If you don’t know what you’re looking at, around Ypres, you think it’s prosperous, green, flourishing farm country. Because it is.
I’m back in Flanders, focused on a series of poems centered here, in the area around the medieval city of Ypres, and the time period May-November 1917. The Immortal Salient, as it was known to the soldiers of “The Armies of the British Empire Who Stood Here from 1914 to 1918” (text on Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing).
Yesterday I decided to drive out to Mount Kemmel [British Trench Map Sheet: 28 SW 1 Kemmel-Wytschaete N26a.5.6], south and west of Ypres, where I’d never been. For most of the war it was behind the British lines, and from it I knew you could see the entire Salient: flatlands surrounded by a circle of hills. So, despite jet lag, I thought I’d climb up the carefully-marked trail to the top and have a look. A family on holiday, emerging from the wooded hillside, showed me where the trail started.
It was raining a little, still, and I passed a farmhouse covered in flowers, a small fenced field with glossy cows and a few horses. I picked some blackberries. The woods were sparse and the sound of the rain on the leaves above and underfoot was a lovely change from airports and New York City. Like a walk in summer rain, in New England.
Except the ground was wrong, I could tell. Right away. Abrupt hollows and small ridges, small steep embankments that ran off into the trees. This place had to have been fought over, shelled. And then, suddenly, out of the trees, one of those Salient Moments when the War steps out to touch you:
A memorial to the more than 5,000 French soldiers, most of whose bodies remain missing, who died defending Mount Kemmel when the Germans overran it during their last major offensive in April 1918.
Turns out Kemmel was shelled throughout the war by German long-range guns, taken by the Germans in 1918, retaken by the Americans (27th and 30th Divisions) in September 1918.