All Quiet Now on the Western Front
Over the last week I have cycled some 500 miles along the line of the Western Front in the First World War. It’s been a trip I have wanted to make for some time and has been a powerful way in which to experience the landscape in which this terrible conflict was played out. In my panniers I carried, as well as maps and guidebooks, a volume of the First World War poetry as an emotional and psychological guide to what I was seeing.
Cycling is a perfect way to appreciate any landscape. You travel slowly enough to be able to observe the terrain around you and you do so with all five senses. You are acutely aware of gradient and intuitively stop at the top of any major climb to admire the views in front and behind you. You also travel fast enough to be able to see the changes in landscape and the subtle differences between areas and regions. You can travel far enough in a week to make sense of an area as large as that in which the First World War was fought.
I started in Belgium to the north of Ieper. Belgium was the little country whose fate was central to this becoming a World War. It was the official reason for Britain joining the conflict and the fate of Belgian civilians featured strongly in the recruiting propaganda of Lloyd George and other British politicians. For most of the war only a small part of the country remained in Allied hands but it was interesting to visit Belgian cemeteries and see memorials to the sacrifice made by Belgian soldiers to the war effort.
Cemeteries dominated the route. I stopped at lots and I have no idea how many I passed. There is a particular character to First World War cemeteries. They are scattered across the landscape because they reflect where men were buried at the time of battle. In many cases they stand alone at the roadside or across a field but in other cases, for instance the cemetery which I visited in Arras where the poet Edward Thomas is buried, they are surrounded by more modern buildings.
There is a powerful uniformity of design to the cemeteries: gravestones in serried ranks as if they are on parade. They are all immaculately maintained and there is an order and purpose in these places in such stark contrast to the circumstances in which many of those buried there ended their lives.
Some soldiers have names and ranks and others are anonymous, euphemistically in English “soldiers of the Great War known to God”, in French much more brutally “inconnu”. Yet despite this there is an irony that the occupants of these graves are better remembered than many others who have died before or since.
The cemeteries and memorials I passed also reminded me of the range of different backgrounds, nationalities and religions of those who took part. I stopped to see the beautiful memorial to soldiers from the Indian sub-continent at Neuve Chapelle (and next to it a cemetery for Portuguese soldiers), the Irish Peace Tower at Messines (commemorating the place where Catholic and Protestant Irishmen first fought alongside each other in 1917), a memorial to Australians at Peronne, another to South African troops engaged in action at Delville Wood during the early weeks of the Battle of the Somme, a monument to the Basques and, as might be expected, memorials to Welsh troops at Langemark near Ypres and to the 38th Welsh Division at Mametz Wood on the Somme.
One of the most striking cemeteries I visited however was further south on the Chemin des Dames in the French section of the front. At Cerny en Laonnais French and German cemeteries are placed directly alongside each other. I had a sense of young men, motivated to fight each other by many of the same values of patriotism now lying at peace next to each other.
La Chemin des Dames, a long ridge north of the Aisne Valley fought fiercely over during the whole period of the War, was one of a number of places which brought home to me the importance of high ground in this conflict. My route also took me over Vimy Ridge taken the Canadians in 1917. It was staggering, as I struggled to get up them on my bike, to think of soldiers attacking these positions under heavy fire.
One of the most moving things I saw was right at the beginning of my trip. In Poperinge near Ieper (and just behind the British lines) it is possible to visit the cells in which British soldiers, convicted for desertion (some suffering from shell shock), were held the night before their execution and the yard in which they were shot. Of all the brutal images in a brutal war nothing stands out as far.
The final image of my trip is that which I have used as the header for this blog. We are used to the poppy being the symbol of the conflicts of the 20th century but it was especially moving to cycle through the battlefields and see the poppies growing amidst the cornfields, such a poignant reminder of the lives of young men sacrificed a hundred years ago.
The guns are silent and all is now quiet on the Western Front. I thought that one thing which would have united young men from all the nationalities who lost their lives on these fields was that the horrors which they experienced would represent a war to end wars. Sadly a hundred years I am not sure that we have learnt this lesson.