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.