- Historic Sites
Still Quiet On The Western Front
Half a century ago the glitter of the prewar world was extinguished forever in a 400-mile-long quagmire of barbed wire and mud, dead men and dying hopes. Recently AMERICAN HERITAGE sent a perceptive journalist-historian to revisit the scenes of that longest of all battles. Here is the peaceful present at such places as Verdun and Belleau Wood: the lawns are neat and green, but scaring memories remain.
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
Along the road up from Amiens to Albert, past where the vast artillery parks and railheads were, the Golden Virgin of Albert stands high above the horizon, glittering, gleaming. Once that Virgin sagged over the shell-ripped streets from atop the church the British called the Cathedral, and the soldiers said that when she fell, England would lose the war. (A French engineer crept up and fastened the statue with thick steel wire. No sense taking chances.) The Britishers go through little Albert, where once there were thousands of gun limbers, ammunition lorries, artillery emplacements, forward transport parks—all the immense end product of a mighty world empire carried to the tiny cutting edge of the gigantic sword—and pass over roads where the hundreds of thousands marched and the great guns rolled and the poor silly cavalry horses galloped, on to where Peel Trench was, and Centre Way, and Dead Mule Corner.
Many of the visitors at the cemeteries carry artificial flowers made by the British Legion Poppy Factory and meant to be placed in front of Known graves. Upon the bases of the gravestones under the name and the date of death are words which close relatives were allowed to designate right after the war: IN LOVING MEMORY OF OUR DEAR HORACE AGED 21. FROM MOTHER AND FATHER AND FAMILY. … GOD BE WITH YOU DEAREST TOM UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN. FROM MOTHER AND ALL . … REST IN PEACE SWEETEST HUSBAND AND LOVING FATHER. ALICE AND THE GIRLS.
Ever there is that immense western-front silence that speaks of what was lost in those years and that haunts all who come here. On the slight rises you can stand up as no soldier could have stood and see graveyards in every direction. But you hear nothing save now and then a distant car or tractor. There is nothing else. Delville Wood, where the South Africans met a terrible fate, is an empty park now. Only a lone sheep, belonging perhaps to an absent gardener, grazes there. Flies light on its droppings as once the flies lit on the dead men, revolting the live ones as nothing else did, not the rats nor the stench nor the bloated corruption of those who once were laughing boys singing that it was a long way to Tipperary. And indeed they sang. As in all the Hollywood musicals of the thirties, they sang. For this was the western front of the Great War where the legions went forth in their millions with the bands playing before them. It was really that way —going to the slaughterhouse of their generation they made music. But under these white stones—GOD ’S WILL BE DONE. LOVING MUM—there are torn, broken skulls from which wonderful songs issued. Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag.
The Stump Road cemetery, one of the hundreds, very small, lies along a road so slim that only one vehicle can pass. An Englishman wrote in the Visitors’ Book one summer ago: ” ‘I consider the machine gun to be a greatly over-rated weapon.’ Douglas Haig, Field Marshal.”
In the years just after the war all of the salient was mud. The roads had vanished and rotting horse carcasses lay everywhere, providing limitless food for the giant rats. Overturned gun carriages lay half in and half out of the stagnant pools of water in the shell craters. It was difficult to cut down the few remaining trees; saw blades broke when they bit into the bullets and pieces of metal in the trunks. Machine guns rusted in the collapsed tunnels and dugouts, and Chinese laborers brought over for military construction work lived, forgotten by the departed British, in the cellars of the ruined houses. In the midst of all this were the peasants coming back to reclaim their land. Belgium in those days had a kind of prosperity, for there was work for all. Laborers blew up the thick bunkers with shell powder and used the concrete for new roads. Gangs of men made a living by flattening out fields made as rough as the surface of the ocean during a storm. They did not charge the farmers for their work; their profits came from selling the metal under the mud. That metal filled thousands of trains pulling out of Ypres for twenty years.
By the time of the Depression, the Salient was functioning as a farming area. But during the early thirties, Belgium had thousands of unemployed. And so they came back to the fields and dug down further than the earlier workers had gone. They used the long bars made for cleaning machine guns, shoving them down four or five feet and then examining the tip. Yellow meant copper was underneath; rust equalled iron. Vast ammunition dumps were found, with thousands of live shells, and a great home industry grew up. Its workers were men who knocked the detonation tips off the shells and poured out the powder and sold the metal. (Sometimes the trick did not work; scores of men died one by one in accidents.) Some of the shells were too dangerous to disassemble, and for these there were special fields where each day just before lunch and just before dinner red flags were flown to warn people away as Belgian Army experts detonated the shells and sent new blasts over the fields with the terrible names: Passchendaele, Wytschaete, Polygon Wood.