Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In Flanders Field

A little over a year ago I spent some time in Germany, visiting my niece who is stationed there with her husband. I wrote about some of our sightseeing at the time, but held back from writing about our visit to the Flanders Field portion of Belgium until I had more time to digest the devastation of World War I. I've been thinking about that visit a lot lately and am ready to share some of my impressions and photos. It was a very moving day for me. 

Prior to this trip I really didn't know much about World War I other than the basics. In this country we get much more teaching and television time about World War II, so the history I learned in Belgium was eye-opening for me. WWI, The Great War, The War to End All Wars, came at a time when the world was shifting from 19th century views of imperialism and power to a modern 20th century of industrialization and democracy. The war combined the worst of both. Many of the generals were old-world leaders who viewed soldiers as expendable commodities, sending millions of them to die, ill-equipped in the face of new-world weapons and tactics. I have learned since my return that many of the acts committed during this war would, under today's standards, be considered war crimes.

Flanders Field is a crescent-shaped area of 25 square miles between the cities of Paschendale and Ypres in Belgium. It is a low-lying coastal plain along the North Sea, with a major port at Nieuport. This area was held by the British, French and Belgian forces; Germany occupied the remaining 90% of Belgium. To slow the German progress across their country, the Belgians destroyed the system of dikes, flooding the land and making the mud one of the major obstacles in the war. Because the land is flat, even ridges of 10-12 feet elevation were significant and intense battles were fought to defend them. The British/French/Belgian forces had to hold this land because it was their only port to supply the troops from England. Today it looks much like this.

But in 1917 it was a very different story. Imagine no green, no structure standing anywhere and nothing but a sea of mud and standing water. These next photos show specific spots today and in photos of how they looked in 1917.

Memorial atop Tiger Mound

Tiger Mound during 1917

View of countryside then (front) and now.

Gas was first used in this war by the French, rather unsuccessfully, then taken up, improved and used by the Germans. All the countries involved used gas. In fact, the British used ten times more than the Germans because they had the prevailing coastal winds at their backs. The winds often hindered the Germans because they would blow the gas back on their own troops (who at least had gas masks.) It took a while for the British to develop the gas mask technology to protect their troops. 

"Iron Harvest" is the term for recovery of unexploded shells (regular and chemical) that continues today. Billions of shells were fired during WWI and fully 1/3 of them did not explode. Each year Belgians encounter hundreds of shells as they plow fields or otherwise disturb the soil. They are supposed to leave the shell where it is and call the police, who then call the Army unit charged with disposal. This may take months, so usually the farmer puts the shell by the side of the road and goes on with his work. The Army or collectors will eventually pick up the shells. Here is a photo of some the shells found by a local farmer.

Last year over 700 shells were "officially" found. Belgians estimate that at the rate the diffuser group works today, it will take another 90 years to diffuse the shells that have been found so far. One village, Poilaplie, used spent shell cases to melt down and forge the bells of their village church. It took over 16,000 pounds of metal casings. Belgium spends millions of dollars each year on WWI shell recovery and disposal.

By 1915 there were no structures left for shelter, command centers, etc. in Flanders. In was all mud and destruction. Thus was born the system of underground tunnels throughout this area. A few sections have been preserved just outside Ypres, but most are filled with water and underlie everything in Flanders. It is not unusual for structures to partially shift or collapse because their foundations are compromised by the tunnels. Here are some photos of the restored trenches near Ypres now and during the war.

Over 65 million men were deployed (on all sides) during WWI. The British and their Commonwealth nations lost a generation of men. Over 250,000 of them are buried in Flanders, in 174 cemeteries and mass graves. Ten million (on all sides) were killed in this war and they estimate that only one third of the bodies in Flanders were identified. All the memorial cemeteries here include headstones identifying the man's nationality and regiment, with no name, only "Known to God." During this war they did not send bodies back home for burial, hence the many cemeteries. Here are some photos from Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest of the Commonwealth cemeteries. It includes the names of 35,000 "missing" carved on the walls. The soil in Belgium is topsoil with underlying clay. Soldiers reported that men would be wounded, fall face forward and disappear into the mud. Skeletal remains are still found frequently and the remains are buried with ceremony. Representatives of all the involved countries attend these funerals. 

The city of Ypres was an 11th century walled fortress that was completely reduced to rubble in the war. Their buildings were historically restored from architectural drawings afterward. The appearance today is of a medieval city, but no buildings are more than 80 years old.

Ypres as seen through the WWI memorial.

Ypres appears medieval, but is totally rebuilt.
Dr. John McCrae was a British surgeon stationed in Flanders in 1915. His first aid station was Essex Farm, just behind the front lines. Part of the aid station, adjacent to a cemetery, has been preserved for visitors.

John McCrae wrote what is, arguably, the most famous poem about WWI, "In Flanders Fields," written at this aid station. With a little literary license, that poem is presented here, more in a prose style than in the typical poetry line and stanza form. I think reading it as prose, trying to forget about rhythm and meter, makes it more meaningful.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow beneath 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.

This tour of Flanders Field had a big emotional impact on me. I continue to read and learn more about this war, which, like all wars, was full of horror and atrocities. I hope you haven't found this post too depressing. If so, I do apologize. I needed to write about this experience and I appreciate your stopping by to share it.