Tuesday, September 13, 2016
A whistle stop tour of the Ypres Salient
2: A report on our whistle stop tour to the Ypres Salient.
I'm not particularly bothered either way as this is an honest account of how I felt twenty four hours after our visit to the fields of Flanders.
A little self indulgent perhaps but no clever conclusions or judgement with the benefit of hindsight, just my own observations on a region that few could fail to be touched by.
Lord and Lady Ludgershall would once again be our eminent and excellent guides and we pitched up in Calais a little before 9am. Provisions were purchased in Auchan before we made haste through the hops for Poperinge, the gateway to the Ypres salient and headquarters for much of the war machine operating on that part of the Western front.
Off to Ypres next, a city at the heart of the bulge in the Western Front known as the Ypres salient. It started the war as the third largest city in Flanders after Bruges and Ghent and was dominated by the 13th century Cloth hall and like so many cities in the region was protected by 17th century fortifications by the much vaunted Vauban.
A million or more Flemish acquired refugee status when the war arrived on their doorstep and were forced to cross international borders to escape the conflict.
Many went to Holland, some went to Britain, others went to more peaceful parts of France.
When the armistice was signed some stayed where they had ended up, but most returned to where they lived before war broke out.
The British called for Ypres not to be rebuilt and stand as a memorial of the many battles that had taken place there, but the Flemish had other ideas and rebuilt the city as it had stood before the bombs began to fall.
And well done the Flemish for that.
I'm not really religious, but there is merit in a resurrection and after the madness of war has receded more than a modicum of faith in humanity is restored when your everyday Joe and Josephine emerge from the wings to pick up the pieces,no matter how shattered the vase.
Welcome to Ypres
It's a city that strikes the right balance between reverence and the requirement to move forward.
It is all too easy to forget that within Pandora's box, hidden beneath all the bad stuff, lay hope.
After the conventional European breakfast we headed to the In Flanders Field Museum housed in the rebuilt Cloth market.
It takes two hours to do the museum and pick your time to climb the tower as during the rebuild they installed a clever carillian that strikes every fifteen minutes. It's an elaborate series of gongs to signal the passing of time and the stairs to the top pass within a few feet of the many bells, Lord Lugg timed his run wrong and had sparrows circling his crown (see The Beano) for quite a few minutes.
A few words from one who was there
The approach to the ridge was a desolate swamp, over which brooded an evil menacing atmosphere that seemed to defy encroachment. Far more treacherous than the visible surface defences with which we were familiar; deep devouring mud spread deadly traps in all directions. We splashed and slithered, and dragged our feet from the pull of an invisible enemy determined to suck us into its depths. Every few steps someone would slide and stumble and weighed down by rifle and equipment, rapidly sink into the squelching mess. Those nearest grabbed his arms, struggled against being themselves engulfed and, if humanly possible, dragged him out. When helpers floundered in as well and doubled the task, it became hopeless. All the straining efforts failed and the swamp swallowed its screaming victims, and we had to be ordered to plod on dejectedly and fight this relentless enemy as stubbornly as we did those we could see. It happened that one of those leading us was Lieutenant Chamberlain, and so distraught did he become at the spectacle of men drowning in mud, and the desperate efforts to rescue them that suddenly he began hysterically belabouring the shoulders of a sinking man with his swagger stick. We were horrified to see this most compassionate officer so unstrung as to resort to brutality, and our loud protests forced him to desist. The man was rescued, but some could not be and they sank shrieking with fear and agony. To be ordered to go ahead and leave a comrade to such a fate was the hardest experience one could be asked to endure, but the objective had to be reached, and we plunged on, bitter anger against the evil forces prevailing piled on to our exasperation. This was as near to Hell as I ever want to be.
Private Norman Cliff. 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards.
The hope that sprung from Pandora's box is evident in the rebuild of Ypres, the desolation of war is all to evident at Tyne Cot. It is an affecting place sited on the low ridge looking back at Ypres across the Flanders fields in which so many met a miserable end.
You enter the cemetery on a path with hidden speakers through which the voice of a young woman issues a roll call of the dead. Most were around the age of my own children, which raised the first lump in the throat. Enter the visitor centre and a minimalist display draws the eye,
as do some quotes on the wall
but driven by the background roll call
the eye is drawn to a screen on the end wall displaying the photo of each person announced,
and at this point I nearly went because after all the grave stones, crosses and memorials there were human beings with their own identity and story to tell behind each set of eyes.
"The next night my pal came out with me. We heard one of their big ones coming over. Normally within reason, you could tell if it was going to land anywhere near or not. If it was, the normal procedure was to throw yourself down and avoid the shell fragments. This one we knew was going to drop near. My pal shouted and threw himself down. I was too damned tired even to fall down. I stood there. Next i had a terrific pain in the back and chest and I found myself face down in the mud. My pal came to me, he tried to lift me up. I said to him, "Don't touch me, leave me, I've had enough, just leave me" The next thing I found myself sinking in the mud. I don't hate it any more- it seemed like a protective blanket covering me. I thought "well this is death, it's not so bad" Then I foudn myself being bumped about and realised I was on a stretcher. I thought "poor devils these stretcher bearers - I wouldn't be a stretcher bearer for anything" I suddenly realised I wasn't dead and that if these wounds didn't prove fatal I should get back to my parents, to my sister, to my girl who I was going to marry. The girl that had sent me a letter every day from the beginning of the war. I thought "Thank God for that!" Then the dressing station, morphia and the sleep that is so badly needed. I didn't recollect any more till I found myself in a bed with white sheets and I heard the lovely wonderful voices of our nurses. Then I completely broke down."
Bombardier J.W Palmer, 26th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery laying communication lines who had survived three years in action.
Many of the graves and names on the wall are of soldiers who travelled a long way around the world (when transport was not so simple as today) to fight the hun. Rows and rows of Australians, Canadians, Africans, Indians and corners of Europe that I had previously thought unaffected by the war.
And then it was time to go home.
The final display in The Flanders Field museum states that this was the war to end all wars,
it wasn't, and there is a list of every war that has taken place since 1918 above the exit.
It is important that we continue to remember and also retain hope that a future generation will adopt an alternative means of settling national or religious differences than through armed conflict
"Well then you ask, why did men apparently unhesitatingly go forward in attack and capture strongpoints sometimes with reckless bravery? The answer is simple - I must repeat that there is no alternative to the firing squad but to go forward and you do your damnedest to kill the men who are trying to kill you. If you do not, you just die. In all this fighting when trenches and strongpoints are captured you are not a hero - you are obeying not man's instinct to kill, but man's instinct to live by killing the man who would kill you. Those that believe in the inevitability of war will always emphasise that man has an inherent killer instinct, that it is human nature and little can be done about it.
Another "Old Lie" a perfidious Old lie.
Man is not born a killer, it is the society in which he grows up which makes him one and that society must continually reiterate the lie to justify the act of killing in war.
I never wanted to kill anyone,
but I did...."
Private W.H.A Groom 1/5th Battalion London Regiment (Rifle Brigade)
Clicks Playlist of Joan Baez, Bill Withers and Country Joe and the Fish and sits back slightly dumbstruck, but grateful never to have experienced war at first hand.