- 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
Throughout the twenties and thirties the armaments industry took most of the metal whose cost had all but broken the Bank of England. Then came the Second War and the business of collecting the old metal ended. But suddenly in 1950 the price of scrap in Europe doubled overnight: the Korean war meant cannons would be firing. Suez drove the price up also in 1956, but then it sagged and it is not high now. Still, however, men on the dole head out to the fields in the slow winter months. During rainy periods the metal seems to rise to the surface, cleansed of its clinging soil and shining dully. Traditionally in Belgium the proceeds from its sale go for drinking money.
There is something else the Belgians find: men. In the winter of 1964, seven bodies turned up during the construction of foundations for a new foundry. Four bodies were found in February and three in March. The group of four were sitting on their heels with pistols in their hands and grenades strapped on. The uniforms were still identifiable—good British material. You could read just what was in their minds: They were about to go on a raid and were waiting crouched in their trench. A shell came over and killed them by concussion and covered them with earth. So the four sat for fifty years waiting for the foundry to be built so they might come to light. Their identification tags lasted, although the cords holding them around their necks were gone. There were no letters in the pockets, so the Graves Commission people did not have the problem of deciding what to do with them. (Years ago the rule was set up that letters addressed to family would be sent; those to girl friends would be destroyed.)
Ypres has always been the focal point for British coming over to the Continent to tour the battlefields. During the period between the wars pilgrimages were arranged at cut-rate prices, and people bringing their sandwiches with them came over on the boat trains. They spent the day and went back that same night. Of course the motor coaches touring the more than 150 cemeteries could not stop at each one, so it was a common thing to see poorly dressed English people stopping citizens of Ypres on the street and pushing forward a few shillings to exact a promise that the Belgian would take a camera and go to a stipulated cemetery and take a picture of a certain grave and send the picture on. The well to do came in cars and sought the place where their sons died. One aged Englishman came each year to see a tiny wood. He said he derived comfort from being at the place where his only son died. He would sit for hours by himself; towards the end two men came with him in his big car and carried him out in a wheelchair and took a long walk while he sat.
During the summer of 1964, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the war, Ypres received a record number of visitors. For men who served in the Salient the city offered a handsome certificate with the ex-soldier’s name on it. The city also held a little reception for those coming in organized groups. There were hundreds of such receptions. The men were taken to a large room in the city hall where an official handed out the certificates and made a short speech saying that Ypres paid tribute to all the dead of whichever side. “And now we will have a little drink and a smoke.” Waiters moved forward with sherry and cigars. Then the men went to their waiting buses for the ride to the monuments and cemeteries. Some of the British wore their old uniforms and some wore gilded British Legion outfits complete to clanking spurs and swords and silver braid down the sides of tapering breeches. In the silence of the great graveyards and memorial temples they moved, medals clanking, to seek the graves of friends, and then adjourned to little roadside taverns where they were expected and welcomed. (For haven’t they kept those taverns going for fifty years?) Inside they got slightly potted, and their voices rose, and they took out their old paybooks and pictures of their companies and showed them around. There was always a refrain repeated endlessly as they pointed to the pictures of their pals: “He’s dead … he’s dead … he’s dead.” At the end of the long day and the many taverns, the singing in the buses rushing along the salient’s roads grew somewhat raucous, and men got out harmonicas and danced in the aisles. Some shouted in their Tommy French at passing women, and grew maudlin: “I live in England but my heart is out here.” Others cursed the “bloody Germans,” or the “wife of my bloody Colonel”: “I was his batman, and she said she’d take care of me if I took care of him, and I did till he got his, but she went away to the South of France and I never heard from her again. …”
One man who came back to Ypres seemed quieter than most of the others. He was A. J. Arpal, who wore in his lapel the insignia of the Old Contemptibles Association, and who had seen it through from the very beginning. He had never been back since the war, but now with his grandchildren in school and his wife dead, he joined a tour which went all over the British zone, transportation, hotels, and meals provided for a week, at a price of only eighteen quid. Arpal was a cavalryman.