:: 2017 SPRING TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Belgian Blues, grasslands, belfries, Cheddar Villa, esprit de corps, redoubts, vipers, camels, headstones, ferries, drowned moonscapes
& the Third Battle of Ypres.
W e’re standing at the edge of a field, my dad and me. Low-lying land, pale brown soil, a green haze of young corn. We’re on a farm track, looking northwest to a few unremarkable buildings, some trees and beyond to a small town—just rooftops and a church spire. Wind in the long grass at the field’s border, a high-revving car on the road a hundred yards away. Behind us another farm, some sleepy livestock—Belgian Blue cattle, recumbent in the late-May heat—an old bath repurposed as a water trough, a few more trees including a spreading oak, heavy and green. This tree is a survivor, the oldest in the area, though comparatively youthful at only a century or so. My dad and I stand with our backs to it, a few yards from each other, hands shielding our eyes.
It’s the third day of a five-day trip. We haven’t spent this long in each other’s company for years, and this is different from visits to my house or to his; it’s different from a rare evening in the pub or family birthdays, shared tables and group conversations. It’s a notable year, we’re told, though I’m relatively unmoved by portentous anniversaries, as is my dad, I think. Nevertheless, I’m definitely forty, and he’s undeniably turning seventy. So, other than the obvious, we came here for our own reasons. I have a vague worry of mortality, of a clock ticking down. Moreover, I know of the profound, wall-punching regret I’d feel if we never took this trip, if we forfeited through apathy and indecision the opportunity to be here while we’re both mobile and willing.
We’re in Belgium—Flanders—on the bucolic Ypres Salient. Almost one hundred years ago my grandfather, my dad’s dad, was, as close as we can work out, here at this very spot, southeast of St. Juliaan. He was mired in deathly slime or hauling himself through shell-burst and madness, and he was doing so during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, in the larger Third Battle of Ypres—known to history as the Battle of Passchendaele.
The immense Cloth Hall is a blinding silver ark in the early afternoon sun, while St. Martin’s Cathedral floats alongside in its shadow, great ships moored together at the edge of the medieval square.
The car ferry from Dover to Dunkirk feels like a buoyant airport terminal. Once you’ve negotiated your car onto the ship, parked up in weirdly close proximity to other yawning, stretching, rumpled travellers and risen from the multi-storey darkness of the vehicle decks, you encounter a café, a bar, a restaurant and a duty-free shop, foggy with noxious perfume. There are prized seats next to enormous picture windows and access to a “premium lounge”—upstairs, naturally—where you can buy two hours of superiority from a smiling uniform sat behind a desk. We scout the ferry’s interior, then head outside, past a reeking public toilet, through a designated smoking area dotted with exhausted-looking lorry drivers, to the stern deck. We take our place at the rail among excited families, loved-up couples, single selfie-takers, more haggard HGV-wranglers, and we all watch Dover diminish.
Above the white cliffs are grasslands, green waves of Kent pasture known to harbour the occasional viper. When I was young my family would come here on holiday; my uncle worked as a customs officer at Dover port. He was sixteen years older than my dad; National Service had seen him become a Royal Marine and dispatched to a series of hellish, end-of-Empire conflicts. My dad remembers being a small boy, seeing his brother returning on home leave, my grandfather rising, stirring the kitchen fire, cooking bacon, talking, listening. I remember my uncle sixty years later, a quiet, reticent man with a large moustache. While he was a customs officer he found half a camel in a coach. It had been divided lengthwise and was packed into a chest freezer. He would stand with us and observe the ferries coming and going, telling us their destination, watching from the miraculous vantage point of those fields above the cliffs. Hanging above their precipitous limits is a silent, deadly dare.
Our apartment is in the town of Veurne, forty minutes’ drive from Dunkirk. We leave the ferry and canter through an any-world of industrial depots, distribution warehouses, power stations—the bleak, functional Marchlands of a country’s point of entry. We remind ourselves regularly and vocally to drive on the right, drive on the right, drive on the right. The French A16 becomes the Belgian E40 at the border, itself marked by moderate signage and an improved road surface, nothing more. It is exceptionally flat land, increasingly agrarian as you head east, fields spreading out to the right and south of the motorway, coastal settlements more distant to the north and left.
