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Ypres in 1919: Its later restoration in the 1920s and 30s has been extraordinarily complete

The Flemish town of Ieper (Ypres in French and "Wipers" to a generation of anglophone troops) is finally doing very well out of the war. There is hardly a hotel bedroom or restaurant table to be had and the In Flanders Fields Museum in the Cloth Hall is frequently congested. The 45 kilometre tour of the battlefield is well populated in both its bicycle and motorised forms and hundreds of people attend the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate on the east of the town centre which takes place every night at eight o'clock. This has been expanded to include, among other things, the life story, in English, of someone who died at Ypres on that date. There is no shortage of options since more than half a million men died in the vicinity during the Great War. I call it Ypres, incidentally, because that name comes more naturally. Since it is in Vlanderen one should really call it Ieper.

It is good to see Ypres doing so well. In the war it had the misfortune to be a "salient", initially captured by the Germans, then re-captured by the allies although surrounded on three sides, and held for the duration, an object of siege from one side and a springboard for attack from the other. Naturally, it was razed to the ground, and after the war some thought it should be left as a ruined memorial — as Oradour-sur-Glane was in France after the Second World War — or rebuilt as an ultra-modern town. But local people just wanted their old town back and that's what they got, even if it did take half a century to finish. It may be the most complete piece of architectural replication in the world in the sense that a higher proportion was rebuilt in the old style than was true in the likes of Dresden and Warsaw. It raises the possibility, given the trillions of photographs which now exist, that we could replicate anything that was destroyed from now on, including the entire planet after its destruction.

Naturally, for anyone alive today the fascination of Ypres lies in the conditions of the First World War and the emotions of fear, pity, horror and incomprehension which the consideration of them arouses. A life in a puddle, plagued by rats and lice, in constant danger of death and mutilation from the invented horrors of machine guns, shrapnel shells, poison gas clouds or colossal underground mines is actually the most unpleasant thing that has ever been foisted on human beings. We took a day trip to Waterloo, a trip quite manageable so long as the Belgian motorways and the Brussels ring road don't get jammed up. The coverage of that battle now includes a wraparound 3D cinema in which you simulate the experience of being charged by thousands of cavalry. As someone who, like most of my generation, has barely heard a shot fired in anger (and they weren't being fired at me) I can just about imagine getting by as a member of Wellington's army. There was a lot of movement and a lot of work, but danger was only imminent for a very small proportion of the time. Waterloo was a killing field: there were 55,000 casualties. But it was one day; you could take your chance, live or die, win or lose, do your best, get through — and then it was over. But in Ypres there was a second "battle", then a third, then a permanent battle, like an endless and recurring nightmare. I can't imagine not turning into a quivering jelly under such circumstances. However, I am not so baffled by why troops "put up with it" as Jeremy Paxman seems to be in his book on the war. The "bubble reputation", as Jacques calls it in As You Like It, is surely the key. If the immediate choice was to go over the top and face possible death as a brave patriot or to be shot as a cowardly twerp in the eyes of my friends and relatives, I think I would have done what everybody else did and obeyed orders.

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David Curp
November 6th, 2015
4:11 AM
"...but the generals did not think this was an option in terms of morale." Much more important than morale was the problem of alliances - the Germans could and did advance a great deal in the east, and had the Anglo-French played a waiting game in the West for the several years it took to develop sufficient aviation and tanks the Russians likely would have gone down harder and faster... And of course this also ignores the problem of proving technology - tanks took a good deal of time to shake out, and the British forces needed not just tanks but good, working artillery and you only get that from practice/sustained combat operations. On the whole I think the choices Western Front generals and other military/political leaders faced were even worse than we tend to think.

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