After the success (for want of a better word) of the first poison gas attack using chlorine, the Germans went on to develop the use of phosgene later in 1915 and eventually also mustard gas in 1917. Once the Germans had begun to use poison gas (against all the “rules of war”) others followed, first the French and then the British. The reality of trench warfare meant that once an army had dug in they were very hard to shift and poison gas offered a means of incapacitating or killing soldiers in their trenches so that an attack could happen. Things did not always go to plan: gas was generally released when the prevailing wind was blowing towards enemy lines, but if the wind changed then the gas could be blown straight back again. Many soldiers on both sides were killed or injured by what might be called friendly gassing.
The very first poison gas attack was unexpectedly successful, partly because the Allies saw the haze of greenish gas being blown towards their lines and, thinking it was a smoke screen to camouflage an enemy attack, ran towards the cloud. In fact, the success took the Germans as much by surprise as the Allies; had they been anticipating so many dead or incapacitated they would have been more ready to make the most of it and attack, but as an experiment it was certainly successful and opened the way to further use of chlorine and other poisons. Eventually a system developed of throwing bottles or pipes of gas into enemy trenches, where they would explode and the heavy gas then spread along inside the trenches, killing and incapacitating as it went. A favourable wind was still important, though, or the gas would drift in the wrong direction.
Travelling on from Essex Farm we passed a small cemetery with a monument to the 20, 000 or so Breton soldiers, most of them seasoned and experienced fighters, killed by gas in 1915. The monument shows a Breton landscape with dolmen (dolmans?) and a crucifix and commemorates the patron saint of Brittany, St Ives (sp?). Behind it flies an Irish flag in memory of an Irish poet (name??) from Slaine who was killed on the first day of the third battle of the Ypres salient. This term describes the half-bow shaped area of land around Ypres. Noel said that in 1915 the Kaiser had thoughts of invading Britain and the Ypres salient formed the last fortification line of defence.
Britain’s involvement in the war was, he said, mostly to help Belgium, a small country which had held itself neutral but was now caught between Germany and France. Belgium’s neutrality dissolved under invasion by Germany, en route to France, and Britain stepped in to help.
From 1915 much of the Ypres salient was in German hands. In particular the higher level ground (at least in comparison to the surrounding area, much of which had been reclaimed from the North Sea and was relatively low-lying) remained German until 1917. Some 250, 000 British soldiers died at the top of the ridge attempting to free this land from German control, and with them perished about the same number of Germans. We passed a monument to Harry Patch, the only survivor of his regiment in 1917 and the only soldier to have a monument dedicated to him in his own lifetime. He stayed in the area and lived to the age of 102, making him (I think) the oldest survivor.
Passing through the village of the same name we came eventually to Langemark (previously Langemarck), the German equivalent of Ypres for the British and Verdun for the French. Langemark began as the Studentenschlag or students’ cemetery but is now the Soldatencemeterie (sp?). 3, 000 students are buried here, their names recorded on oaken panels just inside the entrance. Forty years ago it was decided, not least for reasons of cost and practicality once Germany had been divided, to reduce the number of German cemeteries. Accordingly the original multiple cemeteries were closed and the bodies consolidated into four large cemeteries, one of them at Langemark. The students were joined by 44, 061 soldiers, 25, 000 of them in one mass grave and the others in collective graves spread throughout the grounds. All of these bodies were from the period between 1914 and 1918 and their names are engraved on oak plaques inside the entrance building, on stone blocks around the central mass grave or on flat plaques of volcanic stone laid in serried ranks on the grass – each engraved with a name or names and then a number of “unbekannte”. The whole place has a heavy and sombre atmosphere, with dark stone, huge oak trees and high hedges all about. According to our guide when I came here with the boys, part of this was imposed on the Germans, who were given permission to have a cemetery there only if it could not be seen from the road (hence the hedges and flat plaques rather than headstones) and was as low-key as possible. There are no flowers, apart from a few shrubs and the odd tribute left by visitors, and the inscription over the entrance reads, somewhat chillingly, “Deutschland muss leben, und wenn wir sterben mussen.”
As you walk through the dark doorway, with rooms on either side (to the right a room full of oak panels inscribed with name after name after name, all in evenly spaced letters which give a feeling of anonymity; to the left panels engraved with maps showing where the German forces fought and fell) the rectangle of light ahead shows the bleakness of the mass grave while on the horizon is silhouetted one of the most striking images I have ever seen: a grouping of bronze statues by Emile Krieger. Inspired by an old photograph of soldiers weeping over the death of an old friend and standing guard over his burial, four soldiers stand forever frozen, watching over their fallen comrades.
The negative atmosphere is exacerbated, I feel, by the new path around from the car park, which takes you through a dark tunnel with screens showing footage of scenes from the First World War and related newsreels. The sounds and sights are grim and depressing and set the scene before you even reach the cemetery itself. Amongst the graves, over to one side, are pill boxes (??) and walls which, Noel pointed out to us, echo the shape of the Ypres salient itself. The sense of loss and pain there is still palpable. Noel showed us a newspaper clipping showing Hitler’s visit there early in the Second World War – a return visit in fact, having been wounded there as a young private, a runner, in 1914. It’s easy to imagine the effect the place might have had in galvanising him into a new determination; it is so very much a place about loss and defeat – and yet still with a sense of the importance of patriotism and the (denial?) unimportance of self.
Even here though, there are signs of the comradeship between soldiers of whichever side: inscribed alongside the thousands of German names are the names of two British soldiers also buried there. Noel told us that there are often soldiers of other nationalities buried in cemeteries alongside those they were fighting – in part a legacy of the policy of burying them where they fell – and that at Cannock Chase, in Staffordshire, there is a war cemetery which is completely mixed.
From the huge cemetery at Langemark we went on to the largest British war cemetery at Tyne Cot. On the way we passed the Brooding Soldier, a monument to the Canadian fallen. There are no Canadian cemeteries in the Ypres salient, because they were never buried separately; their graves are to be found amongst their comrades in the British cemeteries. At Essex Farm we had been behind the front line, but now we were moving into the battle areas. The land around still bears the scars of warfare and the road is uneven where old trenches cause subsidence. Every so often a farmer, ploughing his land, will turn up old ammunition – a dangerous business: four bomb disposal experts have been killed in the last ten years – or even a body, preserved by the heavy clay soil. Mud and poor drainage mean there is little oxidation in the soil and bodies stay intact, but identification is not always straightforward because often the body will have no dog-tag; a comrade would frequently remove it to take home it the fallen soldier’s family and all too often then be killed himself before he could make it home to make his report. Today we use double dog-tags to avoid this – one part can be removed and the other left for identification later. Presumably DNA testing has also made identification easier.
The water levels in this area, much of the land having been reclaimed from the sea, were so high that pumping stations were needed, and many of the workers used to build and maintain these came from different parts of the British Empire. It is estimated that more than fifty sub-nationalities of the Empire were involved in the war, not least Chinese coolies and Pakistanis. Many of them died there too.
We passed by Paschendale Ridge, also known as Tyne Cot Ridge, the furthest point of British advances before Armistice Day.