It’s not hard to imagine what the area around Ypres, Belgium looked like at the turn of the last century, before war rolled over it.
Just a few kilometres inland from the North Sea, this western slice of Flanders has a salt tang in the air. Streams and rivers wend through pastures and fields, vibrant green even in autumn. There are no heights to speak of; just a few low, round hills and ancient, compact towns interspersed with farms.
During the First World War, this was the Ypres Salient: an Allied bulge in the German lines, where the French, Belgian, and British (including Canadians, Australians, South Africans, and other forces from around the Empire) fought to hold the last bit of unoccupied Belgium against the invaders.
This semicircle around Ypres was the site of some of the war’s most sanguinary battles. At the Battle of the Yser, the Belgians finally halted the Germans’ relentless march across their country by flooding it in their path.
At the Second Battle of Ypres, the newly arrived Canadians discovered modern warfare, as the enemy used poison gas on the Western Front for the first time. Gasping through piss-soaked handkerchiefs (the ammonia neutralized the toxic chlorine) they held the line, losing almost 6,000 people before the generals pulled them out.
Later in the war, this area would also see the Battle of Passchendaele. In this morass of muck, fire, shrapnel, gas, and barbed wire, some 200,000 to 448,000 Allied troops died, along with 217,000 to 410,000 Germans. (Reports vary widely.)
When I read those numbers in books, I pictured a huge field of combat—something the size of Saskatchewan, perhaps. Last month, the Visit Flanders state tourism agency invited me for a tour. In a comfortable air-conditioned bus, we easily drove the circumference of the Ypres Salient in a few short hours.
We were never out of sight of the town. The battlefields were often just minutes apart, interspersed with enormous graveyards, many headstones bearing the simple epitaph “A soldier of the Great War … Known unto God.” Mourning a young comrade, John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” here.
Later, we went to Vimy Ridge in France. The ridge is a more commanding height, with the iconic memorial atop, overlooking the countryside around Arras in every direction. But it’s no mountain. It’s a gentle slope, still scarred with trenches and shell holes, now incongruously carpeted in green grass.
Young Canadians shivered in dank tunnels for days, out of sight of the enemy, waiting for the order to attack. When they surged out, they completely surprised the German defenders, winning Canada’s most famous military victory. The point where they emerged is just a stone’s throw from the German frontlines. (I know—I made the throw easily.)
To gain that little scrap of ruined land cost some 3,600 Canadian and British lives, with another 7,000 wounded, scarred, and disfigured.
In this same part of France, we visited the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. Here, before Newfoundland was part of Canada, its regiment paid a terrible price at the Battle of the Somme. In just a few minutes, German artillery and gunfire mowed down 80 per cent of the Newfoundlanders.
Some 22 officers and 758 soldiers from the regiment were involved in the attack. And 68 mustered for roll call the next morning. Their killing field was a now-absurdly peaceful little undulating grassland. At a walking pace, I covered the distance across No Man’s Land from the Allied trenches to the German frontlines in about 45 seconds. Few of the Newfoundlanders made it more than halfway across that field.
Each of these sites was a cauldron of death, suffering, misery, and inhumanity. Their absurdly small scale illustrates the banal brutality of war. I’ve read that the same is true of the battlefields of Juno, Ortona, Kap’yong, Medak, Kandahar, and Kabul.
It is almost impossible to stand in the middle of one of these fields, watching the wildflowers sway in the wind and birds wheel overhead, and understand why any of it mattered. Why did thousands of men, different only in uniform and language, have to die so a country could claim possession of a few metres of blasted land?
This isn’t ancient history, an anomaly that humanity has moved past. We haven’t lost our predilection for war. Conflicts sputter around the globe. Canadian airplanes dropped bombs in Syria for months. Palestinians and Israelis are in a cycle of violence spanning generations. Russians and Ukrainians are locked in conflict.
Near Vimy Ridge is the French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. It is the resting place of some 40,000 French troops, including 22,000 unknown soldiers. It’s not far from where my great-great uncle Walter VanTassel died at the Battle of the Somme. He was 24.
There is an imposing monument in the form of a lighthouse, and a stately necropolis. The Tricolore snaps in breeze atop a tall pole. Inevitably, it’s been the scene of many fervently patriotic services and ceremonies.
But next to this French cemetery, in stark contrast to its overt nationalism, is a new way of remembering. Perhaps the sanest way. The Ring of Remembrance features elliptical walls surrounding a most ordinary patch of grassland, bisected by a small stream. A few gaps in the ring offer tantalizing vistas of the countryside. Along the walls are the names of almost 580,000 soldiers from both sides who fought in the region during the First World War.
They’re listed in alphabetical order; no segregation by nationality, rank, or religion. The stark roster of war is at first awesome, then sobering, then heartbreaking.
I saw ordinary Canadian-sounding names like “Henry Fancy” bracketed by names like “Gustav Falter” and “Arno Fanghanel.” There is a panel where the name Adams repeats and repeats and repeats. I tried to count them, but couldn’t finish.
It’s a Remembrance Day cliché to say we must remember. Of course we must. Remembering is the only good that can come from war. Infinitely more important is how we remember, what we choose to remember.