Thoughts from Ypres.

I have never been a fan of war, and I don’t suppose anyone in their ‘right’ mind really would be. The casualties, desperation, hunger, sickness and downright sadness that has prevailed as a result of seemingly selfish megalomania after centuries of war, doesn’t really sit well with me. Over the past week I have spent time trying to make an arm and a leg of the First World War- an epic and devastating cataclysm which saw a century of relative peace shattered in the summer of 1914; from the escalation of the slaughter to when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front in 1918. The ‘war to end all wars’ can only be described as a deliberate political act and one whose legacy continues to haunt us.

Yesterday, at the British Memorial at Thiepval, I stood under a grainy photograph of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, taken just five minutes before the assassination of he and his wife in 1914.  It was here that I listened intently and gathered a better understanding for the reasons behind the millions of deaths from both the Allied and Central Powers.  Names such as Haig, Churchill, and King George V opposed the Central Powers, just as the likes of Monash did for Australia, a loyal and firm allie of the British Empire.  The Central Powers were made up of Germany, Austria- Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, and at a time where Germany had been united as a country for just over 30 years.  

My knowledge of history is stretched, but what I do feel perplexed with is the loss of so many young lives at the hands of the leaders of the superpowers, driven by greed and a sense of entitlement for what they deemed to be ‘theirs.’  On both sides of war. 

100 years later I write this from Ypres in Belgium trying to make sense of the casualties from all facets of combat.  Young men from as far and wide as places such as the Riverina in Australia volunteered their lives – answering a call from afar to make the trip of a lifetime to a land far away.  Almost every fit young man in Britain was conscripted, making six of ten million available- too many died, most of them unmarried men but not forgetting the hundreds of thousands of women who lost their husbands, and children their fathers.  

There are countless stories of the German soldiers and their allied troops fighting a brutal and sophisticated fight in the name of industrial and economic power, and the British Empire with their allied troops from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France and the United States doing all that they could to, quite literally, combat this.  It is a story of power, greed, ill made decisions which resulted in incredible loss.  Overwhelming loss.

Communication was limited- letters of love were received months after the deaths of their sons and daughters were made final; there are endless stories of mothers who mourned their sons for years after the war had ended and young girls who never married because their hearts were broken forever.  From the trenches came poetry and stories of the strongest of mateship and survival, only to be shattered by the inevitable – death from illness such as influenza. These young people fought for days, weeks and months, often having not eaten for such long periods of time that they became so malnourished that their bodies couldn’t fight a moment longer in the battlefields where fighting was the ultimate game.

The sacrifices made by young people from each corner of the globe were huge- they were as naive as they were determined and the photos lining the walls of the many memorials built to make sure they are never forgotten, are of baby faced boys- a cigarette hanging from their mouths as their eyes roll into the backs of their heads completely shell shocked and exhausted.  The letters written home to each corner of the globe speak of the kindness of the French, ‘they greet us with flowers and chocolates, their country is so beautiful- I can understand why they would want to protect this magical part of the world.’  Then came the crippling voids of silence followed by the letters of condolence.  

Driving through towns in Northern France and Belgium, I’ve read endless plaques and pamphlets about the rebuilding that followed the war after entire towns were wiped out, buildings were shattered and also, of and the enormity that is the feeling of being displaced, never to return home.  The locals who are descendents of those who returned home after fleeing the war, speak of the love they have all these years later for the boys who fought so hard to save their land and of the care they will always take of them- their lives ended on this soil, they lay here and they are not forgotten.  

They are Indigenous Australians (still without the right to vote but willing to leave Australia and fight), Indian and Nepalese Gurkhas fighting for the British Empire, Chinese men who were sent to dig trenches, career soldiers, school boys with their lives ahead of them who lied about their age, countless nurses who worked tirelessly to save lives, photographers who documented the brutality and the human faces of war – the list is endless.  I struggle to make any sense of it and as Dad and I go from graveyard to graveyard in the heat and the rain, planting a little bamboo cross at the headstones of the fallen, I cant even begin to come to terms with the reality that is the ‘innocent’ fighting for the ‘madness’ that are the decisions made by people I imagine puffing on cigars in the comfort of their bunkers and grand buildings, a long way from the war zone.

Last Friday night we had a reunion dinner in Albert, France, to honour a dinner held on the same site, on that same date, to the very minute, 100 years earlier.  36 young boys had sought leave from combat and, (in their words) ‘got all a bit inky pinky.’  We feasted on the same menu and listened to tales from the original dinner.  It was a sobering evening  – most of the boys who attended the original dinner had only left school in Australia months or a handful of years earlier.  They fought hard – as hard as their brothers and sisters from each other corner of the globe and who’d also been sold a romantic and gallant tale of  a war that they would never second guess fighting, but one that destroyed so many lives as a result of even occurring.

I will always maintain that war is not the answer, and this week has only further strengthened this in my mind. 100 years on, we continue to see sadness around the globe and today, I feel helpless for all of the lives already lost in war zones and for those which are inevitable in the future. 

I feel a continued helplessness for civilians set to become displaced as a result of war. Wars that are not designed for the direct benefit of  civilians – sadly, they too are derived from political acts and whose legacies will continue to haunt us.

Pictured: the joy on an Australian boys face at a letter from home, France, 1917.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts from Ypres.

  1. Isn’t the British Memorial at Thiepval one of the most beautiful and tragic places ?! X

  2. Pin

    Your poignant comment on the human element of the horrific massacres in France has bought tears to my eyes!

    Having the honour and privilege of laying a wreath on behalf of the State of Victoria at th Anzac ceremony at Villers Bretonneux was one of the most moving things I did as a Member of Parliament.

    You depict the scene so well… it was those fields of unmarked graves and the hope they contained that will haunt me forever.

    Thank you for this wonderful account and the reminder of how precious life is.


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