Welcoming the world to the Westhoek

Communications Coordinator, Louise Dujardin recalls a busy start to life at CWGC, helping visitors explore CWGC’s sites in the Westhoek region in Belgium and France and some of her favourite memories of the First World War centenary.

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Having started working for the Commission in its Ieper office literally in the midst of the First World War centenary period in 2016, I was dropped into the busy preparation period for the upcoming big commemorations such as the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele.

The External Relations team dealt with hundreds of commemorative event requests and projects over the entire four year centenary period: as soon as a commemoration had ended, we were already supporting and organising the next important commemoration of a historical battle or remembrance project.

It made me realise how quickly the terrible events succeeded one another a century ago and that – while we can now spread the positive message of commemoration, back then they needed to prepare themselves for the next bout of horror continuously.

Next to the many big official international services that took place, I personally always liked the wide diversity of visitors that you could meet on the CWGC sites and coming with that diversity, the variety of stories they brought with them. Even a hundred years after the war, the strong emotional and personal relationship to the sites is almost tangible.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve spoken to all kinds of people. There were people searching for a lost family member, children doing school projects, students writing a First World War related thesis but it was also very interesting to be able to see commemoration from another perspective, such as helping journalists covering interesting personal stories, supporting event organisers looking to prepare wreath-laying ceremonies, artistic photographers and many more.

The many ways in which you were involved in commemoration, made you look at commemoration through the eyes of all these different people, from different nationalities, different ages, and different levels of historic knowledge.

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During some of the major events in the area, such as the Royal British Legion Pilgrimage and the Centenary of the Armistice – the streets around the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial were so crowded that you could barely move. 

Over the Centenary period the Ieper office alone answered approximately 5000 enquiries. The Info Centre Advisors have welcomed over 32,000 people through the doors of our information centre since it opened in Ieper in 2017. I remember the Ieper Information Centre visitor counters peaked at over a thousand visitors on the 11 November 2018.

No matter how busy it got, I always loved to see how people looked up admiringly and silently as the red poppy leaves whirled down under the Menin Gate during the famous ‘poppy drops’. The 90th Anniversary event of the unveiling of the Memorial on 21 May 2017 was extraordinarily beautiful with the singing of Emma Brown during the drop.

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Next to seeing a growing international interest in the World War heritage in the area, I was very proud to see that the local community has shown an increased interest and awareness of their local heritage. The participation in ‘Open Heritage Day’ attracted about 350 visitors to CWGC New Irish Farm Cemetery in 2018. Young and old watched with great fascination as our specialised team of gardeners and artisans demonstrate their specific horticultural and works skills.

The exhibition ‘A century of Caring’ in the Ieper Information Centre also meant the opportunity to tell the story of all the different craftsmen the Commission. I found developing these projects to be a great experience. Without the conservation of our existing elements, commemoration would lose its authenticity. Therefore, it is very rewarding to show that, in addition to our objective to encourage commemoration in perpetuity, a whole range of knowledge and craftsmanship helps to achieve this commemorative goal.