War memorial tourism is fighting for life thanks to COVID-19 – Community News
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War memorial tourism is fighting for life thanks to COVID-19

POPERINGE, Belgium (AP) — Simon Louagie feared the loss of Talbot House, a World War I soldiers’ club that has become an institution in memorial tourism on the Western Front where soldiers from all corners of the world fought amid untold carnage, a little over a century ago.

Last year, a COVID-19 lockdown closed the club, which had always been an open house, for months. It was once within earshot of Commonwealth soldiers who quickly shook off the fear of battle in the Flemish fields. For generations, people have found history, comfort, wisdom and understanding at Talbot House as to why the motto of this region of western Belgium is “Never go to war again”.

Since the end of World War I in 1918, millions of visitors – from even the United States, New Zealand and South Africa – have come to memorials in northern France and Belgium to pay tribute to the fallen.

Now, after two years of the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions, the tourism industry that welcomes them is paralyzed. Lockdowns and travel restrictions, many of which remain in place, are keeping foreign visitors away.

A new ceasefire beckons on November 11 and the outlook remains bleak.

Talbot House manager Louagie recalls that when the money was running low and the doors were closed, only one thought crossed his mind: “Not on my watch.” Of as many as 500 guests a day, he was sometimes alone.

The house, he said, ‘needs sound. It needs piano music. It needs visitors, school children, people who play chess. Cups of tea, clinking in the kitchen to make it come alive. I need to hear the kettle whistle,” he said.

“We can’t disappoint all those generations before us by letting it close,” he said. That thought echoed through the region where hundreds of thousands died during the four years of fighting that eventually led to the Allied victory over Germany.

Nick Benoot, who runs the small Hooge Crater Museum not far from Poperinge, was shocked when schools started canceling trips at the end of 2019 due to reports of a virus in Wuhan, China.

Like Louagie, he had put money into the business and needed every income he could get. ‘Seriously, are you serious? This is in China. This is far, far away from us,” he recalls saying. But the reality of the pandemic, which has since claimed at least 5 million deaths worldwide, soon dawned and it had to close on March 13, 2020 — a bleak day he still remembers well.

From 65,000 paying visitors in 2017 to just 3,000 last year, the numbers showed how remembrance tourism collapsed across the region.

“It was like going bankrupt. We had to close everything,” he says.

But each man dealt with it in his own way and is still around to tell his story.

Crowdfunding was the answer for Louagie. Last year, a 98-year-old WWII veteran raised money by walking from a cemetery of war graves to Talbot House, cheered by locals who pulled money out of their wallets when they didn’t applaud. When a resident died, the family asked that money be donated to Talbot House in lieu of flowers.

“It got really emotional when I saw how much people cared about me so much,” Louagie said.

As virus measures have recently been relaxed thanks to Belgium’s vaccination campaign, some visitors enjoyed their breakfast at Talbot House. And just like in the old days, English volunteer Libby Madden was praised for her Victoria biscuit. “You know, we really want to keep the spirit of this beautiful place alive,” she said.

The fields of Flanders were once so scarred by war that churches and castles simply disappeared like rubble under the mud. Much around Ypres has been restored to its former glory and has given the locals an unshakable sense of optimism.

Benoot looked at an empty car park last year and had missed the din of spoken English from the throngs of British tourists resounding in the museum and cafe. But this week “we’ve had the first British (bus) in two years.”

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

At 37, he thought he was too old to get the message across to kids, so he left it to his sons Louis and Arthur, 10 and 8, who are now YouTube whizzes to kids about gas masks, helmets and medical kits. to learn. The Hooge Boys are now a hit.

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

Even the Last Post ceremony in nearby Ypres — a daily mournful bugle call dating back to 1928 and only briefly stopped during World War II — threatened to be silenced. According to tradition, the bugle plays under the Menin Gate, where some 55,000 names are inscribed of soldiers whose remains have never been found.

Yet it continued. Volunteers refused to stop and pulled the strings all the way up to the highest political posts to ensure its continuation even if it had to be phased out.

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

On Thursday there should be a full line-up of six trumpets again, supported by a bagpiper, a choir, a band and several hundred invited guests and poppy walkers. Even the Belgian Prime Minister will show up.