Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Johnny Mathis serenades me as I eat my breakfast, courtesy of Magda, my matronly and jolly B&B host. Her English is not great, and my Belgian-Dutch is non-existent, but somehow we manage enough “Ja’s?” and head nods to achieve bacon and eggs.
It is mid-September, I remind myself, as I look up at the speaker to confirm what I’m hearing. Maybe Magda just likes Christmas. And why not? It’s a symbol of peace on Earth, right?
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos
I am staying in the small city of Ypres (EE-pre), Belgium, on a three-day tour of what was part of the Western Front of World War I, then an almost unbroken line of trenches stretching some 450 miles from the North Sea to Switzerland. I am a lifelong student of history – I actually taught the history of World War I to high school students in a previous career life – but when asked, I cannot fully explain why I am here.
Maybe my fascination with World War I and the Western Front began four years ago on a vacation to London. I wanted to see Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, a public art installation of almost 1 million red ceramic poppies, pouring like blood from the Tower of London and spilling onto the surrounding lawn. There were 888,246 ceramic poppies, to be exact, each representing one of the Commonwealth servicepeople killed during the war years of 1914-1918.
Maybe my trip is sort of an educational pilgrimage. I’m trying to make sense of the industrial scale death and destruction that occurred here in Belgium and France. For example, on just one day, July 1, 1916, in one battle, the British suffered some 58,000 casualties – dead, wounded, or missing. Some 19,000 British soldiers were killed or died within just the first few hours of the battle.
Alive at 7:30 a.m. Hundreds of dead by 7:31. Thousands of dead by 9 a.m.
Widening the historical lens, some 3.5 million soldiers from all nations – British, German, French, etc. – were killed outright or died from their wounds on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918.
Widening the lens still further, some 8.5 million soldiers were killed or died on land and at sea on all fronts of what was truly a global war – a war that unintentionally reshaped the world and set the stage for another world war only twenty years later.
As a history teacher, I know how the warring nations stumbled into this catastrophe, but what does something of this horrific magnitude look like?
That’s it, I think to myself. Maybe I’m just achingly curious. You can only read about the past so much – in this case, the trenches and barbed wire, the relentless rain and mud, the relentless shelling, the relentless amputations. The relentless deaths. Sometimes you have to try to stand in history’s shoes.
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright
For two days now, I’ve been in the expert company of Iain (EE-un), a 48-year-old Brit who knows these battlefields as intimately as a fellow Brit would know his country garden. Iain exhaustively reads individual soldiers’ journals and military unit histories. He’s guided large and small groups here and in the Middle East – think “Lawrence of Arabia” – for almost two decades. He’s written a much-praised book on a little-known, but critical aspect of the war: tunnels. World War I courses through his veins.
As we walk the actual campaign battlefields, he paints an ever-increasingly detailed canvas. Dates, names, units, and casualty reports effortlessly fill the air.
I ask him like I’ve asked myself, “Why the fascination with World War I?” I suspect it’s because he’s a former Army man himself – a master sergeant going about honoring his fellow soldiers. I think he responds with something like “It’s the scale of it all, do you know what I mean?” but that could just be the voice in my head as I stare across the remains of a battlefield.
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight
Think of the Western Front like a boxing ring. Two combatants – Germany versus the British Commonwealth, France, and the United States – standing toe-to-toe, slugging it out. Like in a boxing match, one combatant moves the other back a few steps. Then the other combatant counterpunches. Over time, this dance is acted out again and again. Both combatants give and sustain hard punches. Both are repeatedly bloodied. Neither tends to gain significant ground.
Each combatant occupies its trench line and relentlessly pummels the other with shelling, machine guns, and the occasional frontal attack. Once the trench lines are as far apart as 750 yards. Once they are as close as 50. Each combatant silently tunnels under the other’s line and fills subterranean rooms with tons of explosives. When discharged, these underground mines lift massive amounts of earth, trench construction, and body parts into the air.
Thousands of these craters from the shelling and the mines are still visible almost everywhere along the front – a hundred years after they were made. They look like the remnants of what was once some terrible geographic skin disease.
Frequently on our walks, we encounter a sign at the edge of a field: “Danger! No entry! Undetonated explosives.” Thousands upon thousands of unexploded shells lie dormant, but still deadly in these old battlefields. British shells were notoriously faulty, so much so that the Germans once held up a white sheet with a message written in English: “Hey Tommie, you want your shells back?”
First shelling, hidden mines, machine-gun fire, hand-to-hand combat, and then insults.
