French: YPRES / Flemish: IEPER
Thursday-Friday, November 3-4, 2016
Our final MDT (Max Disaster Tour) encompassed another key battle site, Ypres, a town destroyed or, more aptly described, obliterated during World War I.
Just a brief overview: In spite of some advocating for peace and disarmament, such as the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Czech-Austrian pacifist and novelist Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914), European countries were marching towards war due to… world powers struggling for (a) economic power, (b) gaps between the have and have-nots were expanding, and (c) nationalist feelings were soaring due to some international confrontations. [Yikes, I just reread this. does this sound as familiar to you as it does to me?] These ingredients created a bellicose soup with the opening salvo occurring August 4,1914 when Germany invaded neutral Belgium.
And, it’s where we found ourselves preparing to be horrified and goose-pimpled awed as we walked on and around some very hallowed ground.
The chilly raw temperature seemed appropriate for a gray November day spent touring another tragic area. Following in friends’ Marcia and Steve’s footsteps, we also made reservations for a guided tour. And, boy, did that turn out to be an informative way to hear about the war here in Ypres, formerly a fortified-medieval town where wealthy Belgians escaped the city streets of Brussels.
We joined a family of three from Glasgow (the daughter happened to be working for the Scottish government in Amsterdam), two Brits composed of a son-in-law taking his father-in-law to various war sites, and a young Polish woman studying in Amsterdam, all of us being led by Jacques Ryckebosch of Flanders Battlefield Tour. Friendly and extremely knowledgeable, you immediately know you’re in the hands of someone who wants to ensure you, as guests at these sites, understand why those who fought here deserve our respect and honor. And, his manner is such that you, too, feel respected by this kind soul.
NOTE: Woven into the narrative below is information obtained from a visit to the Ypres’ Flanders Field Museum the next morning.
Over the next four hours Jacques guided us to seven sites. He introduced us to this part of the world with a light-hearted anecdote: The allied soldiers changed Belgian town names to creative nicknames: Ypres became “Wipers”… Etaples became “Eat Apples”. Our wry smiles quickly turned to somber faces as he told us all, and I mean all, of Ypres’ buildings and streets are only 80 to 90 years old.
WWI had left this fortified-medieval town
and its pastoral surroundings…
and a muddy, cratered desert after four years of artillery shelling and trench warfare.
The Salient (a battlefield created by one army being surrounded on three sides by the opposing troops) is a term you hear when discussing the fighting at Ypres. Similar to WWII the Allied forces needed to keep the Germans from gaining access to key seaports, such as Calais and Dunkirk. This would protect the Allies’ flow of supplies while preventing Germans access to an easy-to-defend new front, one that would include harbors.
The front lines stalled around Ypres, trenches were dug, and hundreds of thousands would lose their lives here. In some instances enemies were within shouting distances of one another as they survived (or not) fighting from these filthy and disease-ridden ditches. A soldier’s rotation of duty typically entailed four days at the front, which could include a night patrol or a stint in no-man’s land, followed by a tour as a reserve further from the front lines, and, if lucky, some time when they were billeted even further from the front.
WWI witnessed the transition from cavalry and imprecise canon shots to tanks and accurate, rapid-fire machine guns, artillery that created shrapnel and carried a much greater range than in prior wars. WWI also led England to create a large infantry force, having previously relied on their navy; and, in the Flanders Museum we saw a vehicle used by England’s Minister of Defense, Lord Kitchener, for recruiting volunteers (aka, canon fodder).
The Germans had a slight elevation advantage, even though higher ground might mean just a few feet, and in driving to the various sites Jacques was quick to point out when we were on an incline. Yet, the allies managed to hold Ypres during the war with the exception of one day, October 7, 2014, when the Germans made it into the town before being expelled.
The Germans managed to gather excellent intelligence on the Allies. I don’t remember any of the specific examples quoted by Jacques, but it was uncanny. I’m not sure how it was communicated, but we did see a photo of one of Britain’s ‘signal companies’, which included Radio telegraphy, telephone, and carrier pigeons (!).
The Salient has the dubious fame of being where the first poisonous gas was used. This occurred on April 22, 1915 with the French and Algerians being its first victims followed by the Canadians two days later. Use of a chemical weapon broke two Peace Treaties signed 1899 and 1907, causing the Brits to retaliate with the same on September 25, 1915. Ironically, the creator of this chemical weapon was the German chemist Fritz Haber (the one pointing in the photo below), who happened to be Jewish.
In 1918 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (?!). His legacy lived on with this same gas later used in the Nazis’ gas chambers. At least one of the Habers realized the Pandora’s box he had opened: On May 2, 1915 Fritz’s wife Clara Immerwahr, a pacifist, committed suicide.
Live gas canisters are still being found today along with all the other unexploded ordinances (about 240 tons are collected and safely detonated each and every year). Jacques and a friend of his, an archaeologist, were documenting a gravesite in 2007. The next day Jacques got a call from his friend saying he was at the doctor’s due to a huge, nasty blister appearing on his forearm. Come to find out it his friend’s forearm and hand had come into contact where the gas had seeped from its 100-year-old-container.
