Ypres

tyne cot cross

A couple of weeks ago, I went on a day trip with some of my students to the battlefields of WWI, in and around Ypres. Having read and taught plenty of WWI fiction in my time, I was intrigued to see the contemporary reality of the world of mud and gore depicted by those who experienced the horrors of trench warfare. Would there still be marks of the conflict on the landscape? Would I be able to recognise any of the places I had read about? Would I feel moved by what I saw, able to imagine the scenes of conflict that had once scarred this now peaceful corner of the Belgian countryside?

cemetery

tyne cot

The journey to Ypres was in itself a time of reflection. As we drove to Dover to catch the ferry, our guide explained that we were following in the exact footsteps of the soldiers, who would have come to the port at Dover to catch their boats to France. Our approach to Dover was met with delighted gasps from the students, who all pressed themselves up against the windows at their first glimpse of the sea; for us, the prospect of a boat trip across the Channel was a joy, a treat, something to be celebrated. For the soldiers, the sea was a divide between the peace of England and the horror of war: a gaping chasm between a heretofore perfectly ordinary life and an almost certain death. As we clambered up the stairs from the car deck to the top floors of the ferry, the students rushing off to spend their Euros in the shop and race around the deck while us teachers retreated to a quiet corner to get our injection of caffeine and a precious moment of peace, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have felt like to get on board a ship and know you were facing a hell from which you might never return. When we docked at Calais and started driving through the flat, monotonous countryside on our way to the Belgian border, again, I wondered what it must have felt like to be driving along these roads in the back of trucks, hearing the sound of guns growing louder and louder, watching this foreign landscape pass by, and wondering whether you would ever find yourself returning to the home you knew and loved. How extraordinary that one hundred years on, this place, that was once a churning pit of mud and blood and rubble is now fields punctuated with clusters of suburban homes, peacefully sitting atop land that was a graveyard for so many hundreds of thousands of men. It doesn’t seem right, but then, at the same time, it seems so utterly fitting. After all, this was what they were fighting for; freedom, peace, prosperity. The right for life to go on.

wardetritus

When we reached our first stop, at Hooge, we had already seen several Commonwealth cemeteries, their uniform gravestones a constant reminder of what once took place here. Many are very small, and take up part of people’s gardens or fields; others are enormous, and the scale of the loss, represented by the thousands of headstones that disappear into the horizon, is truly brought home. However, I was not prepared for what I found at Hooge. There is a large crater here, made by a bomb laid underground, and not only can you go down into the tunnels made by the bombers, but you can also walk in a stretch of trench that still remains in its original condition, duckboards and all. I am tall; 5″10, to be precise, and the walls of the trench barely made it up to my elbow. I would have had to spend all my time stooping in order to stay protected, and even on a dry day, like when we visited, the ground was still a series of sloppy, muddy puddles that the wooden boards sunk into. It was incredibly eerie to be in a trench, and I couldn’t bear to think of what had taken place where I was standing. After just a few minutes, I felt claustrophobic; what must it have been like to spend days in there? It gave us all considerable pause for thought, and showed us a reality that literature cannot hope to convey, no matter how brilliant and descriptive the prose.

german cemetery

After this rather surreal experience of literally walking in the soldiers’ shoes, we went on to visit Tyne Cot cemetery, a huge Commonwealth cemetery where around 20,000 men are buried. We conducted a wreath laying ceremony here, which we all found very moving, before wandering amidst the graves. So many are for unknown men, and so many were younger than me when they died; it was really quite overwhelming to stand there and see these graves, stern and erect as soldiers, stretching on, row after row – the loss is just so difficult to comprehend until you see it like this, with each of those headstones representing a person. When you think that each of these enormous cemeteries dotted around the Ypres region just represents a fraction of those who died in the war as a whole, it really does take your breath away. I found myself feeling quite tearful as I watched the sun start to set in the distance, and thought of these men lying here for so many years, many never visited and some possibly no longer remembered, each dying far from home having faced a death I can’t even bear to think about. Worse than this, however, was the German cemetery just down the road. Understandably, the Belgians did not particularly want to give up much land to the Germans in order for them to bury their dead, and so, in a  small patch of a Belgian field there is a pit where 25,000 German soldiers have all been thrown in together, their names inscribed in tiny letters on a series of plinths. The difference in the treatment of the dead says it all about what it means to win or lose a war, and the bleakness of the German cemetery made us all feel very uncomfortable as we considered how the German mothers, fathers, wives, children and so on must have felt to know that their loved ones, who had faced just the same horror as the Commonwealth soldiers, had been treated in this way. Our King asked our soldiers to fight: their Kaiser asked them to fight. They didn’t start the war, and they were just children, too. Surely they deserved more dignity in death than this?

