What makes someone go on holidays to discover horrible things? It seems a little odd at first, but in history you always take the good with the bad and there’s plenty of bad. Quite often you learn more from the bad. Visiting S-21 prison and Killing Fields in Cambodia was a very intense experience and one I will never forget, so I hoped visiting the Ypres Salient (the contested battlegrounds around Ypres between 1914 and 1918) would stir the same emotions. It didn’t take long.
We arrived in sleepy Ypres on Monday afternoon, checked into our hotel, visited the tourist office and immediately went for a beer just outside the Menin Gate. For those unaware, every night at the Menin Gate members from the Ypres firefighters constabulary, trumpet the “Last Post,” that haunting dirge at remembrance ceremonies. This Last Post has been performed here since 1919, continuously, except for a short period between 1941 and 1944 when Hitler banned the practice in occupied Belgium. First we visited the Flanders Fields museum to get a little more context before walking back to the Menin Gate for the 8:00 pm ceremony. There were a surprising number of people present as well as a boys’ choir, adorned in red jackets, who took position on the opposite side of the gate. Throughout this structure were the names of Commonwealth soldiers lost in the war from 1914 to 1917, some 30,000, from places as far off as Burma, Punjab and Indonesia.
The Princess Patricia battalion, many from Winnipeg, had an entire section dedicated to their lost or missing. All the soldiers whose names appear on the gate have no identified burial ground in the Ypres Salient or were buried without proof of identify, many too deformed to identify, exploded to pieces by shells or pulled into the mud like primordial quick sand only to become part of the ground on which they had trodden. Their names and lives live here; their remains elsewhere.
The choir sang and then it was time for the Last Post. Julia fought to keep the tears back, as she does every Remembrance Day, but I held firm, only crying at films like The Notebook or Titanic. “Don’t leave her Jack… noooo!” We retired to the hotel after visiting Chez Marie, a chocolate, jam and Belgian beer store to rent our bicycles for Tuesday’s ride around the Salient. Marie was such a nice lady; she was heading to England on Tuesday so told us just to return our bikes on Wednesday. We paid for the rental, but she just jotted our names on a small note pad. I thought I’d repay her by buying some beer, which I did, and we enjoyed several before crashing heavily that night.
We awoke the next morning, had a quick breakfast at the hotel and off we rode, through the bustling metropolis of Ypres before starting the Salient bike path about five minutes later. (Ypres, we learned is really small). We rode along a pristine paved pathway parallel to the canal and opposite several bulky industrial buildings, five large wind generators and a very smelly meat processing plant. Pee-yew! Ten minutes in we arrived at the site where John McCrae famously penned the poem “In Flanders Fields” while he worked as a field medic at this very location.
Beside a few hundred meticulously manicured gravesites were several concrete bunkers where medics, including McCrae, worked around the clock fixing broken, mangled bodies from the front. After being unable to save a good friend, McCrae retired to write the poem that has signified the “Great War,” although McCrae himself never knew of it’s popularity, dying near Ypres in 1918, still fixing mangled bodies. What was particularly moving was a row of soldiers, buried side by side, who perished on Christmas Day, 1916. In only two years, soldiers went from the “Christmas truce” to “Christmas death” but that was the nature of the First World War. It was an end of chivalry, of battle “ethics” and the beginning of modern warfare, where the noble victory was surpassed by victory at all costs. All advantages were explored, but technological advantage ruled the day and that hasn’t ceased. The army with the bravest boys can’t compete with the biggest toys, or so we are led to believe.
We rode on, finally crossing the canal and getting beyond stink range of the meat processing plant. Our next destination was the memorial called The Brooding Soldier, also known as the “Canadian.”
It was at this actual location that Canadian troops stood their ground against the first poison gas attack during the Second Battle of Ypres. The Canadians stationed here witnessed French soldiers fleeing the battlefield and were ordered to shoot the French deserters, which they did. Minutes later they saw a cloud of gas lurching across the field. One of their soldiers who fortuitously studied chemistry at University, told the Canadians it was chlorine gas and to urinate on a piece of cloth and hold it to their noses and mouths or burn their lungs and die an excruciating death. The Canadians somehow found the pee (I would have thought another bodily function more natural) and fought off the subsequent German attack to once again hold Ypres. The Brooding Soldier faces the direction of the gas, which was the exact direction the wind was blowing on this day. It’s truly a somber place, but again, the garden was absolutely stunning, even for the grey dour day that was enveloping us.
We could only stay a short time because we had another fairly long ride to Langenmark and the German cemetery, but it was on this trail that we started to get turned around, upside down and inside out.
Perhaps it was fatigue or the constant stench of cow farts, but when you have no real landmarks sometimes turning right seems like the logical thing to do even when the compass (yes, I carry a compass) says you should be going left. We trusted the compass instead of that fatty muscle between my ears and managed to find the cemetery, buried in a dark corner just outside the town, laden with tall near black tree trunks and bonnets of deep green leaves. We walked in and read the epitaph at the gate. There were over 40,000 German soldiers buried in this site and each headstone, a mirror smooth square of marble lying flat on the ground, contained over a dozen German bodies. The majority of soldiers lay unidentified in a “comrade grave” surrounded by large blocks with names of suspected soldiers interned below the immaculately mowed grass. On the far side of the cemetery, three German army soldiers were power-washing headstones, quietly and solemnly. What thoughts did they have: two invasions of Belgium, two defeats, care for the dead. What was truly haunting about this cemetery was its nickname: “the student cemetery.” The German fourth army, most of whom lay in this spot, were teenagers that fought and died in the first and second battles at Ypres when they should have been dating and going to dances.
From Langenmark we followed another long path to Tyne Cot cemetery, although once again we zigged when we should have zagged. The bike path along the “Gifgas” route just didn’t seem to be taking us towards Tyne Cot, so we chose the hiking path, which was exceedingly difficult given the tender condition of our ass muscles. Every bump in the road was like receiving a cane whack to the backside and I alone counted over fifty canings. We finally found a road and followed it until we saw Tyne Cot on a hill about 500 metres away, likely fed perfectly along the Gifgas route we deserted about twenty minutes earlier.
We rode up a steep hill with failing legs until parking our bikes at the rear entrance of Tyne Cot. Several thousand headstones were again perfectly placed in both circular and straight rows, surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns and flower gardens bursting with colour. The majority of soldiers at Tyne Cot died in a single battle, the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as the Battle of Passchendalae, one of the bloodiest and most horrific battles in history. Like the other cemeteries, many of the headstones simply said “A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR,” under a cross that stated “KNOWN UNTO GOD.”
Most of those boys we know are either memorialized at the Menin Gate or along the circular walls at Tyne Cot: those missing, unknown, mangled, deformed, and blown to bits boys who had names and families who cared about them. Some today still leave photos of their “great uncles,” or their “great grandfathers” at the base of their gravestone, yet it seems odd to look at the image of a twenty two year old and think of him as someone’s great grandfather. They’re forever frozen as boys and young men.
We left Tyne Cot increasingly moved and bothered by what we’d seen. But if our brains were overwhelmed, our asses were catatonic. Getting used to another bike is worse than bunion surgery, and I would know. We had a long ride to Zonnebeke and the Passchendaele memorial and museum. It was after 2:00 pm and I started feeling like another beer was in my near future, but Passchendaele was a must see. We rode on down another lonely road with little more than cows calling our presence: all was quiet.