Ypres

Last Thursday, I drove the 270 km to Ypres. I’d obviously been reading ongoing coverage of the 14-18 War, and the time had come to walk that land.

It was a terribly moving, disturbing, take-you-by-the-shoulders-and-shake-you visit. I didn’t know what to expect. And I certainly didn’t expect to be affected like this.

It’s a lovely area. Very gently rolling farmland, very typical tiny Belgian villages occupying the intersections of the roads crisscrossing the area. It was a largely sunny end-of-summer day. But then you look at the pictures OF THIS PLACE, from right where you’re standing, taken 100 years ago. Nothing alive except relics of men either trying to survive or to kill each other. Sinking into the mud waist high in the same places I walked so easily. How did the sun know not to shine then? Did it ever come out? Knowing what happened there, knowing what was underfoot made me feel like screaming, all day, everywhere.

Look at this picture:

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That wooden structure about 75 metres distant, is a water slide, and that’s a theme park. 75 metres. Over three weeks, 5000 men, Brits and Germans, died between that water slide and where I stood to take that picture.

I thought I “understood” what it meant to “fight for one’s country”. I still might. But what I still cannot fathom is the courage of those men. They were there because they had to be there. Doing the right thing seems so . . . easy. Being here brings home that it ISN’T always easy to do the right thing. The weight of their sacrifice, those who went home and those who didn’t, still feels physically crushing to me.

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Somewhere on one of his albums, Bruce Springsteen says something that I’ll never forget, and that I said over and over to myself Thursday:

Blind faith in your leaders will get you killed

Randomness kept jumping at me all day. The randomness of a shrapnel fragment killing the guy next to you, but not you. The randomness of the generals’ objectives, and of deciding that it was worth 5000 of your neighbours’ kids for 75 meters of mud.

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Later, at the end of the day, the randomness of whose grave my eyes set upon, whose name, what age, assaulted me. Two thirds of the men buried here are unidentified. Row after row of blindingly white gravestones, and no names. One of their great grand-kids could come here, and stand in front of any grave, chosen . . . randomly . . . and pay his respects to great grand-dad.

I’m glad I went. I have no idea how people can live there. It’s testimony to human resilience, I know. But I’ll never go near that place ever again.

What an accumulation of horrors. And it’s so hard, amidst this bucolic scene, to take away the sun, to make the mind’s eye swap the rich farmer’s fields for no man’s land, the grass under foot for a mud made of equal parts of dirt, bone, blood, and metal. We can IMAGINE it, but can’t FEEL it. That enraged me.

We better think damned long and hard before we go asking our kids to die for something.

It better be worth it.

22 thoughts on “Ypres

  1. As a Civil War reenactor I have seen more than 1 battleground. They are hallowed ground and eerie places to sleep at during a reenactment weekend. You can feel the presence of both the living and the dead. At my “home” reenactment (Ocean Pond aka Olustee) we have participants from all over the US and some even from England and Germany! When you stand on the field and see all the participants you realize that for every man in uniform you see, you are also seeing a man who fell in combat on that day.
    Most of the participants are twice or 3 times the age of the men who fought there that day. Most of us do it out of a love of history, most of us are amateur historians who spend years trying to understand the hows and whys of the conflict, and what the troops endured. We can NEVER fully do that for our lives are not at risk; and that is the big difference between us and them. There is a folk song post war called “The First Battalion”.

    Boom boom boom
    hoofbeats in the gloom
    12 riders in the gloom
    7 show red and the rest are
    dead but the 1st battalions home

    Richmond was their tomb
    we lost a hundred dead at Richmond
    200 more at Gettysberg
    and a hundred more we never found
    but the 1st battalions home

    Think about that lyric a minute, I have. A hundred more we never found. This is the unmarked “soldiers grave:” he crawls off the field to die slowly and in great pain: or he has charged a field artillery piece and been turned into ‘pink mist’ when canister is fired at point blank range (you would simply vanish in a cloud of pink mist). Artillery is what every trooper feared the most. At range you can actually see the cannon ball coming towards you (hence the expression “to see the elephant”). It seems you could reach out and catch it: bad idea, a cannon ball could take out an entire file of men, 20 or 30 strong.
    All these ‘boys’ at that time were recruited from a town or county. They all knew each other or were related in some way. You are 1 of the 7 who made it home, everybody will be asking about so and so or that one: sooner or later you will not be able to stand the questions and you either break down or you will leave and go somewhere else. Where could they go? The west, and a great many of them did. Think Jeriamiah Johnson with Redford, the Will Geer character sees his uniform pants asks/says there was another war down there. After Vietnam a great many returning troops fled civilization and went into seclusion in far off parts of this county; many to the Pacific northwest or California. I know a great many of these men and they are STILL affected by what they saw and did. My best friend, who served 42 months in country, said to me once “there are many things I did I’m not proud of; but I’m not ashamed of anything I did.” This person has 2 Distingushed Flying Crosses, a Bronze star with V, and a Purple Heart.
    There are times when war is a necessary evil. But it should ALWAYS be the LAST choice. There was only 1 no vote to start WW2; oddly enough the same women who voted no to WW1. She said that even though a war is necessary it should not be a unanimous vote: and she saw to it that it wasn’t. I always admired that point of view.
    Sorry for the length of this post, but this is something I’ve spent more than 20 years reading and thinking about

