Passchendaele at Ninety
In 2007 it requires a leap of the imagination to capture the reality and understand the scale of destruction in Flanders. The blasted, toxic vista that was the Ypres Salient in 1917 has almost entirely disappeared. But it is still a haunted place. Dozens of British war cemeteries interrupt the landscape of small farms, woods, villages and light industrial units. Most of the Tommies interred here were aged under thirty. Preserved British trench systems at Sanctuary Wood give some clue to the conditions the troops endured in 1917. Ypres itself was shelled by German artillery into ruin in 1914 and completely rebuilt in the 1920s. Its 13th century Cloth Hall now houses an impressive Great War museum complete with the realistic sounds of shellfire. The Menin Gate memorial arch, built in 1927, lists a further 55,000 missing British and Commonwealth soldiers. Every evening at the Gate, Belgian buglers sound the Last Post, defying visitors not to be moved. It’s a continuing tradition only briefly interrupted between Ypres’ Nazi occupation in 1940 and liberation in 1944. British and Commonwealth memorials do not exist in isolation. At Langemarck German Cemetery – a place hugely important in the German national psyche – lie the remains of almost 44,000 men. Over 24,000 are unknown soldiers interred in a compact mass grave amongst black crosses and rows of granite memorial blocks. The inscription at the gate is defiant but tragic: ‘Germany must live even if we must die’.
Across Flanders, soldiers are routinely discovered during agricultural and building work. Local battlefield guides say the British and Commonwealth corpses are treated reverently, buried with full military honours and headstones. Sadly, there are also stories of local building contractors desecrating German remains, such are the bitter memories of Belgium’s Nazi occupation. And each year the ‘iron harvest’ of unearthed explosive and gas shells continues to exact its toll almost a century after being fired. Ploughing the fertile soil of Flanders, farmers and ordnance experts are killed or maimed every year: three during 2006/7 alone. Flanders’ ability to take life is not over.
What should visitors today take from the events in Flanders ninety years on? Most of the veterans of 1914-18 are now dead. A Menin Gate for coalition soldiers killed today in Iraq and Afghanistan is unimaginable so far. But consider the resonance of war memorials. Recent riots over Soviet memorials in Poland and Estonia and the always impressive Remembrance Sunday services in London each November are evidence of their persistent power. War memorials can have dual purposes. For some they form a crucial role in maintaining historical memory from which one can learn. For others they are a potent symbol which preserves enmities long after these should have been forgotten. A program of events across Flanders to mark Passchendaele will last until November 11th. Today, the message of Passchendaele and the Ypres Salient is sobering. First: the price of victory requires unwavering national willingness to pay for it in blood. Second: given time, forgiveness and renewal between the bitterest of former adversaries is also possible. After all, Flanders is today world famous for the red poppy- the ultimate symbol of remembrance – a flower which sprouted on its nightmarish battlefields not long after the worst of fighting.
View from inside Tyne Cot cemetery and from German defensive line. Tyne Cot was built exactly on the line of German pillboxes facing the British. The British front line in July 1917 was approximately where the red farmhouse is. British troops advanced up this slope – across where the ploughed field is now. It took them three and half months though an ocean of mud. Many of the missing, plus the iron harvest of shells, lie under these fields.
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