Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The War to End all Wars Turns 100 This Month

Fog over the trenches

It is late afternoon here and the fog drifts slowly over no-man's land that fades away into a sea of white. The soft patter of rain breaks the eerie silence that had fallen over the trenches since morning. Rain is as much an enemy here as the soldiers positioned inside opposing trenches, less than 200 metres away. It has fallen everyday over the past month and the flooding makes our lives even more miserable than the gas and the artillery barrages. I'm peering through an observation port-hole as I stand in knee-deep water, the cold permeating my every bone. I dread that call from my CO to "go over the top", scale the trench walls in the face of a hail of machine gun fire. Bodies of fallen comrades lie rotting next to me, their faces frozen into grotesque masks.  The threat of gas, which arrives soundlessly, is ever-present.

I'm in farmland outside the city of Ieper or Ypres in west Belgium near the French border and I inhabit the mind of a young officer in the British army fighting in the trenches here, on the Western front in the autumn of 1917, almost a 100 years ago. The Great War had dragged on for more than 3 years and the opposing armies, British (including vast numbers of troops from India and Australia), French and Belgian on one side, and German on the other, had ground themselves into a stalemate along trenches from Italy in the south to the western coast of Belgium here. It was a battle of attrition, characterised by heavily fortified German defensive positions and brief, and largely unsuccessful Allied attempts to break through. One of these, the Third Battle of Ypres or the Battle of Passchendaele, during which only a few kilometres of ground were captured by the Allies between July and November 1917 cost half a million lives and led to the complete destruction of the city of Ypres.

Row after solemn row of white tombstones at the Tyne Cot cemetery (outside the city of Ypres in west Belgium) stand testament to the carnage of WW1

The Tyne Cot cemetery, the final resting place for 12,000 soldiers from the Commonwealth

Wreath of flowers at the Tyne Cot cemetery

Wreath of flowers at the Langemark cemetery for the German war dead

Four mourning figures stand guard over the dead, Langemark German cemetery 
Almost a century later, the physical scars have healed, the trenches have been filled in and homes and farmland have taken their place. This 100th anniversary of the war is being commemorated with solemn ceremonies across the continent. This is the month that Germany invaded neutral Belgium to try and outflank France. 

The city of Leuven, the city I've made home for the past year, is today a bustling Flemish university town, with cobbled-stoned streets, mesmerizing Gothic town halls and churches that have been faithfully restored after the destruction of WW1. In August 1914, this city was razed to the ground and its 10,000 occupants forced to flee or butchered by the advancing forces of the German Reich. 

Flashing lights, sirens and the roar of police bikes greeted Leuven recently, when the modern representatives of the two warring countries, the King and Queen of Belgium and the president of Germany arrived here, at KU Leuven. They visited the university (whose library and its collection of 900,000 books was deliberately destroyed by German forces), and remembered the fallen on both sides. 

Leuven town centre, circa 1914 (image source: Flicker)

Leuven town centre, circa 2014

"Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn human beings" - Heinrich Heine
The ruins of the KU Leuven library, 1914 (image source: wikipedia)

 The university library today

My generation knows little about this war from 100 years ago. The 2nd World War, with its horrors of fascism and Hitler's systematic and clinical efforts at ethnic cleansing is the war that occupies a bigger slice of our psyche, given the number of books and films that have documented that war. 

An accident of birth and a quirk of fate has allowed me to inhabit a relatively peaceful era of world history, where I find it possible to travel to Belgium, and live in a continent at peace. A slightly different roll of the dice could possibly have seen me travelling to Flanders in 1914, as part of the 1.5 million strong contingent from pre-independent India, forced to fight someone else's war. 

Trenches, mutilation, horror and death, instead of study, travel, culture and the leisure to look back and learn from history. A sobering thought.

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