The Menin Road then and Now

Today I walked the Menin Road between the Menin Gate and Hooge, right through Hellfire Corner. That is to say, I walked through the heart of what Sassoon called the world’s worst wound. It is a surprisingly short walk along a very busy road and gives a really clear sense of how small (and congested) the Salient really was. But the most arresting thing about the walk was the contrast it presented to the images I’d seen of the road during the war, or indeed of Sassoon’s slimy, sullen swamp. Nash’s painting The Menin Road is a perfect case. His road is a shell-pocked waste lined with the shattered trunks of mature trees. Flooded trenches cut through lifeless fields beyond the road, and the foreground is a morass of water-filled craters fringed with rubble and rusted shelter roofs and garnished with barbed-wire. It is all but lifeless: a few tufts of grass and withered weeds dot the ground and two figures stagger forward through the nightmare landscape. Today the road is smooth and abuzz with vehicles and cyclists; the fields all about are neat and vibrant; saplings line the road with wildflowers lush about their knees. The only connections between the painting and the present landscape are some old shelter roofs stacked in a pasture, a modern barbed wire-fence surrounding a cattle enclosure, and a trio of silent pickets used to support it. And such vestiges are only apparent on the closest examination. Otherwise there’s nothing to suggest the extreme, unspeakable violence visited on this environment during the war and I venture most travel down it without the faintest notion of what it looked like all those years ago. It is a powerful testament to the unrelenting power of life. And to decades of hard work by the families who farm the ground and live in the villages around Ieper. Symbiotically those forces have returned nature her verdant face in the Salient, where Street’s bonnes enfants can once again wander in Spring.

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About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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