There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 4 August 2014

Ypres, Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate

The First World War started a hundred years ago today, or three days ago, or four, or last week, depending on your point of view. On the 28th of June 1914, Gavrilo Princip gave up on his attempt to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand and went into a bakery (now a museum) beside Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge. When he came out he found himself standing beside Franz Ferdinand’s stalled car. It was an opportunity too good to miss.

The Latin Bridge and assassination site, Sarajevo, May 2012
A month later, to the day, Austria declared war on Serbia, the next day Russia mobilised, followed by Germany on the 30th of July and France on the 1st of August. On the 4th of August Great Britain declared war on Germany, so we are commemorating today as the anniversary of the start of the Great War, partly out of British bias, and partly because on that date all the major players in the disasters of the next four years had placed their pieces on the board.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was important at the time, and the murder of the heir to the throne was a major event, but the death of 9 million combatants and about the same number of civilians seems a serious over-reaction. The truth was that Europe was spoiling for a fight and everybody was up for it. Across the continent declarations of war were greeted with celebrations in the streets.

From ‘England to her Sons’

Sons of mine, I hear you thrilling
To the trumpet call of war;
Gird ye then, I give you freely
As I gave your sires before,
All the noblest of the children I in love and anguish bore.

‘England to her Sons’ was written by W. N. Hodgson in August 1914. He was killed in July 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

War is a failure of diplomacy. It is also a business, and one that specialises in the bulk production of corpses. Tyne Cot Cemetery stands as an antidote to Hodgson's jingoism. It lies on a hillside a few miles outside the Belgian town we usually call by its French name of Ypres, though the Flemish speaking locals call it Ieper. The British troops called it Wipers.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele

It is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery of this, or any other, war. 11,954 soldiers are buried here and on 8,367 of the headstones the only words are

A Soldier of the Great War,
Known unto God.

On the memorial wall are the names of 34,959 more who have no known grave. Some may be in the anonymous graves but many more simply disappeared into the muddy morass that this gently sloping hillside became.
Tyne Cot Cemetery with the memorial wall at rear

The grave of Second Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young bears the words

Sacrificed to the fallacy
That war can end war.

Rudyard Kipling wrote:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Like much of Kipling's work it is deceptively simple. He was a fervent supporter of the war though a trenchant critic of the way it was fought. His only son, John, was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. John Kipling had been rejected first by the Royal Navy and then by the Army because of his extreme short-sightedness, but his father pulled strings to gain him a commission in the Irish Guards. ‘Our fathers lied’ can be interpreted in a broad sense, but for Kipling it had a personal meaning, too, a meaning he had to live with until his own death in 1936.

Just above Tyne Cot, on the top of the ridge, is the village of Passchendaele. It is not a huge ridge; you can drive from bottom to top without changing gear, though no doubt it looked a lot bigger to those slogging up it in knee deep mud through barbed wire entanglements into a hail of machine gun bullets.

There is little remarkable about the village of Passchendaele except that it still exists. It is perhaps a measure of the futility of WW1 that there were not one but two battles of Passchendaele, both actions within the five month long Third Battle of Ypres - and there were five of them.

The low ridge stretches south for several miles before curving west round to Messines, part encircling Ypres and giving fine views over the town - which is why it was so important.

It was at Ypres that the British stopped the German advance in October 1914 and they held the town for the rest of the war, despite the Germans occupying the high ground on three sides, putting Ypres near the tip of a dangerous salient. The subsequent Battles of Ypres (1915, 1917 and two in 1918) involved the Germans trying to take the town, or the British attempting to break out.
Grote Markt, Ypres

Today it is a pleasant little town with some 30,000 inhabitants, much the same as in 1914. The central Grote Markt is dominated by the magnificent bulk of the thirteenth century Cloth Hall just as it was in 1914, though it is not quite the same Cloth Hall - how could it be?

