Bloody Battlefields In Belgium

Bloody Battlefields In Belgium

In early August Douglas and I flew to Amsterdam, caught a train to Brussels, and hired a car for a couple of days. Our goal: to visit some of the sights of the First World War, (perhaps I need to be honest and say it was my goal, and Douglas went along with it, which was very decent of him). We drove down to Ypres or, as the Belgians spell it, Ieper in Flanders in the south of the country. A note to oneself is to make sure one knows about different spellings because driving the motorways looking for signs for Ypres would have been pointless.

This part of Belgium was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the war. It was a deeply interesting and moving trip. Dotted across the countryside are a series of cemeteries, all meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We visited the largest war cemetery in the world. Originally this was a German defensive fortification nick-named Tyne Cot (meaning cottage) by British soldiers, the Northumberland Fusiliers, from the Tyneside. The cemetery bears this name: Tyne Cot. It has nearly 12,000 graves, some 8000 bodies are nameless and on the walls of the memorial are the names of 35,000 men whose bodies were never found or could not be identified. Click here for more information.

Many particularly ghastly and pointless battles took place in this corner of Belgium, and they were for small gains of ground. It is striking how dreadful the carnage was, and this is evidenced by the number of graves whose stones simply say: “A Soldier of the Great War Known unto God”. There was no dog tag or any other form of identification on these corpses. Even more poignant at each cemetery is the list of those “missing in action”. Some will have been buried as unknown, in other cases their bodies would have been vaporised, lost without trace. In the early days of the war the ‘dog tags’ the soldiers wore round their necks were made of compressed cardboard. As can be appreciated they did not last long in the mud of the front line.

We began our visit by going to Essex Farm Cemetery just north of the Ypres. It was notable for two reasons: this is where Canadian doctor, John McCrae wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’; and secondly it has the grave of one of the youngest soldiers to die in the war. McRae served here in a field dressing station. The bunker in which he worked is still there, a dank concrete cavern. He was to die of pneumonia on 28 January 1918, while commanding No 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne. The first stanza of the poem is:

  In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

In this cemetery lies the body of Rifleman VJ Strudwick of the Rifle Brigade, killed on 14 January 1916 at the age of just 15. This is one year younger than Douglas is now. My father ran away from his school, and joined up age 16. When the war ended he was 19 and a Second Lieutenant. He was a year younger than Rowan. Thinking of his age and those of my children put it in perspective. It is hard to grasp the horror he lived through and the impact it must have had on him. I am glad we made this trip simply because I think I understand him a little better now. He would tell us as children of his adventures in the Second World War, when he served in India and Persia in the Royal Engineers, but he simply would not talk about the First War at all.

While the serried ranks of headstones stones are deeply moving, both in terms of the numbers and uniformity, it is the unusual ones that stick in my mind. At Tyne Cot there is stone commemorating a Navy gunner. He is so far from the sea: one has to ask what miss-chance brought him to his doom in the mid of Flanders. There are four graves of soldiers who were identified as German, but only one is named: “Otto Bieber 4 Okt 1917 Und Ein Deutscher Soldat 1914 1918”. Why were there just four Germans buried here? Who was Otto?

The majority of headstones have crosses on them. The Jewish soldiers have a Star of David. The literature for Tyne Cot tells that there are 30 stones there with no religious marking. The families requested there be none on the grounds that the soldiers were atheists. This is of course this is the family’s judgement, and I wonder how it squares with the saying that: ‘there are no atheists in the foxholes’, if these men died as atheists or calling for a God.

There are also reminders of the quirks of history. The men of Canada and men of Newfoundland are commemorated separately. Newfoundland was not yet a part of Canada when the war was fought. There was an exhibition in the Ypres museum about the Chinese labour brought to work behind the lines. There were 140 000 men who travelled from China as indentured labour; some brought over the Pacific to Canada, by rail across the country (and they were not allowed to get of the trains), then on by sea to Europe; others through the Suez or round the Cape. These men were carried in the holds of the ships and were terribly exploited and badly treated. They have also been forgotten in the historical annuls of the war.

