So many. So many lives extinguished prematurely.
That’s what you can’t help thinking when scanning the hugely long columns of names – 54,896 in all – etched into the white stone of the arched Menin Gate in Ypres, West Flanders. Built after WWI, it stands in memory of Commonwealth soldiers whose resting places are not known.
Decades earlier the poet Siegfried Sassoon had referred to the, “Intolerably nameless names” of this “sepulchre of crime”. I thought about his words on that sunny morning in Belgium, and wondered about the right way to respond to such a place.
Should I try to get a sense of the whole horror, the scale of the loss of life – or attempt to imagine the experience of just one of the people who suffered and died? Or is it, 100 years later, more important to dwell on how imperial rivalries led to the deaths of millions in trenches and mud?
A devastated city
Like many people, I had an idea of the outline of WWI, but I relied on what I’d seen in films and on TV, and in part on hazy memories of studying the war poet Wilfred Owen at school. There were also a handful of family stories, about a great-grandfather who went to war and came back with lung problems. So, in this centenary year of the start of the war, I decided that it was time to learn a bit more and headed to Ypres.
This medieval city was surrounded on three sides by the German army for much of the conflict – creating a bulge in the front line, known as a ‘salient’ – and was targeted for intense bombardment. Pretty much everything had to be rebuilt once the fighting stopped. Today Ypres is a popular base for visitors to the region’s war cemeteries, museums and battlefields, and many companies offer car and minibus tours. One of these is Frontline Tours, whose owner Lionel Roosemont spoke to me about arranging trips for customers with disabilities.
“It’s important to talk to me about what you need,” he said, “so that I can advise you on access and make space in the van if you need it.” He can arrange private tours to particular cemeteries or memorials, but also offers standard itineraries that cover many of the places I visited.
Lionel also emphasised the importance of making a visit personal, particularly for people who don’t have a family connection to the area. Passionate about his research into the war years, he likes to share stories with customers. “I am not happy unless I have got people into the minds of the soldiers,” he told me.
Stories from the Western Front
My own visit began in earnest within the rebuilt Gothic-style Cloth Hall on the town square, now home to the In Flanders Fields Museum. Recently renovated, with level floors and lifts for wheelchair access, the museum covers the period from just before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to post-war reconstruction of Ypres and beyond.
There’s a real effort to make the war seem personal – for example, by using video displays in which actors read from wartime diaries – and also an interactive element. If you enter your personal details into a computer when you enter, you can scan a special poppy wristband that comes included with your ticket at selected points to get stories of participants in the war – one of which will be tailored to you.
In my case, as I hail from Lancashire, it chose a stonemason from Bury called Benjamin Greaves Buckley. He fought in the battle of the Somme and was fatally injured in the trenches in July 1917 at the age of 36 – close enough to my own age to lend a frisson of familiarity.
Like 10,783 other people, Buckley was buried in Lijssenthoek cemetery, which I visited towards the end of my trip. Located 4km southwest of a garrison town called Poperinge, the cemetery at the time was situated away from the front line and connected to an important military hospital. In Poperinge itself I visited a courtyard where Commonwealth court martial executions were carried out, and the cells where the condemned were held – the latter of which have entrances that are level, but narrow at only 78cm wide. Less easily accessible by wheelchair is the town’s Talbot House, which was originally set up by a chaplain as a place where soldiers could relax.
Nothing remains of the hospital at Lijssenthoek, but there’s an impressive new visitor centre beside the cemetery. As well as hearing readings of diary entries from wall-mounted speakers at various heights, there’s a screen where you can print out information about a soldier who died on the same date as your visit, along with a map showing where you can find their grave.
As I headed into the cemetery itself, I examined a new booklet from the tourist board called Flanders Fields: Accessible to Everyone [PDF] and was pleased to see that they’ve made a real effort to detail the accessible facilities available and highlight potential problems. In the case of Lijssenthoek, it recommends using the side entrance, but warns that visitors may need help with the bolt on the gate.
The futility of war
Over the weekend I had visited several cemeteries and become used to seeing the standard Commonwealth cemetery design – identical white gravestones, a Cross of Sacrifice embedded with a sword and a Stone of Remembrance that deliberately avoids religious symbolism. The larger cemetery further east at Tyne Cot, which is one of the most-visited sites in Flanders, follows the same format but also has a memorial wall listing around 35,000 soldiers who were missing in action.
Other nationalities have their own designs. The French use crosses to mark the graves for example, while the German cemeteries have several names on each horizontal grave marker and use oak trees to make the sites seem more natural and less planned. What is consistent in all the cemeteries is the repetition of identical gravestones, vividly illustrating the scale of the loss.
The sense of a futile waste of life only grew as I visited the battlefields, often boiling down to shock that despite so many people dying the front line moved so little. One of the most evocative spots within the Ypres salient is Hill 60, so named because it reaches 60m above sea level. In this flat landscape it counts as high ground, but it’s chilling to realise that people fought and died for such a small mound. It’s worth a visit, as is the huge artillery-fire crater nearby, but the grassy surface is tough going for people with limited mobility.
As you might expect, the same goes for many of the battlefield sites – the trenches weren’t exactly constructed with disabled access in mind. One alternative is to visit reconstructions such as the one at Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 near Tyne Cot, but even there you couldn’t take a wheelchair down the trench. You can, however, take one into the reconstruction of a dugout where flickering lights and the sounds of water pumps help to make the ‘tunnels’ an atmospheric experience.
You can also view several genuine trenches from above, including the Yorkshire Trench near Ypres. It was my great fortune to bump into one of the people who discovered it, Patrick Van Wanzeele, who visits regularly to help keep the trench clean. With the help of broken English and a flip-book containing photographs of shells and other objects, he told me about finding a hole while out with his metal detector in 1991.
Once Patrick had finished telling me about this ‘iron harvest’ – around 150 tonnes of ordnance, some unexploded, are still found every year – it was time for me to return to Ypres and join the throng at the Menin Gate waiting for the Last Post. It’s sounded every day at 8pm without fail, though I’d recommend turning up by 7.15pm as it gets busy. There are steps at the sides, but the main area is flat and there’s a space in the middle where people with disabilities can avoid the crush.
It’s an essential part of a visit to Flanders – a place and a poignant moment where people come together, whatever their reason for being there. After a weekend in Flanders, I still couldn’t say what was the most appropriate response to death on such a scale. But I did know that by visiting the places where the war was fought, I was better equipped to understand both its personal tragedies and the bigger picture.
Make it happen
– John travelled with the assistance of Visit Flanders and took the Eurostar from London to Lille, followed by a 45-minute taxi ride to Ypres. Further details about the services Eurostar can provide for people with special travel needs can be found here.
– Charges for Frontline Tours (www.frontline-tours.com) start from €25 per person for a two hour tour.
– The Flanders Fields: Accessible to Everyone booklet is available online from www.accessinfo.be and includes listings of hotels and restaurants with accessible facilities.
Images courtesy of VisitFlanders