Charles Phillips

I travelled through the countryside by train, bus, on foot and by car and walked round Ypres on 3rd September 2003.
Looking over the peaceful green fields it is impossible to image what it was like in 1915 to 1918. Trees were growing and traffic was roaring along the road. Trains ran from Brussels to Poperinge without hindrance which they could not have done in 1915 to 1918. . .
One imagines that each day of the war was grey and overcast and raining, perhaps and cold. But there were days when it was bright and sunny and warm. Days like that day. Imagine a bright warm sunny day with death in the air in the form of explosives or poison gas. Men dieing in the bright war sunshine of some horrible wound or being poisoned by the green gas. And me walking along beside a busy road. Death came without warning for some of them. Impossible but true For me I had merely to be careful of the traffic and not do anything silly.
In Ypres town it was impossible to image that in 1918 the whole town was a heap of rubble and that everything had been rebuilt from scratch. Unlike Warsaw it has been rebuilt much better.
Only the cemeteries with their white headstones standing out in the countryside beside the roads and the railway line indicated the deaths of the war.
Ypres Reservoir Cemetery was moving - a headstone with the words 'A Soldier of the Great War Known Only Unto God' Another headstone with the words 'A Soldier of the Essex Regiment Known Only Unto God' Someone's son, father, brother, uncle, cousin, nephew And boys played at the gates, who were not much younger if at all than those who died. And some of those who died were not much younger than me.
At Sanctuary Wood the remaining trenches, shattered trees, shell holes, rusting piles of ammunition and the relics in the museum gave no indication of what it was like. No indication of the devastated landscape, the barbed wire, the constant threat of death, the gas, the mud. Men died there in mud or bright sunshine. I walked in and along the top of the trenches. The trenches weren't straight but a zig zag. Had I walked along the top in 1917, there'd been barbed wire and I'd have been shot. And now it was tourist attraction. The small cemetery adjacent so moving.
The taxi driver who drove me back to Ypres had volunteered for Second War, but thought war pointless. I hoped we'd enter the town through the Menim Gate and we did. A tear came in my eye. We halted at the Cloth Hall.
The Menim Gate with its names - a symbol of a pointless war which caused another war. Name upon name upon name. But sadly even in death separated by rank.
The Flanders Fields Museum just gives a glimpse of what it was like when a stable and sure world was turned upside. But it wasn't the exhibits that shocked - it was reading the guide book which showed the horror. The gas. The injuries. Horrible injuries and disfigurement. Dieing in public in a dirty nasty place that once was and would become again a beautiful place.
The Cathedral with its memorials. Incredible to think that it had been rebuilt. And St George's Church with its memorials. An Anglican church in a Catholic country - so moving.
On the 10th I went to Mons, a dull and wet day. In the war museum I found a memorial stone to one G Price of Canada, who had the misfortune to die at 10.58 on 11th November 1918 - the last soldier killed in the Great War. How futile. But death from the war didn't end there. In Bruges the memorial in the Church of Our Lady records people dieing in 1919 from the wounds.
There are still a few people alive who fought in that war. I wanted to go and see where they fought while there were still survivors alive.
The people of Belgium still appreciate what the British did for them in the First World. On the train into Ypres some elderly women had pointed out a war cemetery to me. Similarly some children on that train were aware of significance of Ypres and certainly were not anti-British - mind you it wasn't often they met English person who'd read Belgian history. At Bruges, where I was staying, the ticket clerk at the railway station had asked when I booked my ticket if I was visiting the museum and had then sold me a special ticket for both the journey and the museum. Some Americans I met had not been so favoured.
Incidently a couple of years ago in Amiens in France I'd experienced a similar pro-British attitude.
What will people think in 2114 or even 2914?
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