A walk in the September sun

The following is the moving ,unabridged account  by Peter Duffell  of a short visit to Flanders, made by him with his wife Ros to the Western Front of World War 1 . It appeared in a shortened form in the Joint Parish Magazine in November 2007 .

Will 'ye go to Flanders?....
a walk in the September sun

A four day visit to the Western Front, is too short a time in which to take in the enormity of what happened in Flanders and Picardy during those four long years, and yet, in that short time, we found ourselves emotionally exhausted by the sheer weight of the sad history of this flat country where, ninety odd years after the terrible slaughters which marked it for ever, the shards of the battlegrounds still come to the surface in fields and ridges. We had planned to visit Ypres and the Somme and took with us, two invaluable books. Stephen O’Shea’s Back to The Front, the story of his amazing endurance feat of walking the whole length of the Western Front, some four hundred and fifty miles of it, from Nieuport to the Swiss frontier, and Tonie and Valmai Holt’s Battlefields of the First World War, a less personal account but combining a concise narrative account of many major actions with practical guides and maps for daily tours of each battlefield area.

On our first night in the Ypres Salient, we stayed at Varlet Farm, an attractive farmhouse on the edge of the village Poelkapelle close to Passchendaele, which the owners run as a very successful bed and breakfast. As recently as 1999, they told us, they had unearthed, in their fields, a German Maxim Gun still in quite good condition. We saw this artefact in one of their barns, along with a small collection of such items which they had found over the years in the fields of their farmland. Everywhere there are such small private museums; shell cases, spent bullets, hand grenades, tin helmets, decaying scraps of gas masks and other military impedimenta, are on display in barns and sheds, where the owners hope to make a little money from the war buffs and tourists, and every village has a cemetery or even two with the rows of crosses and gravestones. 


There were three major battles in the Ypres Salient culminating in the 1917 offensive centering on the German held Passchendaele Ridge.On July 22 in that year Haig launched the preliminary bombardment of the German lines by some 3000 pieces of artillery which turned the battlefields into a vast swamp in which a man who slipped off the duckboards would most certainly sink down to die in the mud and filth. Haig still, it seems, believed in the fantasy of a glorious cavalry breakthrough and the disaster of the Somme and thirty six months of warfare seemed to have taught him nothing.' We died in hell, they called it Passchendaele’ wrote Siegfried Sassoon and it is said that a senior staff officer named Lancelot Kiggel visited the front when the fighting was over and burst into tears saying ‘Good God! Did we really send men to fight in this?’ He might also have asked ‘Why did we let Haig do it? On our first morning we went to the enormous Tyne Cot cemetery on the Passchendaele Ridge where the names of 35,000 soldiers with no known grave are inscribed on the long white marble wall which backs the cemetery. One of our neighbours in Winsham - Mirabel Hunter - had told me of an uncle of hers who had died at Passchendaele and we had promised to look for his grave at Tyne Cot. He was a lieutenant in the Northumberland Fusiliers who had left many men at that place and legend has it that it was the Northumberland Regiment who had christened the ridge Tyne Cot because the German pillboxes silhouetted on the skyline reminded them of cottages at home.

Memorial at Tyne Cot Cemetery

But of course, Second Lieutenant James Angus Scott had no grave; he was just one of the thousands of men listed on the marble wall which backs the cemetery who had been blown to bits or lost in the mud to be eaten by rats - for whom the ‘fortunes of war’ as the inscriptions everywhere in Flanders and Picardy put it, ‘denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death’. We found Lt. Scott’s name and I dutifully took photographs of it and the thousands of gravestones of unidentified soldiers. Perhaps one of them was his but as the inscriptions have it, he and all the rest are known 'only to God'. To us they are The Missing, of the three battles of Ypres, the Somme and all the other fields of death whose names resonate in the memory; Mametz Wood, the Messines Ridge, Vimy, Cambrai, Hill 60 and so on.

Nearby, was the Passchendaele Museum with the inevitable reconstruction of a section of a trench and dugouts. At a place called Hooge, there is a enormous mine crater in the grounds of a hotel and nearby a small museum claiming to be the best private museum in Flanders. It houses among other things a copy of a German Fokker DR1 Triplane, the machine flown by the Red Baron von Richthofen and one of the war planes that I modelled as a schoolboy, along with the SE5s and Sopwith Camels. 