  2. Difficult to make any comments more meaningful than that shot of the water slide. Incomprehensible to us living in this time the carnage of WW 1. And for nothing. When F-1 goes to Spa, the TV commentators usually mention that it was the site of The Battle of the Bulge. And I am glad they do not forget. What is not said is that the war at that time was, for all intents and purposes, at its end. All the deaths in the Ardennne, on both sides, were sacrifices to the stupidity of war for war’s sake. It all seems so unbelievable to me. Hundreds of thousands of casualties, dead, maimed, frozen soldiers for nothing. Of course, this was not the last time men have died for nothing.
    So when the circus comes to Spa, that is what I think about. All those dead frozen soldiers.

  3. Hi Gary, once again, I am speechless. What a wonderfull text.

    Living in Belgium, when I came back from Goodwood this week-end, I passed by Ypres and it is just surreal to see those peacefull lands on a sunny Sunday.

    When I was I kid, with our boy-scout organization, we visited Verdun. I still remember that foggy summer day where I saw so many bones in the ossuaire.

    Hope this will never happen again. When I see my little boy who’s 3 years old, I can’t even imagine him fight for his life for an insigificant chunk of land.

    Thanks to all our hero, and let’s get rid of war’s horrors.

  4. When my son went to Ypres during his GCSE History year they were all asked to research a family member who had been killed and look for their name on the memorials. We found one of my Granny’s brothers (she was one of 13 children) who had been killed. The sad thing was that he didn’t die immediately but from a broken leg which got infected and he died a lingering, painful death from an injury which could be so easily treated today.

    One of the great ironies of war is how it often leads to medical advances and I know that knowledge of head injuries was greatly increased by treating soldiers shot in the head in WW1 and a surprising number survived. A similar thing happened when penicillin was discovered during WW2 and used to treat penetrating head injuries, leading to very high survival rates.

    My personal opinion is that while we have a hunter gatherer brain war is always with us. I think the most dangerous combination is modern technology combined with this mammalian brain (humans are no different to other predators). The weapons I hate most are bombs and especially drones, which I consider the weapons of cowards. If you must kill another human I feel that you should at least put your own life in danger and look your enemy in the eye.

  5. food for thought…
    when i asked my dad why he volunteered to join the military during WW2 (he was a Greek citizen living in Cyprus, so no conscription obligation) his answer was that he wanted to go and fight Hitler and Nazism…he didn’t asks his parents and neither did they send him. Sometimes our kids can take the decision for themselves if the cause is right for them…our duty is to install the right values in them so that hopefully no wars will ever be necessary, but sadly, human nature as it is, we’re likely to keep seeing wars for ever…

  6. Wonderful post. I have stood on the beaches of Normandy, Point Du Hoc and the US cemetery at Omaha Beach among other WWII sites. Truly humbling places to visit. I remember looking at a grave of a solider who was killed 6 months after D-Day. I wonder if he ever thought that after living that long that he might just get through it all?

    • I suspect you are right, Steve, he may well have thought he made it through the worst of it and would be okay. Such a poignant post from Gary, I am compelled to share the story of a great uncle, brother to my mother.

      My mother, both in 1932, grew up in a small central Texas town that was half German and half Czech. Our family was German and she learned German as a child, before learning English. Her uncle Emil joined the US Army at some point in the early ’40’s, and was part of the invading force at Normandy. I can’t imagine how he felt, going to battle against the German army. He made it through the invasion only to be killed six days after.

      After trying for several years, I still find his story, and that of the entire war, to be so hard to comprehend.

