I’m not sure when I became fascinated with the First World War, but it goes back a long time. My brother and I used to draw military battle scenes in great detail between the opposing empires of Poo and Pee. (As good as we were with drawing, our creativity with names was somewhat lacking). Later on, in about grade six, our class was taken on a Remembrance Day field trip to an old folks home to visit World War I veterans who, by now, were well into their 80s. I think everyone in class was aghast at the thought of visiting old people and for some students, their senior largely stared at the wallpaper, but mine was different. My memory is a little cloudy, but I recall that he was with an artillery unit and was thus charged with hauling around a large gun, which he said, was usually assisted with horses. He told me about the mud, so thick it would suck your boots off, and that the artillery gun and horses were constantly bogged down in muck. I remember his story about a friend of his who was struck with a shell of some kind and that his entire rib cage was opened up so you could see his heart’s withering final few pulses. I said good-bye after a gripping half hour meeting and had to report about my visit to the class. I remember the other kids’ mouths agape as I told our story, with all the gory details, but again, this was an 80 year old man telling this story, not a seventeen year old kid. It was always hard to put that in perspective.
Perhaps that’s were I first heard the name Passchendaele, because his description fit the mold of that horrendous battle. We arrived at Zonnebeke after taking another wrong turn at the Passchendaele Cheese Museum and Mini-putt and venturing a kilometre in the opposite direction. Mr. Compass saved us again but could do nothing for our throbbing cheekbones—the ones in the rear. We rode carefully through the town before arriving at a beautiful park and large mansion at a small round-a-bout. We parked our bikes and bought tickets for the Passchendaele Museum. For those of you planning to visit Ypres, skip the In Flanders Fields Museum and go straight to Passchendaele, it’s truly worth the price of admission.
The museum displayed the entire First World War with an English audio guide. You could see the progress of war starting with uniforms that in 1914 featured colourful coats, sashes and lapels that paid homage to the Napoleonic period. The German army began with leather helmets and “spike” to deflect sabre blows. It was only the British (and therefore Canadians) who had uniforms of khaki green, because several colonial wars taught soldiers to blend into the surroundings. The greatest developments were in weaponry. The First World War produced a lot of “firsts.” It was the first time tanks were used in warfare, the first time aircraft were used, the first time poison gas was used, but the two most important developments were artillery and the machine gun. Artillery came in three varieties and numerous sizes. The museum housed a room full of artillery that had been recovered from the land around Ypres.
Artillery had to be painted to avoid mistakes and the colours denoted high explosive, shrapnel or poison gas: explosive for loosening defensive positions and concrete bunkers, shrapnel for mangling infantry and poison gas when the other two options failed. The machine gun had a major impact as well, with German gunners mowing down British, Canadian and French soldiers at impressive rates. At the start of the war, German guns released over 200 rounds per minute and were positioned to “cross-fire” thereby increasing the shredding rate. The machine gun made infantry charges obsolete, yet commanders in the field kept trying, ordering soldiers to climb out of their protected trenches and go “over the top” into the ground between the fronts and directly into machine gun fire: an area that has gone down in English vernacular as “no man’s land.”
As the war stagnated, soldiers began building tunnels as living quarters with sleeping bunks, kitchens, entertainment areas and latrines. The museum gives you an opportunity to walk through a tunnel with the aural and visual stimulus of distant explosions, flickering lights and sound effects fitting to each room. Fortunately the tunnel latrine had no sound effects, but the toilets at the end definitely did. After leaving the washroom, we emerged into the trenches, some of which were preserved from Passchendaele.
Walking around gives you a sense of the claustrophobia soldiers must have felt living for months, even years in these wet, smelly, dirty, rat infested crevasses, but for those willing to look into no man’s land there was the constant fear of snipers. At one point we were able to look from a German trench to a British trench, across a field of barely 50 metres. Should soldiers make it across no man’s land, bayonets were disconnected and used for stabbing, while some soldiers carried various medieval styled clubbing weapons. Many battles were won or lost in the trenches, brutally, sadistically, while staring their enemy in the face.
The Battle of Passchendaele ground on for close to hundred days at the cost of almost half a million dead and injured between Commonwealth and German armies. Close to 4,000 Canadians died in battle with another 12,000 wounded for a piece of land that a few months later was abandoned in retreat. Passchendaele was a sea of mud and shattered trees that became the trope for all World War I recreations. At the end of the museum stood a haunting statue of hands reaching from the ground struggling to grasp the air, like zombies returning from the grave, memorializing the nearly one third of all soldiers who perished, not by bullet or shrapnel, but by drowning in the Passchendaele mud.
The museum is a moving tribute and helps you get inside the battle, while the grounds are a quiet area of contemplation about the horrors and ultimately the futility of war. For us it was reminiscent of the Killing Fields. Ypres today is a town dedicated to promoting peace and you get that sense. It’s quiet, beautiful, and shows virtually no scars of the horrors that occurred a hundred years earlier. We decided to finish the day and cycle back to Ypres, but the church steeple in front our hotel was well off into the distance and according to the map, we had to ride on a busy highway or follow several switchbacks into town. The latter seemed safer but I was ready to get off the bike for good. We chose the direct route and to our amazement, there was a bicycle trail that ran parallel to the highway into Ypres, then through Ypres in a separate, dedicated lane. Bicycle lanes abound in Belgium and they are safe: don’t fear bringing the kids along.
We returned spent and went out for dinner before retiring back to the hotel early. We spent over an hour looking for a way to take the train to Reims, France, our original plan, but due to the rotating train strikes in France it was difficult, time consuming and expensive. We decided to stay another day in Ypres and visit the South Salient route, then take the train into Paris for five days. I figured there had to be something to occupy us in Paris for a few days. We booked another another night at the New Regina hotel, despite their lacklustre breakfast with weird bacon. We hoped with a few seat adjustments that we’d be better off for ride the second day. Five minutes into our morning ride, it was evident the pain was right back at critical but we were determined to see what else the Ypres Salient had to offer. We pressed on–yeeow!