18 March 2007

In Flanders Fields

In 1914, when the German army attempted to outflank the French and capture Paris by moving through Belgium, they hit a snag around the town in Ieper in Flanders. Ieper (more commonly known to us as Ypres) became the site of a bulge in the line of attack between the two massive armies. As a result of this bulge, or salient, the German offensive had to dig in a series of trenches, and the allied armies did the same. Generals on both sides envisioned breaking through the lines of their enemies combining man power and old-fashioned military tactics such as cavalry charges. The reality of modern warfare--machine guns, barbed wire, tanks sinking in artillery-shelled landscapes, and chemical weapons--resulted in starvation, desertion, and a massive loss of life. Four years, four major battles, and only a handful of kilometers later, 1.7 millions soldiers were either killed, wounded, or missing.

As a child I used to balk at the thought of visiting "yet another Civil War battlefield" on family vacations. They are interesting, sure, but their relative isolation from the rest of the country makes them seem almost quaint and nostalgic. In Belgium the signs of war are much more real. They are a part our everyday lives. The library in which I have an office in Leuven, for instance, was purposefully burned to the ground (along with the rest of the city) by the Germans in both World Wars. Throughout Ypres the signs are even more visible: 160 Commonwealth cemeteries and dozens of monuments dot the sleepy countryside. The entire city of Ypres was rebuilt from the ground up using what our tour guide called German "blood" money. Anti-German sentiment still runs high among the local elderly residents.

Mom, dad, and I visited Ypres a week ago Saturday. We traveled by train to this tiny town at the edge of West Flanders--2 1/2 hours from Leuven--and visited the countryside via a local bus tour. We spent four hours touring the areas top sights:
  • Essex Farm Cemetery. The burial site of casualties from a battlefield near the adjacent canal. The cemetery also contains several British bunkers which would have housed crude first-aid stations. This was also the place where Canadian John McCrae composed his poem In Flanders Fields.
  • Canadian War Memorial. A ten-meter high granite statue that was raised to honor the Canadians who suffered the first German chlorine gas attacks in April 1915.

  • Tyne Cot. The largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world with almost 12,000 graves and a memorial naming 35,000 soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.

  • Passchendaele. The little village that was the site of the Third Battle of Ypres, the only British offensive. The objective was to break through the German lines and capture this village, only a couple of kilometers away. The battle was a "disastrous success:" in 3 1/2 months almost 750,000 men died, having either been killed or drowned in the landscape's swampy quagmire. The whole campaign came to symbolize the futility of the war and the incompetence of the generals. At one point Field Marshall Haig's Chief of Staff ventured out to inspect the battlefield and said, "Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?" (The first picture above was taken during this battle.)

  • German cemetery. We did visit the one German cemetery that is maintained in this area. At the end of the war the numbers of German dead ran as high as those of the Commonwealth armies. But they were only allowed one cemetery. As a result, the graves hold anywhere from 2 to 20 men. At its entrance is a mass grave that holds 40,000 bodies. The names of the dead line surrounding statues, including those of two British soldiers who were accidentally included in the mix. We were shown a picture of Hitler who visited this cemetery with his generals on his way to France in 1940.

  • Sanctuary Wood Museum. One of the only places in Ypres where you can visit a series of trenches as they were during the war. It is said that the owner of this little property returned home after the war to find these trenches filled with shells and bodies, all in his backyard. After the clean up he decided to open a museum. Today every tour stops here, including bus loads of kids who unfortunately treat this as their private playground (thankfully not when we were there.)

  • Menin Gate. This war memorial stands at the Ypres city entrance to the main route of Commonwealth soldiers heading to the front. Its walls contain the names of 50,000 troops who died in the Ypres Salient but who have no grave. The Last Post is sounded every night here at 8 PM.

The Ypres Salient is a stunning place. Only when you drive across the countryside do you get the sense of this war's utter futility. It took us only seconds to drive across a bit of land that would have cost the armies hundreds of thousands of lives to capture. The landscape is permanently marred by four years of massive shelling. Every Cross of Sacrifice that appears in the distance marks another cemetery: in the woods, in village centers, in people's backyards. On the sides of the road lie old shells and other bits of weapons that are still dug up from the fields. Even today farmers find skeletons almost weekly, and new space is constantly in demand for new cemeteries. It is the kind of juxtaposition that defines the Belgians: continuing to live in the shadow of history's deadly past.

No comments: