There were three major battles in the Ypres Salient
culminating in the 1917 offensive centering on the German held
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
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’.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
among them, as O’Shea noted, the names of men from regiments
raised in India.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
A map of the area and the details of the above