So. Those days in Flanders. The clichés don’t cover them. There is no trumped up heroism there, just sadness for the waste of ‘so many young men’.
The shattered trees, churned ground, and broken bodies of yesteryear exist only in photographs today: the earth holds its memories in the soft-now contours of shell holes, in extant trench lines, and, of course, in the cemeteries – the cemeteries that are such quiet contrast to the hell that created them. Tall trees have grown over the battlegrounds, farmers have ploughed their fields, and fat cattle (huge cattle, those Belgian beasts!) graze around broken emplacements. The towns have been rebuilt, museums created, and the Tourist Information office in Ypres has a range of suggestions for anyone visiting the
sites of the Salient.
But what lies below the surface – literally just below, when (as at the Yorkshire Trench, which we didn’t visit because I didn’t find out that it was there until too late) an excavator strips the thin layer of topsoil? The variegated colours of a filled-in trench, the bones of former enemies entwined, scattered equipment, and a mass of unexploded ordnance show up regularly – if not every day then at least every month.
We arrived at Talbot House late, our journey broken in Lille when my Nikon SLR fell out of my knapsack and we had to find a shop to replace the lens. We caught the local train to Cortrijk, waited through a delay, and changed at last for the branch line for Poperinge. John Reed and his wife Jackie, the hostel wardens, welcomed us with tea and showed us our rooms (small but comfortable) the bathrooms (clean, modern, and with great showers) and the shared kitchen. We looked over the house – climbing the treacherous stairs to the attic chapel, and tinkling the notes on the original piano. ‘This house has always been a hostel,’ John explained. ‘But when the Germans came in the Second World War and requisitioned it for their officers, the local people came just before the Germans moved in and took every stick of furniture. Someone hid the piano in their basement, someone else took all the fittings from the chapel. When the Jerries were on the run at the end of the war, all the kit reappeared, practically overnight.’
We slept fitfully that night. The funfair was in town, and although, thankfully, we could not hear the amusements, we were treated to a long and spectacular firework display (‘Welcome,’ I said to my children. ‘To the Ypres Salient!’), and then to drunk and boisterous Belgians returning home in the small hours.
After breakfast we took the train into Ypres to see how to best use the next two and a half days. It was eleven when we arrived, and we went straight to the Cloth Hall, the massive landmark in the centre of the town that was reduced to nothing but half of its shattered belfry by German artillery at the end of 1914. It now houses the Tourist Information Office and the comprehensive Flanders Fields Museum.
Both Alex and Sophia roundly rejected my suggestion that we take a mini-bus guided tour and voted unanimously to hire bikes and follow the 45 kilometre ‘Peace Route’ that takes in the Salient’s major landmarks, so after more than an hour in the Museum, and a quick lunch at a café, we walked via the Menin Gate to the campgrounds and hired three bicycles for the next two days.
I had seen pictures of the Menin Gate, but they had not prepared me for the reality of the 54,896 names of Commonwealth soldiers killed before August 15, 1917 but ‘to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death’. The names went on, and on, and on. On both sides of the road, arching high overhead, up the stairs and on additional panels around the corner. Time was ticking, and I knew that we would return for the Last Post ceremony either that evening or the next, so consulting our map to find the campsite, we left and walked along the river.
To Be Continued.