowdfunding was the answer for Louagie. Last year, a 98-year-old World War II veteran raised funds by walking from a war grave cemetery in Talbot House, encouraged by locals who took money out of their wallets as they they were not applauding. When a resident passed away, the family asked that mourners instead of flowers donate money to Talbot House.

“It became very moving when I saw how many people cared so deeply,” Louagie said.

Drawings by Belgian schoolchildren are placed in front of World War I graves at Tyne Cot cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium on November 4, 2021.

While measures against the virus have recently eased thanks to Belgium’s vaccination campaign, some visitors have enjoyed their breakfast at the Talbot house. And like in the good old days, English volunteer Libby Madden was praised for her Victoria sponge cake. “You know, we really want to keep the spirit of this wonderful place alive,” she said.

The fields of Flanders were once so scarred by war that churches and castles simply disappeared as rubble under the mud. Much of Ypres has regained its former glory and has imbued the locals with unwavering optimism.

Benoot was looking at an empty parking lot last year and had missed the din of spoken English from the heaps of British tourists echoing through the museum and cafe. Yet this week “we had the first British (bus) in two years”.

Even as his income dwindled amid the pandemic, Benoot understood that the message of “war to end all wars” still had to be passed on to the younger generations.

At 37, he believed himself too old to carry the message to children, so he left it to his sons Louis and Arthur, 10 and 8, who are now YouTube prodigies teaching children about gas masks, helmets and medical kits. The Hooge Boys are a hit now.

“We don’t do what everyone else is doing. So I think we have a way to survive, ”said Benoot.

Nick Benoot poses with his family outside the Hooge Crater Museum in Ypres, Belgium, Thursday, November 4, 2021. Having lost his main source of income to British tourists, Benoot realized that the WWI message had to still be passed on to schoolchildren.  At 37, he thought he would be too old to spread the word, so he left it to his sons Louis and Arthur, 9 and 7, who created YouTube videos teaching children about gas masks, helmets and medical kits.

Even the Last Post ceremony in the nearby town of Ypres – a dismal daily bugle call dating back to 1928 that only stopped briefly during World War II – was in danger of being silenced. Tradition has it that the bugle plays under the Menin Gate where some 55,000 names of soldiers are engraved, the remains of whom have never been found.

Yet he got away with it. The volunteers refused to stop and pulled the strings to the highest political positions to ensure its sustainability, even if it were to be reduced.

“During COVID, there was only one bugle and the names of 55,000 soldiers,” said Benoit Mottrie, the head of the Last Post Association.

On Thursday, there should be the full complement of six bugles again, supported by a piper, choir, marching band and several hundred guests and poppy walkers. Even the Belgian Prime Minister will introduce himself.

A lone bugle plays the Last Post every night under the World War I monument, the Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium, in this archive photo from April 25, 2020.

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