"What should one make intellectually of the emotional contemplation of life on the Western Front? What is there to learn?"
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.
What should one make intellectually of the emotional contemplation of life on the Western Front? What is there to learn? Two themes recurr on the many hundreds of substantial multi-lingual notices to be found on the battlefield and I find both to be facile and potentially dangerous. The first concerns “the futility of war”; this is allegedly something which modern school pupils are asked to comment on when considering war poetry. This would be a return to medieval education where argument was judged by its success in arriving at a pre-approved conclusion. At one level it is just excessive generalisation — like gathering one’s pupils round a rotten apple and lecturing them on the rottenness of apples. But there is a more complicated mistake involved, the fallacy of the choice of circumstances (to borrow, slightly, from Marx). There is no Global Events Committee which decided to have a Great War and on which one might have voted against the proposition. The futility of resistance? The futility of keeping promises? The futility of the Big Push? These are real futilities, relevant to decisions made by actual people in actual circumstances. Only the Kaiser and Von Moltke were in a position to consider the futility of war and they both liked war — or, at least, they thought they did.
The other inference which takes thought way too far is the appeal for European unity as a way to avoid events like the Great War. People who argue this are like the generals of the war itself insofar as they are trying to solve a previous problem rather than the one they actually face. The 1914-18 war took place because European states were competing for world domination; they are no longer doing so. The wars of the last generation as it is now have been like those in Abkhazia, which I have some experience of, or Bosnia, which I haven’t. They arise out of excessive political unity, by the claims made by multi-national states in complex ethnic conflicts and in some respects, being semi-civil wars, they have been more unpleasant than the Great War. The slogan that should be borne in mind comes from Robert Frost: “good fences make good neighbours”.
The First World War was a very bad war. War is, in a very important respect, the opposite of sport. Good sport occurs when one horse gets its nose ahead going up the hill to the finish or when all four results are possible on the last ball of a cricket match. Good war happens when the good guys wipe out the bad guys before most people realise the thing has started. But once the Western Front bogged down in the late autumn of 1914 there was the most hellish and dysfunctional system of war that mankind had ever known. The problem, summarised later by A.J.P. Taylor, was that the systems of defence were about two centuries ahead of the systems of attack. On the one hand: machine guns, shrapnel shells, mines, barbed wire, etc. On the other, men walking or running at and through the above. It is all very well to see French or Haig or Foch or Hindenburg as dim donkeys, but this was a new situation which contradicted every doctrine of “fire and movement” that they had been trained to believe.
So what could have been done? There were new forms of attack. Gas worked immediately, but only at the surprise stage. Underground explosions had some effect in certain sectors. The development of tanks and planes was going to work in the end, but took years. Treating the whole thing as a massive siege to starve the enemy out had seemed promising and U-boats were the best shot at that, but it was U-boats that brought the USA into the war. Open a new front as Winston Churchill insisted? The Dardanelles campaign looked good on the world map, but pretty silly on the smaller scale as it landed troops at the bottom of cliffs with no water supply. It is still arguable that it might have worked with more experienced troops and better leadership, which is what it never had. I’d like to think that I would have perceived that defence was feasible and defended pending technological developments, but the generals did not think this was an option in terms of morale.
By the road just outside Ypres is yet another cemetry where once stood the field hospital where John McCrae wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields”. This, of course, unlike the bitter brilliance of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen later in the war, was not an anti-war poem at all. It urges men to take up the baton and see the thing through to the end in the name of the fallen. Which they did — surely the only real option. Incidentally, I have believed for decades that it begins, “In Flanders fields the poppies grow . . . “, but actually it is blow, not grow.
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