We arrive in Veurne, find our apartment and meet our landlord. We take the keys, we take stock. I sit in my room for a minute;, my dad sits in his. Texts home: got here safely, journey really good, weather’s amazing.
I imagine ten thousand men walking across the shallow valley, into their seats, their orderly graves, watching the names of their disappeared colleagues scroll across a vast cinema screen, the infinite end credits of an unthinkable film.
The apartment is large and functional and now that we’ve arrived I’m impatient to leave. We walk for ten minutes alongside a canal, reveling in the strangely familiar/unfamiliar of northwest Europe. We cross a train track and head into the large late-medieval town centre, replete with enormous public square, extravagant civic belfry and two towering churches. The descending sun keeps one side of the square warm; we sit in its declining light with a beer and a folded battlefield map.
We talk about the journey. We look around and say we can’t quite believe we’re doing this after thinking about it for so long. We marvel, in that British monoglot way, at the spectacular ease with which our waiter communicates in four different languages. I look at people smoking at the next table and I think of Friday evenings when I was young, the occasional weekend treat of crisps, chocolate and fizzy drink for myself and my sisters, a shandy for Mum, a beer for Dad. He’d sit on the carpet, back to the sofa, and smoke a cigarette. We’d all watch TV together.
I say to my dad, “Shall we have a look at this map, then? What is it you’d like to see?”
He hesitates before answering. It is characteristic of both of us that we’ve not talked about an itinerary. We live a couple of hours’ drive from each other and though we’ve researched and planned for this trip, we’ve only really covered the logistics. We haven’t sat down together, scheduling and pinpointing and prescribing how our time should be filled while we’re actually here. We arrived with the broadest idea of why—and that was to see the place where my grandfather fought. My dad takes a drink of his beer, then tells me that he’s interested in a few specific sites, but he doesn’t want to see too many depressing things. I’m momentarily taken aback, but I know what he means and I’m relieved. There is ample opportunity to get lost on the First World War heritage trail, and he has no appetite for that. He knows the reality of what happened here; he grew up with it. He wants to tread the earth and to see the sunlight, but he wants to avoid the museums, and I realize that I do too.
While he was a customs officer he found half a camel in a coach. It had been divided lengthwise and was packed into a chest freezer.
We open the map and spread the Western Front out on the table before us, a crammed canvas of battle lines, redoubts, cemeteries, memorial stones, farms, villages and towns. Belgian landmarks with English noms de guerre: Shrewsbury Forest, Cheddar Villa, Mousetrap Farm. Hellfire Corner. We decide: we’ll go to the town of Ypres itself. We’ll see Tyne Cot, the Salient’s great vantage point and therefore the most doggedly fought-over position, a place that my grandfather would’ve seen and struggled toward, now a vast cemetery and memorial to some of those who died during its capture and loss. To the birdsong and shadows of Sanctuary Wood, where shattered trees have regrown but shell craters and a trench network remain. Most importantly, we’ll try to find the area where my grandfather’s battalion fought, where he was caught in a gas bombardment and received the injuries that would ensure he ate slowly, deliberately, for the rest of his life. Where he, unlike so many others, did not die.
My grandfather enlisted in the British Army in 1916, a nineteen-year-old farmhand. His battalion trained for the best part of a year before being shipped to France in early 1917, where it swiftly saw action across the river Somme before decamping northeast to Belgium, toward the beleaguered Allied stronghold of Ypres. It was the wettest year in decades and the acres of farmland to the east of the town—formerly a thriving centre, rich through centuries of trading cloth—were smashed into a drowned moonscape by constant bombardment. There was no chance for the grass to renew itself, to hold and bind the earth. The attritional, ghastly land of the front. Ypres itself was utterly destroyed; the bright, tight town that we now navigate was rebuilt from its very foundations after the war. The immense Cloth Hall is a blinding silver ark in the early afternoon sun, while St. Martin’s Cathedral floats alongside in its shadow, great ships moored together at the edge of the medieval square. High shop fronts, terrace bars and restaurants, houses, windows, these crammed roads, all restored, rebuilt, rebooted. The idea of it, the effort of it, makes me dizzy. I wonder aloud, stupidly, who paid for the new bricks. My dad walks slightly ahead of me—I’m distracted by a bright-red sign that reads “Ypres Burger”—and we make our way toward the Menin Gate.
