I’d have to imagine that they thought we were insane. The birds. With their tiny brains, flying overhead and looking to make a nest or forage for food over the once peaceful fields of Flanders, Belgium; but finding this an untenable task given that we had blown to hell every tree or useful remnant of life in sight. Us, the ‘intelligent’ species, sitting in rat and lice infested holes among our own waste and corpses hurling steel and lead back and forth at each other for reasons most of us were scarce to even really understand.
Flanders today is a beautiful part of Europe. Its rolling green pastures reminded me of the midwest where I grew up. Of family trips driving through Indiana; of small towns where the worst traffic on the road would be a tractor pulling a big cart of hay. As you drive through Flanders in 2019, you would never imagine that this was the setting for the most horrifying battleground in human history almost 100 years ago during the First World War. You wouldn’t imagine that as your tiny Peugeot (or whatever that European car was named) flew down those roads, it at one time would have been interrupted every few miles by 6 ft wide and miles long ditches; fields of barbed wire and millions of shell craters that made this peaceful farmland look like the surface of the moon after weeks upon weeks of artillery barrages of a proportion never known. You wouldn’t imagine that millions of men died here in those fields. That many of them are still buried in mass graves beneath your feet; each country did their best to bury their own in proper gravesites, but out of necessity, both sides were forced to bury their enemies just to rid themselves of the bodies piled up in newly captured trenches as the inches of fields were fought for in Flanders.
This beautiful farmland requires an imagination to make the transformation in your mind back to this time – as now over 100 years later the Belgians have gone back to their normal lives and apart from the cemeteries and monuments dotting the fields, it barely looks different from the quiet mid-western countryside. Winston Churchill after the war even proposed leaving some cities like the beautiful Ypres (ee-pruh) in ruins to remember and memorialize the devastation of the war. The Belgians balked at this idea (rightly so). Their response was to rebuild as quickly as possible to show their resilience in the face of the devastation (imagine if after September 11th we had left the 15 acres of ground zero rubble to sit there as a monument to the destruction caused by Al Qaeda. Winston, you had some good ideas over the years, but this was not one of them). But the devastation is certainly worth remembering.
Let me try to put this in perspective: in the battle of Verdun a few miles south of here, 60 million artillery shells were fired over the course of 10 months. OK… well that’s just a statistic if you are like me. Unrelatable. Doesn’t mean much… kind of like when they say the world economy is $80 trillion – that’s quite a bit more than the $30 I have in my wallet I guess… Let me help: 60,000,000 shells / 10 months = 6,000,00 shells per month. 6,000,000 shells / 30 days = 200,000 shells per day. 200,000 shells / 24 hours = 8,333 shells per hour. 8,333 shells / 60 minutes = 138 shells per minute. That’s more than two shell impacts PER SECOND FOR TEN MONTHS. An incessant and terrifying ear shattering drumroll of artillery explosions for ten months straight. Many that weren’t killed were driven insane (ever heard the term shellshock?). 70% of men killed in these battles were killed by this artillery. It was September 11th every few days for almost a year. These are the statistics that move you. They are ones which had never been known before and haven’t been known since. But they are ones which when you walk through the fields of Flanders, chills go through your spine knowing that not long ago this is what happened beneath your feet.
The peaceful and mostly untouched town of Bruges in Northern Flanders, among others, evaded the wrath of this artillery fire as it managed to escape the front lines of the war. Its chocolate, postcard worthy canals and charming old town square a symbol of what many towns may have looked like in Belgium had they not been showered in this barrage of steel. It was and still is a gem of Flanders and as a result probably a little too crowded by tourists pilling in to admire its beauty (and waffles and chocolates). But Ypres further south which found itself in the crosshairs totally leveled in the war is also a beautiful sight. Its Menin Gate hosting a ceremony every night for the last hundred years to commemorate the fallen which saved the city from capture. Hundreds of people turn out to watch each evening to carry on this tradition (I was there on a Sunday night and was 5 rows back because I did not arrive an hour early). Ypres is a monument to this time. But also a monument to the resilience of the Belgians, who were essentially just collateral damage in a conflict of which they had no interest in being involved.
I certainly take for granted that 4,000 miles west of this place, I have not nor will ever experience what being the ‘collateral damage’ in a conflict like this would be like. That as Americans, we as a country were enraged to the point of mobilizing our entire nation’s armed forces because a purely military target on our homeland was attacked a few decades later. This ‘day that will live in infamy’ for the USA… it was just another day if we put it on the same yardstick as what the Belgians dealt with for four horrible years during the Great War. But life has gone on. The birds fly; flowers grow; the graves stand peacefully silent.