Also  nearby is Sanctuary Wood, another private museum the owner of which, one Jacques Schier, would probably contest the Hooge claim to be the best. Behind it is a preserved stretch of trench on the Schier property and it costs six euros to visit it. The entrance is through a shabby shop and cafe with Coca Cola signs and souvenirs for sale. The owner, we gathered, is scathingly called ‘Jack Money’ by the locals who are not profiting so well from the war industry. Part of the attraction of the Schier museum is a collection of wooden stereoscopic viewing devices which can be used to view a collection of horrific war photography - pictures of bodies in trees, heads and limbs and dead horses in the mud. Major Holt says these photographs are a must - ‘the true horror of war - dead horses, bodies in trees, heads and legs in trenches and everywhere mud, mud, mud.’ The Canadian writer Stephen O’Shea calls them war porn and finds the act of pouring over these photographs repulsive. We did not look at them, but I suspect that if I go back again to the Western Front, I will have to. .

Entrance to Tyne Cot Cemetery

Not far away is Hill 60 once the most visited place on the Flanders Front. It was actually not a natural hill at all, but a mound created from the rubble from a nearby railway cutting, but now, the trenches which for years were sandbagged have filled in and one walks around a series of grass filled cavities and mounds and memorials.

The facts are there to be read and understood, but there is little to feed the visual imagination. There was  prolonged tunnel warfare at Hill 60 from February 1915 onwards and many of the men who died there are still there under the ground. It is a mere 60 metres above sea level, but classifies as a hill in ‘le plat pays’.

   In 1992, some 5 kilometres from the centre of Ypres, a section of trench was discovered by chance. It is called the Yorkshire Trench and some 70 metres of trench have been restored and preserved.  We took the straight and rather characterless road from Poelkapelle to Langemark to visit it. In O’Shea’s book we had read that, in 1914, it was on both sides of this road. thousands of untrained  young student volunteers, sent to these fields by the German general staff when the planned Race to the Sea was not going to plan, had died in a ‘Massacre of the Innocents’.    Marching into battle as thought they were on Sunday hiking outings, singing with linked arms, they were mowed down by British machine gunners.  The Germans called it Der Kindermord von Ypern and and in Langemarck, there is a Germany cemetery with over 44,000 bodies many in massed graves. The Yorkshire Trench is incongruously in the middle of an industrial development. and it was very easy to drive past it . Reaching the next crossroad, we realised we had done just that and turned back There are new duckboards for one to walk the length of the trench and peer down into the two dugouts which are full of water. The surrounding sheds and industrial buildings militate against any real atmosphere and there was no sign of any other visitors. One can do little but read the information boards and take in the fact that it was in this sector that a new kind of duckboard was designed which made walking down the trenches marginally less unpleasant for the poor bloody infantry who occupied them.

The city of Ypres itself was, of course totally destroyed during the war, but never fell to the Germans. Winston Churchill, famously said of Ypres that ‘a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world’ and he wanted the town to be left in ruins as an eternal monument to the million men who fought in the Salient. The people of Flanders, however, had other ideas and recreated the city and its famous Cloth Hall in the city centre. The Cloth Hall houses the war museum and, as one enters, one hears the voice of the folk singer June Tabor. Will ye go to Flanders my man? she sings and one walks through the rooms to the sound of voices, and music; J McCrae’s In Flanders Field and Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est are mixed with recordings recreating the verbal testimony, in Flemish, English, German and French, from men and women who were there.

It is no celebration of glory or sacrifice, no sentimental patriotism, simply a threnody for wasted lives. McRae’s poem was written in 1915; Owen’s in late 1917. The change of tone is dramatic; In McCrae’s poem the dead ‘saw sunset glow’ and ‘lie in Flanders's field’ and they implore us to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’. which critics have since condemned as a deplorable jingoism. But, two years later, the fields had become a sea of filthy stinking mud and Owen sees a man drowning, 'the white eyes writhing in his face’, with ‘froth corrupted lungs’. The sentimentality of Rupert Brooke and John McCrae is no longer acceptable and yet McCrae’s poem had a staying power along with other First World War clichés like ‘It’s a Long Way To Tipperary’ and ‘Over There’.