This monumental arch is the preeminent memorial to those who disappeared—into the earth, into the air—while fighting for the British Army. Fifty-four thousand names from the furthest reaches of the Empire cover every surface, inside and out. Marble and brick cannot sustain the weight of so many men, it seems: the arch does not soar triumphal; it pushes dolefully down on the earth. It’s huge, yet not big enough. We look at every wall, every step. Eventually, we find a cool, shaded corner, looking up at the high slab of marble bearing names from my grandfather’s regiment. I want to believe that he knew one or two of these men. A few packs of students—energetic, bright colours dazzling against the pale stone—charge around us as we crane our necks upwards. Davenport C, Evans J, Gibson S. The list is a great school register, each absentee with a red-inked x alongside it—a teacher sat facing vacant desks, a silent classroom, no wisdom left to impart.
My dad and I head out of Ypres (drive on the right, drive on the right), through the outskirts of the old, renewed town. Past the usual supermarkets, fast-food places, gyms and garages, negotiating buses and the ubiquitous cycle lanes. We park near a large roundabout, where a squat marker stone confirms this as the site of the savage Hellfire Corner, once a vulnerable convergence of road and train line to the east of Ypres. It was one of the main routes for British and Empire soldiers to the front and provided a rich target for German guns. Dad remembers my grandfather talking of this place. We both stand near roaring traffic, looking around, placing ourselves in the landscape. It’s difficult: the transformation of this spot is complete, civic transport has reclaimed it, and though there is a prosaic comfort in knowing that it serves its original purpose, we’re both relieved to move on at my tentative suggestion.
Behind us another farm, some sleepy livestock—Belgian Blue cattle, recumbent in the late-May heat—an old bath repurposed as a water trough, a few more trees including a spreading oak, heavy and green.
This week is giving us time and space to talk, and also to reacquaint ourselves with comfortable silence. Breakfast in a particular Veurne café, now a regular haunt, stretches to conversational lunchtime. Beer in the evening sees us eagerly deconstruct the world, while driving is accompanied by scant, if any, conversation. I do ask a few deliberate questions about my grandfather, questions asked previously but which I enjoy hearing my dad answer. Though injury limited his ability to drink more than a pint, two at most, he enjoyed the pub banter of groups of men. He avoided memorial occasions, had no interest in glorifying the past. He was fifty when my dad was born, and when Dad turned sixteen and mooted the possibility of his joining the military, my grandfather put down his newspaper and said, disbelievingly, “Why would you want to do that? You don’t want to join the Boy Scouts.” He hated being cold, though he enjoyed being outdoors during his work as a groundsman, a gardener. He had been a Union steward, with an aversion to club membership. He didn’t volunteer much about his war unless asked, but then no one did, and most parents had seen at least one war, many two. Though he wishes he’d asked more, my dad is not overly wistful, and he tells me these things with his own particular matter-of-factness. Not fatalism, certainly—more an acceptance, a trait that I suspect was characteristic of his father in turn. My grandfather’s contradictions mirror my own, and I wish, not for the first time, that I’d met him.
