From a poem by Siegfried Sassoon
SQUIRE nagged and bullied till I went to fight, …. I died in hell— (They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight, And I was hobbling back; and then a shell Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light…
Earlier in May, I went to Passcheldaele with my friend Marlena Blommaert. Passchendaele is a small, insignificant village in Flanders. It’s become symbolic over the past hundred years as the ultimate expression of meaningless, industrialised slaughter. In the summer of 1917, the Allies gained five miles of ground in three months and six days. Upwards of 500,000 men were killed or wounded, maimed, gassed, drowned.
Marlena wrote: the day is beautiful and the sun warm when we arrive. With our heads turned to spring, carelessness and outings, we walk to the memorial centre. We pass a loudspeaker where the names of the victims and their ages are recited in an endless loop. A more effective way to confront the horrors of a war that raged a century ago is hard to imagine. My children are the ages of the dead. It’s their names I hear. The lump in my throat cannot be swallowed.
Nearly 12,000 white tombstones, sometimes with a name and sometimes only the designation “A Soldier of the Great War”. White gravestones side by side emphasise the order and neatness of peace atop battlefields where the chaos and madness of war reigned for years.
The cemetery is surrounded by a wall inscribed with the names of tens of thousands of missing British and Commonwealth soldiers. Men without a grave. Eternally missing.
We left the memorial, shaking off thoughts of war. After all, war belongs in the past. But we know that is not true. More war, more death and destruction. Syria, Ukraine, Somalia, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Palestine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Columbia, DR Congo, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, Tunisia…
From Sasson again :On Passing the New Menin Gate
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
…Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
Compiled by Rose Levinson; photos by David Jeffrey and Marlena Blommaert May, 2022
You can find out more about the Battle of Passchendaele here.