The scene looks peaceful enough. Sheep and cattle graze nearby, and drying corn stalks move about in a late summer breeze. But the barbed wire fence in front of me says “Don’t even think about it.”
“You have to imagine all of this without trees and crops,” Iain cautions, as we look out over a large emerald-and-gold field that was once a battleground. “But with lots of mud.” My mind switches from full color to black and white, and what’s in front of me becomes a very uninviting lunar landscape.
They know that Santa’s on his way
He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
Deaths are merely statistics on a page or words in the air until you start to see the cemeteries. And on the Western Front, cemeteries are ubiquitous. 54 graves here. 72 graves there. 139 graves. 420 graves. There are 959 British Commonwealth cemeteries alone along the Western Front.
Most were originally constructed behind the battle lines near where the bodies fell in battle, or where they were tended to futilely in field hospitals.
White granite slabs are now arranged in orderly rows in complete juxtaposition to the madness that once reigned here.
Many British headstones simply read
KNOWN UNTO GOD
Almost half the bodies that were recovered were unidentifiable, which speaks to the intense carnage.
Many of the headstones, though, provide the combatant’s name, unit, and of particular interest to me, age.
18, 21, 19, 20, 27, 20, 21, 18, 25, 32
As I walk among the graves, I think of my younger self and wonder how I would have behaved amid the cacophony and chaos of battle.
Many of the graves include a parting message from a family member:
Though death divides
Fond memories cling
Some may think that we forget him
when at times we are apt to smile
“Gravestones that touch one another indicate a mass burial,” Iain notes. In the heat of battle, and given the condition of many of the bodies, it was perhaps the best that could be done.
We pass a French cemetery with almost 12,000 graves.
And we stop at another cemetery and walk among its 44,000 German graves. It feels lazy to write, but the austere, bullet-gray crosses – most with four German soldiers buried beneath them – literally stretch as far as I can see. A poetic metaphor escapes me. I just see death.
And every mother’s child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer really know how to fly
This third and last day of our time together starts with Iain showing me a weathered wooden cross at the edge of a farmer’s field, commemorating the Christmas truce of 1914. A short way into this field, German and British troops briefly left their trenches to celebrate Christmas together.
According to Iain, this exchange happened elsewhere up and down the Western Front, but only in 1914. After that, the combatants would occasionally hold a truce so that the dead could be collected from the battlefield, but they never again stopped to celebrate Christmas. By then, their own exhaustion and their hatred for one another could not be put aside.
And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Iain is part of a team that occasionally performs archeological digs on what were the trenches of the Western Front. On one occasion, he and his mates unearthed two bodies in what they determined was a hole left from an exploded shell.
It was not uncommon during the heat of battle to unceremoniously toss bodies out of the way of the frontline defense. There, the bodies might later have been removed for proper burial, or identified if possible and buried right then. Or they may have been blown apart or covered unintentionally and lost forever by subsequent shell blasts. The last possibility helps explain the huge number of soldiers still listed as “missing.”
It is one thing to be dead, I think. It is another to be dead and unidentified. It is another thing still to be dead and missing.
We stand in the road at the edge of a farmer’s field looking at where the two bodies were found. The actual British trench line – some 6-8 feet deep – would have run to my left and right. Iain opens his notebook and shows me a picture of the two bodies as they were found in the shell hole. I feel myself recoil as their skeletal remains clearly show the brutality of this war.
If you merely drove past this spot, you would never know what happened here. It is an eerie experience to be standing where death occurred with factory precision.
For a moment, I am standing in the shoes of history.
The team was able to secure enough evidence from one of the remains – fragments of clothing, a beret with partial unit insignia – that enabled Iain to later identify the body as “R. Lancaster.” The remains were certified, the likely day of death was determined from the fighting that took place where the body was found, and the surviving family members were notified.
We drive to a small cemetery nearby where R. Lancaster’s remains were buried with full military honors in front of his grandchildren. I stare down at the headstone shining brilliantly in the early afternoon sunlight.
10TH NOVEMBER 1914 AGE 32
HE DIED AMONGST HIS COMRADES
NOT ONE SHALL BE FORGOTTEN
REST IN PEACE
I ask Iain what the experience is like – finding the remains, identifying R. Lancaster, and memorializing him at the gravesite. “It’s almost indescribable,” he offers, “Do you know what I mean?” He pauses and looks out on a nearby farmer’s field. “But there are thousands more like him still out here.”
We get back in his car and drive to a nearby memorial for the missing. There, on the wall among the thousands of names is
“Eventually they’ll take that panel down, and put up a new panel without his name on it,” Iain informs. “He’s no longer an ‘Unknown.’ He’s been found.”
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you