I made several visits to the First World War battlefields. This is an overall impression of Ypres and the surrounding area.
There were four principal battles at Ypres, interspersed with almost continual low-level bombardment and skirmishing. In autumn 1914 British forces managed to halt Prince Rupert’s 6th (Bavarian) army in their drive for the Channel ports. By the time fighting ground to a halt in the winter mud, the old pre-war British professional army had virtually ceased to exist, while the Bavarians had flung into battle so many semi-trained youngsters that they nicknamed it “the slaughter of the children”. One of those who survived was a certain Adolf Hitler. 1915 saw the second battle of Ypres, noted for the first use of poison gas. In 1916 the main action was away to the south, at Verdun and the Somme, but in 1917 came the great British offensive which became specially linked with the attacks on a village north-east of Ypres: Passchendaele; the battle in the mud. Finally in late summer 1918 there was a massive Allied offensive which drove back the German forces and led to the collapse of Germany. But in popular memory the name of Ypres is above all associated with disaster.
The whole area reminded me of the Fens, with very flat fields intensively cultivated (mostly with maize nowadays), above which the church spires stand out for miles. The water- table is only just below the surface, and it is easy to see how heavy bombardment would quickly destroy the drainage system and turn the whole area into a kind of filthy porridge, through which the troops would have to wade, and into which they frequently sank without trace.
Before 1914, Ypres was similar to Ghent and Bruges: a splendid city of the late middle ages, built on the wealth from the cloth trade with England. But whereas the other two had the great good fortune that the First World War passed them by, and their glorious buildings survived intact, Ypres was right on the front line for four years, and was completely destroyed. Although the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and other buildings look old, they are only painstaking reconstructions, which means the city lacks atmosphere.
The Cloth Hall has a fine museum of the war, and St George’s chapel just round the corner, is covered inside with the brass plates of British memorials. The most awesome modern building is the Menin Gate, inscribed with the names of 59,000 British troops whose bodies were never identified: they had mostly disappeared into the porridge.
Every evening the Menin Gate stages a ceremony where buglers sound the Last Post and wreathes are laid. When I was there it was blown by a couple of men from the town fire brigade who unromantically rolled up on mopeds, while Jupiter blazed brightly in the skies above. Around the city are the remains of an earlier age of warfare built for Louis XIV by Vauban: huge moated earthworks which were the safest place to take shelter during the German bombardments.
Around Ypres there lie a great number of British war cemeteries, much the biggest being at Tyn Cot on the Passchendaele ridge, looking back across the bloodsoaked fields to the city. It is built around three German pillboxes, with the central one now forming the base for a huge cross, behind which a wall contains the names of thousands more of the unidentified dead.
The British cemeteries have individual tombstones standing in serried ranks, mostly with individual name, rank and unit, but about third of them having no inscription other than “A soldier of the Great War; known unto God”, used for remains that could not be identified. But the most artistically impressive cemetery is the German one at Vladslo, with its leafy glades and two stark kneeling statues of grieving relatives. Instead of individual gravestones, the German system has horizontal slabs, each one of them inscribed with twenty or more names.
Also close to Ypres is the vast mine crater at Hill 60, complete with a German pillbox that had been rolled over onto its roof by the force of the explosion.
Further on past Shrapnel Corner is a great water-filled crater at Spanbroekmolen on Messines Ridge, together with German trenches and shafts, and whole walls of shell-cases at Frauenlob near “Whitesheet”, where Adolf Hitler stood in the front line, and revisited it in after the fall of France in 1940. We also saw the Field Dressing Station where the famous poem about the “Poppies” was written by a Canadian doctor, and at the Essex Farm cemetery the grave of a British soldier aged just 15 – and he was apparently not the youngest known casualty.
North of Ypres we find the Belgian trenches. Dixmuide, has a small museum and a vast war memorial, the Yser Tower, which just before my first visit had been blown up in the continuing linguistic struggle between Fleming-speakers and Walloon-speakers, because the wrong language had been thought to have been given too much prominence. Dixmuide also has the “Trench of Death” along the canal: a slightly bogus trench nowadays, since all the sandbags have been replaced with concrete. But it did enable us to see all the normal trench and dugout features: firesteps, firebays, machine-gun nests and so forth. There were even a few battered poppies to add to the atmosphere.
The most evocative sight near Ypres, however, is Hill 62, otherwise known as “Sanctuary Wood”. It is at least visibly a hill, which the Passchendaele ridge is not. On the hill an enterprising farmer soon after the war refrained from disturbing the trenches in the correct belief that they would attract tourists, though he let the trees grow up around them. So although the area is once again a wood, you can still gain a strong impression of what it must actually have been like: with rusty barbed wire and corrugated iron, muddy craters, water-filled dugouts and tunnels, shattered stumps, the odd unexploded shell, and general squalor.
It was the sheer beastliness of trench life, even without the shellfire, which came across most strongly – and this in fine weather, after it had hardly rained for a month. What it must have been like under bombardment and in pouring rain does not bear thinking about. This was reinforced by the little museum at the gate, which featured a stereoscopic viewer of old photographs, including some exceptionally grisly wartime scenes.
I wrote the following after my first visit:-
Sanctuary Wood, Ypres: School Visits
How can they understand a war poem? How can we?
Wars were far away and long ago
And nothing seen on television ever really happened.
Now the woods are full of children
Running through the muddy trenches
Dodging round the water-filled craters
Gawping at, or completely failing to notice
The occasional unexploded shell
And squeaking when their nice new jeans
(Fashionably ragged and torn at the knee)
Are stained with filth in the communications tunnel.
Below the woods the fields are grey with mist
Shrouding the view to the sinister places
The Menin road, and up to Passchendaele,
Behind us, Messines Ridge and Plugstreet. The children
Have been told, but already they’ve forgotten
And soon they’ll be off for hamburger and chips
(They’re looking forward to their succulent Belgian chips)
And leave the trenches and the shattered stumps
The rusty barbed wire and all the iron harvest of war
And arching over all, the chestnut trees
- None more than seventy years old
But sprouting strongly, because well fertilised
By someone who in happier circumstances
Might have married my grandmother
OF THE GREAT WAR
KNOWN UNTO GOD