As the author of “War Horse”, Mr Morpurgo has seen the battlefields of Flanders many times. But In Flanders Fields Museum still moves him ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011
The first time I went to Ypres, to In Flanders Fields Museum, housed in the Cloth Hall that forms one side of the town square, I was with Michael Foreman, the great illustrator. We were there to attend a conference on books for the young set against the background of war—I had written “War Horse” some years before, and Michael had written “War Boy” and “War Game”. We were already good friends, having collaborated closely on several stories. We had laughed together a great deal over the years, as friends do. Emerging into the harsh light of day after visiting In Flanders Fields Museum, we wept together.
As a schoolboy, I had read the War Poets—Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Edmund Blunden (who was a friend of my stepfather’s and often stayed with us at weekends). I had heard Britten’s “War Requiem”, and read “All Quiet on the Western Front”, and seen the film. I’d worn my poppy every autumn; stood cocooned in silence for two minutes every Remembrance Day. But none of these things touched me so intensely as this museum.
Since that first visit, I’ve been back several times: sometimes to research other stories set in the first world war, such as “Private Peaceful”; sometimes to perform these stories in folk-song concerts in village halls and churches all over Flanders. I feel I belong here. My grandfather Emile Cammaerts was Belgian: too old to fight in 1914, he boosted the morale of his compatriots by writing poems, some later set to music by Elgar. Ypres has become a place of pilgrimage for me. And always, when I step out into the bustle of the town square after passing once more through In Flanders Fields, I find myself lost in sadness.
On one visit I saw some English teenagers piling out of a coach to visit a cemetery just outside Ypres. As they wandered off into the field of ghosts, their loudness and laughter died, their hearts suddenly and deeply troubled by the endless rows of “Portland stone bonnet” gravestones with their bleak inscriptions: “Sergeant James Macdonald. Scots Guards. September 7th 1915. Gone.” These youngsters had probably read Owen’s words about “the pity of war”. Now they could comprehend something of what he meant, something of what he felt. It is the pity that wrenches the heart.
Just before Christmas, I came back to this same place, the Bedford House Cemetery, and to In Flanders Fields Museum. This time, Maggie Fergusson, literary editor of this magazine and a friend with whom I am working on a book about my life, came too, bringing Flora, her 12-year-old daughter. Flora was seeing all this for the first time, so I tried to talk her through it, to explain how the war began, how it was waged; to rationalise what we were seeing all around us.
In the cemetery, perhaps, it was some use for her to have me there. I did what I could to set the graves in some kind of historical context. It helped that we had also visited the place where the front-line had once been, and had looked out over the shallow valley where the Christmas truce had taken place in 1914. It’s now a wide green meadow, a farmstead with a wood beyond. A farmer’s daughter was out riding her horse, a buzzard mewing above us. Nowhere could have looked more idyllically peaceful. It helped too that we had stood under the Menin Gate gazing up at the names of the soldiers who have no known grave, all 54,896 of them, and had heard the buglers of the Ypres Fire Brigade sound the Last Post, as they do every evening at eight o’clock.
But, once we were inside the museum, my role as historical guide was redundant. From the moment we entered, words and photographs, film and sound, sculpture, paintings, artefacts and models told of how, nearly a century ago, men went mad all over Europe.
There is a sense of personal involvement in all this. On entering the museum, visitors are encouraged to choose a real character whose story they can follow through the war. Walking beside me, Flora is absorbed in the life of a Dutch girl, six years old when the war broke out, and orphaned shortly afterwards.
The first floor of the Cloth Hall is made up of a series of long, dark chambers, through which the visitor is led chronologically from the build-up of hostilities in the early years of the 20th century, and the mounting horrors of the war, to eventual peace. The first words we read, engraved on a piece of stone, are by H.G. Wells: “Every intelligent person in the world knew that disaster was impending, and knew no way to avoid it.” This was a colossal version of an everyday thing, the accident waiting to happen. An escalating arms race between the great powers, the ratcheting-up of belligerent rhetoric, the formation of the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente, meant that almost any spark would have been sufficient to light the fuse. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo did just that. It didn’t cause an immediate explosion, but in its wake armies began to manoeuvre, politicians to bluster, alarm to grow. Patriotic propaganda stirred up so much righteous indignation that ordinary people became eager for war.
