Ypres, a Century On

Remembering the Great War
Menin gate inscription

All is quiet today among the eight tidy rows of chalk-white tombstones on the edge of Ypres, the staging ground for the Western Front of World War I. One-hundred-ninety-three soldiers have lain beneath the tidy lawn of this patch of ground in Belgium for more than a century. Fresh flowers, bright clusters of furiously red poppies, rest against the three-foot-tall markers.

The tombstones at the Ramparts Cemetery tell stories of grief and families torn apart: Sergeant G. Wakeford, King’s Own Yorkshire Regiment, March 24, 1915. God be with you. Till we meet again. Mother. In an adjacent row lies a soldier who was married: A. F. Howes, Norfolk Regiment. Ever Fondly Remembered by His Wife and Little Son.

Ypres swarms with somber British tourists, who disembark from buses to walk its cobblestone paths, view its seemingly centuries-old shops, homes, and churches, and wander its 175 cemeteries, located outside town amid the famous poppy fields. The ancient architecture and ambience are an illusion. The entire town was destroyed in World War I. Not a single home or tree survived. Churchill argued that Ypres should not be rebuilt: “A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world,” he thundered. But the residents of Ypres who survived the war insisted on rebuilding.

Nothing was more brutish than World War I. Yet mourners experienced it and understood the meaning. They did not turn away in abject, miserable sorrow but faced it square.

Still, the Belgians have shown their gratitude. Every day is Veterans Day in Ypres. Every night since November 11, 1929 (except for the four years of German occupation during World War II) an elaborate ritual is repeated at eight o’clock: volunteer buglers sound out the Last Post at the Menin Gate, where Allied soldiers marched off to the front. The British endured the most casualties; some quarter million fell in or near Ypres. The names of the 54,896 soldiers whose bodies were never recovered are inscribed on the gate. At its unveiling in 1927, Field Marshal Lord Plumer told mourners, “He is not missing. He is here.”

Ramparts Cemetery occupies a bluff on the edge of Ypres, a ten-minute walk from the gate. The graves face a shallow moat, then a back road where cars infrequently pass. Today an elderly Belgian across the water sleepily holds a fishing line. A middle-aged woman in a dress passes him on a sturdy bike. A tombstone in the first row of the cemetery reads: A Soldier of the Great War. Known Unto God. Four others bear the same spare inscription. The rest of the dead—153 British, 14 New Zealanders, 11 Australians, and 10 Canadians—were known unto their loved ones, who were able to set a final tribute in stone.

The mourners summoned grace and wit. H. W. Power. Queen Victoria Rifleman. May 26, 1915. He said farewell. He did not say that it was forever. The ferocity of love and longing, buttressed by religious faith, underpins many of the epitaphs: F. W. Tyrell. Royal Field Artillery. July 20, 1915. I shall go to him but he shall not return to me. And there is this one, defiant of death: Private G. F. Smith. Aug. 9, 1915. York and Lancaster Regiment. Not Dead But Gone Before.

The war was staggering in its stupidity, its senseless slaughter. It was a testing ground for the horrors of modern warfare: poison gas, no man’s land, massive bombs that destroyed bodies. Did duty to country make it all tolerable? One soldier’s family thought so: G. McGrath. K.O. [King’s Own] Scottish Borderer. March 26, 1915. He died that we might live. That patriotic sentiment is rare. Other emotions, more personal, more elemental, rise from the mute stones. The mourners hold both the grimness of death and the fullness of life in their hearts: A. E. Pacey. East Yorkshire Regiment. Feb. 4, 1915. Some May Think That We Forget Him When We At Times Are Apt to Smile.

T. S. Eliot wrote that we have the experience but we miss the meaning. We slumber like brutes, uncomprehending and closed off to deeper impulses. Nothing was more brutish than World War I. Yet mourners experienced it and understood the meaning. They did not turn away in abject, miserable sorrow but faced it square. They incorporated the deaths into their lives. Their resilience and courage were no match for Father Time; they are ashes now, too. But their testimonies remain, facing East toward the rising sun.

Published in the November 9, 2018 issue: 

Jay Copp, the former editor of the Lion (for members of Lions Clubs), is a longtime freelance writer. He lives near Chicago with his wife and three children.

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