Wondering Why in Flanders’ Fields: the First World War Battlefields of Belgium

The grave of a boy soldier, Essex Farm Cemetery

The grave of a boy soldier, Essex Farm Cemetery

“Why?” demands Raoul. We stand in a line, look at our toes and shuffle our feet uneasily on the spot. “Why?” he demands again.

It isn’t that we don’t know why the gravestones in front of us, white as a row of perfect teeth, are jostling shoulder to shoulder like a flurry of giggling girls when all the rest are spaced with military precision. We can all guess why: we just don’t want to say.

“I’ll tell you why. Because they were all standing together when a shell landed….”

That’s enough. Welcome to the First World War battlefields of Flanders. Welcome to a land where the reluctant occupying armies bestowed on local landmarks names such as Hellfire Corner or Suicide Road. Welcome to Essex Farm Cemetery.

Essex Farm Cemetery

Essex Farm, where Raoul is lecturing us on the finer points of the practicalities of war (striking the perfect balance between the terrible truth and the presence of a couple of youngish, impressionable teenagers) is our first stop on a minibus tour of Flanders’ Fields. In fact it isn’t one of the worst, nor was it. It was a dressing station, now a cemetery, and we’re visiting it rather than any one of a dozen others like it because this is where the poet, John McRae, who wrote the poem In Flanders Fields, was stationed.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You don’t understand how apocalyptic the “war to end all wars” was but you think you ought to try
  • Whoever you are or wherever you come from, the scale of the memorials will affect you
  • Fascinating for anyone with an interest in history (particularly military history) or politics…or just humanity

Raoul marshals us down another row of gravestones and stops us in front of the grave of Rifleman VJ Strudwick. “The youngest soldier known to have died in the war.” He must have done this tour hundreds of times but is voice his a little hushed. So it should be: when he died the child whose grave we’re visiting was 15, just a couple years older than the boy in our party. I steal a look at him. He looks pensive. I feel sick.

Passchendaele

Sometimes history isn’t for the fainthearted. Sometimes I ask myself why people visit places like this, why I do. As Raoul drives us in his minibus through the green fields of Flanders pointing out cemetery after cemetery, memorial after memorial, explaining all the details (poisonous gas, for example, had to be used with care in case the wind changed) I’m still struggling for the answer.

The preserved trenches of Hill 62

The preserved trenches of Hill 62

We stop at Passchendaele. Of course the original village is gone (he shows us aerial photos, before and after its obliteration as the Western Front moved backwards and forwards over a narrow strip of land like a scarlet tide washing it away) and, out of respect for its inhabitants, we don’t go into the village itself. But we get out of the minibus at Tyne Cot Cemetery on the village’s edge.

I don’t catch the statistics Raoul throws at us about Tyne Cot. I don’t need to. The seemingly endless rows of gravestones – thousands of them – are overwhelming in themselves. As we wander through the stones someone wonders rather apologetically why some of the gravestones have pebbles on them. It’s an old tradition, especially for Jewish people: Someone picking up a stone and placing it on the grave indicates that person is not forgotten.

I stop and think about this. I have memories of my own. A great uncle who won a medal but never collected it because he didn’t think he deserved it. My grandfather, who came back from the War refusing ever to go abroad again, never speaking of his experiences until the very day he died. Of course we don’t comprehend. We can’t. But here in Flanders, at the very least can begin to understand that we’ll never understand.

Hill 62 and the Trenches

We round off our trip at what, on paper, seems the most gruesome part of all but yet turns out to be the most compelling. The part of the front line known as Hill 62 has been preserved, trenches, shell holes, dugouts and all. Though its edges are inevitably blunted by time (even with what I suspect might be a bit of reinforcement of the corrugated iron supports) it’s awesome.

Names of the missing, the Menin Gate

Names of the missing, the Menin Gate

We stand in the claustrophobic bunkers that are the best shelter on offer, and press ourselves into shallow indentations in the trench walls. We see for ourselves how the trenches were built in zigzags to deflect the impact of a blast or the path of a bullet. We stick our heads above the parapet to see how exposed this whole fragile defensive structure is. At least we can do it without fear.

I’m glad to get back on the bus and return to Ypres. Disembarking at the Menin Gate I reflect on the morning’s experience. Four hours of my life does nothing to encapsulate a glimpse into four years of trench warfare. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed this ‘battlefield experience’ but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

As we wander back towards the town centre leaving the Menin Gate, scarred with the names of thousands who have no known grave, I hear Raoul’s voice and know it will echo in my head for years, for decades to come. “Why? Why? Why?”

Why? Oh Raoul. I only wish I knew.

Practicalities

  • There are many available tours of the battlefields – day or half-day, covering different segments of the area. Most start in the city of Ypres (Ieper) – contact the tourist office for details. Prices vary, but expect to pay from €25 for a 2-hour tour
  • Ypres is easily reached by train from Brussels. Alternatively, if you’re driving you can pick up leaflets from the tourist office and make up your own itinerary
  • Almost totally rebuilt after the war, the city is full of monuments and memorials – including the excellent In Flanders Fields museum and visitor experience. Every evening The Last Post is played at the Menin Gate.

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