Exploring the Salient part 1

With many thanks to blog reader and artist Rebecca Hearle for this, the first of two posts, about her trip to the Salient and the art it inspired her to create. 

Railway Wood and Tyne Cot

“And where do they find themselves, that autumn, separately but as part of the same beleaguered army?  In a flat, rain-swept, water-logged land.  A land not unlike their own native Fenland… A land where in 1917, there is still much digging, ditching and entrenching and a pressing problem of drainage, not to say problems of other kinds…. The wide world is drowning in mud.  Who will not know of the mud of Flanders?”   Waterland – Graham Swift

As an artist my subject is landscape, particularly that of the Fens where I live, which was brilliantly captured by Graham Swift in his novel Waterland.  I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Swift’s mention of Flanders as a landscape so similar to my own and yet the stage for the terrible events of WWI.  Whilst I was studying at Anglia Ruskin University I was lucky enough to win the Anglia Foundation Trust Scholarship which allowed me to travel to Ypres and then to produce a piece of work about the landscape.

On the 5th of June 2013 I travelled to Ieper with my husband Nick.  We stayed in a B&B on the outskirts of the town and hired bikes to explore the countryside on.  Cycling in Flanders is a joy; it’s the national pastime and all the roads have cycle paths and routes are clearly signposted; car drivers even give way to cyclists!

The first place I wanted to visit was Tyne Cot Cemetery.  After hiring our bikes we cycled off through the green park where the bicycle hire shop was and back up to the Menin Road.  We didn’t realise that we’d already missed our turning as the cycle route out of Ieper runs through a quiet residential area; instead we cycled along the main road almost to Hellfire Corner – now a round-a-bout – before we consulted the map and regained the right path.  I had been confidently cycling in front and over the next few days whenever I was leading we’d inevitably miss our turning. Without Nick’s map reading skills and innate sense of direction I would have been horribly lost many times.

After leaving the town up, what for us Fenland natives was, a steep hill we crossed the main road.  The cycle route then took to quiet, narrow country lanes.  We passed a couple of houses ensconced in a copse on the right.  At one a woman sat on her porch watching us pass and possibly wondering why I was cycling so slowly, unused to it as I was.  Then, ahead of us on the left, we saw a white cross topping a rise backed by another wood.  The soon to be familiar Commonwealth War Grave Commission sign finger pointed the way to the R. E. Grave Railway Wood. This sight, the white Cross of Sacrifice against the verdant green of Railway Wood was to become the hub of our cycle trips; we were to pass this point near to or from a distance each day.

Railway Wood from the track to Bellewaarde Farm

Railway Wood from the track to Bellewaarde Farm

Unplanned, we detoured up the grassy path to take visit the Cemetery.  The base of the Cross is engraved “Beneath this spot lies the bodies of an Officer three NCO’s and eight  men of or attached to the 177th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers who were killed in action underground during the defence of Ypres between November 1915 and August 1917” followed by the names of those twelve men.  Unusually they have no grave markers as their bodies were never retrieved and still lay where they died underground.

Railway Wood Cross of Sacrifice

Railway Wood Cross of Sacrifice

Adjacent to the Cemetery is a large pond, a crater from the War.  There are many more nearby, remnants of the terrible fighting that took place in what is now a peaceful and quite beautiful spot.  These craters and bomb pools are considered war memorials and it’s now illegal to fill them in.  Standing looking at these ponds, verdant with wildlife, you wonder who lies beneath in the benthic layer; they are strange oasis.

Crater near Bellewaarde Farm

Crater near Bellewaarde Farm

Further up the path from the R. E. Grave is a memorial to the Liverpool Scottish a regiment.  It states that they lost over 180 men as they advanced up the slope on 16th June 1915.  That slope is today a potato field, nondescript and commonplace.  I was overwhelmed by the seeming pointlessness of their deaths; they had died for this small field?

Bellewaarde Ridge

Bellewaarde Ridge

We cycled on to Zonnebeke; now a busy town with a cheerful looking school, it was wiped off the map in WWI.  Cycling along a former railway line we passed farmhouses that had been completely destroyed yet rebuilt almost exactly as before.  At the British named Thames Farm are the remains of a bunker Flandern I; just a corner still stands and a doorway.  A small wooden cross with poppy had been placed on the muddy floor.  This bunker had been built by Germans as a dressing station and used, as is the case with many structures, later by the British and Canadians.  For me the poppy was for all who died regardless of nationality.

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Tyne Cot Cemetery

We approached Tyne Cot Cemetery late in the afternoon, hot and tired from the unaccustomed cycling.  Leaving our bikes we walked half way around the outside of the cemeteries’ grey flint walls to the entrance.  Tyne Cot lies on a slope looking towards Ieper and the cemetery, as you enter it, stretches out before you, colossal in size and gleaming white against the perfect summer blue sky; the remains of 11,960 lie within.  Ahead stands the Cross of Sacrifice which has been built up over a German pill-box; the original British named Tyne Cottage.  Behind the Cross arcs the Tyne Cot Memorial containing the names of almost 35,000 who died after 16th August 1917.

Within the cemetery, amongst the ranks of graves are two more pill-boxes, their rough concrete a contrast to the smooth Portland stone.  Strange to stand in a place so peaceful, with the sky so blue and cloudless, with the sound of Belgian children playing in gardens the other side of the cemetery wall, and be able to reach out and touch the past, a place I would never want to stand in 1917.

Tyne Cot Cross of Sacrifice

Tyne Cot Cross of Sacrifice

Between the Cross and the Stone of Remembrance, engraved Their Name Liveth Forever More, stand a few haphazard graves, the original burials from when the pill-box was used as an ADS.  Among those graves are two German burials.  Their gravestones differ slightly in shape and text but the men buried there, respected and honoured just the same, have more in common with their one time enemies than differences: they all surely “died in Hell”.

When visiting the cemeteries guide-book in hand it will tell you the notable graves to find, those who were exceptionally young (we never found one older than 34) or those who’d been decorated or are famous in some way.  To keep my rucksack light I left the guidebooks at the B&B so we found ourselves wandering among the markers reading here and there the names, rank and regiment of the deceased.  As I wasn’t looking for one single grave I started to feel compelled to read them all.  With so many lying unknown in their graves to read a row becomes a repetitive prose poem, a litany of the dead:

A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God

A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God

A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God

 

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