Friday, 3 October 2014

Not a Yes Or No Question

A few weeks ago, in Australia, my husband met a woman who told him Ypres was her favourite place in the whole world. I've just come back from my second visit to the city, and I'd have to say I find her passion puzzling. Which is not to say it isn't a lovely place. It is. I suppose it's all a question of psychology, and Ypres, while I like it very much, doesn't somehow quite match my own psychology. Possibly that says more about me than about Ypres. Who knows, it might be a very strange place indeed that really sang to me.

Anyway, as I said, this was the second time I'd ever been to Ypres and, wandering about the town, it seemed to me that the place had become a bit more commercial - I'm sure there wasn't an Apple shop three doors down from the Menin Gate last time I was there, or a boutique belting out Lulu hits in the hope of tempting me to dash in and stock up on miniskirts, let alone a place flogging chocolate Tommies helmets, (with filling), surely the most misguided of marketing ideas ever.

While waiting for the 8 p.m Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, I rested for a while on a bench in the town's main square. Soon I found myself sharing it with one of those men who clutch cans of beer, (or something stronger), at all times and are accompanied everywhere by that special kind of mongrel dog that only drug dealers have, the ones that come as puppies ready-equipped with a piece of string for a lead.

Surrounded, as one inevitably is in a town as drenched in World War One as Ypres - (if indeed any other town is in its league in that respect) - by images of the nobility of male sacrifice, I found it hard not to notice how much my new companion's demeanour deviated from that earlier generation's approach to the world. I didn't have long to observe the detail of the differences, however. Having been accosted by a tribal crony, whose grunted conversation seemed to indicate he wanted something urgently, the can-carrying stranger left me, together with his furry friend, (both the canine and the human variety, in fact).

Watching the trio stumbling off across the cobbles, my initial thought was that we'd lost something. What I couldn't decide was whether that might not actually be a good thing. If called upon, there was absolutely no chance whatsoever that a modern fellow like my erstwhile neighbour would even think about stepping up to the plate in the defence of Queen and country. For the slaughter on the Western Front to happen again, the vast mass of the male population would have to possess a strong sense of duty and an unquestioning respect for authority. Despite the emotional appeal of such qualities, could it actually be a sign of progress that many people nowadays regard such things with scorn?

I find it hard to entertain that possibility. It makes the terrible losses in the First World War appear even more poignant. Was the eager rush to enter the military - on both sides - futile and stupid? Were all the lives sacrificed, all the acts of bravery and mateship we have been taught to admire, merely misguided? If so, what is it that so many of us find so admirable and stirring about the conflict? What gives a poem like Anthem for Doomed Youth such a melancholy beauty? Or, perhaps more precisely, what is that makes melancholy so beautiful to us, when it goes hand in hand with what we see as nobility? Is our admiration for self-sacrifice healthy or is it in fact a kind of death cult?

I can't answer any of these questions. I can only say that I am awed by the Menin Gate and the seemingly endless war graves that remind us of those terrible, muddy, pointless days when, as F Scott Fitzgerald put it so chillingly, 'an empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs'. These places remind us of men at their maddest, I suppose, but also at their best in some terrible way.

I can't explain my feelings when I go to places like Ypres. I don't want anything like the First World War to ever happen again and yet I'm horribly moved that people once gave up their lives and petty day-to-day interests to go to serve what they thought was a bigger cause - despite the fact that with the benefit of hindsight it was possibly just a really silly one. I'm strangely touched by the memorials, great ugly things many of them, their heaviness and sheer size some kind of attempt to make sense of the pointless vastness of what had been done and how much was lost:

  This monument to the XLIX West Riding Division stands behind a Commonwealth War Grave near Ypres, which includes a memorial to John McCrae, the Canadian doctor who wrote the beautiful poem that begins, 'In Flanders field the poppies blow',

Possibly my favourite place in Ypres - or anywhere I've been on the Western Front so far is St George's Chapel, which I'll try to write about and show pictures of in the next post I do. For now, here are some images of Langemark, a German graveyard near Ypres in which 44,061 Germans lie, some 7,000 of them unidentified. I heard Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum (I think) on Radio Three the other day, quoting a German historian on the German approach to history. He said that for them history is what must never be allowed to happen again. The Germans, according to this writer (Michael Stormer, possibly?) use history to remind themselves of what went wrong. That was certainly the sombre impression one got from Langemark

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