The following was recorded in a stream of consciousness while I clicked through the full length of the Google Streetview of the road from Armentieres to Ypres:
I remember the old town hall in Armentieres. It looks a bit dingier now, the bricks haven’t been cleaned since the age of the internal combustion engine began and it shows.
In the northern part of Armentieres, it seems the Google crew drove through the McDonald’s as part of their route. Must have been lunch time.
As I clicked through the countryside, I found an area just south of Ploegsteert where I believe I remember being fired upon and having to return fire under relatively poor cover. The fire fight was over in only a few minutes but it felt like an eternity. We were able to advance as normal after the exchange.
I came upon the first cemetery near Ploegsteert. It affected me more than I had expected. They really are right on the roads where the soldiers fell. I had a vague memory of these cemeteries along the roads when they were just muddy fields with wooden crosses. There are so many more graves and monuments now. It really is a heartbreaking sight to see all these white marble CWGC headstones so tightly packed together in the midst of life as usual for the people of Flanders.
Getting close to Ypres, I suddenly felt a sense of intense dread. I remember being shelled almost as soon as we arrived, and having to scramble to cover to avoid heavy artillery fire.
The town now looks so clean and peaceful. By the Spring of 1915, though, German shells had already reduced much of the town to rubbish. I remember now how much of the town itself was deserted, empty shells of burnt-out buildings, and crumbling rapidly by the day as shell after shell pounded into it.
Ypres looked a bit like some of the Pacific islands after the 2004 tsunami, or Port-Au-Prince after the recent earthquake; at least that’s the closest we can come in terms of recent events. No city has been subject to such complete devastation by war in the last fifty years, not even Beirut. What nearly a year of relentless shelling did to that city is impossible to comprehend in terms of modern, precise tactical artillery and more comprehensible in terms of large-scale natural disasters.
The world’s armies weren’t terribly concerned about things like civilian casualties in 1915; the old sensibilities of war as the Duke of Wellington and Frederick the Great knew them still ruled supreme, even as Europe- only 30 years away from the dawn of the nuclear age- had developed weapons far more dangerous than the old ideas about war could properly manage without destroying everything within a mile of the battlefield.
Frederick the Great had Cannons but he didn’t have Big Bertha; Wellington had rifles but he didn’t have the Lewis Gun. When warfare is mechanized, slaughter becomes industrialized. When things like construction and vehicle production become industrialized, everyone can have homes and cars; when things like warfare become industrialized, everyone has to fear for their lives.The Geneva Convention was a step in the right direction in reining in modern warfare, but it isn’t enough. The problem is in our need to have an offensive force in the first place. Ideally, the world could resolve their differences without war, and I think we need to keep striving for that. But in the mean time, it would be a great help if the world powers would normalize a policy of de-escalation in conflicts, and of maintaining a strictly defensive military based mainly or entirely within the country that owns it. I think asking the world to quit war “cold turkey” would be ill-advised; if all the world were to disarm, someone would take advantage of the situation because statesmen can’t be trusted. But for a large number of countries in a position of leadership to take the high ground and use their armies only for defense, I think, would bring a tremendous relief to the whole world.
I came upon the Cloth Hall, the symbol of the city of Ypres and its troubles and currently the site of the “In Flanders Fields” museum. I knew to turn right at the Cloth hall, whether by memory or by having looked at ypres.
I found my way out of the Menin Gate, but the Menin Road is so different and modernized that by this time, I felt completely lost.