“I should like us to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres.. a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.”
Winston Churchill’s quote regarding the fate of the ruined town provides an interesting backdrop to the whole subject of how to remember the past, particularly a past so bound up in the unimaginable violence of The Great War. How should we honour and remember the hundreds of thousands who fought and died in and around this area?
At 8.00pm every evening, The Last Post is played beneath the huge memorial that is the Menin Gate; massive yet dignified, somehow understated yet a great presence in the town. Crowds gather, tributes are laid, and the melancholic refrain coruscates around the gate’s vast interior. Perhaps the crowds and the cameras do correlate with what Siegfried Sassoon said about it being a ‘sight-seers centre’, but there was something particularly moving about the ceremony. Sassoon had seen as first hand the unimaginable horrors of what happened in the fields around Flanders, and just as I stated in my work with Auschwitz-Birkenau, we can never know what it was like to be there. No photographs, no poems, no letters written in the trenches can ever give us the full picture, but we can at least try, and personally, I found the ceremony gave me this chance.
Before we visited the gate, my girlfriend and I made our way to the two cemeteries within the town, The Ramparts Cemetery and the Ypres Reservoir Cemetery. I have seen countless photographs of places like this but nothing prepares you for what it’s like to be standing amidst two thousand immaculate graves, many without names. As I listened to the buglers play The Last Post, I closed my eyes and imagined how every night this same sound rang out from the gate, over the adjacent fields, searching out the bodies of the 54,896 men whose names are recorded on the gate’s walls. The tune is like a calling, a mother’s lament for a lost son. Every night it asks its question, and every night it is met with silence; the silence of the fields once deafened by death and violence.
Rebuilding or otherwise, preserving and restoring are all elements which feature in any tour around Ieper. The Sanctuary Wood museum (Hill 62) is to some controversial in that many believe the trenches preserved there are not actually genuine. Certainly there are aspects of the museum I didn’t particularly like. Personally I believe the trenches are genuine but are perhaps a little over-restored. With a party of school children running around them, there was the sense that this was little more than an adventure playground and not a place which one officer recalled in his dairy of 1917:
“Of the terrible and horrible scenes I have seen in the war, Sanctuary Wood is the worst… Sanctuary Wood in 1914 was a sanctuary, but today, Dante in his wildest imaginings never conceived a like.”
As I’ve said, we can never know what it was really like to be in that Hell on Earth, but I believe the residues of war, the shrapnel, the objects dug from out the ground, along with the craters and the blasted trees are testament enough to the horrors. If the trenches were left and allowed to be reclaimed (although not removed) by nature, I don’t think the impact would be lessened; quite the opposite – it would be enhanced.
Evidence supporting this claim can be found just a couple of miles away on Hill 60. Unlike Hill 62, this place has been left much as it was at the end of war and as such, it has an air of authenticity about it which one doesn’t quite get with the trenches of Hill 62 (I should state here that there is no doubt about the provenance of Sanctuary Wood itself, the craters, the shot trees and recovered objects). The craters of Hill 60, the undulating and wholly unnatural shape of the landscape, now grown over with grass are enough to inspire the imagination to thoughts of what happened there 90 years ago. It is perhaps this dramatic contrast between now and then which facilitates this: the grass, the trees, the birds; (the birds which inspired some of the most poignant words to come from out the trenches). That and the knowledge that many men from both sides still lay buried beneath the ground. I was also reminded as I walked over the grass, of the parks one might find back home – a place for people to relax, for children to play in – a place to forget all your worries. This contrast again served to remind me of the horror and futility of war.