trench

Our return journey home took us through the rebuilt streets of Ypres, which looks just like an authentic medieval town, despite having largely been reconstructed from scratch after the war. We drove through the Menin Gate, a memorial to the soldiers whose bodies were never found, that was built at the Eastern edge of Ypres, over the road on which all allied soldiers would have had to travel to get to the front. It is still closed every night for the sounding of the Last Post, and if we hadn’t have had a ferry to catch, I would have loved to have stayed to hear it. As we drove back to Calais in the darkening twilight, I was surprised by how moved I had been by the whole day. I had thought the war had been forgotten here, and that all traces of it would be gone. I’m glad that it is still possible to come and understand the colossal scale of the atrocities man committed unto others here, and I think it’s so important especially for young people to see this and reflect on what it means to incite violence and hate. I only wish we would learn from the past, though; it never ceases to make me sad that, as my history teacher always used to love telling us, history teaches us that history teaches us nothing.

36 comments

  1. I have been reading a great deal of fiction from both World Wars. I was a small child during WWII so I did not comprehend what was happening. I have always thought I should come to visit the places where the war was fought and where the vast cemetaries are and never have but in a small way your trip to Ypres put me there in the midst of it and for that I thank you.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Karen – there really is something extraordinarily moving about being there and it does bring the reality of war so much more to life.

  2. When I was in London last year I visited the War Museum. The World War I exhibit was very moving. Thank you for sharing your experience and photos. I look forward to your posts.

  3. This is an amazing post, thank you so much! It sounds like it was a really moving experience. I hope that one day I’ll make the same pilgrimage. Beautiful photos too!

  4. Your post, in and of itself, is a testimony to those who fought and those whose lives were lost here, Rachel. It is beautifully rendered and brought me to tears.
    You’re reading and teaching and sharing both here, then your visiting Ypres with your students all build on each other and each in their way honor the lives lost.
    These places of battle should be vivid reminders of all that war brings. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Penny – what lovely things to say. I hope that the students got as much out of it as I did – it really is so sobering to see it in the flesh and has made me really understand what it means to remember the dead.

  5. Last summer, I read Vera Brittains “Testament of Youth”. Your article and your pictures added a lot of atmosphere to my reading experience (the trip across the channel, most of all, and how near to your capital this is! And I didn’t know the trenches were that shallow.).
    Some of my 9th grade piano students visited the Dachau concentration camp on a sunny spring day. When they came back, piano lessons in the afternoon were impossible – of course. They needed to talk – how the sun can shine when such terrible things happened here, how to avoid anything like this happening again, what a single person can do to raise awareness etc. You will have got similar questions.
    I am sure it wasn’t an easy excursion for you, but surely a rewarding one.

    1. Testament of Youth is such an amazing book, isn’t it? Visiting the trenches has added so much to my understanding of WWI literature. I think about it completely differently now. I’m so glad your students had such a powerful experience – mine did too and I hope it will continue to affect them as they grow older and have to think about conflict in more sophisticated ways.

    1. Thanks for the great article. By coincidence, we are spending a week in Bruges in August and I am about to book the whole day coach tour to he Battlefields and Ypres. I have been 25 years ago but my OH hasn’t and he is very interested in and knowledgeable about WW1 so I think he will really appreciate it.

