In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. (John McCrae)
I have been familiar with the poem about the poppies of Flanders since my secondary schooling days in Kogarah in the 1960s. It was a regular feature of our Anzac Day Celebrations along with the Last Post played clumsily by one of the cadet buglers. However if you had asked me where Flanders was, for much of my life I would have given very vague answers about it being somewhere in Northern France or in that general locale. Even though we were annually encouraged to remember those of our country’s forebears (“Lest We Forget”) who gave their lives on the battlefields of France and other places a long way from Sydney, I always struggled seeing the relevance of their loss of life to my easy existence…particularly given that I was never keen on violence or war in any of its forms. As a result, for most of my youth, I wasn’t concerned about “Lest I Forget” as, I didn’t have much to remember!
Curiously in my post-school years, I went on to study history at University and eventually became an English and Modern History school teacher. One of the key topics at all levels of Modern History is the “Causes of World War One”. I remember I produced many over-head transparencies of maps of Europe as well as summary-notes for the students on the key causes of the War (The 1870 Franco-Prussian War, The Alliances, the Militarism, the Nationalism, the Arms race, etc) but I don’t recall specifically taking note of where Flanders actually was. Although I would have explained using textbook maps how the opposing forces (Germany, France and England) got bogged down in trench warfare early in 1914, if questioned by a bright student where all this actually happened, I probably would have said, “Ah…Northern France” and waved my OHT pen vaguely in the direction on my plastic map.
In either Modern History or English poetry lessons, I would have regularly used Wilfred Owen’s poems to give an insider’s insight into the horror of trench warfare and the newly developed technology that changed the face of Modern warfare.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the 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. (Wilfred Owen)
Although haunting, Wilfred Owen’s description of death by gas on the battlefield in 1915 was probably not as relevant for those of us who still could not comprehend Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and had not long swapped involvement in the Moratorium Marches for money making jobs…
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.
It was many years after my history teaching days that I discovered where Flanders was and suffered a correction to my understanding of what happened in the early months of World War 1. We went to Bruges (Brugge) in September 2016, a lovely little medieval town that had started life as a trading port but has been abandoned for many centuries by the North Sea which is now 20 kilometres away. It could be said I knew as little about Belgium as I knew about Flanders. I knew the term the ‘Low Countries’ but presumed it mainly indicated that whole section of Europe was prone to flooding (I knew the ‘Finger in Dyke Story’). Initially part of Holland, Belgium seceded in 1830 and began its torturous path of developing government, social and economic structures. My favourite story from the early years of Belgium was its search for a King because all European countries were monarchies and any new country to have credibility needed a Royal family. To have a royal family you needed someone with ‘royal’ blood so you had to talk some relative of the royal families of Europe into becoming King of the newly formed Belgium. Not many people wanted the job as it was seen as a little dangerous. A German prince from Saxe-Coburg who had already married the daughter of the future King George IV of England, Leopold I, accepted the advertised position. Jobs as Kings were more available in the 19th Century; Leopold had already been offered the crown of the newly independent Greece but decided that Belgium was a little less precarious.
The complex farce that was Europe in 1914 collapsed with a seemingly minor ‘nine-pin’ that was the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarejevo. Before the world knew it, Germany had decided to solve all its issues by invading France before the French decided to invade them. They politely asked Belgium’s studious and thoughtful King, Albert I (Leopold’s third son) whether they could use the railways and roads of Belgium to invade France but he declined their request, despite his own German heritage. Politeness was then over and the Germans invaded taking over 95% of Belgium and began their push towards Paris through what became known as Flanders Fields.
The rest of the story of what happened to Belgium in 1915 was the subject of our tour around Flanders Fields, particularly the city of Ypres (‘Iepper’). Our first stop was at a German War cemetery at Vladso where German Soldiers were collected from neighbouring cemeteries and other areas of Belgium and buried here at the end of the war. Of the 134,000 Germans who died during the war in Belgium, most were returned home leaving 25, 644 to be buried here. There were many moving things about this Cemetery of the invading soldiers left behind in Holland. One of them was the sculpture called “Parents in Mourning” created by Kathe Kollwitz, a famous German Sculptor whose son lies buried here after only a few weeks of fighting as a conscript early in the war. The Mother’s clear depth of sorrow and the father’s stolid, grim despair sums up the cemetery. Our guide pointed out a particular rank of soldier on one of the headstones whose job was to move ahead of the invading German Army on horseback, scout the territory and shoot anybody who looked like they were liable to be resistant to the invasion. They spread terror amongst the Belgian people, already frightened by the arrival of an invading army. Of course Belgians also took out their rifles and shot these outriders. Any Belgian caught for this crime (tireurs) was executed as it was pronounced illegal by the German Army for the Belgians to resist…their executions were a legal action, resistance to invasion was illegal.
