Monday, June 09, 2008

Footprints in the mud

Ask a non Belge what they know of Belgium. Lack of famous people perhaps, chocolate, beer, cycling maybe, the normal clichés. Dig a little deeper and people will mention the war. That is the first war, poppies and mud.

Only an hour away from the capital and every village has its sombre memorial to the hundreds of thousands who died neck deep in mud.

Amongst the ranks of names you can find those from every continent and every race. And while walking around the volume of the silence can be deafening.

Although visiting battlefields and graveyards may not be everybody's cup of tea, there is more than just viewing the serried ranks of the dead to do. It isn't war porn as some would describe it. For those of you who haven't made the trip to Flanders and the area around Ypres then here are a few pointers that might persuade you that it is worth your while.

The obvious starting point for any trip to the battlefields is a visit to the Menin Gate at Ypres. The Menin Gate memorial is built into the medieval city ramparts over the road that led towards the front. Every soldier that fought on the allied side in the Ypres area, millions of young men in all marched along that very road.

Here every night at 8pm the Last Post Association, a Belgian organisation play the famous tune to commemorate the dead. They will play once for every single name on the memorial. They will be doing this for another hundred years. The only break was due to a little local difficulty between 1939 and 45 but normal service has been resumed since then.

These days the event is a mixture of awe and chaos with thousands of tourists and pilgrims cramming under the gate and along the road either side. Straining to hear the trumpet notes and merrily clicking away on their cameras and mobile phones. School choirs and rugby clubs vie with each other to sing and everybody leaves half an hour later visibly moved.

The old Flanders Fields museum in Ypres's rebuilt cloth hall is on every tour agenda, but frankly I would give it a miss. It has been hit by a severe attack of a strange disease that afflicts museum curators desperate to make their collections 'relevant'. Like so many public organisations, as soon as you see that it has won prizes my advice is run a mile. Any history will have been airbrushed with correctness and information will be skewed through a political prism. No more should you be allowed to look at the evidence and make up your own minds, the visitor today must be taught how to think and what to believe.

Instead I would suggest two very different places that still retain the ability to grab the attention and to grant the individual the courtesy of believing that they have a brain. The first I will mention is the extraordinary collection at what is called Hill 62 or as it is better known Sanctuary Wood a couple of miles outside Ypres itself. Here there is a cafe and private museum run by the grandson of its founders, a local farming family called Schiers. This chap sits huge, moustachioed and expansive behind heaps of stuff, some for sale, that he and they have dug out of the ground. Called the 'iron harvest' it has all been turned up by the plough, Guns, bombs, shells, helmets, buckles, badges, more guns, more shrapnel, mess tins, all in a profusion of rusted reality.

There is a small charge, but well worth it (and the beer is cheap). Having walked through the display (which also includes a range of 'what the butler saw' machines with a plethora of images of the war) you come out into the wood itself. Scraggy and desolate. Muddy at all times of the year - leading to suspicions that the fat fellow wanders around at night with a hose to ensue that the exhibit retains its desolate feel - and criss-crossed with trenches. These are the most authentic of the various trench systems that can be found in the area, muddy, zigzagged, tumbledown and very, very present. Elsewhere trench systems have been given a corporate short back and sides, but here they let it all hang out. By squinting your eyes and filtering out any other visitors you can almost smell the fear.

Another place with a very revealing museum is Diksmuide, or more properly the IJzertoren or Izer tower. Situated on part of the front that was held by Belgian troops it has become the symbol of Flanders, and more particularly Flemish national consciousness.

At 22 stories tall the tower dominates the flat lands all about. It is the second tower to be built on the site, the first was built after the war by Flemish veterans. The Belgian army was largely made up of French speaking officers and Flemish speaking soldiers. This of course led to appalling confusion and many more deaths than was necessary, and further fuelled Flemish resentment.

The original tower had the slogan AVV-VVK: Alles Voor Vlaanderen-Vlaanderen voor Kristus (All for Flanders-Flanders for Christ). upon it. Initials that are carved into Flemish war graves. However this obviously upset the dominant French community and on the night of the 15th March 1946, the war memorial was blown up.

The Flemish, being Flemish replaced the small tower with the massive brick monster that now stands in its place. Inside is a museum of Peace, War and Flemish Independence, not necessarily in that order. Part of the UN's collection of peace museums, it is a roller-coaster of images and artifacts all in Dutch but none the worse for that. It has a message too and one that is unnecessary to translate. The Flemish are really not happy about who they are and where they are.

Over the years the grounds of the tower has hosted huge political rallies and is still a place of pilgrimage for Flemish Nationalists.

Just up the road from the tower is the 'Trench of Death' which is a slightly anodyne reconstruction, of part of the Flemish trench system that looks out over the Yser river. Some bright spark had the good idea of breaching the river banks at this point which meant that the invading German army was stopped in its tracks. The area remained flooded for the duration of the war, but because the trench didn't move - hardly a surprise when you think about it' the German guns had the range of it and constantly pulverized the spot with high explosives. It was however never taken.

Somewhere that is increasing in popularity is Talbot House in Poperinge. This was the great R and R spot for the British army. As a place where soldiers could have a cup of tea, go to church or dress upin women's clothes and put on shows. It retains an atmosphere quite different from every other aspect of the whole Ypres salient experience. It has happiness. The walls seem to have taken upon themselves the calm of the spot, and the forced and unforced joy of the men. An aspect normally overlooked about the experience of the war, was that for most of the time, most soldiers rather enjoyed themselves. Gallows humour abounded. The traditional defence against horror is laughter, and Talbot House is a monument to that counter intuitive reality.

But no trip can be finished in the region without going to the huge British cemetery at Tyne Cot. There are 12,000 graves here. A vast and harrowing field of white Portland stone. There is little to be said abut the place, it is just there and must be seen.

And felt.

Article (slightly edited) first published in UpFront Magazine

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