      I’ve just finished reading Julia Nicolson’s The Perfect Summer and The Great Silence – the first about the year before the war and the second about the four years after, They are both brilliantly written and researched books and I’m sure you would enjoy them.

  6. I have been reading a lot of WWI fiction and nonfiction during these 100th anniversary years. Your pictures and descriptions were very moving and give a real sense of the landscape today. I would guess that the frontline soldiers would have buried the boys from the other side with more respect than you witnessed, given we hear so many stories of how they recognized they were all pawns. Despite what we say, there are no winners in war.

    1. I’m glad that you found the pictures and descriptions interesting and hope they’ve added to your reading experience. I think the soldiers would have done, yes – I like to imagine that they saw each other as equals in some ways – neither of them wanted to be there and they had to get on with it, whether they liked it or not.

  7. Yes history teaches us nothing, which is why I enjoy it so much and did my degree in it. I remember going to Ypres and the surrounding areas on a school trip, though we went for five days not one. It was one of the most moving experiences I had as a sixteen year old, about to start another stage of my life. I recommend it and think everyone should go to just reflect on what has been and what still continues.

    1. I’m glad you had such an amazing experience, Jo. I wish we could have had more time, to be honest – there was so much I wanted to stop and look at but there wasn’t the chance.

  8. Thank-you for this wonderful post and actual photos from Ypres.
    How wonderful for your students to have experienced this field trip as part of their History studies.

    I am currently immersed in the Centenary readings of the WW1 years .
    Fascinating literature and films about this pivotal time period.

    For this year`s project, I`m currently researching/reading about the pre-war period and also the years 1914 thru 1916.

    Hope to finish up next year with years 1917-1918 and some of the post war literature.

    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying reading such a range of WWI literature – it’s such a fascinating area to explore and I loved reading my way through loads of it a couple of years ago. I hope the photos have helped you to imagine it better!

  9. I am blown away that you can pop over to the battlefields as a day trip. And I’m blown away by the quiet, contemplative tone of your writing. Where your students moved by the experience? Did they make the connection between geography and monuments to human suffering?

    We plan to do that our next long haul flight to visit the WWI battlefields in 2017. Imagine the Commonwealth soldiers. Their journey was not just across the Channel. If they were Australian or Kiwi, their journey commenced with over 6 weeks at sea.

    1. It is incredible that it’s so close – I must say, I didn’t realise it was as close as it is. Thank you for the compliment on my writing – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. The students were moved, I think, but they weren’t really old enough in most cases to have read about or really thought much about the war before, so I would suspect they didn’t feel quite as touched by it all as all of us teachers did. I hope you’ll manage to make it over to see them when you next come this way. Absolutely – and presumably their 6 weeks at sea were just as dangerous with the seas crawling with submarines.

  10. this is a trip I want to take in the not too distant future. my great grandfather served on the Somme and I’v been reading the diary kept by his battalion commander so I’d like to trace his footsteps as it were.

  11. This is a really wonderful and moving post, thank you. I found your description of the trench, so much smaller than I’d expected it would be, really horrible, actually even more shocking than the description of the cemeteries.

    The difference in the way the German dead were treated is dreadful and it’s good to be reminded they were only doing their duty too. To be fair to the Belgians though, the Germans en masse did commit terrible atrocities against them during the First World War. I suspect that their treatment of the German dead reflects their feelings about this, not just the fact that the Germans lost.

    1. Thanks Helen, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. Oh yes – I don’t blame the Belgians at all. It’s just so sad that there isn’t really a space for Germans to come and remember their dead as we can remember ours.

  12. I also meant to say that I had never known until I read The Great Silence how the national minute of silence came about. A lot of people in 1919 were trying to think of a way to commemorate the war and a man called Edward Honey wrote to the Times in November suggesting that the whole country stopped for a period of silence.on the 11th. It was first suggested 5 minutes and the King and Lloyd George weren’t very keen and many people thought it wouldn’t work but eventually, reduced to one minute, it was accepted as a an appropriate action and so moved people that it was held every year since.

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