The Cloth Hall, Ypres, Feb 2008
The painstaking business of putting the bits back together started in 1933, was interrupted by the second bout of unpleasantness and completed in 1967. It now houses an exhibition/museum called 'In Flanders Field'. It is long on the horrors of war and short on the glory of victory (how different to North Korea’s Fatherland Liberation War Museum!) and should be a compulsory part of any visit to Ypres

Australian artillerymen outside the Cloth Hall, Ypres, Sept 1919
Borrowed from Australians on the Western Front 1914-18
A short walk from the Grote Markt is the Menin Gate. The memorial designed, by Sir Reginald Blomfield, was unveiled in 1927, the marble walls bearing the names of 54,896 British and Commonwealth servicemen who perished in the Ypres salient and have no known graves.

At 8pm every day since 1927 buglers of the Ypres Fire Brigade have played the Last Post at the Menin Gate. After the German invasion in 1940 the ceremony was transferred to Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, but returned to the Menin Gate on the day Ypres was liberated in 1944. I have attended on three occasions, on a warm summer evening and on crisp February nights. Anyone who leaves without a lump in their throat does not understand what they have witnessed.
The Last Post at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Feb 2008

There are however, problems with the Menin Gate. Firstly it was too small for its purpose. 90,000 soldiers have no known graves, but the gate has space for less than 60,000, which is why those who died after the 15th of August 1917 are commemorated on the wall of Tyne Cot Cemetery.

Names on the Menin Gate, Ypres
Secondly, although the gate faces towards the front line, they did not use it - it was too exposed to artillery fire, and thirdly although the design had some critical success, it was not universally loved. Siegfried Sassoon, a poet and professional soldier who was decorated for bravery in the war that so disillusioned him wrote:

       On Passing the New Menin Gate.

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world's worst wound. And here with pride
'Their name liveth for ever', the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
as these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

Sir Reginald Blomfield’s gate replaced Ypres’ original Menin Gate, part of the fortifications designed by Vauban in the late 17th century. Vauban was an innovative military architect but his ramparts and moat, though state of the art for their time, were irrelevant when the First World War arrived.
Vauban's rampart and moat, Ypres

Much of Ypres still lies within these defences and although they are no longer complete you can walk half way round the town on the ramparts. It is a pleasant stroll, but like everywhere else on the front line that stretched from the channel to the borders of Switzerland, you cannot go far without meeting a military cemetery. The Ramparts (Lille Gate) Cemetery is small, containing the graves of 128 men, 127 of them British and the other unidentified and unidentifiable.
Ramparts Cemetery, Ypres

Rudyard Kipling became the literary advisor to the War Graves Commission. He suggested the biblical ‘Their name liveth for evermore’ which adorns the Stone of Remembrance that stands in every military cemetery and so upset Siegfried Sassoon. He also coined the phrases ‘Known unto God’ for the graves of unidentified soldiers (the French use the uncompromising ‘Inconnu’) and ‘The Glorious Dead’ which appears on either end of the cenotaph in London. Kipling was not there, though, and Sassoon was. I would like to think the human race has matured and no longer finds glory in war, but that is probably wishful thinking. There was precious little glory in the events around the Ypres salient.

The 90,000 men commemorated at the Menin Gate and at Tyne Cot represent a quarter of 400,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died holding the Ypres salient. They may have been heroes, but they were also victims. Nor should we forget the similar number of Germans who died here, nor the several thousand French and Belgian soldiers.

The Kipling couplet quoted earlier may have had personal connotations, but hints at wider lies told by one generation to the next. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est about a gas attack does not go in for subtle hints. It may be one of the best known poems in the English language, but I make no apology for including the last verse here.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum Est
Pro patria Mori.

Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori (it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country) is the title of one of the Odes of Horace first published in 23BC. It was a lie then, it is a lie now.

American readers might already know that the same lie adorns the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.


See also The Somme, One Hundred Years Ago Today
posted on the 1st of July 2016

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