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Lest we forget

Visitors to the once devastated but now completely reconstructed and rather charming little town of Ypres will find themselves bowing the head to 54,896 dead soldiers of the Salient, as the front-line arc became known.

17 May 2006

3:31 PM

17 May 2006

3:31 PM

Visitors to the once devastated but now completely reconstructed and rather charming little town of Ypres will find themselves bowing the head to 54,896 dead soldiers of the Salient, as the front-line arc became known. These men fought for our freedom but have no graves. Their names are inscribed on the inside walls of the Menin Gate of 1927, the classic Roman memorial arch, designed by the traditional English architect Sir Reginald Blomfield. The fundamental message of John McCrae’s poem, which begins

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

is that we must not break faith with the dead.

I looked especially hard at the list of Welsh Guards dead, therefore, because it was my regiment during national service. Each visitor finds some personal connection. To stand inside the arch, surrounded by such a multitude of inscribed names, and then to hear the bugles sounding the last post at dusk is to bring a lump to the throat.

The enterprising and imaginative In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres is located in the great rebuilt gothic Cloth Hall next to the rebuilt mediaeval cathedral, the town square and the English St George’s Memorial Church of 1929. The museum reinvented itself with an unstuffy new policy and a new name in 1998. There has since been a steady flow of visitors — one and a half million of them, including school groups. It is not just a museum. It is also an active learning centre on the edge of famous battlefields which are still being excavated by a group of archaeologists known as ‘The Diggers’. Human remains plus the occasional identity disc continue to emerge.

The In Flanders Fields museum is in the business of bringing history to life by using state-of-the-art technology. For example, it invites you to empathise with an actual soldier. You slot in the card you are given at intervals during the chronological progress of the war, and his personal story comes up on a television screen.

I began to dread the death of my soldier, Ernest William Grout. He was promoted to sergeant and then, sure enough, killed in late 1915. The poster ‘Women of Britain Say Go’ cheered me up, however. This was the very image which helped persuade my father to leave school early to join the Royal Flying Corps. He was shot down on his first flight over Germany and spent the rest of the war in prison, eating black bread and worrying, in letters home, about who was feeding his bantams. Had he joined the infantry, I probably wouldn’t exist.

In the melancholy task of trying to analyse the origins of the tragic slaughter in Flanders, an exceptionally horrifying theatre of war, I bow to the memory of Professor Joslin, my inspiring tutor at Cambridge, who believed that the study of history could help prevent the repetition of economic and political blunders and disasters. If only the human race could educate itself into avoiding wars. Chief among the underlying causes of the first world war, perhaps, was the rise of nationalism combined with the lateness of the popular conquest of the rest of Germany by a militaristic Prussia. German unification was late in the sense that other European countries had already carved out enviable empires.

Events moved fast in 1914 following the assassination of the Archduke and Duchess of Hohenberg at Sarajevo. On 28 July, Austria declared war on Serbia. Within four days, Germany had declared war on Russia. The Eastern Front soon stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and beyond.

By 4 August Germany had declared war on both France and Belgium, and Great Britain had declared war on Germany. The Belgians had the good sense to halt the invasion by flooding the river Yser, north of Ypres — or rather ‘Ieper’ to use their own name for the town. British soldiers called it Wipers, of course. Original copies of the now rare and sought-after Wipers Times, the trench newspaper conceived as an antidote to fear and boredom, tended to end their days in the latrines.

Fighting took place all along the Western Front from the North Sea to the Alps, but from the First Battle of Ypres in October and November 1915 until the end of the war, an appalling, wet, muddy trench warfare stalemate pinned down hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides. The Germans used concrete to improve their trenches. The British dug deeper into the earth. Tanks were hopeless in the mud. Aeroplanes failed to live up to pre-war hopes. Even the dreadful German gas attacks failed in their main objective. Artillery ruled the roost. It has been calculated that two thirds of the staggering figure of nine and a half million fatalities (on all fronts) were victims of artillery fire. Great shell craters all over the battlefields, now filled with enough water to attract wildfowl, survive as evidence.

‘I must go over the ground again,’ wrote Edmund Blunden at the beginning of his war memoirs. The notion behind the current temporary exhibition, The Last Witness. The War Landscape of the Ypres Salient, created by the In Flanders Fields museum is that it’s time for the landscape itself, considered as an inanimate witness, to succeed the almost extinct Great War veterans in their much-valued role of bringing history to life.

Objects exhibited inside the museum, such as gas masks and entrenching tools, are considered exhaustively in their own right but now also as an introduction to the landscape from which they were unearthed. The climax of the exhibition is a mock aerial view of the battlefield accompanied by a screen on which, at a frightening rate and to the sound of rhythmic musak, photo after photo of actual dead combatants flash by.

Outside the museum a real aerial view is best because it induces detachment. Reasonably inexpensive helicopter trips are available. From on high, history and geography converge. The countless shell craters and seemingly innumerable little cemeteries intermingle with fields of corn or sheep. The odd golf course and a woman practising jumps on her horse seem monuments to peacetime life. Alternatively, there are guides with maps for special themed journeys on land. These include cemetery tours by bike, car or bus. Many nations fought. There will be excellent reasons for visiting particular cemeteries. Every tourist will have his own cemetery threshold, however, and I confess that mine is low.

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