A hundred years on, the memory of the Great War is everywhere on the Western Front, writes Craig Naples
Standing in the sun in the centre of Ypres, in the market square beside the Cloth Hall – a symbol of the historic wealth of the town so huge and imposing it dwarfs the cathedral behind it – it’s almost impossible to reconcile what I see with what I know. Not one of these beautiful Gothic buildings, nor any other within many miles, would have been left standing in 1918. Instead a vast swath of churned mud, brick, metal and corpses, with barely any structures reaching knee height, cut through here on its way from the North Sea to the Alps.
Next year it will be a century since the First World War began. A war in which medieval tactics slammed up against modern weaponry, killing over 16 million people as machine guns industrially slaughtered soldiers and artillery levelled towns.
The story of why it was fought at all is notoriously impenetrable, and most of us probably write it off as pointless carnage, which it surely was; but visiting this area of Belgium and northern France offers another perspective. The people here, even after all this time, are grateful to Britain, Canada, Australia and all the other nations who sent men as cannon fodder, for protecting them against what was, we often forget, an invasion, even if it might have been one forced by our own diplomatic failures.
Ypres is a beautiful small town, and is the site of the Menin gate, where, every evening crowds gather to watch a ceremony that has been performed since 1928. I generally dislike military displays, but find this surprisingly restrained and simple, with buglers playing the Last Post and children laying wreaths, and the arch itself – featuring the names of almost 56,000 dead in the Ypres Salient whose bodies were never found – is relatively understated.
The most striking thing about Flanders (the Dutch-speaking, Flemish, northern half of Belgium) is how utterly flat it is. Coming from Edinburgh, where somehow like an Escher drawing everywhere is up a hill, the opening out of the horizons, punctured by the odd steeple or the rise of a motorway junction, is slightly dizzying. So when we’re told by our guide at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele in Zonnebeke that this area was a vital defensive line because it was high ground, it seems hard to credit. In 1917 it took 100 days, 4.2 million shells from our side alone and half a million casualties to capture the “ridge” that creeps up only about 30 metres over 8km.
The museum offers a fascinating recreation of life in the trenches. In the village manor house, itself rebuilt, we move through thematic displays of equipment and weapons, then enter a recreation of a dugout, built about 6m under the earth as protection from shells. It’s horribly claustrophobic and hot, and even though we knew we’d only be there a few minutes we felt as if our air had run out. The idea that scores of men lived and died in such conditions, with rats and lice constant companions, is suddenly brought home. And this was relative luxury. Outside is a network of trenches, open to the air, showing the different types of construction used, illustrating just how close the opposing sides would have been.
It’s sobering, but then almost everything on a tour of the Western Front, which stretches over 300 miles from Flanders to Switzerland, defies comprehension. The scale of killing, the barbarity, the misery are so vast that eventually you become desensitised. After visiting several cemeteries, each with thousands of gravestones, my brain gave up and started to admire the scenery.
One experience that is particularly affecting, is a small one, the Le Trou aid post near Fleurbaix, west of Lille, in France. It’s surrounded by a moat fringed with weeping willows, and approached over a bridge flanked by lavender through a gatehouse. Surrounded by flat land as far as the eye can see, its scale makes it possible to remember that those within were individuals, not statistics.
The French and Belgian tourist boards have created a smartphone app – War 14-18 – which uses the diaries of a stretcher bearer to bring several sites to life, although it’s really only likely to be of use if you are in the few areas covered, several of which are close to Le Trou.
There are many great museums to visit, such as the recently opened In Flanders Fields Museum in the centre of Ypres, which uses snazzy technology to give you an individualised experience at the exhibits and a feel for the utter devastation of the area. The Somme Museum in Albert is housed largely in tunnels that the locals would use to hide from invading forces, with gory dioramas that kids will probably love, run by a former fireman who doubles as a disposal expert for unexploded weapons (of which there are still untold thousands along the front).
On the Chemin des Dames in Aisnes you can find La Caverne du Dragon, a former limestone mine which was, amazingly, occupied by both sides at the same time.
But my highlight was the Museum of the Great War in Peronne. It’s a modernist building in the grounds of a castle and takes you through not just the conflict but the history and culture leading up to the war and following, with displays in parallel of artefacts from the three main combatant nations: Britain, France and Germany, creating a much more rounded picture than the others.
Also here are treasures that any scholar of the history of comics should see: one of the only extant sets of prints of Der Krieg, etchings by Otto Dix. Published in 1924, they show a range of horrors inspired by Dix’s time in the trenches at the Somme, and all but three copies of these and the plates were destroyed by the Nazis. What is striking is that in almost every one I can see a recognisable style mirroring a modern cartoonist: Gerald Scarfe, Eddie Campbell, Dave Sim, Ralph Steadman and more. They’re horrible yet fascinating masterpieces of cartoon art.
This all sounds unrelentingly miserable, but the fact is that this is a very beautiful part of the world, and even though there are no trees more than 100 years old, it’s lush and green.
Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies Brussels Charleroi-Edinburgh four times a week from around £118. BMI Regional (www.bmiregional.com) flies Brussels-Edinburgh for around £280. Rooms at Hampshire Hotelo, D’Hondtstraat 4, 8900 Ypres, from £230 for three nights (www.hampshire-hotels.com)