- 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
For Arpal the symbol of that war has always been Kenney. Years and decades have passed since Kenney died, but Arpal has never forgotten him. Kenney was a laughing boy, twenty-two or three, and always wore his cap to one side. A happy kid. Arpal has thought of him a lot in these forty years while he has turned old and grey and quiet and a grandfather and Kenney has remained young in his lost grave in Belgium. Kenney represented the spirit they had in those days. Arpal was right there when this kid died. They were moving up in file early in the war and there was a volley of shots from beside the road. Kenney was knocked out of his saddle and Arpal thought to himself, Thank God he wasn’t dragged by his horse. Arpal and the others leaped into a ditch and opened fire. By next morning the Germans were gone and Kenney was still lying in the road. Arpal saw at once that it wouldn’t have mattered a damn if his horse had dragged him or not, for he must have been dead before he hit the ground. When they opened his coat to get his letters and things, they saw that sewn into his collar where it buttoned next to his throat there was a union jack. They buried him but his grave soon disappeared in shellfire. It was for Kenney’s name that Arpal looked when he came back to Ypres and saw the giant memorial where the names of the Missing are inscribed in stone. Arpal read through the tens of thousands of names and saw all the ranks of all the familiar British regiments, and those of the strange ones like the gth Bhopal Infantry with its ranks of Subadar, Jermadar, Havildar, Sepoy. Finally he found Kenney’s name, and all the noise and traffic faded away. He had found Kenney. That was at the Menin Gate.
The road goes eastward, through the dreary little red-brick Belgian towns so like the industrial slums of England, and finally ends at the French border. At the road’s beginning in Ypres is the Gate. They dedicated it in 1927. On the outside facing the road is inscribed, TO THE ARMIES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE WHO STOOD HERE FROM 1914 TO 1918 . Inside: HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN THE YPRES SALIENT BUT TO WHOM THE FORTUNES OF WAR DENIED THE KNOWN AND HONOURED BURIAL GIVEN TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH . Kipling wrote the words. Underneath them are the names of the Missing.
The featured speaker on July 24, 1927, was Field Marshal Lord Plumer. Bandy-legged, with a pufly face, not looking like a soldier, he stood with the King of the Belgians before the giant audience come from England. The reporters that day wrote that most of the people were aged women, shabbily dressed. The Southern Railways ran special free trains to the coast for them—first-class carriages only. The women bore rambler roses, snap-dragons, lilies from their English gardens. They sat in the hot sun facing the Gate with their backs to the Menin Road leading out to the Salient, and six pipers of the Scots Guards standing on the shell-shattered medieval ramparts by the Gate played “The Flowers of the Fields.” Buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry sounded the Last Post, and to the reporters it seemed as if in the throbbing silence when the calls faded away there must come some sound, some sign, from the Salient up the road. Lord Plumer cried, “They are not Missing; they are here,” and the Mums in their funny hats and long black stockings put their hands over their faces.
After that, every night at eight in the winter and nine in the summer, Belgian buglers sounded the Last Post. In 1940 the Germans came down the Menin Road and took Ypres. For four years the buglers were silenced. But fifteen minutes after the last German was rounded up in 1944 the long slow notes of the Last Post quivered out from under the Gate. On some of the nights since then, particularly when the weather is bad, there is no one to hear the buglers except the policeman who halts traffic. At other times there will be a score or even a hundred people. Delegations come out from England, elderly men marching out of step and carrying old regimental flags. Age has shrunken most of them and made them puny, and for all that they are combat veterans of the Great War. They look somewhat foolish as they line up in ragged files. Cars and trucks rattle under the Gate as they stand waiting for the police to halt the traffic. When this is done the flag-bearers go out and stand in the road. In this silence the sound of shuffling feet mixes with the dull rumble of idling motors. Someone shouts, “Attentionl” and the skinny old men square-bash to something approaching the posture they were able to attain when all, the living and Missing, were young. Belgians—sometimes soldiers, sometimes members of the Ypres Fire Department—come marching out into the street to face the flags. There are often as many as four buglers. They raise silver bugles given by the British Legion. Some of the old men salute in the British palms-out way. Others take off their hats. The beautiful trilling brings to mind hazy pictures of Indian garrisons and Sandhurst and Salisbury Plain; all the calls are sounded: Reveille, Mess Call, Defaulters’ Call, the Last Post. When the final note dies the Belgians lower the bugles smartly, stand for a moment, and then wheel to the right and march to the curb. The traffic is already rolling under the Gate as the old men start to furl their flags. Some of them walk back to look at the names on the walls yet again—Arpal for one last moment lets his eye rest on KENNEY—and then the buses pull up to the curb.