As the bus from Roulers draws near to Ypres it runs along a wide street of rather expensive houses. Strung along the top of a low ridge, it is a village, but like so many others in this motorcar age it has become a detached suburb of Ypres. A quiet ordinary scene; children cycle home to lunch, people stand at bus stops or potter in front gardens while the usual mid-day traffic passes through. Away to the right the land drops downhill, revealing green fields and woods, with the spire of Ypres in the distance. A scene that would look just right on the cover of a glossy magazine. Hazy autumn sunshine completes the picture. So it is with a shock that one reads the road sign—Passchendaele. This was the village pounded by heavy shells to the point that it could no longer be called rubble but dust. This was the prize for which tens of thousands of men died. This was the place that was to give its name to one of the most squalid bouts of butchery in the history of warfare. In those pleasant fields for four months men were shot, gassed, blown to pieces or drowned in water-filled shell holes. This is the edge of the Ypres salient. It is ringed by huge cemeteries, but that whole area is one great graveyard. Under those fields lie the remains of at least 40,000 people. The full casualties are not known but even today the ploughs and ditching machines still bring up bones and skulls.
As it proceeds the bus comes to the main road, where once to stand up straight meant instant death. Then through the terrible Menin Gate, a huge building that runs the width of the ramparts. Juggernaut lorries pass through it with ease. It is faced with white stone, and every inch has a name, 55,000 in all. These are men whose bodies disappeared in the Ypres salient in the period up to June 1917; near Passchendaele there is another memorial with 34,000 names of men who disappeared from June 1917 onwards. These are only British Empire troops and do not include French, Belgian or German. Then on to the end of the ride in the main square of Ypres.
Ypres (today usually called by its Flemish name of Ieper) is a bustling town dominated by its great Cloth Hall and Cathedral. The impression is of an ancient town, somewhat heavily restored; but this is all a reconstruction for the town was painstakingly rebuilt in the early 1920s. Again, a pleasant scene. Buses and coaches stand in the main square disgorging their tourists while the shops and bars are full. People fish in the moat or go off to play some game or other. It is only when you visit the Salient Exhibition under the Cloth Hall that you realise what a shambles Ypres was.
Ypres was the greatest of the medieval Cloth Towns and dominated the Flemish Plain. Once more important even than Bruges or Ghent, it slowly lost its prominence and sank into obscurity. Pre-1914 photographs show it as somewhat run down. The war was to give it a grim immortality.
The war on the Western Front opened with the German invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg as well as France. Militarily and economically the invasion of Belgium was beneficial to Germany because it gave its army greater room to manoeuvre and placed the coal mines and factories of Belgium at their disposal. But politically it had the disadvantage of bringing Britain into the war. It was touch and go as to whether Britain should enter the war on the side of the Allies or stay in a state of armed neutrality. The British ruling class had for a century largely kept out of European conflicts, preferring to use diplomacy to maintain the Balance of Power—in other words to keep their rivals divided. Thus they had supported Prussian aggression, being in favour of a united Germany. They had sympathised with Prussia in the Franco-Prussian war and applauded the formation of the German Empire.
It was not until the end of the last century that British capitalists began to wake up to the fact that Germany was developing into their major rival—flooding world markets with cheap, mass produced goods and beginning to muscle in on the colonial scene in Africa and elsewhere. The German programme of naval expansion was also seen as a threat to British naval supremacy. France had always been the traditional enemy; the Entente Cordiale had been signed only in 1904. Throughout the Edwardian period large sections of British public opinion remained anti-French, anti-Russian and pro-German. The invasion of Belgium tipped the balance. Much was made of Britain’s obligations under the Treaty of Neutrality and Germany’s violation of it, but the real cause for concern was control of the Channel ports. It had long been a cornerstone of British foreign policy that the Channel ports facing London should not be controlled by a great power. This was seen as a major threat to the Port of London, and, of course, “gallant little Belgium” made an excellent propaganda ploy.
So Britain was in the war and soon British troops, alongside French and Belgians, found themselves in headlong retreat. Germany opened the war on the Western Front with a massive attack aimed at encircling Paris and knocking France out of the war. The Germans had massed 12 armies—about a million and a half men—on their frontiers. When they attacked the sheer weight of numbers, aided by French miscalculations, brought them to the outskirts of Paris, where they were held in the battle of the Marne. Unable to break through in France, the German army began a push through Flanders with the intention of outflanking their opponents and seizing the Channel Ports of Dunkirk and Calais. In this they were nearly successful but were held in the vicinity of Ypres; the Belgians had managed to flood low-lying land between the city and the sea. This stopped the German advance to the North of Ypres, and there ensued a period of heavy confused fighting that lasted from 12 October until 11 November. This had been called the first battle of Ypres, although battle is hardly an appropriate description of what was in fact a campaign lasting a month. It was the last time that any kid of movement or manoeuvring was possible on the Western Front. In November the Germans dug in on the ridges that surrounded Ypres. The line of trenches extended from Switzerland to the sea but there was a bulge at Ypres, with the city in its midst, only a few miles deep and a few miles wide. This was the Ypres salient, the most exposed and dangerous patch of land in the world. For four years the fighting never stopped. It was the worst killing ground of all.
