Robert Fisk’s World: In Ypres I suddenly realised what this war has been about

I am not a poppy man and I have a distinct dislike of uniforms

Share
Related Topics

On Armistice Day last month, I was struck – like thousands of Belgians in the streets of Ypres – by the lonely figure of 18-year-old Craig Wood as he was pushed his wheelchair towards the Menin Gate. His legs, blown off by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, stood for all those legless, armless men who returned from Flanders and the Somme. And yet, I was moved, too, by the difference in conflict. In 1914-18, the British Army was fighting one of the most powerful war machines in the world, that of Germany. Today – in Craig's war – we are fighting turbaned and often uneducated men who carry only the most primitive of weapons. What on earth are we doing in Helmand Province, I kept asking myself?

In the massive memorial to the 57,000 unfound British bodies of the Ypres Salient – the "sepulchre of crime" in Sassoon's words – the crowds were just a little bit too prettified, I thought. Too many careful dresses and well-pressed trousers and rather too many poppies. I understand the symbolism, but I am not a poppy man and I have a distinct dislike of uniforms. John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow" was not a poem for peace but for more war – "Take up our quarrel with the foe..." the dead exhort the living in verse three – and I find the annual flaunting of poppies on television presenters' clothes is turning into something of a cult.

By chance, I made my way behind the Gate at Ypres – I could hear the purring clerical voices from inside – and discovered that the old moat had backed up a tide of sewage below the memorial. It was black and dark brown and stank. And here, I suddenly realised what this Great War had really been about; men drowning and sliding to their deaths in the mud, shit and decomposition of Passchendaele, swamped in excrement and body parts. No poppies in the rains of 1917.

But I did learn one thing from my Belgian hosts. For years I have believed – and met many others who thought the same – that the Tyne Cot British cemetery somehow marked the battlefield of a north-east England regiment. Alas, it did not. Just as Ypres became 'Wipers', 'Tyne Cot' was the soldiers' version for the Flemish word hennekot (pronounced 'tenekot') and means 'chicken hutch'. Chickens roosted there before we and the Germans turned it into hell. Just round the wall of Ypres from the Menin Gate is another British cemetery where the age of the dead – I read from left to right – was 20, 20, 38, 25, 19, 22, none as young as Craig Wood. In the cemetery visitors' book there were the usual words of wisdom from the Great British Public which only they – and not their bloody politicians – could write.

"Death, tragedy, slaughter, sacrifice, murder, they all mean the same, whatever word you use," wrote 'Kate' There was "poor guys. We hope all senseless violence ends." My favourite was "Do not trust or vote for politicians. It only encourages them." But nothing could beat the words, actually carved in stone on the grave of Second Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young, who died on 16 August, 1917. "Sacrifice to the fallacy that war can end war," his family had inscribed on his last resting place.

And I suppose we feel the same at the great German cemeteries, especially beside Käthe Kollwitz's humbling statue of grieving parents. Her son was killed in 1914, her grandson in the Second World War. And then, prowling through the Teutonic gloom of Vladslo graveyard, I caught myself wondering how happy the world might have been if Corporal A Hitler had been killed at Ypres and buried in this plot. Did World War One create World War Two? Or do individuals just pop up and drive us mad? Do our own personalities play a role?

Another of my Belgian hosts produced some Fisks among the dead. Lance Corporal Richard William Fisk, 13th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, was killed in action on 16 August, 1917 – the same day as Arthur Conway Young – and he was the son of the late Robert Fisk and husband of Lilly Fisk. None were my relatives, so far as I know, but I had the eerie feeling of looking at the record of my own death. And then, in a restored prison in Poperinge where the old Talbot House, Toc H as it was called at the time ('Toc' being the military signal for our present-day 'Tango'), was named after Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, young brother of the British chaplain, the Reverend Neville Talbot – I came across the firing post. "Toc H" was a place of rest behind the lines, "Every Man's Club", as Talbot's number two, the Rev "Tubby" Clayton called it.

The prison contains a yard with a hop pole to which British soldiers were tied for execution. A bullet appears to have scored right through the post. In the cell a few metres away, the Belgians have cleaned the walls and exposed some writing from the doomed men. One appears to be that of a Canadian soldier called Bertin Deneire, number 0494-367733, which, I suspect, the Ottawa war museum could tell us about.

And finally, at year's end, I have to thank readers Donald and Eileen Macleod who, moved by an article I wrote in November about the vanishing language of Great War soldiers, sent me a poem in Scots Gaelic. It's called Lathe-D, 1944 – "D-Day, 1944".

"Some of these ships sailed with the youth of our land," the translation reads. "My blessings are with these lads though I am a sailor ... Many a father and brother and many a neighbour was there/Though they were manly and strong on our streets, they were drowned in the deep."

As Donald Macleod recalls, hundreds of war poems were written in Scottish Gaelic but are now lost as the language is almost extinct. And per head of population, the Western Isles of Scotland sustained the highest Second World War casualties of any area of the British empire. Oh yes, and the first woman to land with Allied forces in Normandy was Lieutenant Christina MacLeod, a nurse from the Isle of Lewis.

Funny what you come up with when you wander around old wars.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Cloud Support Engineer

£25000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a team player who likes...

Recruitment Genius: Skilled Machinist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of additional skilled machini...

Recruitment Genius: Toolmaker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of additional skilled toolmak...

Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; up to £55k

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Sting may be in for a shock when he tries to save his Broadway musical

David Lister
 

David Cameron’s immigration speech: I broke my promise; this time will be different

John Rentoul
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game