THE PEACEFUL SALIENT
By 433041 SGT. ERNIE SHARP, EDINBURGH
Ypres is now a gravely quiet town. There seems to fall with evening an eerie stillness, a stillness strangely akin to those oddly silent intervals between the shelling when on hazardous nights we hurried through its ruins on our way into the front line.
I had half expected to find it a regular tourist place, a blatant rendezvous for people "doing the Battlefields." But Ypres is not like that. Ypres is a shrine. The tourist spirit does not prevail; and I think that is because this ancient place is visited mostly by those who bring with them memories of someone they knew, someone they miss. It is the Mecca of a long-promised pilgrimage to some grave. Other visitors perchance, like myself, go there to review old scenes and, growing older, to try to recapture in peaceful days something of the atmosphere of the greatest episode in their lives.
As I stepped out of the depot at Ypres a feeling of utter bewilderment settled on me. Gone were those incredibly huge shellholes that made us think, the first time we saw them, that really in very truth this was a war. And walking amid the brand-new unrecognisable buildings I was completely lost. It was not until I glimpsed the ruins of the Cloth Hall and felt the same old foot-wrecking pave under my feet that I seemed fully to realise that this indeed was Ypres.
The room window of my hotel overlooked the tranquil Market Square, and I stood there a while trying to adjust myself to the change in the place. Somehow it didn't seem right that everything should be so peaceful, so quiet. There in the north-west corner stood the magnificent pile of the rebuilt Cathedral. A little nearer hand was the debris of the old Cloth Hall where we used to rummage for bits of stained glass, and where now amid the open ruins a few Belgian peasants were selling vegetables and odds and ends of green stuff. The Square was almost deserted and a dreamy old-world atmosphere seemed to persist even amid the modern architecture of this new Ypres that was so strange to me.
Eager to get about and pick up old landmarks, I set out through the Menin Gate and walked by way of Hell Fire Corner to Sanctuary Wood and Maple Copse. The day was bright, with fleecy clouds. Aeroplanes were aloft, going about on their peaceful occasions-not dropping bombs. Yet the old instinct almost reasserted itself, for momentarily one felt inclined to dash for cover. As I paused at Hell Fire Corner (now the locus of a few private houses), it came back to me rather vividly that my last view of it had been from an ambulance just after dawn on the 3rd June, 1916, when shells were falling thick and the shattered landscape was strewn with wounded men, dead horses and wrecked limbers.
As I continued my leisurely walk along the quiet Belgian roads I saw no trace of war until I came to Sanctuary Wood itself. Here there is preserved an authentic bit of the old front line. Derelict and waterlogged as most of it is, with the dugouts falling in and the revetments badly sagging, it really is an untouched bit of the trenches as we knew them. No doubt some of the debris of war which one sees lying about, may have been placed there-fragments of shells, clips of ammunition, rusty dixies, old British and German rifles, gas-masks, and remnants of equipment. But most realistic of all are the shell-blasted, skeleton trees, a number of which still stand. I spent a pensive half hour there alone with my memories of some I knew so well who had fought and died in this once accursed but now sanctified spot.
In an estaminet which stands but a stone's throw from these trenches, I drank a silent toast to the old Battalion. The Belgian proprietor told me that this particular bit of the line had been known as Warrington Avenue and Bydand Avenue. As to the accuracy of this I cannot vouch, but the name "Bydand Avenue" recalled an evening in May, 1916, just before the Germans raided our sector. I was in the Colonel's dugout. He was eating tinned fruit and at the same time calmly dictating a message to Brigade Headquarters something to this effect: "Enemy mining operations heard below Bydand Avenue. Mine may be exploded any moment." And the dugout we were in was part of Bydand Avenue!
A few hundred yards away lay Maple Copse. New trees were springing up thickly there now, and close by is the very beautiful Maple Copse cemetery. I plucked a few leaves in this new Copse, and stood a while looking at the lovely stretch of sun-bathed countryside which had last presented itself to me as a tangled mass of wire, of mud and shellholes.
From there I walked reverently through the fields to Zillebecke-for I knew as I walked, that every foot of the way was holy ground where some of the 250,000 British soldiers who fell in the Salient, had died.
Zillebecke is now a tiny hamlet, where one gets delightful glimpses of the slow-moving peasants working in the fields and of the queer Belgian carts drawn by the handsome horses in their long traces.
