Sunday, 3 November 2013

Ypres diary, day three

And at last - a tour of the salient, a visit to a trench and a long, hard look at the battlefields. It's only taken me twelve years but finally, today, having booked yesterday morning, having established yesterday evening following our visit to the Menin Gate that there were enough signed up for it to run (a total of three - a Canadian over from Mexico and his twelve year old son on half-term from school in Holland and me) I climbed aboard a Salient Tours minibus with a former carpet salesman-turned-tour-guide and set off.

Not sure what I expected, certainly not the first stop - Essex Farm - scene of John MacRae's medical heroics as well as, of course, the more famous In Flanders Fields propaganda poem. Interesting to find out MacRae almost immediately disowned the verse - threw it away, in fact - and was only persuaded to retrieve and - ultimately - publish it by a colleague.

The concrete bunkers dug into the banks of the Ieper canal were MacRae and his team worked were anything but poetic. Small, bare and unbearably poignant these shelters nevertheless did their best to treat men brought back from the front a matter of a few hundred yards away. But treat them for what? Save lives that in many cases were already ruined; turn men into the walking wounded who might in turn return to that Gehenna called the front.

And then to the front, the Yorkshire Trench to be precise, in the middle now of an industrial estate, then one of the more dangerous sectors of the front, so dangerous intact that tours here lasted a mere 48 hours. The deep, water-filled underground shelters (which extended into no-man's land!) steeply descending from the narrow trench line, barely one man's width, would no doubt have seemed like luxury - or at least, safety - by the men consigned to live like moles below ground, to be summoned up like a swarm of ants into the dawn on the day of battle.

Then on, this time to the German cemetery at Langemarck, the brooding soldier (well might he) at the Canadian monument at St Julien and on past shells for garden ornaments, WW1 stakes still used (though now by farmers) to hold barbed wire, to Tyne Cot, that huge city of the dead, and back to Ypres.

Too much to take in, too much to process. A relatively calm half-hour in St George's Memorial Chapel  (so many school memorials!) followed by a brief visit to the cathedral and I'm done in, worn out and utterly wasted by the physical and emotional effort of trying to understand, to know, to comprehend the incomprehensible, the slaughter, the suffering, the mass extinction of life, hope and the old order of things, the world as they knew it.

For that's what it was; women having worked reluctant to return to domestic drudgery; men having served reluctant to return to near-feudal servility. The slow but relentless undermining of all previous authority: General, Field-Marshall, King, Country, even God Almighty. Nothing will ever  be the same again after this war. And yet, today, the landscape is the same as before. Trees grow; crops are harvested in fields and in others, cattle graze. The great spires and towers of the churches, the roof tops of the houses, all rebuilt. A dispossessed people return.

But they return to a world changed forever.

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