On the walls of the Menin Gates Memorial are thousands upon thousands of names (54 000 in total). Again it is the odd one that captures the attention. In the list is “Clarke R. Served as Carrington F, DCM”. Why did R Clarke serve under a different name: had he been dishonourably discharged; was he standing in for another person; was he trying to redeem the family honour? If so he succeeded because the DCM stands for Distinguished Conduct Medal which was the second level military decoration awarded non-commissioned soldiers. It was seen as a “near miss for the VC”. What ever the story, he is dead and is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

In Ypres we went to the daily commemoration held at the Menin Gates. This is this takes place without fail at 8 pm every evening, and has done since 11th November 1929, with the exception of the period of German occupation during the second war. Click here for more information.

There is an order to the event. The traffic under the gate is halted at 8pm; the buglers step forward; and the ceremony commences. The last post is usually played by buglers from local volunteer Fire Brigade, although there may be more involved ceremonies and, quite often according to the literature, there will be a piper. The words of poet Laurence Binyon are spoken: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them”.

The assembled crowd says: “We will remember them”. This is followed by the minute’s silence. Then wreaths are laid. Finally Reveille is played to end the event and remind us that life goes on.

It was extraordinarily moving. The crowd, judging by the languages I heard, was Belgium/Dutch then British with a few South Africans, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders mixed in. There was silence and respect. Quite remarkable.

I have in the past, flippantly, described Belgium as a country designed or designated for European wars by the French and Germans and British. It was ideal: reasonably flat; not too many canals or rivers – the reason why Holland would not work; a divided population who don’t get on – the French and Flemish; and a weak government. Others have even suggested that the location of the European Commission in Brussels represents a continuance of wars but in a different format. While this was said, somewhat in jest, I learnt in one of the museums that I am not alone in this. The words of Gen Dubois before the departure of the French IX Corps to Zonnebeke, just outside Ypres, on 19th October 1914 were: “We are going to Flanders, the land where all the great battles of our history have taken place”. Pity the people of Flanders.

To the victor the spoils, and it seems from the visit, the right to commemorate the dead. There are German cemeteries as many if not more Germans died, but they are not marked or celebrated in the same way. Indeed puzzling is that in most allied cemeteries there may be one or two German graves. It is not at all clear to me how they came to be there.

What is deeply interesting and disturbing is how absent the Belgians are, both from the written record and the monuments. Of course most of Belgium was occupied; the government and the King would not commit the remains of the army to battle; rightly believing that one major engagement and the entire force would be wiped out. And history is written by the victors; but there was a Belgian army and there were millions of civilians affected and killed; the fields yield not just corn and maize but also a harvest of munitions as well as the occasional skeletal corpse.

Driving on the right hand side of the road is a challenge for me at the best of times. Driving on the Brussels’ ring road with heavy traffic, huge juggernauts, and in a cloudburst will be an event that I will remember for a long time. In a way it a bit like flying, once you’re committed to getting airborne you know you will have to land at some point. Equally going round the ring road to try and find the exit to the airport was a commitment. We managed, but it does mean that I will think quite carefully about hiring cars in the future.

So having made it to the airport, Douglas and I got on the train to Brussels and then an InterCity train to Amsterdam. On getting there we then queued up in the tourist office to get a hotel room. That was a mission. We waited for about 40 minutes. Amsterdam was really heaving, the weekend marked the gay pride events.


Toy Story 3 by Pixar and Disney

This film had rave reviews, almost without exception, male reviewers wrote of how moved they were and how difficult they found it to keep from weeping. While I did not find the entire film to be as good as was suggested, it is worth seeing. In common with most of the men in the audience I was definitely sobbing by the end. What is it about the film that makes it so touching? It is because many of the male audience will have met and identify with the characters in both the past but also it is about a male rite of passage.


Brighton Rock by Graham Greene various publishers as it is now a classic

Douglas is going to do A-levels in English literature. The school suggested a number of books to be read over the holiday. These included Brighton Rock, Doctor Faustus, King Lear, and Clockwork Orange. We took Brighton Rock with us on holiday. I read it and then managed to leave it in a hotel room. It is extraordinarily well-written, but what the miserable story. In fact most of that list is pretty miserable. Brighton Rock is set in 1938 in Brighton and tells the story of a 17-year-old gangster (Pinky) and his girlfriend Rose. It is described as a ‘Catholic novel’ since both the main characters are Catholics, but it is more a story of poverty of mind as well as finance.