IN FLANDERS FIELDS | ONE17 NOTES MAGAZINE | SPRING/SUMMER 2018 | ISSUE 8
In this centenary year of the end of the First World War we are proud to include this moving account of the resting places of the dead of that conflict from guest contributor Andrew Hulme.
In Flanders Fields
The Silent Cities
The journey down from Zeebrugge through rural west Flanders was pleasant but uneventful. After around 40 minutes conspicuous features began to appear in the landscape. Brilliant white against the green Flanders fields in random locations without apparent logic or reason.
These are the silent cities. Homes of mainly boys and young men from Great Britain and her empire. Perpetual resting places under identical pieces of Portland stone. Places of peace, equality, beauty and remembrance. These are the Commonwealth graves cemeteries for the dead of the immortal salient, and there are hundreds of them just in this small corner of Belgium Flanders.
A little further on appeared the signs for the Town. The Town that Winston Churchill wanted to adopt as British at the end of the Great War. The Town of which he said “A more sacred place for the British race does not exist on earth”.
I pointed the car into the main square known locally as the Grote Markt. A magnificent centrepiece surrounded by the Hotel de Ville, the great Cloth Hall, the largest in Europe and tall Flemish houses containing restaurants, bars and shops. This is Ypres. A Town of fame and infamy, of beauty and destruction, of sorrow and celebration. A Town of today built on the foundations of yesterday. A small Town in the immortal salient. The most famous Town on the western front of the First World War.
I had never been here before but I’d been here before. I knew the buildings and the layout of the Town but I had never been here before. I sensed directions and orientation but I had never been here before. The locals were smart, affluent and friendly. I had never met them before, but I knew them. In Ypres I experienced a sensation never experienced before or since, an experience that I had had a previous life and that I had lived it here. The hair was standing up on my head and neck.
In military terms a salient is a part of an armies land that juts into enemy territory. The enemy can shoot at you from right, left and head on. You are surrounded on three sides. A very dangerous position.
Ypres is one of a few frontline towns and it sat in this salient. Ypres’ topological position was like that of half a saucer with the rims of the saucer being the high ground and the rest being the town. From the high ground the enemy could look right into and across Ypres observing all movement in and out of the town with the ability to fire huge shells and ordinance at will.
In November 1914 as the massed armies of Germany and Great Britain fought their way north from the gates of Paris in what was known as the “race to the sea”, the Germans arrived on the high ground above Ypres and dug themselves in. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived a day later and took over the town which was the gateway to the Channel ports. The British had no choice but to defend Ypres to the last man; had the Germans broken through they would have been at the Channel in two days and the BEF would have been cut off and systematically destroyed.
The November 1914 first battle of Ypres was the biggest engagement of the war so far; it was brutal. It was a war of little movement, attack v. defence. A war of attrition fought with heavy artillery, grenades, bullets and the bayonet. The winner would be the army with the last man standing.
The battle swayed back and forth with ground won, lost, re-won and lost again during which thousands of men lost their lives. The Germans got to within three miles of Ypres as the British line buckled, bent and almost broke but held as Field Marshall Haigh led cooks, cobblers, orderlies and anybody who could pick up a rifle from befallen colleagues in an heroic last stand. A decimated bedraggled group of men from the Worcester Regiment led a last and desperate charge across no mans land, routed the Germans and drove them back in defeat thus saving the line, the last remnants of the army and arguably the British Empire.
Ypres was saved but at the cost of 90,000 young lives. These are the men and boys who now rest in perpetuity in the silent cities.
The trenches of the western front ran for 450 miles from the coast of Belgium through France to the border of Switzerland. Along the front line battles raged in Nueve Chapelle, Lens, Vimy Ridge, Arras, Bullecourt, The Somme, Chemin de les Dames, Verdun and all were killing fields for the Belgium, French, British and German armies.
Ypres was the setting for three major battles including first Ypres in 1914. Its strategic location meant that in between these major battles it was always a scene of considerable activity and bickering as both armies manoeuvred for the best positions and surrounded it with fields of barbed wire, concrete bunkers and strategically placed pillboxes. The Germans had the advantage of the high ground. The British army invariably found itself fighting uphill battles.
The second battle of Ypres took place in April 1915 when the Germans used poison gas for the first time to create a breach in the British line near St Julian. The heroic efforts of Canadian soldiers saved the day, but once again thousands of men were killed, injured or missing when the battle finally died down. »
But it is fair to say that Ypres’ ultimate fame and notoriety is founded on the third battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele.
The battle of Passchendaele started in warm summer sunshine in July 1917. The strategic aim of the attack was to drive the Germans off Passchendaele ridge, occupy it, and dig in on the high, drier ground for winter. But winter came early. The weather through late summer and autumn was the wettest recorded in Belgium history. The brooks, streams and drainage ditches that crisscrossed the land overflowed and the shell-torn land turned into a stinking morass of putrid mud and the remains of dead and dying horses, boys and men.
In conditions that were appalling beyond belief, wave after wave of British infantry were sent forward to replace the dead or injured only to become the next victims. Futile effort followed futile effort to try and break the deadlock but to no avail. The battle dragged on for three and half months until eventually in mid-November, in one final desperate push, the Canadians pushed the Germans off the ridge and occupied the destroyed village of Passchendaele.
This battle alone cost the British Army an estimated 220,000 dead. It is estimated that the Germans lost 250,000. Two weeks after this ‘victory’ the British and Canadians withdrew from the high ground of Passchendaele and abandoned it to its fate. The dead of this battle, men and boys, British and German lie in perpetuity in the silent cities of the Ypres salient.
The largest of these silent cities is Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. It is home to over 12,000 men and boys below white Portland headstones, 9,000 of which are unknown soldiers whose headstones are engraved “A soldier of the Great War known unto God”.
On the panels of the walls surrounding the cemetery are the names of a further 38,000 men who died in the battle but whose bodies were never found. They were killed or drowned in the stinking morass of water-filled shell holes that stretched the four miles up to Passchendaele ridge.
A road runs through the Grote Markt of Ypres to the ramparts and the Menin Gate. This magnificent edifice was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield as the principal memorial to the missing of the Ypres salient. Engraved on its panels are the names of a further 58,000 men and boys whose bodies were lost and never found after the battles of Ypres.
Every night at 8pm the Ypres fire brigade parade and play the last post as Ypres’ perpetual tribute to the dead and injured of the salient. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of international visitors attend this short ceremony under the great arches of the memorial. Apart from a short period in the Second World War when the Germans occupied the town, this simple ceremony has taken place without exception. Every night, of every week, of every year, since 1927. Over 30,000 acts of remembrance for the men and boys who fought for King, country, Empire and a shilling.
Here they lie in the silent cities of this beautiful Flemish town. Visit if you can - it’s a remarkable place.
Ypres was saved but at the cost of 90,000 young lives. These are the men and boys who now rest in perpetuity in the silent cities
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.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Poem by Major John McCrae