A final day exploring the Salient

A long route south of the Salient proper today, taking in the Plugstreet (Ploegsteert), Messines (Messen), and WhiteSheet (Wijtschate) areas. This area felt much more like the Somme. Primarily, I think, because I was out of Ypres’ immediate vicinity, where so much development has occurred and where so much population seems to be concentrated. The spires of Ypres remained visible for much of the day, but the countryside is very much given over to agriculture and the pace is slower, with the result that things are much quieter. I saw more tractors than cars today and many more cyclists than either. Topographically speaking this part of Messines Ridge is much more dramatic than the rest of the Salient, affording sweeping vistas similar to the Somme and a lesser extent Vimy. Clear sunny skies didn’t hurt. From an operational point of view this makes it much easier to build a connected picture of the lines and the actions that moved them (or didn’t). More to the point, by the end of the day I felt like I’d acquired a much better sense of the ‘natural’ environment as it might have been in the early 20th century. I also encountered many vestiges of the war’s impact on the environment. In general visible remains of trenches and shell-holes are not as prominent around the Salient as on the Somme or Vimy – owing to the higher water-table and heavy clay soil. The former meant that many trenches were largely breastworks of sandbags above ground level, while the former seems to have blunted the destructive force of the shells. It also appears that in Belgium woods were less likely to be left to develop precisely on their pre-war location; indeed many seem relatively immature, giving the impression at least that they might have been farmed for some time immediately after the war and only planted much later. All that being said, mine craters abound on Messines Ridge from Plugstreet right up to Hill 60, where 24 were dug and 19 detonated at the outset of the Messines Ridge attack in 1917. They are spread out more than in Vimy, but the fact that they just keep appearing in ones and twos as the kilometers pass really impresses the observer with the scope of the war’s impact. Each crater, now matter how large, is after all, just a point within a much broader swath of total destruction (flanked by large swaths of near-total destruction and still larger swaths of significant destruction and so on) wrought by the fighting. That some, such as the Spanbroekmolen Crater (also Caterpillar), have been turned into peaceful parks doesn’t detract in the slightest from this impression. The contrast between the placid present and the violent past – and the mines that created these craters were unspeakable violent, incomparably so in the pre-atomic age – offers a powerful lesson.

About cahagerman

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