A cold, damp, drizzly day in December is a good time to visit Ypres.
As a former soldier, I´ve experienced loss, and understand casualty figures. Time spent in Ypres though, with its seemingly infinite collection of final resting places, is time where mind struggles to comprehend what the eyes show it. The Menin Gate is a monument like no other. The names, an epitaph to the missing, are incalculable, even as you stand in front and try to count. Looking, the realisation hits that a good proportion of those missing are now under the concrete of buildings and roads in the areas fought over, and may never be found.
After seeking refuge in a bar, De Trompet in the square, to warm myself, I entered Flanders Fields museum. The course of the war years in Ypres and its surrounds are laid bare before you, simple to follow. No attempt to glorify here, as in some museums, just the explanation of progress (or lack of) of the war around the Ypres salient.
From there, a walk around the city walls to the Ramparts Cemetery before a ten minute drive to the largest cemetery in the sector.
Standing in front of one of the myriad graves in Tyne Cot cemetery bearing the simple inscription “known unto God,” a cold gripped me. Not the cold of the incessant moisture sodden wind forcing its way through my clothing onto my skin, but a different, chilling cold.
Staring at row upon row of Regimental Sergeant Major straight lines of headstones left me wondering just why this state sponsored slaughter was allowed to continue for so long. Lost in my thoughts in front of another grave, dusk starting to fall, the fog shrouded bare trees resembling skeletal remains from 100 years previous screaming silently in their torture, the sudden intrusion of children´s high pitched voices seemed incongruous, and yet somehow right. Their lives, fresh and new, as yet untainted by horror.
And then, what I’d been dreading. At 2000hrs sharp, every night of the year, come rain or shine, the Last Post. That piece of music I’ve heard too often, for too many friends, and again, encircled by names of those fallen a century before, I was unable to stop the gentle trickle of tears.
Ypres is an unusual town. Unusual in that it hosts death all around it, inescapable death in indescribable quantities, and yet it maintains dignity. For such a place of pilgrimage there are few tourist shops attempting to gain a living from the sacrifice of others.
The photo´s in the museum show the destruction, there is almost nothing that survives today in its form prior to the Great War, and yet, you know, you somehow sense that the new town, risen from the destruction previously wrought, is stronger than before, moulded by unspeakable tragedy to form a place united.
The day I visited was an ugly day, and yet I left convinced that Ypres is a place of joy and hope.