One of the first sites we visited was Essex Farm (again, non-local soldiers called their battle locales by names familiar to them). Here, there were bunkers serving as an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS). Here, on December 8, 1915, the Canadian Dr. John McCare (1872-1918) wrote the famous poem, “In Flanders Field” just a few days after one of his good friends, Lt. Alexis Helmer, died. And, since I can’t speak of WWI without also offering his words, here they are:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Another famous doctor serving in WWI was an American professor of neurosurgery, D. Harvey Cushing (1869-2939), an eye witness to the third battle at Ypres (July 3, 1917 – November 10, 1917). It was when working at a French military hospital he experimented using magnets to extract shrapnel from brain tissue. In addition to doctors, there were nurses, many who sacrificed their lives as they treated the wounded, and the Flanders Museum shows a well-done video with actors portraying Dr. Cushing and several nurses as they speak of this war and its affects on humanity. One recollection that Max noted hearing during the video was “Can one grow used to death? Is it unsafe to think of this? For if death becomes cheap, it is the watcher, not the dying, who is poisoned.”
Jacques would mention some conversations he’s had with this war’s veterans over the years. Several of these recollections, in particular, stood out due to contradicting some general assumptions about this battle, and I paraphrase: One veteran strongly disagreed with the phrase ‘all quiet on the western front’… if anything, it was a continuous hell; and, another hated when he heard people say there were ‘five battles at Ypres’… he felt there was nonstop fighting with battles killing and maiming thousands.
While death and destruction wasn’t limited to a particular fight, one location became synonymous with the wanton wastefulness of human life on the Western Front: “I died in hell, they called it Passchendaele”, a battle fought in 1917 to capture a ridge held by the Germans.
The last site we visited was Sanctuary Woods Hill 62. The woods still have some of the original trenches that have been reinforced to ensure they don’t deteriorate over time, and trees have grown up where once the landscape was a quagmire of filthy mud.
Jacques told us that most veterans he’s had the honor of guiding here refused to enter the trenches. I can’t really imagine how it must have been standing in one of these trenches with shells exploding and bloodied soldiers being carted into bunkers. Especially knowing you may get an order to ‘go over the top’.
On March 3, 1918 the war ended on the Eastern Front, but it wasn’t until eight months later on November 11, 1918 that fighting ceased on the Western Front. Soon after Winston Churchill suggested Ypres remain in ruins as a reminder of the horror of war; but, the residents, all who had to forsake their homes, proclaimed a decidedly forceful “NO”, and with that Ypres began to rebuild itself using plans drafted by an architect extremely knowledgeable about all the original town’s buildings.
It’s no surprise most of the sites we toured had either a cemetery or were right next to one. Jacques told us the entire area is one big graveyard with bodies, like unexploded shells, still being unearthed. Nineteen have been discovered this year alone.
Fortunately there is an organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), headquartered in Maidenhead, England, whose purpose is honoring the soldiers who died during WWI and II. Working in partnership with local groups, they maintain existing cemeteries while ensuring any found body from the war is identified (if possible through a DNA match) before being buried. When a body is unearthed, a funeral is given by the CWGC. To give you an idea of just how much the residents still think of those times and those who died there, the services for these soldiers are packed by locals in spite of never being advertised.
The CWGC even cares for the German cemetery, Langemark. Over 40,000 Germans are buried here including 3,000 from a German Student Battalion. These inexperienced soldiers fought against battle-tested and professional British soldiers during the first battle of Ypres, with the Germans’ death called the “massacre of the innocents”. These young soldiers played a part in WWII’s propaganda when Hitler visited the cemetery in 1940 to promote German bravery.
Hitler had also fought near here during WWI and a big “what if… we had seen his name on one of the gravestone?” popped into, I’m sure, a lot of our heads.
We viewed a 16th-century cross from the plague years, which had been erected near a memorial for the French soldiers killed in the first gas attack.
We also saw other memorials such as the famous ‘Brooding Solider’ in honor of the Canadians who held a key piece of ground despite being gassed two days after the French.
We drove by the Welsh one, which stands where their soldiers fell versus where they were buried.
One of the largest memorials was the Menin Gate with names of 55,000 fallen soldiers carved on its wall. Later a Wall of Remembrance was placed at Tyne Cot cemetery with 35,000 more names listed.
At Menin Gate there’s a ceremony that Seppe told us about; so, at 8:00pm Max and I witnessed this moving tribute, one that’s been occurring every day since 1927. It continued during WWII in England then returned to Ypres September 6,1944 the day the Polish forces liberated the town. A bugle is sounded playing two traditional tunes: , first is the “Last Post”, a final salute to the fallen, followed by “Reveille”, the wake-up call and celebration of the living. After a moment of silence, relatives of those whose names are on the walls may lay wreaths.
In spite of this WWI guided tour and excellent exhibits at all the war sites we’ve seen these past there days, I’ve only grasped a cursory understanding of the events at Waterloo, Bastogne, and Ypres. Yet, one doesn’t have to see too much to know war is a curse on humanity.
After touring the Flanders Field Museum the next day, I believe both of us were ready for much lighter fare. We headed to Ghent for our last Belgium stop of our road trip.
But, before we left this area, there’s one more story to be told.
Until next time…