Tyne Cot cemetery sweeps downhill; it has the breadth and drama of an amphitheatre. A huge semicircular memorial wall, periodically colonnaded and niched, faces westward, its outstretched limits embracing the site’s focal point—a step-surmounting cross—and thousands of headstones. Towards the cemetery’s limits, low among the ordered, white graves, are two sullen concrete protrusions. The remains of military bunkers, mostly buried, they are the markers, the reasons for this place. I stand at the summit of this rare, vital ridge and take in the view. It is an outstanding observation point over a low river valley, today a fecund patchwork of fields and tributaries. Troops from Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Canada hauled themselves across the intervening land from Ypres—visible on the horizon—to take this position in October 1917. Here they used a German building as a makeshift hospital, a forlorn dressing station, and buried those who died from their wounds. From this, the cemetery grew, even as the ridge was lost and retaken over the following year. My dad and I walk slowly, separately, bending, reading, too many names, too few that aren’t simply a Soldier of the Great War. It is calm and quiet, the space large enough to absorb the chatter of a couple of tour groups and more students with clipboards. A low flint wall demarcates the cemetery boundary. A farmer sits on an old tractor in an adjoining field, cutting grass for hay in green concentric circles. The wide memorial wall is impossibly packed with more of the missing. I imagine ten thousand men walking across the shallow valley, into their seats, their orderly graves, watching the names of their disappeared colleagues scroll across a vast cinema screen, the infinite end credits of an unthinkable film. My dad is struck by the countless beautifully kept plants, the modest small flowers, the lack of weeds.
There is a Wednesday market in Veurne. The square is packed with canvas, clothing, fruit, flowers, cheese, jewelry, sweets, waffles (of course), candles, bolts of fabric, shouts, laughs, music from a sausage stall crowned with a terrifying inflatable hot-dog man. Every shop and restaurant has been open early; old men drink a midmorning beer, Dad and I eat croissants. A celebratory atmosphere belies the fact that this is simply a weekly occurrence. Perhaps it’s the outstanding weather. We’re going home tomorrow.
I think of Friday evenings when I was young, the occasional weekend treat of crisps, chocolate and fizzy drink for myself and my sisters, a shandy for Mum, a beer for Dad. He’d sit on the carpet, back to the sofa, and smoke a cigarette.
The market is a vivid counterpoint to Sanctuary Wood’s muted browns and greens. Blinking, shifting light and temporary shade cover a network of preserved trenches, stretching in a castellated formation over a hundred yards or so. The wood has regrown; in some places it’s possible to see the coppicing effect of exploding artillery shells: two or three healthy, tall trunks outstripping a short, smashed original. Craters, small and large, pepper the ground, now worn free of undergrowth not by bombardment but by the curious feet of visitors, thankfully absent this afternoon. We’re able to walk through parts of the trench, and once again I feel dizzy at the reality of it. I dip to a semi-crouch, bringing the top of my head level with the trench’s edge. I pass a dugout, stop and look at my dad. He nods; we’re both thinking of the same thing. One of my grandfather’s superiors was injured and dispatched from the front for recuperation. Regimental staff emptied his trench dugout, where, among his belongings, they found loaves of bread. Precious, rationed nourishment intended for distribution among his men. Hoarded, hidden and now moldy, useless, dead. My grandfather was, with good reason, cynical about esprit de corps.
A day earlier, before Sanctuary Wood draws a line under it all, we stand at the convergence of field and farm track, looking northwest. To the left of St. Juliaan’s rooftops, a mile or so away, are the restored towers of Ypres. About a mile behind us, sloping gently upward, is Tyne Cot. Behind that heavy ridge, unseen, lies the village of Passchendaele. Here, as far as we can work out, is the place my grandfather fought during the battles of Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood. His battalion progressed—somehow—across these fields, dry and verdant now in this midday heat. At some point near here, as he pushed toward the east, he was caught up in a gas bombardment and his fighting at the front was at an end. He survived and was sent back to Britain, where he eventually recuperated, though it took over a year and his stomach was irreparably damaged.
We look around, and we say nothing for nearly forty-five minutes. My dad’s face is inscrutable. Finally I ask him if he’s OK, and he pauses, and he says, “Yes. It’s incredible, really. This is what’s important. It’s not sad so much. He lived. All of this. And that’s incredible, really.”
Grandad may even have seen the spreading oak, the survivor, though it would have been no more than a young thing, a callow thing.
Dominic Gerard lives in the north of England, works throughout the U.K. and travels farther abroad when he can. He is currently writing a piece about a trip to Japan, informed by notes, soundscapes and a man called Shimon. He may be reached here.
Lead image: Marc Wilnauer