  7. Yeah, place like this sort of open your mind, and bring devastating thoughts we didn’t know we could have. Thinking to these men that gave their life in the hope to leaving a better world for their childrens makes me still feel proud of human kind, even if the reason why they’re there, in countless rows of unnamed graves it’s terrible.😦

  8. It’s also the disadvantage of belonging to a culture or nation, something that once tortured me, something I would’ve fought for, and something I now know better about.

    I’ve learned fighting is not for equity, but for justice. I grew up a patriot but didn’t know what it was. Now as an outcast for no reason from my own culture, the nation I was a patriot of, I know it’s class not nation to be a patriot of, culture relative to morality.

    The horror I suffered and watched my little son suffer, the horror of realising what people can do, of my arrogance about my country, of what I allowed thinking I could solve bad will, is a horror I’ve never witnessed and taught me a huge lesson no matter how innocent my failure was.

    What you have seen there I cannot imagine, walking the world is not so easy now.

    • From the beginning of time it was always assumed men would go to war even though now there are women in the service of their country as well. And like Philippa just wrote we fight for justice.

      INMO, as we stand at the door step of WWIII who will begin the fight for justice for the three beheadings that were just witnessed? Who will begin the fight for justice for all the collateral damage inflicted by recent wars? I could go on.

      We live in an ugly world….whenever we can enjoy life to it’s fullest….go for it. Who knows how long.

  9. I was once a conscript soldier. After a year of officer’s school, I was put in command of about a hundred other soldiers, and we were sent – along with ten thousand others, to defend someone else’s country. I do not believe that one of us wanted to be there. Few believed this was our duty. A few hundred did not come home.

    Once the military gets you, they do everything they can to stop the soldier from thinking and dehumanise “the enemy”. These are the only ways to persuade decent young people to kill other decent young people. I have often wondered whether this cynical manipulation of young minds is the greatest war crime of all.

  10. A few years ago my (16 yo) daughter went on a school trip to the war graves and other WW1 sites.
    She ‘grew up’ more in those few day than at any time before.

  11. Excellent story. Writer Alan Bennett went to Ypres to find his Uncle Clarence’s grave. This is a small part of his essay on the subject. I hope you won’t mind if I present a small (but long) portion of it here:

    “…..The low walls are sharp and new-looking, unblurred by creeper. There is no lichen on the gravestones, the dead seeming not to have fertilised the ground so much as sterilised it. This is April and too soon to mow, yet the grass is neat and shorn. Standard at the entrance to each graveyard is a small cupboard in the wall, the door of bronze. In it is lodged the register of graves in this and adjacent cemeteries. Larchwood is a modest example with only some three hundred graves. The register begins by describing the history of the place: ‘On the NE side of the railway line to Menin, between the hamlets of Verbrandenmolen and Zwarvelden was a small plantation of larches, and a cemetery was made at the north end of this wood. It was begun in April 1915 and used by troops holding this sector until April 1918.’ The tone is simple, almost epic. It might be a translation from Livy, the troops any troops in any war. There is a plan of the graves, drawn up like an order of battle, these soldiers laid in the earth still in military formation, with the graves set in files and groups and at slight angles to one another, as if they were companies waiting for some last advance. All face east, the direction of the enemy and only incidentally of God.

    I sit in the little brick pavilion looking at this register. The book is neat (so much is neat now when nothing was neat then); it is unfingermarked, not even dog-eared. It might be drawn from the Bodleian Library, not from a cupboard in a wall in the middle of a field. Of course, if this foreign field were for ever England, the bronze door would long since have been wrenched off, the gates nicked, ‘Skins’ and ‘Chelsea’ sprayed over all. The notion of a register so freely available would in England seem ingenuous nonsense. I sit there, wondering about this, never knowing if our barbarism denotes vigour or decay. Across the hedgeless fields are the rebuilt towers of Ypres, looking, behind a line of willows, oddly like Oxford. At which point, with a heavy symbolism that in a film would elicit a sophisticated groan, a Mirage jet scorches low over the fields.

    For all the dead who lie here and the filthy, futile deaths they died, it is still hard to suppress a twinge of imperial pride, partly to be put down to the design of these silent cities: the work of Blomfield, Baker and Lutyens, the last architects of Empire. The other feeling, less ambiguous here than it would be in a cemetery of the Second War, is anger. Nobody could say now why these men died. The phrase ‘Their glory shall not be blotted out’ was a contribution by Kipling, who served on the War Graves Commission. This is the Friday after the Libyan venture and to assert that there is anything under the sun that will not be blotted out seems quite hopeful. We instinctively think of the conflict between East and West on the model of the Second War, the one with a purpose. The instructive parallel is with the First.”

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