Speaking of Ypres

I had another couple memories a few days back that I forgot to post, and both are relevant to Ypres.

Recalled Saturday March 2:

I vaguely remember the trenches near Ypres.

While Ypres burned, we had built our own city over the course of less than a year, a large city with trenches for streets, depots for shops, field kitchens for pubs, and filthy holes in the ground for homes. We lived like badgers or foxes, frightened creatures hiding underground. But instead of hunters, we had soldiers and artillery to worry about.

This city- this “New Ypres”- was a city under constant bombardment, a city half underground where the only thing that awaited you outside was a certain and violent death by at least five German machine guns. There was always gun and shell fire, but you always knew when there was a new battle, and you waited for the staff officers to call your brigade, your division, out for the next major offensive.

But life in the city went on. And aside from the shelling, it was quite ordinary the things we got up to.

The trouble is, the shelling and fighting just got worse and worse. It was only a matter of time until something flared up.

The noise that came from a battle was unbelievable. Imagine the initial explosions and the deep rumbling of a controlled demolition, only with hundreds of reports going off at once. The night sky would be lit by numerous flashes from artillery and rifles. When the shelling ceased, we buried our dead and repaired our defenses.

Recalled Monday March 4:

I remember the skeleton of a Frenchman who must have died in a shell hole that had later dried up.

It was near the edge of a wood, maybe five to ten yards from the tree line. The upper half of his body protruded grotesquely from the mud, his bony hands positioned as if he were one of the restless dead caught in the act of pulling himself out of his own grave. Really only the style of the helmet that still sat on his skull readily identified him as French; his elegant mustache now sadly gone along with the skin of his face, and the remains of a tattered uniform, once blue but now stained permanently brown, clung to his half-buried frame.

That same field seemed to be littered with pigtails, broken rifles, and splintered wood but not a lot recognizable as human remains right on the surface. Now and then you’d find a piece of a uniform or a limb but I think all of the recognizable complete bodies had been gathered, save this Frenchman. Very good chance he did drown and wasn’t found when they came and got everyone else, or it could be that his position close to the tree line kept the mud around him from being churned so badly as to bury or macerate him.

Thankfully I remember nothing of the smell of the place, but I remember no smells at all from that life, good or bad, so that’s not surprising. I imagine, though, that for all the human remains hidden just beneath the churned mud, it probably smelled quite awful.

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