A Good Guide

Redressing the balance

I first heard the Last Post sounded at the Menin Gate at Ypres forty-five years ago. I was alone, apart from the buglers and a local drunk sheltering from the rain. Recently I went with the England cricket team and there were over 300 spectators at the same spot, mostly English schoolchildren unmoved by the ceremony, but happily twittering away at the sight of their heroes. It is a tourist attraction, sometimes treated as part of a theme park, to be ‘done’ between pit-stops for chocs in the Grote Markt. The museum in the Cloth Hall used to boast a higgledy-piggledy collection of guns, trench signs, minenwerfer, posters, uniforms, Mills bombs, photos… crammed clumsily into cases and on walls, a marvellous array from which you could sense the atmosphere and experience of those years. But the revamped museum, In Flanders Fields, despite an honest appraisal of German atrocities, has been seduced into over-emphasis on populist but historically tangential themes like the Christmas Truce, war poets, women’s role, colonial troops and of course those who were ‘shot at dawn’. You are told how to feel. A good guide should redress the balance.