The story is told simply and succinctly through newspaper headlines and archive footage. The visitor stands under a vast hanging cylinder gazing up at the faces of Europe: soldiers and civilians, victims all, about to be overwhelmed by violence. To cheering crowds, men march off to war in bright antique costumes, in helmets that would better suit Hans Christian Andersen’s Brave Tin Soldier. And waiting for them, half-hidden in the corner, are the machinegun and the wire, the flamethrower and the gas masks. Ahead of us, we can hear now, deep in the gloom of the dark tunnel, the crash of exploding shells, and the distant sound of bagpipes wailing. We know what’s to come. We don’t want to go there. But, like the soldiers in 1914, we are mesmerised, drawn inexorably on. There is no escape.
Now we are marching through ruined Ypres (the town was reduced to rubble by shelling; the present Cloth Hall meticulously reconstructs the medieval original), and on into the trenches, where the mud and the wire of No Man’s Land soon stretch for 400 miles, from Switzerland to the English Channel. We are plunged almost into darkness, engulfed by the sound of shellfire. A group sculpture of soldiers, one French, one German, one Belgian, one British, sits ironically around a tea set used at the front by the British commander, General Haig. A case displays the sabre that belonged to Prince Maurice of Battenberg, cousin of King George V, killed in October 1914 fighting on the British side, and buried in Ypres town cemetery. From the walls, photographs of soldiers stare down, by no means all alike. Men from more than 30 countries fought in this war, endured life in the trenches, the cold, the lice, the rats, the shelling, the sniper fire. A whistle blows. On old footage, we watch them scramble over the top. The death rattle of machine-guns punctuates the horror.
So when, round a corner, we come face to face with German and British soldiers shaking hands in No Man’s Land on Christmas Eve, 1914, it is intensely moving. Contemporary accounts displayed on the walls tell how the truce began: the tentative approach as men ventured out of their trenches to share sausages and schnapps, to talk, to smoke, to swap buttons and badges, and eventually to play a game of football. Final score: Fritz 3, Tommy 2. No change there, then.
“One Englishman was playing on the harmonica of a German lad,” Joseph Werzel writes to his parents in Germany, “some were dancing…Hated and embittered enemies were singing carols around the tree. Christmas 1914 will remain unforgettable for me.”
Briefly, the sound of shelling is replaced with the murmur of the carols “Stille Nacht” and “While Shepherds Watched”, exchanged between the trenches. At my side, Flora is filled with angry incomprehension: “How could the soldiers have gone back to killing each other after that? Why didn’t they just say, ‘Sorry, we’ve made friends now. We won’t fight any more’?”
I draw her attention to a strange, prophetic letter written by Winston Churchill to his wife a month before the truce, in November 1914: “What would happen, I wonder, if the armies of both sides suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found for settling the dispute?” The Christmas truce was the nearest they came to it: a last glimmer of hope before the bloodletting resumed.
Frequently in this museum the words of the soldiers themselves tell the story, and all too often their words are deeply troubling. Julian Grenfell writes home in a letter from the trenches, “Then the German behind put his head up again. He was laughing and talking. I saw his teeth glistening against my foresight, and I pulled the trigger very steady. He just gave a grunt and crumpled up.” Grenfell’s insouciance is chilling. “I adore war,” he confesses. “It is like a picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic.”
When you have read this, the shock of the audiovisual experience that follows is profound. The pipes are still calling, and we find ourselves standing surrounded by heads in gas masks, hanging, staring at us. A voice recites Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, written six months before his death in 1918, and ending:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Then comes “In Flanders Fields” (1915) by John McCrae:
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Flora recites the poem, speaking softly, word perfect. She has learnt it at primary school.
After this, there is an ache in the throat as we face, in the next room, the sculpture of a horse rearing under fire, hind legs plunged in the mud, enduring alongside the soldiers. There is an echo, for me, of “War Horse”, my story of the universal suffering of the war seen through the eyes of a horse—a story brought to astonishing life by the National Theatre. We cannot stand and stare. We are now under constant bombardment—a bombardment of statistical information, and of the personal accounts of soldiers from all sides, of doctors and nurses and refugees bombed out of their homes. Flora points out the words of a Flemish girl, her age exactly, who wrote, after visiting a local field hospital in 1917: “There were 30 or 40 soldiers who had been gassed. They lay in a room; they were burnt. One of them had an old shoe on, the others hardly anything left on, half a sleeve of a jacket. That was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.”