At length I reached the site of Railway Dugouts-that haven of security from the heaviest of bombardments, but where, I remember too, the lice used to drop on to our food from the ancient sandbags overhead, and where we used to be occasionally sprayed with shrapnel when bathing in the nearby shellholes. Of course there are no dugouts there now; the railway embankment has been filled in again, and the trains run along it between Ypres and Roulers.
Leaving Railway Dugouts, I made my way towards Ypres, aiming to enter it by the Lille Gate. As I passed the once illfamed Shrapnel Corner, there was nothing more deadly to observe than two colts and a calf frisking merrily in the fields, and a few hens pecking about along the quiet roadway. At the corner itself there stands a private house or two, a bicycle shop, and I also noticed a large advertisement hoarding for something which would have been very acceptable to us when passing that spot in former times-an aperitif!
The old Lille Gate now stands restored in all its simple beauty. The southern bastions have been completely rebuilt, but the other side of this ancient sally-port still shows its battle-wounds; and looking along towards the north, the battle-scarred ramparts, with the moat in front, present a quaintly old-world picture.
In the evening I walked out to the Asylum. Everything was so still and quiet-not a light or a soul about the place, only a few dogs in the distance barking at my echoing footsteps. I stood close against the red brick walls, but the night was so dark it was impossible to discern anything in detail. But the Asylum recalled that night early in 1916 when the Battalion first took over a sector in the Salient-a night that those who are left will probably never forget; the crowding, tightly packed, into the silent train at Poperinghe; the shells that came over searching for our train as we neared the Asylum; the whining shrapnel that spattered the Asylum walls where we were lined up after detrainment, and the clatter of arms and the unanimous "flop" that followed. To me the rest of that night is just a confused recollection of stumbling blindly along narrow-gauge railway tracks treacherously pitted with shellholes, on into the long communication trenches where one frequently came down heavily on the slippery, broken trench-mats; on, and still on, through Maple Copse and Sanctuary Wood, with the machine-gun bullets smiting the flare-lit shattered trees with resounding thwacks. I remember that, wet, exhausted, hungry, bruised and footsore, my broken-down dug-out when I eventually reached it that night, seemed like home.
Nightly at nine o'clock all the year round, the Belgian bugles from the Menin Gate salute the British dead. "Here are recorded"-so runs the legend on The Gate-"the names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient but to whom the fortune of war denied known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death." I went to the ramparts and stood uncovered near to the five stones of the Menin Gate which bear the names of men of the old Battalion. There were 229 names on those five stones-almost an entire Company. And some I knew well. I heard the solemn notes of the Last Post ring out the nightly requiem, magnified and re-echoed by the majestic vastness of The Gate. With bowed head I stood alone in the darkness. It was one of those great moments in life; an unforgettable experience. I had the feeling that somehow they knew that I, an old comrade-in-arms, had come to do them reverence.
One cannot move far in the Ypres Salient without coming upon some of the many, many cemeteries. At the entrance to each cemetery one reads the inscription, carved in stone: "The land on which this cemetery stands is the free gift of the Belgian people for the perpetual resting place of those of the Allied Armies who fell in the War of 1914-18 and are honoured here." That, to me, seemed a fine gesture; for our dead though lying in a foreign land, rest in British soil. These cemeteries are quiet peaceful places, open day and night. In most of them there is scarcely a tree. They are not laid out with footpaths; the well-kept grass, imported from Britain, stretches almost to the headstones, except that at each side of the stone there blooms a rose or other carefully tended flower. The effect is remarkable. The guardians of these cemeteries are British ex-soldiers, of the right type. To one of them in Hooge Crater Cemetery I remarked upon the care and reverent attention given to these resting places of our honoured dead. "Sir," he replied, "it is no more than their due." And that, I found, was the attitude of all whom I met. To those who have someone buried there, let me say, in all sincerity, that surely in all the world there can be no cemeteries so beautiful as these.
Well, in pride and sadness I have traversed the old battle-front. I have seen the moonlight resting on the myriad white stones of remembrance, and it seemed as though the legions of the dead were merely camped in orderly bivouac sleeping soundly till morning brought reveille. To me the evening stillness of the Salient was pregnant with meaning. Somehow one sensed a vibrant pulsing spirit of life and hope, an air of expectancy, a waiting for something. It made one feel, "They are not dead, but sleep."