When I opened up my newspaper Tuesday morning, the first thing that I saw was coverage of Prince William’s trip to Belgium to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. I’d been concentrating on other things in my life and had forgotten that date was fast approaching.
Canadians fought at Passchendaele, and while it doesn’t have the same place as Vimy Ridge in our national consciousness, it is still an important part of our history. One of our better war films was made about it. The importance of those battles fades with time – by Tuesday night the news stories were focused more on what William’s wife had chosen to wear to the ceremonies.
Vimy Ridge impressed me in my brief visit. But I have spent far more time exploring the area around Ypres where the Battle of Passchendaele was fought. With that in mind, and because I was touched by what I saw, for the next few days I am going to repeat some of those observances from the summer of 2014.
The years between 1914 and 1918 were the wettest Europe experienced during the 20th century, or so I have been told. Those years coincided with the trench warfare in France and Belgium, literally millions of soldiers facing each other from trenches they had dug a few metres from each other. With the bad weather, to say trench life was cold and wet is a huge understatement.
In a couple of locations we visited this past summer we had the opportunity to see recreations of trench life (and the tunnel systems that were dug to support the trenches in many areas. Trenches weren’t just straight lines, they zigzagged and could be of different depths and have dugout or tunnel systems attached. German trenches were slightly different form French or British ones. But the purpose was the same, to provide relative protection for soldiers trying to hold territory, and a staging area for the next assault. Hundreds, maybe thousands of kilometres of trenches and tunnels were dug. Occasionally a forgotten tunnel still resurfaces, collapsing in a farmer’s field. For example Yorkshire Trench and its accompanying tunnel system was rediscovered near Ypres in 1992, 74 years after the end of the First World War.
When I visited Vimy Ridge in 2009 one of the things that hit home most was the closeness of the opposing trenches. The German and Allied trenches were within shouting distance, practically within whispering distance. The soldiers could talk to each other, if they so desired and could find a common language. Indeed, in 1914 there was an unofficial Christmas day truce all along the battle line, with mingling between the two sides, sharing of rations and even impromptu football (soccer) games between the combatants. (As the war dragged on, that shared camaraderie pretty much vanished – but in 1914 the war was still in its infancy.) Such closeness is unheard of in today’s mechanized combat where opponents can wage war literally thousands of kilometres from each other.
When you visit those old trenches today the experience is sanitized. On a sunny summer afternoon you can’t quite get the feel of what it was like to stand in the trenches after two weeks of solid rain, with water up to your knees, trying to find a place to sleep. It wasn’t just the mud and the smell of urine everywhere. It wasn’t the rats the size of cats. It was everything combined – the noise of the artillery barrage, the pounding of the earth, the dead horses and men, it all came together like a picture out of Dante’s inferno.
At the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 we were able to observe the different types of trench construction, recreated on the grounds for the tourists. It is very different to experience that on a pleasant summer afternoon – it didn’t really resemble the old black and white films from a century ago, or the scenes from Paul Gross’ film Passchendaele.
Violence as a method of resolving conflict has never appealed to me. Maybe that is because I have never been all that physically strong and would expect to be on the losing end of any violent confrontation; more likely though it is because violence doesn’t solve anything. One nation may be bigger and stronger than another, but short of total genocide I am not convinced that winning a war does more than just set the stage for the next conflict. There are far too many examples of nations who have fought multiple times over the centuries – obviously the first time didn’t resolve the issue.
Standing in the trenches of Passchendaele I thought about the nature of conflict between nations and wondered whether we have learned anything in the last century. I suspect we haven’t.