A corner of a foreign field
Volume 41, Number 1, December 2002
We have recently been informed that the All Party War Graves and Heritage Group, an assembly of Peers and MPs under the chairmanship of Lord Faulkener of Worcester, is to intercede in the matter of Pilckem Ridge and the proposed new road (the A19) that will connect the market town of Ypres (now known as Ieper) with Veurne near the North Sea, a road that will cut a swathe through the battlefield. All four Battles of Ypres were fought, in part, over this ground – in the autumn of 1914 the Old Contemptibles pushed across it to nearby St Julien and Langemarck; in the spring of the following year French British, Canadian and Indian Troops were pressed back over the ridge by the first use of poison gas on the Western Front. In July 1917 British Troops advanced again in the opening phase of the third battle (known famously as Passchendale) but by April 1918 they had been forced to give up their costly gains. In September of 1918 they began the final attack eastwards from Ypres, and over the ridge, that heralded the start of the long awaited liberation of Belgium. No existing War Cemeteries are to be moved to accommodate the new road (although some will be closely by-passed shattering their tranquillity) although it is inevitable that the excavations will cause disturbance of the “missing” – the hundreds of soldiers whose bodies were never found but whose remains lie in the field now to be dug up. It is also estimated that many signs of the old front line, particularly of the static Trench Warfare period, will be destroyed by the work - which inevitably will involve bulldozers and heavy machinery rather than the careful spades and brushes of the archaeologists that many think should be there instead. What has particularly angered many historians is the way that the routing of the A19 had been planned specifically to avoid the remains of a reasonably insignificant 18th century fort and yet seems to disregard the importance of Pilckem ridge entirely. But thereby hangs the problem, and a question which will inevitably lead to some emotional responses – a fort is one small area, a specific site that can be avoided, a battlefield, by it’s very nature is a large open space and far more difficult to work around. Whilst nobody is disputing the need for such battles as Ypres to be remembered the question remains as to how. The first reaction of most of us is that such battlefields should be preserved, left both as reminders of what horrors the world once saw and as memorials to the men who fell there and who have no resting place other than where they met their deaths. However in the modern world with its constant industrial expansion, its need for faster more reliant transport networks and its ever-increasing population is such preservation either necessary or desirable? A country like Belgium, which has seen the majority of Europe’s battles fought on its soil, will always argue that there is a need to plough under sites of historical importance simply because it is limited by geography, should it be limited by history too? Should a field be left a field simply because of its past? There are many who would say no, many who would be happy simply to build a memorial or museum close to the area and then consign the site itself to whatever fate might await it at the hands of the planners and builders. There are still others who wouldn’t even go that far, happy to completely ignore what went before with their eyes firmly set on what will come later, for them no memorials would be necessary, anything that linked the site to the past would be rejected as it is the future that should matter more than anything. However it is for these very people that such battlefields should be preserved – for it is only from the lessons of the past that we are able to build a stronger future and if we start forgetting what went before, what sacrifices our predecessors made to get us to where we are and what mistakes were made on the way then we have no hope for a brighter, better tomorrow
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