First day of walking in the Salient. Almost at once I was impressed by how compact the Salient feels. There’s no debating the fact that it’s a pretty small area, yet I think at least part of the sensation derives from how built up it is and how heavily developed. Major industrial developments, high end housing developments, a great many large agricultural operations, and even amusement parks crowd the area. That means noise, traffic, disrupted sight lines, etc. There’s nothing wrong with any of this of course: the world moves on. And it’s not like the war graves or monuments are treated with anything less than the utmost respect. But as a consequence of the onward march of progress, if you can excuse the victorianism, it is really difficult to construct a unified conception of the battlefield with all its intricate nuances. In certain locations it is quite easy to do so – Mount Sorrel (Hill 62), Hill 60, Hoge, the Caterpillar – but it’s very difficult to connect them, much more so than on the Somme. (A problem complicated as well by the to-and-fro nature of the fighting over such a long period.) The same holds for getting to grips with the ‘natural’ environment as it existed before the fighting ravaged it. Ypres had been in decline (demographically and economically) for some time before the war and the area around it presumably had taken on the air of a backwater. That is anything but the case nowadays – the town and surrounding areas are very much alive with activity – agricultural, industrial, recreational, and tourist. There are islands of relative peace and quiet, where the rabbits frolic among wildflowers and quiet waters lap grassy banks, but there is nothing to compare to the sweeping expanses of relatively quiet farmland around the Somme. Moreover, the farmers who reclaimed the Salient seemed less inclined to remake their farms and woods in the images of those that had been ground into oblivion by war’s hobnailed boots. For instance, Inverness Copse, immortalized by Nash, no longer exists. He was right, they were ‘making a new world’. (It may be that the Somme presents a beguiling illusion, where the reconstruction is close enough to seem original but ultimately misleads – I’ll have to think on that.) At any rate the Salient’s been a bit of a challenge so far.
The one great exception to this would have to be the Hill 60 site and the adjacent Caterpillar Crater. This complex slots right in behind Vimy in terms of revealing the war’s impact on the topography. A man-made rise (spoil from the nearby railway cutting) HIll 60 was heavily fortified with concrete pill-boxes and dugouts. To deal with these defenses the British, Canadians, and finally Australians resorted to mining (as they did on the Somme and at Vimy). Whole chunks of the Hill have been blown away by these mines – leaving massive depressions and voids and shattering the german pillboxes. The best thing about this site is that it’s been left nearly untouched since the war and, unlike Vimy, visitors can explore at will. Walking through the shell holes and down into and then along the conjoined craters really drives home what the fighting did to the landscape, even if the vegetation has all returned. Nearby Caterpillar Crater impresses with its sheer size. It is significantly larger (in diameter) than either Lochnagar Crater or Hawthorn Ridge Crater. Taking these sights together, and recalling contemporary accounts, paintings, and photographs, it is possible to imagine what it would have been like to be in the ‘New World’ made by the war – even though that world is no more and the site of one of its most violent moments – Caterpillar Crater, where 70, 000 pounds of high explosive took the lives of 500-600 men in an instant – is now the center piece of a lovely wooded parkscape.
A poem on destruction and recovery. Matthew Copse, by J.W. Streets (KIA July 1, 1916)
Once in thy secret close, now almost bare
Peace yielded up her secret largess;
The dawn dropp’d sunshine thro’ they leafy dress;
The sunset bathed the glade with beauty rare.
Spring once wove her tapestry of flowers,
The primrose sweet, the errant celandine;
The blue-bell and the wild rose that doth twine
Its beauty ’round the laughing summer hours.
Here lovers stole unseen at deep’ning eve,
High tide within their hearts, love in their eyes,
And told a tale whose magic never dies,
That only they who love can quite believe.
Now ‘mid thy splint’red trees the great shells crash,
The subterranean mines the deeps divide;
And men from death and terror there do hide –
Hide in thy caves from shrapnel’s deadly splash.
Yet ‘mid thy ruins, shrine now desolate,
Spring breaks thro’ and visions many a spot
With promise of the wild-rose- tho’ belate-
And the eternal blue forget-me-not.
So nature flourishes amid decay,
Defiant of the fate that laid her low;
So man in triumph scorning death below,
Visions the springtide of a purer day.
Dreams of the day when rampant there will rise
The flowers of truth and freedom from the blood
Of noble youth who died: when there will bud
The flower of love from human sacrifice.
There by the fallen youth, where heroes lie,
Close by each simple cross the flowers will spring,
The bonnes enfants will wander in Spring,
And lovers dream those dreams that never die.