The second battle of Ypres opened on 22 April 1915. It began with the bombardment of the city which sent the civilian population streaming out along the roads. In the late afternoon a new horror was added to the scene—chlorine gas. “A strange green vapour” was seen drifting down onto the Algerian troops who were holding this part of the line. This was the first time that this foul weapon had been used, but the next four years were to see even nastier forms unleashed. Everybody is familiar with photographs of blinded men queuing up for treatment; 60,000 men died in the second Ypres. At the end the Allies withdrew to a mere two miles from the ramparts of Ypres. The salient was now small, and for the next two years was pounded by shells almost without interruption. The sane thing for the British to have done would have been to withdraw behind Ypres and straighten the line, but this was no longer just a military matter. The workers at home had been fed a never-ending stream of propaganda about the importance of the Ypres salient and its “glory”, so that to have abandoned it would have hit morale. In the popular press this was Britain’s own battlefield, ignoring the fact that thousands of Belgians and Frenchmen had also died there. It was to break out of this death-trap that the Third Battle of Ypres was launched. This was its official title, but the world knows it as Passchendaele.
This century has been called “a century of horror”, and there has been no shortage of it: Hiroshima, Dresden, Viet Nam, and now Ethiopia to name just a few of the worst, but even among these Passchendaele can still shock. Even by the cruel standards of warfare, in which the loss of human life is acceptable and human beings are measured against territorial gain, it was inexcusable. The declared aim of the offensive, which the British Commander in Chief Haig and the High Command used to convince the government that the plan was reasonable, was to punch a hole in the German defences, pour through into the land beyond and capture Ostend and Zeebrugge to stop the U boat attacks in Allied shipping, and to capture Roulers, the great railway junction through which men and materials passed to the line. This was a complete pipedream because, even if they had succeeded in making a complete breakthrough—something that nobody had managed to do in more than two years—Ostend and Roulers were 40 miles apart. A more realistic aim was to capture the ridges that surrounded Ypres and extend the salient.
The prelude to the attack was the capture of the Messines ridge on the southern rim of the salient. It began by the explosion of 19 mines under the German positions, followed by a barrage of 2266 guns and howitzers and an attack by 80,000 troops. This was a “success” as “only” 1,700 men were killed and the attack achieved its aim. This was one of the factors that bolstered up the illusions of the High Command in the months to come.
In the continuous saga of mindless slaughter that ran from 1914 to 1918, three highlights stand out: the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele. But of these the one that arouses the revulsion—because of the massive loss of life and the unbelievable conditions under which it was fought—was Passchendaele. The area had been reclaimed from marshlands over many generations. Most of it was too wet for cultivation and was used as pasture. Farmers were required by law to keep their ditches clear. This delicate balance was shattered by the unprecedented bombardment in which nearly 4,000 guns pounded the German lines for ten days. Four and a quarter million shells, or 4¾ tons to every yard of the front, were fired. This resulted in the complete destruction of the drainage system. The attack began on the 31 July in torrential rain, and it poured with rain during most of the following three months. On 4 November Canadian troops captured the mass of shell holes that had been the village of Passchendaele. The line had been extended by five miles. The cost? Nobody really knows but the most often quoted figure is 300,000 Allied casualties and 200,000 German.
However, it is the conditions that the armies endured which made this campaign so horrific. A vast area of foul-smelling mud that sucked everything down into it, and water-filled shell holes in which not only men and horses but guns and even tanks sank. Every new shell threw up rotting corpses that had sunk, only to sink again. Overall drifted a new weapon being tried for the first time—mustard gas. Six months later, in April 1918, the big German spring offensive recaptured all the ground which had been gained. In Britain war weariness was spreading. Gone was the wild enthusiasm of 1914; the never ending casualty lists, the ever receding hopes of victory were taking their toll. The old regular army was destroyed in the first few months of the war. Kitchener’s Army, the volunteers who had flocked to the recruiting offices in the early days of the war. had been destroyed on the Somme. The British army was scraping the bottom of the barrel, the very, the old and the unfit were dragged in.
The final collapse of Germany in 1918 rolled back the battle lines from the salient. It left behind a scene of utter destruction, a land in which everything was unrecognisable; a place where every landmark had been wiped out. Shattered tree stumps began to throw out leaves again, and the ground was covered with the poppies that became the trade mark of the new “Remembrance” industry. The poppy is a plant that flourishes wherever soil is disturbed, so it would naturally take root in such a place. Incredible as it may seem, within a few months of the Armistice, Ypres became a tourist centre. While the town was still in ruins and teams were still searching for bodies in the area, trains were bringing visitors to the battlefields and tours were being organised in Britain.
Nearly seventy years have passed since the end of that war, and there are few people remaining who took part in it. The landscape has been restored, the trees and hedges have grown again and the fields have been out back. Apart from the cemeteries, one could walk through this place and not know what had happened. But in those seventy years other landscapes have been shattered and millions more have died. Only twenty years after peace came to this area, another, even bloodier, war broke out and in forty years of “peace”, so-called local wars like Viet Nam and Cambodia have claimed yet more lives.