It’s a hot, still day in the Flanders countryside. Tractors chug past fields of cabbages and hop vines. Wind turbines rotate slowly on the horizon. In the shade beneath a row of high oak trees, I watch a blackbird hopping across a patch of land. My guide gestures at a raised stone bed in front of us, a neat rectangle roughly the size of a squash court. “This is a mass grave,” he says. “There are 25,000 German soldiers buried here.”
Visiting the battlefields of World War One is a provocative experience, but not a straightforward one. A lot of the time you simply don’t know how, or what, to think. When you’re there, and faced with statistics that don’t rationally compute, even the countryside around you seems slightly unreal. The contrast between the barns and cows of today and the trenches and shells of a century ago is so immense that, at times, nothing makes sense: not the road signs for Ypres and Passchendaele, not the endless cemeteries, not the facts of war.
It’s part of why I’ve come to Belgium, to try to better understand a conflict that began more than sixty years before I was born. My trip begins, in fact, in Brussels itself, where on a carefree June day in 1914 locals had been waiting for reports of Belgian champion cyclist Philippe Thys in the Tour de France. Then news came through that an Austro-Hungarian archduke had been shot in Sarajevo. Within weeks, the capital was occupied by German forces.
I head first to the city’s Royal Museum of the Army and Military History, and its large-scale EXPO 14-18 exhibition. It does a stark job of highlighting the broader picture around the conflict: that the war changed the world order to the advantage of the USA, that men from 50 different nations were called upon to hole up along the Western Front, and that the four years of fighting took a toll of some 5,770 deaths per single day of war. An exhibit on life in the trenches details not just the moments of combat but showcases some of the heartfelt, simple artworks that were a product of the interminable waiting.
Brussels itself is in its full summer finery, the Grand Place awash with waffle menus and selfie-snappers, but it’s almost a relief to catch the afternoon train to the calmer surrounds of nearby Ghent. It’s another city that was occupied by invaders during the war, and happily, despite sitting less than 40 miles from the front, it was left almost unscathed. This is my first time in the city and the sun is low and warm when I arrive, so its waterways and cobbles make quite an impression.
Looks aside, it’s not hard to see why the Germans would have considered Ghent important. It’s the largest settlement in East Flanders – once being so bolstered by the profits of its wool trade that it became one of the richest cities in Europe – and in strategic terms it held obvious potential as a supply centre. Very early in the war, in fact, it was even briefly occupied by the French and British, before the Allies were forced south to the battle-lines that would become so entrenched over the following four years.
Using Ghent as a base, it’s to these battle-lines that I’m headed next. At Ypres station I meet my guide, Vincent, a young man who grew up in the region. “Yes, I was born and bred here,” he smiles, matter-of-factly. “I had to cycle past ten cemeteries every morning on the way to school.”
As we begin our gradual driving circuit of the Ypres Salient, we start passing monuments: a new sculpture dedicated to Welsh soldiers, a brooding statue in commemoration of the Canadian fallen, a sturdy obelisk in honour of New Zealand troops (“it marks where 3,000 men died in two hours”, Vincent says). All around us, the countryside is flat and punctuated by occasional belts of woodland, with just the occasional crest of slightly higher ground affording any real topographical variation.
These ridges inevitably became focal points for fierce battles, although every square inch of the area we can see was also subsumed in the mud and morass of the war. Even today, dozens of tons of metals and munitions are still dug up here each year. “They call it the Iron Harvest,” says Vincent, and when we pull over in the car he illustrates his point by dislodging an unbroken area of earth and pulling out a conker-sized piece of long-oxidised metal. I hold it in my hand, a heavy century-old nugget of – what? shrapnel? artillery? – then place it back where it came from.
We reach Tyne Cot cemetery, where close to 11,900 white Commonwealth graves stretch across a broad rise in the land. There are fewer visitors here than I’d been expecting, and the only noise is the whirr of a mower. Every row of graves has a parallel flowerbed, blooming with roses and perennials, and the flowers seem somehow as important as the stones themselves. The cemetery grants a long view over the one-time battlefields, so you find yourself staring out at the land, then down at the graves, then out again.
In the afternoon, we drive to the slow-moving town of Poperinge. Known during the war as “Pops”, it sat just a few short miles from the trenches and became a garrison town for Allied forces, somewhere to forget – however briefly – the relentless shellfire of the front line. We visit Talbot House, an “Everyman’s Club” which at its peak attracted some 5,000 soldiers a week, who came for cups of tea, games of billiards or just the chance to sit in the garden and read. A message-board still stands in the hall, full of poignant hand-written notes from the war years. One, from a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, states simply: “Would like to trace Ernest or Herbert, my brothers.”
The Ypres region has become a totemic symbol of the conflict due to the barely comprehensible number of victims it accounted for, but other parts of Belgium were left with wartime legacies of a different kind. The following day I travel to Leuven, a handsome Flemish city which since the 1400s has been home to the country’s most prominent university.
When the Germans arrived here in late August 1914, they set the town to flame, reducing 1,000 homes to ashes, killing 200 civilians and burning the university library in its entirety. It’s said that charred pages from some of the 300,000 destroyed books were found fluttering up to 15 miles away.
I’m being told this story at the top of the bell-tower of the new library, a tall, American-financed building built in the 1920s, then subsequently rebuilt after being flattened in the Second World War. I’m with a city guide, Guido, who graduated from the university decades ago but remains a committed advocate of the institution. “When war came here, it shattered lives, homes and a temple of knowledge,” he says, as we look out over restored rooftops. “And what for?”
At the city museum, the carnage of the war is put into a wider context in an exhibition called Ravage, which looks at the plight of other decimated cities, from Sodom to Constantinople. I’m drawn to a small oil painting from 1918 titled “Ypres Seen From An Aeroplane” – it shows the town obliterated, with only a few sporadic clumps of masonry remaining. By contrast, on the streets and squares outside the museum, Leuven is a sunny hubbub of brewpubs and shopping lanes. Then Guido points out the small stone plaques on the facades of almost every building. Each one is engraved with a lick of flame and a date: 1914.
Belgium seems to produce congenial cities from its hat with the ease of a chocolatier producing pralines, so a trip like this can sometimes feel like a strange back-and-forth between the memories of war and the pleasures of a city-break. I leave with a strange mixture of emotions, unable to shake certain images and numbers from my head. The ineffective gas masks displayed in a Brussels museum case. The tales of lice and rats in the trenches. The fact that at the Battle of Passchendaele, 325,000 Allied soldiers and 200,000 German troops died for five miles of land.
One grave sticks with me, too: a basic soldier’s headstone at Essex Farm Cemetery, on the outskirts of Ypres. The family epitaph on the stone is just nine words long. It reads: “It is as if the sun had gone out.”