Illustrating the eyewitness accounts are photographs and film fragments, maps and models. And laid out among these is the residue of the soldiers’ grief and wretchedness, the corroded archaeology of war: helmets, buckles, bullets. Unknown quantities of this dreadful paraphernalia still lie in the earth of Flanders. Every year, some 200 tonnes of unexploded shells are unearthed, and, since the war ended, they have caused 599 civilian fatalities—the last just three years ago. And buried among the shells, the tanks, the mines, are the remains of those thousands of soldiers whose names are carved on the Menin Gate.
Towards the end of the museum, two great men speak to us of their outrage with words that resonate across a century of wars. “On behalf of those who are suffering now,” writes Siegfried Sassoon in July 1917, in a letter sent to a number of his friends and later read out in the House of Commons, “I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.”
The war artist Paul Nash, who, when he first saw the landscape around Passchendaele, had described it as “a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature”, calls himself “a messenger who will bring back the word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever.”
His words stand by his iconic picture of No Man’s Land, and it is this image of the hell men made on earth that stays with us as we move into a brighter room full of film clips of cheering crowds, of the soldiers who came home, many wounded and scarred, and of the graves of those who did not. I long, now, for light and air. I am desperate to be out of this Golgotha. But, before the exit, we are forced to confront one final sobering exhibit: a year-by-year tally of the number of major wars in which the Red Cross has been involved around the world since the “war to end war” ended—at the last count, 126. The figure strikes me with new force: I have just returned from visiting the children of Gaza, and seeing the effects of war first-hand. Waiting at the Hamas checkpoint to pass back into Israel, I witnessed the shooting of two children, and watched as their bloody bodies were bundled into donkey carts and hurried away.
Back in the main square, the carillon from the Cloth Hall belfry rings out over the town. Churchill said of Ypres, “A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the whole world.” If Ypres was perhaps the most concentrated killing field in British history, it was a killing field for many other peoples too. If it is sacred, then it is sacred for all of them, old friend or old foe alike. And the museum has taught me that Sassoon was closer to this truth than Churchill.
We walk across the cobbles and stand for a moment in the glorious square, bright with the lights of the Christmas Fair, echoing to the sound of children’s laughter from the skating rink. Ypres has grown out of the ashes; reinvented itself. The evening bugles still sound, but the local people live for now: they have to, or the thought of the suffering the town has witnessed would make them mad. In Flanders Fields Museum, and its creator, Piet Chielens, have played a vital part in helping them to come to terms with their place in history. They know, I know, and Flora now knows, that Captain Liddell Hart was right when he said of this terrible war, “It achieved little except loss.”
TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP:
When to go: By November 14th, when the museum closes for six months’ renovation. In March, it is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm; from April to November, every day, 10am to 6pm. Best to avoid Thursdays and Fridays in May and October, when school parties tend to descend, and Armistice Day (November 11th) when Ypres is swamped. Admissions, €8; under 26, €1; under seven, free.
Where to stay: The Ariane Hotel, five minutes’ walk away, is comfortable, with charming staff, ample parking and a good restaurant (doubles from €124). Of the many restaurants, we liked De Trompet, a grill with a conspiratorial atmosphere and excellent comfort food.
What else to see: A ticket to In Flanders Fields gets you into three other museums. Specialist mini-buses make daily tours of the Ypres Salient; details at Information, ground floor, Cloth Hall. Or hire a cab to the many places of interest outside Ypres, including the site of the 1914 truce. Sanctuary Wood Museum displays an original British trench system, and Bedford House Cemetery, on the road to Lille, contains the grave of T.S.H. Peaceful (enclosure 2, plot IV, row A, grave 26), the inspiration for Michael Morpurgo’s novel “Private Peaceful”. Get back to Ypres by 8pm to hear the Last Post at the Menin Gate.
Michael Morpurgo was Britan's Children's Laureate 2003-05. His books include "War Horse". Picture Credit: Brian Harris