The War to Understand All Wars

What a perfectly strange Sunday I’ve had. Not that anything peculiar or spectacular happened to me, personally. It’s just that it kept raining all day long, to the point where postponing my mid-daily dog-walk made less sense with each passing hour. At half past four, I put on a rain jacket, some hiking boots and went out to do the deed and walk the walk.

I expected it to be cold – rather, temperatures were quite nice. After a few hundred yards,the purpose of those matching, yet silly-looking rain trousers became apparent, as my regular jeans were rapidly soaking up tiny waterfalls, originating from the rain-proof jacket above them. No point in going back now, though. Just as there was no point in going back some eight months ago.

Last November, yours truly made a very impulsive decision to go out on a weekend trip, destination: Westhoek.

Only two years ago, I had very little knowledge of the Great War, nor did I care too much about it. I’m Dutch after all, and Holland simply didn’t participate in said conflict. As a result of this, World War 1 has been largely ignored in terms of media exposure – the “mainstream” sources usually focus on World War 2, instead. That’s nice and all, but I’ve been living in Belgium for the past eight years now – and it seemed ridiculous not to read up on that insanely-scaled conflict which has tortured my new home country for four whole years. So I went to work, read a few works on the War as a whole, picked up a tourist guide and singled out the Westhoek for a quick drive-by. It’s likely I’m going to come back on this heavily-improvised journey sometime later; for now, I’ll just focus on the God-awful weather I had to deal with back then.

Because the rain showers of November the 28th, 2009 won’t allow themselves to be compared to the endless drizzle of yesterday, my friends. Ever since I headed out to West-Flanders, dark clouds had been on my tail – in the end they managed to catch up and completely overwhelm my poor ’95 Fiat. By then, the sat/nav had run out of battery juice, with no way of reviving it. Cellphone: dead. Long story short – I reached my destination one hour late.

I have to mention the friendly folks at King’s House (Staden) now, who stayed up late and even whipped up a delicious plate of spaghetti in the middle of the night. I think we’ve chatted all the way till two o’clock in the morning, as well. Then, the following morning arrived to wake me up, again an hour later than I had planned for. Excellent breakfast, weather seemingly not that bad.

First stage of my trip: Passchendaele, Tyne Cot cemetery. Some folks decided to park right next to the front gate; a mixture of decency and confusion takes me to the regular parking area. Once I’ve opened up the back door of my (t)rusty vehicle, those tiny little drips from five minutes ago are gradually transforming into marble-sized lumps of water. I reach for the umbrella, close the back door and… “thunk”. It won’t close – the lock has fallen out of position. It does that, every now and then – but mostly now, when the circumstances are least ideal. “Screw that,” I muble to myself, “If anyone has the indecency to steal a 1995 Fiat Tipo off of a freaking cemetery, then the world has gone to shambles anyway.” More rain. The kind of rain that makes it hard to choose between the casual walk and the uptight little sprint. I decide on the former, as it seems more fitting given the scenery.

Passing through the reception area, I notice the wind having gained strength over time as well. Tyne Cot sits on a large plain area, prone to the wind’s bidding at all times. One can stare all the way into the horizon at certain points – a horizon filled with the occasional tree, some of the more flexible kind. As the wind isn’t letting down, the trees in the back stay shaped like lazy bananas for most of the time. Even the regular oak trees seem unable to keep themselves from tilting a bit. The rustling noise of discoloured shrubberies adds something eerie to the overall atmosphere. The rain is getting heavier, clouds thicker as I make my way to the back-end of the site, where huge marble plaques mention those gone missing – forever, perhaps. More and more rain keeps me from seeing the horizon anymore – it’s just angled strokes of seemingly-solid beams of water out there. Wreaths are starting to float at this point, losing bits and pieces, poppy leafs along their path. Finally, the rain is getting too much for my liking. I can’t concentrate on reading the headstones any more and decide to seek shelter in some lee corner to the right of me.

Only now, the freezing cold is becoming somewhat apparent. Earlier on, my mind had been too occupied with taking in World War 1-related information; but now, just standing there, waiting for the rain to stop, my body is having a bit of a chat with the old grey mass in charge of everything.

“It’s bloody cold out there, governor,” the left hand tells his opposite companion.

“Right’o – pull back, lads,” the brain commands. I pull my hands back into my thick coat’s sleeves.

“What about us, then?” my feet are complaining.

“Should have put on your waterproof kit, mate,” says my head. My current hiking boots aren’t exactly 100% up to the amount of water here.

“And to think I’ve got a pair of perfectly good rubber boots in the back of my car…”

The back of my car is still more-or-less open. I’m not so worried about anyone stealing it at this point, rather than it being transformed into the world’s flimsiest mobile swimming pool due to the abundant amounts of water. I pull out and put on my new coat’s built-in hoodie, walk towards the Cross of Sacrifice and hold still for a minute, head faced down in a moment of contemplation.

Should I salute now?

