It is hard to visualise Siegfried Sassoon’s words when cycling around West Flanders today. A small village, Passchendaele lies in a sea of rolling green fields with potatoes, corn and wheat growing and some cows grazing. Hard to see in this modern bucolic scene the photographs and stories of a destroyed landscape bathing in mud in which men sank and drowned, a nightmare reverberating to a cacophony of shells and screams, with deadly gas wafting over and men shooting long tongues of flame when moving between the lines. We cycle the narrow farm lanes wondering where the next war cemetery is, thinking about a drink or better still, lunch and looking for shade on these hot days. The horrors and trenches of World War 1 seem very far away.
Helen Pollock’s Between the Memory and the Silence Falls the Shadow at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele at Zonnebecke. In Sassooon’s poem, Memorial Tablet, a young man dies at Passchendaele by slipping off the duckboards and drowning in the mud.
We have covered a fair bit of country east and south of Ieper, areas which were on the front line from 1914-1918. A gently rolling and green landscape that was turned into a sea of mud. Frank Hurley’s famous image of five diggers walking along duckboards through a landscape of Armageddon was taken just a few hundred metres from our accommodation here. We have been to many museums, too many for Oscar. These have varied from outstanding to appalling and there is certainly an argument sometimes heard that the Belgians are cashing in too much on battleground tourism, but after what the country went through in those years, who can blame them. Ieper, a bit like Hiroshima, styles itself as a city of peace, and certainly much of the interpretation is directed that way. The message being presented by the city is that all participants of war are its victims, soldiers from all sides and civilians alike.
The In Flanders Fields museum in Ieper, the region’s major museum, is located in the rebuilt 13th century Cloth Hall. The Cloth Hall was destroyed during the war, as was all of Ieper – Churchill suggested leaving it a ruin as a monument to the futility of the war. The museum is particularly strong on presenting a balanced interpretation of the war, refusing to demonise the Germans, despite their being the invaders and occupiers of Belgium. It uses very powerful video and interpretive techniques, being very explicit in its depiction of the brutality and horrors so that 2-3 hours in the museum pass very quickly. It has a very strong anti-war message and would have to be one of the best museums I have visited.
Other museums, such as Zonnebecke’s Memorial Museum Passchendaele, provide recreated trenches and dugouts which provide powerful experiences, but somehow I find displaying a mass of shells in a way that recasts them as aesthetic objects of beauty a little disturbing. It seems to fetishise objects of death. Nonetheless, it too has a strong anti-war message.
A major feature of the landscape is the sheer number of war cemeteries. These are all around, from the huge such as Tyne Cot with 12,000 burials, to the small ones in farmers’ fields or on roadsides, such as Somers Farm where an approaching storm reminds that Belgium is a wet place and this had a major impact on the experiences of soldiers. The large cemeteries are moving in their evocation of mass death. The small ones in their ubiquity and the understanding they provide that death was everywhere. The cemeteries are kept in immaculate condition by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a huge undertaking with the number of cemeteries in Belgium and France.
Flanders poppies at the Plugstreet 14-18 Experience, opened at Ploegsteert in November 2013.
So after four days touring the battlefields on Flanders we understand a little bit more about what happened here, and even gained an inkling of the experiences of the combatants. But, as I wrote at the beginning, it is really impossible to conceive of this place as it was almost a hundred years ago, with towns and villages destroyed, farms laid waste and the civilian population forced to flee hundreds of kilometres. Hopefully we will never find out.
Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight
(Under Lord Derby’s scheme), I died in hell
(They called it Passchendaele.) My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duckboards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.
At sermon-time, while the Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;
for, though low down on the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west …
What greater glory could a man desire?
Siegfried Sassoon, 1918