The world is full of refugees and their issues in 2016. In 1915, the people of Belgium became refugees and streamed north to Holland and south to France and England…I wonder whether they received as sympathetic a welcome by their host countries as refugees do today. I suspect they did. Most Belgians were able to return to their home country after the end of the war, only to see the same thing happen again 21 years later, this time for six years of occupation.
From Vladslo we drove to the eventual line where the invading army was stopped at Dodengang by both Belgian ingenuity and courage as well as the river Ijser. It was here that the retreating Belgian army opened the lock at the mouth of the river, thus enabling the North sea to inundate these fields of West Flanders, converting it to a land that the military machinery of Germany could no longer travel over. Trenches were dug on both sides and World War 1 settled down to the trench warfare that we know from our history books. I just hadn’t picked up in my early history studies as to why it had happened so quickly and what were the factors that caused it.
Our next stop on our tour was the Essex Farm cemetery closer to Ypres, particularly famous as it was where there was a field hospital in which Canadian doctor and poet, John McCrae had served in 1915 when he wrote the poem that has resonated in the Western world for the last century. The image below shows a recreation of these concrete, bunker-like spaces where John McCrae and his colleagues worked on wounded soldiers, not far from the front line, in the most appalling conditions and then to be amongst the first who mourned them if their surgery was not sufficient to keep them alive.
….Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved,…
From Essex farm we travelled into Ypres, the walled medieval city that had been the centre of three battles during the war. Images from my youth of old movies flashed across my consciousness as I realised I had seen the devastation of Ypres through scratchy black and white movies shown on television. We parked the bus outside the walls and walked through the Menin Gate, unveiled in 1927, commemorating all those Commonwealth soldiers whose graves are unknown. The designer believed there was enough space on the huge arch for all the names of missing soldiers but it fell well short with a further 34,984 names being listed at Tyne Cot cemetery nearby. It is the site of a rendering of the ‘Last Post’ every night where at the end of this day my conscience was pricked again by its reminder , ‘Lest we forget’. However not everyone was impressed by this memorial. In 1928, Siegfried Sasson (‘Mad jack’ survived the war) published a poem entitled ‘Passing Menin Gate’, a bitter, scathing piece that showed that he believed that memorials like this could not repay the sacrifices made here by Commonwealth soldiers (Half a million died in the Third Battle for Ypres.).
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. (Siegfried Sassoon)
After passing through Menin gate, we arrived at the main square in Ypres, dominated by the magnificent ‘Cloth Hall’, originally built in the 13th century, which became a symbol of the destruction of World War 1 as it was smashed to pieces by regular German shelling over three years. It has been rebuilt almost exactly to the same design as the original. It houses the Flanders Field museum where we spent an hour after lunch; insufficient time for the amount of material in this high quality museum. Many things could be described from the Museum but I will mention just two. One exhibit described the unofficial ‘Christmas peace’ that broke out on the lines of Ypres where soldiers, sick of the inhumanity of war, tried to get some semblance of normality into the way they treated each other on Christmas Day 1914. The other was the material around the first use of Gas on battle fields, an attempt to change the progress of the bogged down war that artillery couldn’t achieve.
There are 160 war-grave cemeteries around Ypres so our guide had to pick and choose which ones he visited; he did so by the nationality of those in the tour group. We made a quick visit to the ‘Brooding Soldier’ statue marking a Canadian cemetery before driving to the Tyne Cot cemetery, the site of much of the fighting known as the Battle of Passchendaele. As there were quite a number of Australian and New Zealand folk on the bus, this was an important stop on the tour. The sign at the entrance to the cemetery summarises the purpose of the cemetery.
“This is the final resting place of nearly 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen, more than 8300 of whom remain unidentified, and of four German soldiers. Those buried here died from the earliest fighting around Ypres in October1914 to the final weeks of the war on the Western front in 1918, but the majority fell during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917.”
We were able to see Ypres in the distance as we walked through the cemetery. The endless rows of white gravestones surrounded by colourful flowers did not seem to match the horror of the story that we knew took place on this hillside
The next destination chosen by our guide after Tyne Cot was the cemetery at Polygon Wood, a place where many Anzacs were buried. The cemetery itself, like Tyne Cot, was established on the battlefield where the Fifth Australian Division attacked a ‘butte’ held by German soldiers on the 26th September, 1917; their first major battle in Belgium. The following account comes from the Website of “Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918”.
