Friday, November 11, 2016

Remembrance of WW1

As Readers most surely know - today is Remembrance Day here in Canada.
Sanctuary Wood Cemetery - Belgium
As you may have previously read, my personal starting point for the entire Europe 16 / OAC Project Grant was World War One :
I am clearly a child of North America in the the Sixties, the paranoia in the midst of plenty which was the Cold War. I was a serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Both my units, the Hastings and Prince Edward’s and the Toronto Scottish, were regiments who had fought at Ypres in 1917. As young men of that same age as those who suffered at Ypres, we were pulled by similar forces. We certainly were frequently reminded of battle honours bought so expensively. This was the early to mid 1970’s, at the end of the Viet Nam War. I was trained by those who had participated, and have close friends who fought in, that particular brand of insanity. Honestly, my own time and place made it hard to understand just how those other young men had been driven so willingly to their destruction.
I personally had intended in visiting Europe at some point over the next few years, to allow me to visit the battlefields in my own pilgrimage of remembrance. I turned 60 this year, I know I’m not going to see the same commemoration of WW 2. As a Canadian, who as a people are so tied to the Land, I know partial understanding will best come from walking the same ground.
from 'Artist's Statement' - my design submission for the Ypres 2016 Project
As Canadians, all of the battles around Ypres have a special significance. 'In Flander's Fields', which we all learn in school here, was written by John McCrae in response to his experiences there in 1915.  Obviously, a big part of my involvement in the entire Ypres 2016 project was to 'walk the ground' of the surrounding WW1 battlefields. To that end, I left the main blacksmithing activities on a number of days to do just that.
Here are some observations:

My old Regiments had both been involved at Passchendaele, October 1917. This area was of special importance to me, and we undertook a day trip to the area.
'Stand the Crosses, Row on Row..'
First thing - It is totally flat.

View over machine gun bunker - Tyne Cot Cemetery
The ground has very, very, slight rolls to it.
The slightly raised area to the extreme right mid distance is the kind of feature that passes for a 'hill'.
The image above is taken over the top of one of three German built concrete machine gun bunkers, a position later taken by Allied troops and used as a first aid station. I'd estimate that the range to the line of trees and farm houses in the near distance to be about 1500 m. At best that line represents the last cover. From there forward, the ground slopes down slightly then back upwards again. The effective range of the German MG 08 machine gun most likely to have been installed in this bunker is 2000 m.
Clearly anyone attempting to cross that ground - even clear and grass covered as it appears today, would be under constant fire - the entire time.
Location of that bunker inside the cemetery
Everything is clean and sanitized.

I was amazed at how perfectly ordered and spotlessly maintained the various cemetery grounds were. Absolutely not a single blade of grass uncut, never, ever a spot of litter anywhere. To their great credit, the Belgians keep all the memorials in flawless condition.
I understand and value this considerable and constant effort to 'Honour Our Dead'.
But is something of the reality of War being lost in the process?
I watched the tourists come and go to this memorial. A very few searched for names. Most took their obligatory holiday snap shots, then got back into their cars or tour buses and off to the next destination. We certainly were the only ones undertaking one of the well posted and described 'battlefield walks'.

I most certainly understand that a short modern visit could never realistically attempt to convey the start truth of the conditions on that same ground to the troops fighting and dying there so long past.
But standing on manicured lawn looking at what in truth is only a handful of representative clean white markers is just far too remote for me.

Visitors Handout - from Sanctuary Wood Museum
On my first day at Ypres, I had visited the visitor's centre (the Ypres 2016 working space was set up just outside). Like any tourist, I looked through what was available locally. This was to back up the general search I had done over the internet before leaving Canada.

Sanctuary Wood is a very small private museum south of Ypres (short bus ride, could be a bicycle trip). Because of its private ownership, it does not get listed on the 'A' tourist site list:
After the First World War a farmer returned to reclaim his land in and around what was left of the wood he had left in 1914. A section of the original wood and the trenches in it were cleared of debris and casualties but generally the farmer left a section of a British trench system as he found it.
Introduction to Sanctuary Wood Museum - Great War web site
What we had found out at the Official Visitor's Centre was that too many tourists had complained that the ground was wet and muddy, much of the site hard to access because of no electric lighting.
Gee. World War One. Mud. (Are you kidding?)

View roughly south to west - large panoramic image (click to open)
 The main element of the site covers maybe an acre of ground. It remains one of the very few locations that has not been completely plowed over. There certainly has been ongoing repair to / installation of steel panels to support the trench lines in the sandy soil. The area is completely pocked with shallow shell craters. It had been dry for a couple of weeks before our visit, and even so most the craters contained brackish water, and yes, in a number of places the trenches had some mud in the bottom. (Kelly and I both had hiking boots, not any problem!)
The trees have all grown up in the intervening years. Apparently the ground had become overgrown and grass covered, but the combination of tree cover and countless feet have ground the surface back to mostly bare soil. (Add some rain and my guess is the ground would even better resemble 1916.)
Entrance to one of the underground sections - to left.
There are two fairly short (20 m?) sections of trench with overhead cover. With the expected kinks (to limit artillery effects) these are of course pitch black. One has a small 'command bunker' of it. We of course had our penlights with us. I most certainly wanted to, and did, duck walk through these (and yes, more mud).

I felt I learned more, at a gut experience level, from the (obviously) modified representation of World War One at Sanctuary Wood.

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.

This piece is out of sequence in my documentation of the expanded OAC Grant Project.
I have been saving it for today...

1 comment:

rathopete said...

Very touching words, having been in Ypres again recently and at one of the cemeteries I totally understand your feelings about how difficult it is to conceive of what those men and boys from both sides went through.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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