That evening, we did what all visitors to Ypres do. We went to the Menin gate where at eight o’clock every night, the Last Post is played. Often as Stephen O’Shea found when he was there, there are only a few curious people but on this particular September evening, there was a large crowd. Moving amongst them were a group of Englishmen all dressed in the same green blazers; they were a male voice choir from Sheffield and they were part of what turned out to be a ceremony of some proportion.     Speeches  were made by various town worthies, the choir sang ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’  and the English National anthem.    Along with the Belgian trumpeters, was a tall grizzled old kilted Scotsman playing the bagpipes providing a drone accompaniment to the buglers of the Last Post.  Of course, it was impossible not to be moved to tears by the moment, despite a feeling of guilt at what might be simply a personal indulgence. Ones eyes turned up to the thousands more names of the missing inscribed on every surface of the memorial - fifty-five thousand of them, regiment by regiment, from Britain South Africa and India and among them, as O’Shea noted, the names of men from regiments raised in India. 

Everywhere in Flanders and Picardy there are these lists of the fallen, ending sometimes with the word Addenda carved followed by a few extra names, which somehow or other had not been included in the original count.  

Newfoundland Park

If there is one place where it becomes almost easy to actually visualise the Western Front as it was, that place is Newfoundland Park on the Somme - where, on 1 July 1916 the First Battalion of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment went into action and, in less than half an hour, suffered what was probably the highest casualty count on that terrible day.   The land was bought by the then Government of Newfoundland, an area of over eighty acres with many preserved trench lines through which it is possible to walk.   Where only a small section of trench or crater has been preserved, often with its nearby cemetery of French or Belgian, British or Canadian, Australian or New Zealanders, it is not easy to do more than take in the depressing facts.   Here, in this large memorial ground, it is not difficult for the mind’s eye to, as it were, dissolve out the memorials -  the Caribou emblem of the Newfoundland Regiment and the kilted Highlander of the Scottish 51  Division, and visualize the sandbags, the wire, the mud and the blasted trees perhaps even the ghosts of the men who fought and died on the Somme, who we have seen so often in still photographs and silent film, in museums and television documentaries.

Thiepval Memorial

Suddenly one felt suffocated by lists; lists everywhere, on memorials, names, names and more names of so many nationalities.  Thiepval, the largest British War memorial in the world, has even more names than the Menin Gate, over 73,000 of them under the simple bald inscription  The Missing of The Somme which was taken for the title of Geoff Dyer’s remarkable book about the war.    Thiepval, the prime example of what O’Shea calls ‘a mix of accountancy exactitude and   the notion of universal victimhood’.  The British, he writes, invented the twentieth-century response to war.   ‘Determine the correct tally of the dead, etch their names in stone, and avoid the sticky question of responsibility by implying that such a regrettable calamity occurred independently of human agency.’   So today, along with the tourist parties and their paid guides, groups of carefree school children are ushered by their harassed looking teachers through the well laid out  museum and  across the carefully tended paths to the gigantic red brick memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, many of them laughing and giggling, but how much they related to the history around them, how much it affects them, is far from clear.

The front line at the time of the first battle of Ypres cut through the village of Zandvoorde to the south east where the family of the singer song-writer Jacques Brel had lived.  Being so close, we could not resist a visit there. We stopped in the centre of the village and asked a morose looking local if he could direct us to the family house.  He stared at us for a moment - was he being militantly Flemish and showing a quiet disdain for the French language? I wondered -  and then he  gestured behind him. We were actually right in front of the Brel house and a small plaque on the front wall confirmed the fact.   Then he gestured to his right and indicated the memorial to Brel which stood there on the pavement.  It was a small stone structure and carved on it were the words of Brel’s song about his home land - ‘Le Plat Pays’ - in Flemish not in the French.   Although Brel did not sing  directly about the War - the nearest he got to it was perhaps his song ‘Pourquoi ont ils tue Jaurez?’ - it reminds us that Belgian soldiers fought this war too and so much of the worst of it was in their own country and when Brel sings that ‘it  is mine’, it echoes the determination of the people who came back to Flanders and Picardy, determined to reclaim the flat country, to rebuild the ruined cities and villages and plough the fields again.

A map of the area and the details of the above photographs click HERE

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