19 April 2006
The Battlefield at Ypres
One of the great things about living in Europe, at least for me, is being able to visit historically significant places, usualy by travelling less than a few hours. So when Wim said that he was interviewing some WWI buffs at Ypres (or "Ieper" in Dutch), and asked if I wanted to go, I was thrilled. It turned out the people he was interviewing are called "the Diggers" - (not to be confused with the Australian regiment of the same name).
The Diggers are a group of amateur archaeologists who go to WWI battlefields every weekend to recover unexploded bombs. There were about 15 of them there, most of them Belgian guys in their 50's and 60's. They were all Belgian, but I was very happy to discover that one of them, Frans, was a Dutchman who had lived in Yorkshire for many years and was fluent in English (albeit with the craziest Dutch/Belgian/Yorkshire accent!).......This was a good thing, too, because otherwise my limited grasp of Dutch would have left me to having a conversation inquiring about the weather and how much bread rolls cost.
I asked Frans if he thought they'd find anything. After he was through laughing, he explained to me that there were literally millions of unexploded bombs in the earth beneath this field we were standing in. There was one guy with a metal detector and he walked lazily out to a random spot, switched the detector on, then nodded "yes". And in about 10 minutes, they had perfectly unearthed a bomb in a nice symetrical hole. Amazing!...The bored guy with the metal detector was walking different places and various guys were digging in various places. After only 45 minutes, they had dug up 7 bombs, each in a nice symetrical hole, awaiting collection by the Army later in the day.
I was walking about alone as I like to do in those sorts of places, feeling the vibes. My friends who know me well have been with me when I've felt or communicated with ghosts in various places, and I honestly thought this place might be similar, but all I felt was an overwhelming sadness. Really the sadness permeated everything. It made it hard to walk. The air was heavy.
When we think of Bad Wars, I think a lot of us tend to think of WWII, for obvious reasons like The Holocaust. But WWI was actualy a lot worse in terms of actual battleground warfare. This war was fought in trenches, in conditions that are hard to imagine. Men, most of them young, (as is always the way), would be stuck in these trenches for months or years - sleeping in the cold, the wet, the mud, and all the while with bombs exploding constantly around them. WWI on the battlefields of Ypres was the first time that gas bombs were used, so in addition to the constant shelling, soldiers would also be under threat of dying a burning choking death because of mustard gas. But worst of all, I think, would have been the constant bombing, bombing, bombing. Their nerves must have been shredded beyond belief. The battlefield was so deadly that if one of your men was on the field, dying in pain, he would more often than not have ot be left there because to rescue him would mean absolutely getting killed.
And yet, through all this, this absolutely magical thing happened on Christmas day, 1914: The firing ceased, both sides were singing Christmas carols, and eventualy both sides; the Allies and the Germans, came out for a Christmas Truce and played football ("Soccer") together. They even exchanged gifts. But the next day, it was business as usual, as they went back to shooting each other again. I can't think about that without crying. Aaaah, nuts, it got me again as I typed it.
I was thinking about all this stuff, walking around that field. I was looking down at one of the bombs and I lazily started touching it and tapping on it. Then I heard a voice behind me; "You probably don't want to be doing that."
....Turns out it was an undetonated mustard gas bomb - if I had accidentally broken the glass cylinder at the top, I could have killed everyone there.......See, this is why I love Europe. If this had been an unexploded bomb somewhere in the States, the whole incident would be on the news with graphics reading "terror alert"; I never would have been allowed to come within a mile of it, and certainly not close enough to possibly detonate it. We Americans tend to be so damned coddled and fearful. A nation of alarmists, we are, creating dramas wherever we can. The Europeans, however, have sort of seen-it-all-done-it-all attitude. They tend to take it all in their stride and it's downright fucking lovely.
I asked Frans if he worried that they might accidentally break one of those cylinders one day.
"I've been doing this a quarter of a century, and it hasn't happened yet" He said. Although he went on to tell me that often they were broken under the ground, and as the diggers were digging into the earth, their throats would suddenly start burning.
"Jesus!" I said. "What do you do when that happens?"
"Walk away" He said.