Gas Attacks on the Western Front

Trip Start May 31, 2006
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Flag of Belgium  ,
Sunday, June 17, 2007

I have to say, the next morning it was really hard to get out of bed.  The lack of REM in the last couple of days combined with the incredibly comfy hotel bed made me want to never wake up again.  But alas, Ed has the energy of a 3 year old on speed, so my plan went out the window as soon as I heard him jump out of bed and start talking non stop. 
 
For breakfast I was expecting warm Belgian waffles with orange home made marmalade and butter but instead we got an English breakfast; hard to escape those apparently.  While grumpy Davo moaned about his hangover, we all ate our eggs with beans and toast, trying to ignore him.  
 
First item on the agenda for today was stocking up on Belgian goodies: chocolate and beer!  We checked out of the hotel and walked down to the Vandele Patisserie where rows and stacks of different chocolate bars and bonbons were neatly displayed.  The owner was a cheery Belgian whose chocolate shop had been in his family for many generations, and it showed on the old trays and tables where the chocolate was served.   We each picked the boxes to take home for ourselves and as gifts, and got an extra bag of chocolate cherries on the house. 
 
Next it was off to the supermarket to get our beloved cherry beer.  Oddly enough, here in Belgium the beer is sold in small 300cc bottles, which basically meant we had to take more quantity.  Loaded with cherry beer and chocolate, we found our way back to the car and drove out of Ypres to our next destination: Langemark German Cemetery
I was surprised that there was a German cemetery in Belgium considering the Germans had been the enemies of the war, but I guess that at the end of the day, it's still people that died and suffered during the war, no matter what nationality or political view.  In the cemetery we were greeted by a field of red poppies where a small museum had been erected.  The museum consisted of 4 screens, each showing footage and pictures of war, more specifically the chemical warfare used in this part of Belgium.  
 
Langemark village was the first scene of poison gas attacks deployed by the German army which marked the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.  Chlorine gas in the form of a yellow-green cloud floated its way to the French and Algerian troops which puzzled, grew silent in fear.  The effects of chlorine gas (called Mustard Gas because of its color) were severe.  Within seconds of breathing in the gas, it destroyed the victim's respiratory organs, filling the lungs with fluid, bringing on choking attacks. 
 
I remembered a poem we had studied in 8th grade, written by a soldier, Wilfred Owen, who during the war wrote poetry and sent it back to his mother, although he himself never made it back home.  
 
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. 

 
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! -  An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.  

 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori. (1)

(1) It is sweet and honorable to die for your country.
 
I had always remembered this poem because he was basically saying that there is no honor or dignity in dying for your country.  It's always ugly and it's always foul.  
 
The German cemetery had this dark somber feeling to it.  The vestibule which was styled in a very morose 1930's Art Decó, had German design written all over it.  The central mass grave where 25,000 soldiers were buried had stone slabs all around it covered in the names of the dead.  But what most caught my attention was the statue of the 4 mourning soldiers situated at the back of the cemetery.  They were life size and from far away they looked like the shadows of men just standing there, which was actually very creepy.  Groups of stone crosses were placed on the grass where the graves were, and up above we were shielded by the huge branches and thick leaves of the surrounding trees. This cemetery did not have the pompous air that the other memorials had, and I guess this is why I enjoyed it the most. The dark stone and the bleak surroundings made it exactly what it was: a cemetery. 
 
We left the cemetery but the noise effects of gas valves from the museum still echoed in my head.  As we sped along the silent Flemish routes towards Passchendaele I looked out into the green corn fields and pictured what this must've looked like 92 years ago: mud and barbed wire with a pale yellow fog lingering close to the ground, like a slow moving ghost.   For many years in Britain, even after the war, employees of British Gas companies were not allowed to use the term "gas" in their operations, because of the stigma that the word had left behind on the memories of everyone.  

We reached Tyne Cot Memorial, a British war grave site.  From the looks of it from outside, it was the biggest yet.  As we walked from the car park to the museum, speakers along the path echoed the voice of a young girl reading out the names of the fallen soldiers.  Once inside the museum we were awe struck by the items in the glass casings: putrid leather gas masks, photographs, torn flags, medals, jackets, telegrams notifying families of their son's deaths and letters from son to mothers and from mothers to sons.  All were personal items commemorating the lives and deaths of the British soldiers. On one of the black walls the following quotation made by King George V was printed in large white letters:
  
"We can truly say that the whole circuit of the earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war."
 

Outside, lines upon lines of white rectangular tombstones were crowned with bushels of pink roses.  I sat by one grave and paid my respects to the thousands of people buried here, overwhelmed by the place in itself.  In the middle of the site stood the Cross of Sacrifice which apparently was built on the site of a German bunker, or pill box.  I found Ed sitting on the very top of the monument gazing down at the grave site.
 
The marble walls on the back of the site had the names of the missing soldiers of the Commonwealth including Australian, Canadian, South African, etc.  Lush bushes of crimson roses adorned this part of the memorial, behind an altar with the words "Their Name Liveth Forever More" etched on it. 

The skies were rebelling again and it was time to move on. As far as cemeteries and memorials go, each were different and significant in their own way, their own style, remembering in their own manner. Be it German, British or French, the only common denominator was the respect and the melancholy for the men who honorably gave their lives for the dishonor of their country. 
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Comments

uncle_davros
uncle_davros on

Lessons
Lucia

I am so glad you learnt something from this trip. I remember our convo before, and you were against war, but then again, so am I, but lessons are learnt, people change, and this is one of my favourite places amongst the gravesites.

As for the hangover, yes I had one, but remember, this was the first time I had drunk anything since coming out of hospital, so I did have a fair excuse

zento
zento on

Re: Lessons
Of course you had a fair excuse...we just like giving you shit for it. What else are friends there for???

:)

Looking forward to our next trip to Éire

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