Ypres, early June 1917. Facing the Germans across the ridges to the south and east of the small Flemish town of Ypres (Ieper), British and Commonwealth troops are bogged down in stalemate on the Western Front, about to engage in what later becomes known as the Third Battle of Ypres. Based on ‘bite-and-hold’ tactics developed as part of Field Marshal ‘Butcher’ Haig’s plan, the stalemate is to be broken by a series of offensives intended to push back German troops and make contact with the railhead at Roeselare. On 12 November 1917, when Haig brings fighting to a close after the slaughter at Passchendaele, nearly half a million men are lost, dead or wounded. Eight kilometers of territory has been taken from the German army. “I died in hell,” wrote Siegfried Sassoon. “They called it Passchendaele”.
Ypres, early June 2017. We have visited the museum In Flanders Fields and its special exhibition: 1917 Total War in Flanders (http://www.inflandersfields.be/en/1917). The statistics are incomprehensible. The stories, individually presented on inter-active modules and talking head screens, are no less brutally distant. They are surrogates for the real thing that we hope never to know. How do you find a way into total war transformed into a culture of commemoration – whilst so many participants wanted nothing more than to forget?
Both my grandfathers – German and English – fought in Flanders. And rarely talked about it. Their records are sketchy, non-existant in the case of my German grandfather, whose service documents were destroyed during WWII. My English grandfather was gassed, maybe here at Ypres, where gas was first used as a weapon. In the Memorial Museum Passchendaele, I lift the stopper in the gas display and smell chlorine and mustard gas. Then I try to lift an average kitbag. I think it must be jammed, but it’s just heavy. 30 kg on my grandfather’s narrow back, through mud and noxious mist.
We are bogged down too, in refurbished memory. The tidily folded blankets, narrow bunk beds, command rooms and kitchens of the museum’s dugout invoke the claustrophobia, boredom and terror of trench warfare. Everything is brown or yellow: wood, lighting, blankets and buckets, uniforms and ‘thunderbox’ latrine seats. Here and there, an odd flash of red draws a line between blood and uniform insignia.
Outside again, under a sky of charging clouds, we take one of the guided walks that leave from the Passchendaele museum, in the village of Zonnebeke. The Polygon walk takes us over potato fields and across streams, passing along banks of elderberry to the small Polygon Wood Cemetery, where about 100 men lie buried, including 60 from New Zealand.
Signs pop up intermittently as we walk. Some with photos. There are several “now and then” moments. One at a crossing of paths that briefly became, in 1917, a burrow in the wilderness: the Otaki Support point. A name from New Zealand, made Flemish for a while by lonely men, for whom the prospect of death half way around the world from home was then, perhaps, less severe.
And then something clicks between past and present. A little snippet of information on why the war became entrenched just here, in Flanders Fields. Advancing through Belgium in August, 1914, the German Army still believed in a war of movement, of large-scale offensives that would lead to rapid engagement with France. Unexpected resistance from the Belgians, of whom 9,000 fell in the first two months, slowed its progress.
But it was landscape – the landscape that has reappeared today – that proved more intractable still. These quiet, sloping meadows and drainage canals, copses and wooded banks provided ideal cover for defensive actions involving small groups of concealed troops and artillery. Bocage is the name given to countryside in which church spires rising behind small ridges only hint at what might lie beyond, and in which low farmstead walls, blossoming hawthorns and tall grasses
reveal themselves only as fragments, not as a strategic whole. Flanders fields proved indomitable for both German and Allied armies, advancing on foot or on horseback. Like playing chess with the Gods. Checkmated, they hunkered down and turned fields into battlefields.
So here is some small awareness of the correlation between place now and place then. And some small hope that my grandfathers saw Flanders, before it was flattened, they way I see it now, as a common ground of traditional rural lives. Saw and – maybe – took comfort in the possibility of a commonality between Southend and Dusseldorf – and Flanders. A lot of possible maybes – but we seek comfort where we find it.