Flanders is a graveyard.
No more so is this true than in the land around Ypres, that includes the infamous Passchendaele battlefield. One imagines these battlefields to be vast and distant from each other, massive armies sweeping to and fro with regularity. In actual fact, at times the front line trenches were just 50 metres apart, and the armies barely moved with any permanency. It could take months for any perceptible change in the front line to occur. The different battle fields are just part of one large killing field, the famous names – Ypres, Passchaendale, Polygon Wood, Messines – separated by mere kilometres. The bell tower in Passchendaele is visible from the bell tower in Ypres.
Half a million men died here in WW1, in a stretch of front line 20 miles long and four miles deep.
They lie in graveyards dotted across the landscape – Tyne Cot, Langemarck, Hill 62 – with their neatly ordered rows that lead us to believe that perhaps these men were gently laid to rest, in coffins with their favourite possessions, full military honours having been accorded each of them individually. The truth is rather more grisly, as a wander around any of these cemeteries or memorials makes you realise. Many of the gravestone markers are dedicated to ‘an Unknown soldier…’; others mark a grave shared by 4 or 5 soldiers. In Langemarck cemetery, one section perhaps 100 metres square holds 25000 bodies – a mass grave, composed of the remains of German soldiers moved here from other gravesites. The Belgians decided after WW2 they no longer wanted the proliferation of German war cemeteries, Germany having invaded and decimated their country twice within 30 years.
There is an unexploded shell sitting just to the side of the road, dug up by a farmer turning his field. Covered in clay, it looks like something that’s been in the ocean for years. Bomb disposal will probably come by in the next couple of weeks to get rid of it.
Ypres was destroyed – utterly – during WW1. A rebuild occurred after the war with money from the reparations the defeated Germans were made to pay. The rise of Ypres linked to the demise of Germany. The locations of some towns in Flanders could only be identified by the red smudges left in the muddy quagmire where they once stood, so well had the tools and methods of war done their job on the brickwork that once gave these places their substance. In Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks describes how the soldiers knew the location of a town had been attacked because of the cloud of red dust that hung above it immediately after it’s destruction.
A red cloud, a smudge.
They tried out gas for the first time across these fields in 1915. The initial gas attack knocked a hole in the allied front line four miles wide, but the Germans seem to have been unprepared for quite how successful their experiment would be, and didn’t have the troops in place to hold the advantage. The allies weren’t innocent here either – once the Germans used gas, it was used in retaliation upon them. Gas masks were generally only effective against a particular type of gas, so to make the gas attacks more effective, a mixture of gases were used. One to make the soldier throw up in his mask perhaps, upon which he would tear off the gas mask, and then…
With such ingenuity we find ways to kill each other.
There is now a funpark in the middle of what was once a battlefield. Perhaps it helps to redress the balance a little.
At 8pm every evening, a ceremony is held at the imposing Menin Gate in Ypres to commemorate the dead. The gate is inscribed with the names of thousands of soldiers, from all over the British Empire, those whose bodies were never found, who never got a gravestone in one of the cemeteries. Many of them will have marched down this very road to the frontlines, never to march back. It’s very apparent that some in the crowd here see this ceremony as just another tourist attraction, but all become affected by the solemnity as the ceremony progresses. The Last Post. ‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them’. Reveille.
We do remember them, commemorate them – but never seem able to learn the lessons this massacre might have taught us. The crucifix in the allied cemeteries has a sword inlaid into it – surely the profanity of the sword is the last thing that should be symbolised in this place. Symbols of nationalism are present everywhere. New Zealanders and Australians seem the worst at this, perhaps my eyes are too sensitively attuned to their actions. Each country seems guilty in some way – through the symbolism on its memorials, in the mythology it weaves. I try to remain aloof to it, but am particularly moved by the New Zealand memorial at Mesen (Messines). From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth.
I know from whence those boys came.
They should all be mixed together, the symbols of where they came from stripped away. They were powerless, and they were fighting a war on behalf of someone powerful who wished to retain and grow their power. That is always the story.
War turns our children into murderers; and we allow them to be executed without trial.
After the Menin Gate ceremony, I wander around the memorial, looking at the names, trying to remember some of them. They are too many.
I catch the eye of a woman – probably in her early 60s – who thrusts a photo of a young man in front of me, posing for his portrait in his immaculate uniform before he leaves for the front.
Not a young man; a boy.
‘Frank Elliot,’ she says. ‘He was killed in 1917. There he is up there.’ She points up into a corner, and there he is – a private in the Manchester Regiment, Elliot, F.
‘Are you related to him?’ I ask.
‘He was my great, great uncle,’ she says. I think that is enough ‘greats’.
‘Is this your first time here?’ I ask.
‘I was here two days ago,’ she replies. Just a couple of days after the 100th anniversary of his death, because he died on the 31st of July 1917. ‘What about you, are you here for anyone?’
‘No one,’ I say. I wave my hand to indicate the whole memorial and the thousands of names. ‘I’m here for all of them.’
We’re both a bit choked up and tearful. ‘It’s good that you could come for him,’ I say. I am about to ask her if she wants a hug, but she turns to leave. She turns back to me.
‘Thank you’ she says.
She just wanted someone to know he was alive, this boy.
His is the name I will remember, of all the thousands etched into those walls.
Frank Elliot, Manchester Regiment, killed 31/07/1917.
He was 19 years old.