I was never a soldier. My home country didn’t have much to do with this war. It’s cold and windy and I’m feeling miserable. Someone once showed me the proper way to salute; but it’d feel unnatural and so I decide against it – instead soaking up the horrible atmosphere for a minute or so. And then it strikes me: I’m all alone. There’s no else one out there any more. That one particular car parked in front of the main gate has just pulled out – in between wind shears, there’s a distance moan of a gear being missed. A tour guide has just made his way into his warm coach, stalled way in the back, next to my little Fiat. Nobody’s left but me. The direction of the wind seems to have changed, so as to make the rain land on top of my head at a perfect 90-degree angle. It’s time to move on.

As I pull out of the parking area, dripping wet, the lock on the hatch of my car is jumping onto the bodywork, producing an awkward sound all along the way to Langemark. “Back door open, back door closed, back door open”, an indicator light tells me. Try as I might, I can’t really ignore the little red signal – it’s the only source of light that’s working according to plan. The sat/nav has died on me again, but not after first having given false instructions. According to my Garmin Nüvi 660, one of the largest German cemeteries in Flanders has been relocated to the loading area of a local supermarket.

After multiple attempts, I find my way into the “Soldatenfriedhof” on the outskirts of Langemark. Lots of young Germans met their Maker around these parts. “Back door is open”, says the Fiat’s dashboard as I pull onto the parking area. I’m the only one there – no one even remotely in sight, apart from the odd car passing by on the main road.

A couple of blue garbage bags are struggling to hold their ground against the merciless wind; one of them loses the battle and is being propelled against the reception hall’s walls a second later. The combination of strong winds, the constant trickling of ever-present rain showers and the automatically-triggered media show make for a very gripping setting. Despite there only being a couple of walls to hold back the worst of Mother Nature’s elements, it’s noticeably warmer here than it was “out there”. Reluctantly, I set out to enter the main site – the actual cemetery. On my way to the main gate, I have to duck and dodge branches of small trees planted next to the (very narrow) walkway.

The rain is getting heavier again, after a temporary lull (most of which I spend in my car). Again: casual walking or undignified running? A guy in a minivan passes by – the walkway is right next to the main road – and blows his horn. Probably thinks I’m insane, I guess. I opt for a quick run to the gate this time. Silence prevails within those gates. For a moment, the wind dies down and the rain showers make way for a slight drizzle again. “This is bearable,” the brain tells me. I’m not one to debate it right now.

So I walk along a random path of headstones and plaques, embedded in the grass. Every now and then, I stop to read the included information – “Such and such, age 17, part of this and that regiment died there and there.” Half a dozen wreaths have been placed intermittently, one of them bearing the current German colours, another one the Imperial flag. I look around and see more cars driving on the main road. “Whatever must they think of me, this single lonely fool clad in black, standing out there in the rain, reading 90-year old information on a soaking wet meadow?

This time, the rain showers return in earnest. These are the heaviest ones I’ve encountered during my entire trip. It’s no use running away from here – I’m all the way at the back of the cemetery, it’s a couple of hundred yards to the main gate. So I decide on walking, casually, continuing to read the formal epitaphs of dozens and dozens of Germans, trying to feel some sort of connection here. Again, the cold prevails and my body starts filing complaints. “Also, Ruhe bitte. Fast da, Jüngs.” By now, I consist out of 90% pure water.

Finally, I reach the main gate again. It’s actually a small building with a room on each side; a quick visit is paid to both of these. The visitor’s registry lies neatly on a wooden table. My entire body carefully moves along as I flip through the pages; most of the comments are in English. And none of them are hateful or even bitter. “You will not be forgotten, thank you for your bravery,” is basically the message here. My body is starting to warm up a bit again.

And so I take one last look at the “Kameradengrab” – the Comrade’s grave, where the remains of some 25.000 (mostly) German soldiers lay scattered in a square-shaped mass grave. As the wind blows through the gate, I wonder if those remains will stay put forever. Maybe the next rain shower is powerful enough to relocate sections of the square to its surrounding area. It wouldn’t really matter, though – human remains are still being found and identified to this day; found on the fields, found on construction sites; found all along the path of destruction paved by this insane machine they called “The War to End all Wars.” If washed away now, we’ll just find them again and again; that won’t end, ever.

Back in my car, the windows covered in a white mist, the signal light still flickering and carrying around a jacket twice as heavy from all that excess water, I feel miserable and humbled.

Then I realize: these are probably the best circumstances to come to grips with The Great War.

Like the inexperienced soldiers of yore, I had enthusiastically volunteered for an exciting expedition, a jolly affair. Once I had made my way onto the battlefield, there was nothing there but rain, wind, cold, mud and death. And yet, at some point, each individual death seemed less important than the constant torture imposed on me – this de-humanized, insignificant madman – by the elements of a power greater than The Great War itself. So I turned my car keys and drove on towards the horizon, towards Ieper, in search for relief.

The rain showers just kept coming – they always do. And they always will.

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