Corner of a foreign field where the ghosts of war still walk

European Times YPRES
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The Independent Online
"SOME DAMNED foolish thing in the Balkans," was, as Bismarck so fatefully predicted, what lit the fuse that would ignite all of Europe in 1914.

Eighty years after the November 1918 armistice, the Balkan conflicts are still with us, and the people of Ypres are still trying to make sense of how they came to have inherited the killing fields of Flanders, and to be living among the graves of half a million men.

Modern-day Ypres, (Ieper in Flemish, or "Wipers" as the British soldiers christened it) stands at the heart of a prosperous pig-farming region and centre for the computer software industry.

The fields around Ypres are also one huge cemetery, with rows and rows of headstones at every turn, marking the graves of those who were not blown to pieces but merely died from wounds, disease or by drowning in the sea of fetid mud. Farmers still find boots,or helmets or unearth deadly unexploded mines or chemical warheads. You can see what remains of the Messines Ridge, the only First World War battle where Irishmen from north and south fought side by side, or Ploegsteert Wood, where on Christmas Eve 1914, carols echoed from the trenches and the Germans offered cigarettes to the British in exchange for bully beef.

Ypres is dominated by a splendid Gothic Cloth Hall, a fine cathedral and a bustling main square. But in 1918, all that remained were two stumps and an expanse of rubble. One of the stumps was the Cloth Hall which has been restored to its former medieval state and is now the site of the permanent exhibition In Flanders Fields.

"Our grandparents told us about their experiences. About the big guns, the gas, and the horses, about the camps, the Chinese [the Chinese Labour Corps hired by the British] and the aeroplanes," says Frans Lignel, chairman of the museum committee.

"But the generation of eyewitnesses has gone. It has fallen on us to pass on their testimony of what war is really like." The title of the exhibition is inspired by a poem written by the Canadian officer John McCrae "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow ..." and poetry, like diaries, letters, witness accounts, snatches of film, photographs and paintings, is much relied on to convey the experience of the tens of thousands of soldiers, nurses, doctors, priests, and civilians whose war was in Ypres.

"We have avoided the traditional lists of names, facts and dates," Frans Lignel stresses, "Ieper has chosen to focus on the little people."

Visitors get a pink card which is barcoded and carries the name and photograph of one of these "little people". By swiping the card through terminals at different points around the museum, you learn of his or her fate and get the feeling you are walking through the war with your own personal ghost.

The museum follows no chronological order and is deliberately confusing perhaps to give you a sense of the confusion and helplessness of ordinary people, like 12-year-old Fientje Knockaert, a Flemish girl, who described seeing 30 or 40 gassed soldiers lying in a room.

You also hear shells exploding, and the terrifying sound of the artillery fire, which gunned down thousands, as they emerged from the trenches into No Man's Land. And you see the cylinders which contained the chlorine gas used for the first time as a weapon of war near Ypres in April 1915. In clear plastic towers you see the yellowish clouds wafting around gas masks and hear the words of the poet Wilfred Owen describing the death throes of a young soldier who could not get his mask on quickly enough:

"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."

Katherine Butler