Visiting Ypres is rather like searching out suburban houses where bloody domestic murders were committed. Can this be the place where those terrible things happened? Now it all looks so ordinary, so humdrum.
At first glance, Ypres (its proper Flemish name is now Ieper) is just another Flanders town of neat houses and well-scrubbed streets. But glance, say, at a photo on the wall of the chocolate shop and you see a town that looks like Ypres: there you can make out the distinctive shape of the tower of the Cloth Hall - but the rest of the place is rubble. Barely anything shown on this faded photo stands above shoulder height. Another photo in a bar shows an earlier scene: the Cloth Hall smouldering, and before it the swollen corpses of two horses felled by a shell.
Slowly you understand that this is no normal Flanders town. For four long years, from the very beginning of the First World War in August 1914, to its absolute end in November 1918, this was hell on earth. This was 'Wipers'.
Statistics reveal some of the horror: of the million Allied soldiers who died in the Great War, a quarter of a million lost their lives in the few square miles around Ypres. But the neat statistics suggest a clean order to things that never existed. 'Wipers' was a slaughterhouse: the peaceful open countryside now beyond the town was once the most dreadful killing ground - the worst man has known.
Lyn Macdonald's book They called it Passchendaele sets out the four-year battle for Ypres in grim detail, providing personal memories of the mud and death on that part of the front known as the salient. A tank corps lieutenant recalls: 'As you got further out you got this awful smell of death. You could literally smell it. It was just a complete abomination of desolation. I wept when I came into the salient.'
Any road in and out of Ypres will inevitably lead you past First World War cemeteries: there are 155 of them within a 10-mile radius of the town. Each is carefully laid out with rows of simple headstones; everything attractively landscaped and immaculately maintained. If you visit only one, go to Tyne Cot Cemetery near Passendale (as it's spelt in Flemish), the largest British war cemetery in the world, about 10 minutes' drive from Ypres. Here more than 11,500 Allied soldiers are buried. 'Please, God, never again,' somebody has written in the cemetery visitor's book.
In Ypres itself, the principal memorial is the Menin Gate, which was completed in 1927 to commemorate the names of 54,896 soldiers who died near Ypres but who had no known grave. The First World War is now little more than an abstract idea for most people - a dry subject for history lessons ('Outline the events leading up to the First World War . . .'). The tales of horror and destruction have been repeated so often that they almost have no meaning.
But as you stand beneath the gate, built like a triumphal arch, you read the names and can glimpse something of the true pain of it all. These names run on, line after line after line. An old man points some out to his grandson: 'There's Australians, New Zealanders, Indian soldiers here . . . sepoys . . . they came to fight from all over the world. They called it the War to End Wars.'
This endless list offers no abstract notion of death and destruction, but real names and ages: an Irish boy of 14 who must have lied about his age; a man of 40 - old enough to be fighting alongside his sons. It is a sobering fact that many of those who were killed almost 80 years ago died so young that, had they survived, they could still be alive today.
At eight o'clock every night beneath the Menin Gate, a simple but moving ceremony is performed. Two traffic policemen in knee-length, orange, reflective coats go to either end of the gate and, with a torch, wave approaching vehicles to a halt. From beneath the shelter of an arch, members of the town's volunteer fire brigade step forward, snap to attention, raise their bugles to their lips and play the haunting notes of the 'Last Post'.
Some evenings there may just be a young mother and a toddler to watch the ceremony; other evenings, on cold winter nights when the north wind cuts across the flat Flanders fields like a knife, there may be nobody. But the ceremony goes on, night after night.
'At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them . . .' But for how much longer will they go on honouring the half-million soldiers who died or were injured defending Ypres in the First World War? One of the firemen, who has been playing the 'Last Post' here most evenings for the past 33 years has no doubts: 'We will go on performing this ceremony forever,' he said.
The maze of trenches, which ran for mile after mile from the Belgian coast, through France and down to the Swiss frontier, has all but disappeared. Near Ypres you can see original trenches in one place: Sanctuary Wood Museum near Hill 62.
'Museum' is too hifalutin a description: it is more in the style of a tacky, end-of-the-pier show. Instead of 'What the Butler Saw' machines there are old French stereo-viewers that show horrific 3-D pictures of trench warfare. Turn a handle and you can see a man with half of his face shot away, bodies of men and horses hanging from trees, corpses tumbled higgledy-piggledy in trenches - the most awful desolation. And everywhere, thick, choking, sucking mud. The 'museum' sells a bizarre array of relics and gifts. 'These are popular with school groups,' says the proprietor, holding up a shiny bullet threaded on a necklace chain: price pounds 3.
The 'Last Post' ceremony at the Menin Gate is moving; the sight of rows of graves in Tyne Cot cemetery is affecting - but my emotions were most powerfully stirred by the words of Wilfred Owen, which capture the horror of the war more effectively than any 3-D photograph. While I was driving around Ypres, I listened to a tape of Kenneth Branagh reading the letters and poetry of Owen, killed in action 75 years ago last week.
The village of Ors where Owen died - and where he is buried - is about an hour's drive across the French border to the south-west of Ypres. The road to Ors led me through places whose names will be forever linked with the war: Ploegsteert ('Plug Street'), Armentieres and Cambrai. Yards of land that were battled over for four years, and which cost hundreds of thousands of Allied and German lives, can be covered in a brief drive.
The village of Ors is a plain, unremarkable place. Owen lost his life here in an attempt to cross the Oise-Sambre canal on the morning of 4 November, 1918. Near the bridge across the canal a small plaque records the events of Owen's death. The plaque has lines from his poem With an identity disc: '. . . let my death be memoried on this disc. Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed. But let thy heart-beat kiss it night and day, Until the name grow vague and wear away.' I walked to the spot where he died, but saw only a canal and a towpath.
Returning to the village, I went into the Cafe des Arcades for a coffee. A handful of villagers in bleus de travail were taking a pre-Sunday lunch aperitif. I asked the woman behind the counter whether the name of Owen the poet was well known in the village. 'Owen? Poet?' There was much puffing out of cheeks and shrugging of shoulders. Then somebody had an idea: 'The monument] By the bridge.' But nobody knew anything else. An older man offered to go and get his mother: 'She will know something for certain.'
Owen is buried in a military addition to the village cemetery. Beyond the domestic headstones ('A notre memere - regrette . . . the sound of our accordions will accompany you in your final sleep') lie the graves of all 63 men killed in the assault across the canal on that November morning. The headstone of Lt W E S Owen MC, 25, lies in the rear rank of stones, between that of Private W E Duckworth, 18, and Private H Topping (no age).
In his final letter, Owen wrote: 'Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.' One imagines that Owen would have preferred their company in death to the Immortals of Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.
By a cruel irony, Owen's mother in Oswestry received the telegram with the news of his death on 11 November - just as the churchbells were ringing out to celebrate the war's end.
FOLLOWING my article on the First World War (Independent Traveller, 13 November), Peter Lomas of Newport-on-Tay points out that I got east and west mixed up. Ors in France, where Wilfred Owen died and is buried, is South-east of Ypres not South-west.
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