First World War Centenary: Ypres Battlefield Tour

Today is Remebrance Day in Britain (Veterans Day in the U.S.), and this year marks the centenary of the First World War. When Americans think of "The Great War," we vaguely remember something about mustard gas, tanks, and No Man's Land. But you don't really understand what a total war is until you see the 100-foot diameter crater a land mine left in a small town in Belgium.

Obviously this post will be a pretty serious so if you're already in a bad mood, maybe go watch something happy instead.

My residence hall led a trip to Ypres, Belgium a few weeks ago to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. Ypres is a small farming town that is internationally famous for having been so bombarded by shells and bombs during the War that in 1918 aerial photos of the area resembled the surface of the moon. Ypres was absolutely covered in craters and rubble. Our tour guide, who lives and works in Ypres as a historian/archaeologist, took us around to memorials, cemeteries, battlegrounds, and finally a memorial ceremony that has happened every night since 1927 (except during the Second World War).

Old town wall of Ypres (including moat)

Menin Gate, where the memorial ceremony takes place every night

Firstly, Ypres is beautiful. Except for all the cemetaries/memorials/museums for the War, you would think this place had probably last seen war in the Middle Ages. Ypres is about 80% farms; I've never seen so many cows in my life. Big, fat dairy cows with decidedly different spot patterns than Louisiana cows. Anyway, the entire town had to be rebuilt from scratch after 1918, so everything looks new. Not as new as Dresden, but Ypres was bombed even more than Dresden, if you can imagine that. Even more as in, pretty much continually for three years. Sometimes the Second World War seems pretty big and bad as far as firepower, but you have to remember that before the First World War people fought wars on horseback with bayonets, not machine guns, poisonous gas, land mines, and tanks. And when there's new warfare technology, armies tend to agree that "more is more."

Even though Ypres is super picturesque, it was covered in cemeteries for the Allies. We drove down several roads past countless farms and I counted at least ten cemeteries for the Great War. It was amazing to see how well kept the memorials were; the headstones looked brand new and the grass looked like it was cut by hand with a magnifying glass. I thought it was nice that they take such good care of these places, but it was also incredibly scary that the graves looked like they had only been there a few years, not a hundred. When wars are hundred years behind you, you think they are gone forever. But when they are (or seem) recent, they haunt you.

Our guide took us to a small field that looked like something off a tub of Country Crock butter. We then winded through a quaint-looking path through a little forest, after he had pointed out several old stone bunkers dug into the ground. I can't imagine having to stay in of these for more than a night; I would absolutely lose my mind.

Then we came to a clearing and what looked like a lake. But it wasn't a lake.  It was a CRATER from a land mine exploded in 1918. The Allies had tunneled under the German trenches for years and placed hundreds of bombs behind German lines, and this crater was just ONE of the holes left behind. Believe me when I say your brain cannot understand the amount of explosives involved, the sound it must have made, or the way the ground must have shook when they were detonated.

London has been holding all kinds of events for the centenary this week. A friend of mine in my program is from Flanders, and she mentioned that people in Britain make a bigger deal about Remembrance Day than they do in Belgium, where you can still see the trenches. I can imagine that there's a different attitude about holding memorial ceremonies when the place where they died is only a few mile away, or in your backyard.

Visiting Ypres was absolutely terrifying. I was really glad that I went though, because now that I'm studying the history of physical objects I've really started to appreciate history you can see in person, not just read in a book. You can watch as many World War I movies and read Parade's End until the end of time, but standing at the edge of a mine crater really takes the romance out of war. And war isn't even the right word. I won't even tell you what our tour guide said some of the poison gases would do to you. Don't wikipedia it. Just trust me that we need to REALLY learn the lesson that humans have the potential to do truly horrible things. And they have done it. And they will do it again.

And now I will go crawl in my bed and hide under some blankets for a while. Don't worry though, my next post will be extremely happy. 

1 comment

Design by Fearne