24. Memorials of Ypres

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My paternal grandfather was a bookbinder. As a young kid, I remember leafing through two volumes of World War I photos. Besides parades sending young men to war, the training camps, the volumes had the victims of war such as the young amputees or the men blinded by poison gas. Since I have now visited Ypres, I intend to open those volumes again to see if they contain any of the memorials and cemeteries.

The reality of death was unprecedented. Scholars estimate that of the 65-75 million military personnel, approximately 9.5-10 million were killed. In Great Britain, approximately 30% of young men between 20-24 were killed; in France, 600,000 widows and one million orphans were created. As a result, individuals and governments began to find more public ways of mourning than simply the private, local, family practices. 

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The British survived the first year of the war because they began to call upon members of their colonial empire for support. Loyalty to “the Old Lion” meant not only that Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Afrikaners, and those from India all died close to their country of origin, but also tens of thousands died in Europe’s battlefields. The British government chose not to repatriate those soldiers remains to their home. Instead, the British government, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission buried the soldiers’ remains as close to where they died as possible. At Ypres, the British government had approximately 150 cemeteries for the 250,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died within a 10-15 mile radius of Ypres.

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The Menin Gate was a new form of mourning. Dedicated in July 1927, this new structure was the first to commemorate those who were killed at Ypres, but who had no known gravesite. Although panels on the walls listed 55,000 names, the space proved insufficient. Within years, the Tyne Cot Cemetery contained the names of 35,000 more men whose actual burial site was unknown, and, more likely than not, will never be known. Scholars estimate that in static, trench warfare, 75% of all deaths were from artillery. The bodies of thousands of men were probably obliterated.

As I walked through numerous British cemeteries, I could not help but to note the epithets. Since the British Commonwealth War Commission wanted to remember all equally regardless of rank, sometimes the only distinguishing feature would be brief saying that a family member wanted placed on the tombstone. Here are some examples

Some families framed the soldier’s death in very traditional, patriotic ways.

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Or, “Sacrificed for King, Country, and Humanity.”

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Some families wanted to acknowledge personal bravery: “Although Wounded in the Morning, He Fought Until Evening When He Fell.”

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The epithet for Private W. Guest sounds like the hymn Amazing Grace: I Once Was Lost, but Now Am Found.” Whatever religious connotations, Private Guest’s name appears on Menin Gate as one whose corpse was never found. However, years later he was identified. The family wanted to remember this strange transition.

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The epithet for Arthur Conway Young leaves no doubt to the family’s feelings: “Sacrificed To The Fallacy That War Can End War.”

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Although the War Commission recognized that not all soldiers were Christians, I could find that they distinguished, besides Christians, only Jews and Muslims, no Hindu, Sikh, or atheist markings. After the first 500 Chinese arrived for the British Labor Corps, there were also some 85 Chinese buried in the salient area. No markings for them.

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There are memorials to soldiers from other countries. On April 22, 1915, the Germans released 160 tons of poison gas. A Canadian division had only reached the lines days earlier. Although other troops fled, the Canadians were able to regroup and hold off the Germans as they tried to take advantage of the chaos and destruction. One in three Canadians troops were killed or wounded, over 6000 total.

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The “Brooding Soldier” monument was unveiled in 1923. A soldier appears at the top of a 30’ block of granite. His hands are resting on the butt of his down-turned rifle symbolizing mourning and respect for his fallen comrades. Field Marshall Foch, Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in the Western Front, said the following:

“The Canadians paid heavily for their sacrifice and the corner of earth on which this Memorial of gratitude and piety rises has been bathed in their blood. They wrote here the first page in that Book of Glory which is the history of their participation in the war.”

Although the words of sacrifice and patriotism are surely true, I remember the physical setting more than anything. The conical trees surrounding the tall block of granite resemble artillery shells; the low, spreading yellowish junipers represent the ground hugging poison gas; the 2-3 foot evergreens represent exploding shells.

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Because the French decided to repatriate their soldiers’ remains to France, there are not as many French cemeteries in the area. Yet, the French needed to honor those whose bodies were never found as well as those who were not repatriated to France. The Saint-Charles-de-Potyze French Military Cemetery has 3500 named dead along with 600 unknown dead.  At the entrance to the cemetery is the Breton Calvaire Monument, a modern monument unveiled in 1968.

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The public, religious, memorial depicts Jesus on the cross, a “calvary.”  As I gazed at the cross and the other figures, I almost missed the dead soldier at the base of the monument. Besides seeing the figure of Christ, I noticed several hooded figures. When I first saw the figures, I thought of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal and the hooded figure Death. Some of the monument’s hooded figures clearly represent grieving women; one monument’s hooded figure is almost indistinguishable, but the figures is surely grieving also.

 This monument does not arouse feelings of patriotism or admiration for the soldiers’ courage and sacrifice. There is no “beautiful” or “heroic” death. My attention, everybody’s attention, was directed toward the family and friends who survived the young man’s death. The degree of their grieving and the degree of their loss finds echoes in the suffering of Christ. It is certainly a very different memorial compared to others at Ypres.

Finally, I visited a German cemetery. At one point, there were 140 German cemeteries; however, they have been consolidated into four cemeteries. I visited the Langemark Cemetery which recognizes some 44,000 soldiers of whom 25,000 are buried in a mass grave. Because in October/ November 1914, almost 3000 “student volunteers” were killed in these early days of Ypres, the cemetery is also named the “Studentenfriedhof” (Student Cemetery).

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My attention was drawn to four, roughly sculpted soldiers mourning their dead comrades. Compared to the other memorials, the impression created is very low-key. Nobody can accuse the German War Graves Commission of wanting to glorify World War I and its aggression. 

Hundreds of thousands of men died around Ypres from 1914-1918. From shortly after the war until recently, memorials remember those soldiers. Designed to help those who mourned, the memorials can trigger all sorts of feelings, from patriotism, to a “warrior nationalism”, to pacifism. It is no surprise that the memorials elicit such diverse feelings.

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