Guilty Landscapes

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Ypres to do a piece about what’s left of the landscape of war there.

When I was doing the research for it, what struck me most were the seemingly endless numbers attached to the war as a way of calculating its impact. 37 million injured between 1914 and 1918. 10 million soldiers dead, two million killed in the Ieper area, 15 000 soldiers of one nation killed in a particular attack, 6 800 of another.

There were so many numbers that all they served to do (to someone like me, anyway, who’s never had a head for history) was make the war incredibly abstract. And of course, cliché images filled in the blanks.

I think I thought I was going to a place with gravestones as far as the eye could see, red poppies growing in between them, nodding heavily in a light breeze.

That was not what I found.

If you’ll indulge a few of those numbers: two million soldiers died in four years on the Ypres front alone – an incredibly compact area. 10 km by 10 km. Two million. That’s more than twice the population of Amsterdam. The landscape annihilated, not a thing left living.

This is what I saw:

A lovely, rolling countryside that, from a distance it seemed, had overgrown the war.

But then the little details crept in. The trees in the forest being nearly all the same age, which is to say less than 100 years old. The inability to go more than half a kilometre without seeing a cemetery. The neatly tended burial grounds that popped up in every quadrant of one’s vision. The number of crosses on the map that clearly outnumbered the number of towns by at least 5:1.

It was as though the ability to feel history had taken a while to kick in. Suddenly there was a weight to the landscape there, no matter how bucolic it appeared, that was difficult to ignore. My young son was with me, oblivious to it because of his age, and I wondered how long it would be before there was a generation that would fail to feel that weight, even in adulthood.

(Lest we forget.)