“The infantry’s main obstacles on the battlefield were the dozens of German concrete pill–boxes which protected the enemy machine gunners. They had to get to the pill–boxes just as the barrage lifted from them and the occupants were still dazed by explosions. At some pill–boxes there was resistance but many German soldiers surrendered when they found themselves so rapidly surrounded. The Butte itself was soon rushed and was found to be full of German dugouts. The entrances were blocked and bombers with grenades worked their way through the underground positions finally pushing the occupants into surrender. German planes came over and machine gunned the Butte area while enemy artillery began pounding the rear areas behind the Australian advance causing many casualties. At 7.30 am another protective barrage began and the Australians pushed on to their final objective for the day a few hundred metres beyond Polygon Wood. By 8 am the required ground had been gained and the advance was over. During the rest of the day German counter attacks came to nothing and the Battle of Polygon Wood was declared a great success for the AIF.”
The comparison between what Anzac soldiers had to deal with in 1917 and what we found in the beautiful tranquil surroundings of Polygon Wood today was the feeling I carried with me as I walked the rows of headstones. One of the signs at the cemetery captured this contrast…. “Four years of fighting saw Polygon Wood reduced to a desolate expanse of splintered stumps and churned earth scattered with battlefield debris, flat and featureless except for the butte, the huge man-made mound of earth in front of you now. By November 1918 the ground was also strewn with hastily made battlefield graves marked with rough wooden crosses and, just beneath the surface, the remains of many more soldiers left behind in the heat of the fight to sink beneath the mud.”
Many Australian and New Zealanders come to Flanders Fields looking for some indication of memorials to their relatives who died in this obscure piece of countryside outside of Ypre. The headstones captured the issues for those seekers. Some headstones had full details of the casualties of 27th September, 1917. Some like the descendants of A.W. Ellis could only come away with the knowledge that he was probably buried in this cemetery. For others, Great Grandfathers were never found, never returned to their homeland, sunk somewhere under the mud of Polygon Wood.
The final stopping point of our ‘Battlefields Tour’ was the site where a famous incident that occurred on the 7th June 1917 at the opening of the Battle of Messines. Our guide had us dropped off at one point where a board-walk took us through a forested hill side that eventually came out near a railway line. One of the issues our guide wanted to discuss was the change in the landscape brought about by warfare. He pointed out the irregular hillocks beside the board-walk that were the result of artillery shelling during World War 1. We then took a path along beside the railway line that led up a hill and led us to what appeared to be a tranquil pond or dam at the top of the hill. He asked the question… “Is this this pond natural?” (See image below).
Given the nature of the area we had walked through, the group twigged that the answer must be ‘No’. The reason for the appearance of what was clearly a remnant crater of World War One was now the story he told us, and it involved Australian tunnelers.
Messines, 7 June 1917. The first Australians to become involved in the preparations for Messines were the miners of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company. The British surprise being prepared for the Germans at Messines was the simultaneous detonation of nineteen great mines being dug under the enemy front lines all the way from Hill 60, just south of Ypres, to St Yves, 10 kilometres away… “At 3.10 am on 6 June 1917 the Hill 60 mine, and all the other mines, were detonated: The whole hillside, everything rocked like a ship at sea … when we got a look at the craters there were lumps of blue clay as big as a small building lying about. Our Hill 60 crater was 100 yards [90 metres] across from lip to lip and still 45 yards [40 metres] deep … We thought the war was over.” [Sapper Roll, 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, quoted in Nigel Steel and Peter Hart, Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground, London, 2001, p. 51]
For the infantrymen of the 3rd Australian Division, massing in and immediately behind the front line south of Messines village near Ploegsteert Wood, the war was far from over. Throughout the night of 6–7 June the attack battalions of the division had been coming up through the wood in the midst of one of the most severe enemy gas shell bombardments to which the AIF was ever subjected. The air was soon rendered poisonous and, while men could avail themselves of gas masks, pack horses and mules were seen everywhere gasping for life. (Material taken from “Ypres, Australians on the Western Front”, Dr Richard Reid)
Here was a story of Australian troops in action in World War One that I had never heard of before. My problem with the phrase ‘Lest We Forget” was again reinforced in that you can’t forget what you have never learned or you have paid no attention to. One of the Americans travelling with us shamed me by explaining that he had seen the 2010 Australian film, “Beneath Hill 60”.
The day was getting on and we still had one last stop on our itinerary. We were returning to the Menin Gate in Ypres to participate in the playing of the ‘Last Post’ at 8pm. This wasn’t a successful experience as the crowds of bus tourists made it impossible to get anywhere near the event and we stood for an hour at the back of a large crowd wondering what was happening…even the bugler was as bad as the cadet performances from the 1960s at Marist brothers Kogarah.
My day touring the battlefields of Flanders was a very moving day, forcing me to rethink many of my attitudes to Australian participation in the wars of the twentieth century. One thing it didn’t force me to reconsider was my appreciation for the genius of the great poets of World War 1 and their timeless evocation of the insanity of warfare.
Anthem for Doomed Youth (Wilfred Owens)
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.