It was not the smell of chlorine or horseraddish but that of pigs manure drifting across Flanders fields this day.
There were no poppies brightening the landscape, but only straight lines plowed in fertile soil, a field waiting to sprout. Crows, a magpie crossed a rainy sky to settle under cover of tall oaks. It was cold, miserably wet and quiet. Not much to see. This had been amply described in numerous accounts of everyday life by those hunkering down a meter or two below this very soil hundred years ago. Remarque’s stories of misery in the trenches and home front “All quiet on the Western front” became a best seller only to later be banned by the Nazi regime. They saw barbed wires and a landscape pockmarked by grenade impact through the mirrors of a trench periscope. With no knowledge when the next artillery barrage would deafen ears and throw dirt into the slit in the ground they called home or when the next wave of enemy soldiers would try to get through the rolls of razor wire and kill with bayonets and knives. Perhaps death would come from above dropped by a biplane, a barrel bomb of sorts. Nobody knew, and perhaps it was the biggest fear of all, the not knowing.
After years of back and forth across the farmland winning and losing but a few kilometers of ground, millions of dead in combat and the pandemic of the Spanish flu, the fog of war cleared. The armistice ended combat on 11 November 1918 and ‘the war to end all wars” was over but those words would soon ring hollow.
A century later cars and busses park, Gore-Tex zipped up, hats donned, bright umbrellas unfold and hiking boots skip puddles enroute to a doorway through heavy red rock. Just inside the gatehouse two rooms, on the left a small chapel. To the right the walls covered by wooden panels filled with names in sunken bas relief, headlined “DIE DEUTSCHE STUDENTENSCHAFT”. The names are not of those who graduated but those whose academic achievements were cut short. Volunteers for the “Vaterland” who’s bones lie in the grounds of the “Studenten Friedhof” or as it is officially called Langemark German Military Cemetary. Eighty year old oaks drip rain onto green grass and straight lines of protruding square slabs of dark-grey granite. This is the final resting place of 44061 German soldiers.
A jagged line of concrete blocks bisect the cemetery and connect three pill boxes part of the former trench line. A school class stops at one and listens to a guide. Perhaps the story he tells is of fear felt by the soldier behind machine gun pointing out of the pillbox slit wondering if he will live another day. Or if the light fog on the horizon is a gas cloud drifting his way.
His experience whether a part of the central or allied forces is reconstructed a mere fifteen minutes away by car. At the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 a visitor lift grey wooden lids and dip his nose down a hole. He is likely to smell swimming pool, fresh cut hay or horseradish. The truth is far more sinister as he has just been exposed to the Chemical Weapons Chlorine, Phosgene and Mustad, the latter two substituted by harmless simulants.
Not so in April 1915 when French soldiers first spotted a green greyish cloud drifting their way outside Ypres. They had no idea what was about to hit them. Upwind the Germans had just released Chlorine gas from 6000 cylinders. The heavy gas sunk into the French trenches and mixed with bodily moist forming Hydrochloric acid burning eyes to blindness and making soldiers gasp for air like a fish out of water. Soon wet or urine soaked rags became the protection needed to defeat the unpredictable gas spurring the development of worse.
Phosgene was harder to detect with a smell of musty hay it was not wholly out of place amongst farmed field. By the time soldiers smelled it or displayed cherry read lips concentrations were high enough to kill within days. However as it was a gas it too was unpredictable.
Later during the war fine droplets of a brown oily liquid would be dispersed by bursting artillery shells fired from both sides. Depending on the distance from a brisance it would perhaps take a day or two before it became obvious what had happened. Eyes would itch, skin reddens and eventually blisters form and lungs fill with liquid causing “dryland drowning”. These were the effects of the liquid called Mustard Gas.
Wet rags used for protection became hoods with eyelets followed by masks with filters strapped to the face of humans and horses alike. They were heavy, limited vision and slowed down movements but saved lives. Although the number of deaths from gas warfare was comparatively small, the psychological effects were known to be large. So large that their use would be prohibited twice thereafter in the 1925 Geneva Convention and again the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Yet they have recently been used again.
Under and in the backyard of the Passchendaele museum are labyrinths of rooms and corridors showing life in the trenches. It is easy to understand the boredom and waiting for something or nothing to happen or the hope that it will one day end. There is even a story of the Belgian red devils football team who climbed out of the ground to play national games against France only to return to get killed. The cramped conditions and poor hygiene caused the spread of perhaps the wars biggest killer the Spanish flu.
Many who died were never named but rests at Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery outside the UK. Almost twelve thousand soldiers lay in the grounds around a trio of German pillboxes on a gentle slope. Rows upon rows of white vertical headstones most nameless inscribed “a soldier of the great war”. Another thirty-five thousand names of those missing are inscribed along the crescent walls.
A teenage girl in a bright green fleece jacket bearing the name of her school stick a wooden cross adorned with a plastic poppy into the ground next to a headstone. The printed inscription reads “on remembrance” under which Robert Scott R.I P is scribbled in blue ballpoint ink. She is not the only one who has stuck a cross in the ground today to remember someone she never met. Here and there a small Union Jack flutter in the breeze between the headstones.
As the skies darken people five deep, squeeze tight seeking cover under arched ceiling. Through a circular hole in the roof a light drizzle hit the cobble stones below. Somber conversations in multiple languages fill the air at the city gate. At exactly seven-thirty, four silver bugles are called to life and the Last Post echo in the evening as it has thirty-two thousand times before in the last ninety years. The horns silence and several groups of families walk across the street to place wreaths at the stairs of the Menin Gate in Ypres. After the ceremony end for the night the crowd disburses into the rain and traffic resume through the gate. A few linger to read some of the more than fifty-thousand names of the unidentified or missing Commonwealth soldiers who fought the war to end all wars and made up the lost generation. Lost but not forgotten.