Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, January 18, 2021

Flanders After War

The Flanders Battlefield in 1919

For thousands of Belgian people, the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 marked the beginning of another grim struggle that was to last for decades.

It’s easy to think of the relief and optimism sweeping across Europe that the signing of the peace treaty must have brought. Perhaps we have visions of people returning to their homes in previously occupied territories, greeting loved ones, restocking the shops, and getting “back to normal.” Or we imagine citizens and soldiers dancing in the streets of villages and towns, to the pealing of church bells.

But for thousands of Flemish people returning to Flanders Fields, the reality was totally different–and brutal. For them, there were no bells pealing from village churches. There was no dancing in the streets. There was no restocking of shop shelves.

Why? Because there were no churches, no shops, no streets. In fact, there were no villages, or towns.

There was absolutely nothing remaining of the land they used to know. In Flanders the front line extended from Nieuport on the coast, along the banks of the previously picturesque River Iser, past Diksmuide, around the medieval town of Ypres and past Mesen to the French border. Its width varied between two and ten kilometers. On a clear day, a Belgian soldier would have been able to stand in relative safety behind the front line and see the German army moving in relative peace on the other side.

The land in between, however, was a monstrous hell of death and destruction. In this long, narrow stretch of West Flanders, more than half a million soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Tens of thousands of civilians were forced to flee for their lives. Towns, villages, farms, woods, and fields were totally devastated. The area became known as the Verwoeste Gewesten–the Devastated Lands. What happened next and how the landscape was restored to its previous state is a remarkable story of the perseverance and opportunism of the Flemish people.

Ypres Immediately After the War (In Flanders Field Museum)

The towns in the battle zone suffered massive damage. Ypres—having been utterly leveled and being the location of the world-famous Cloth Hall, was especially a challenge. The idea of not reconstructing the city and leaving Ypres in ruins as a memorial had been suggested during the war. It was thought that a new city could be built nearby and not on the rubble of the destroyed city.

In July 1919 the British government succeeded in getting agreement from the Belgian government to create a “Zone of Silence” in the area of the destroyed Cloth Hall, belfry, and St. Martin's cathedral. However, this was not willingly accepted by all of the local people in Ypres, and after two years it was agreed that the British would be able to build a monument in Ypres instead. The location was agreed for the construction of a large memorial, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, to be built on the old eastern access route in and out of Ypres.

By 1920 the number of people living in Ypres was about 6,000. The population grew significantly during the 1920s, and there were already about 15,000 people in the city by 1930. More than half of the 15,000 inhabitants were, however, people who had moved there after the war and had not been born and brought up in the city before 1914. Many of the families who had lived in and around Ypres for generations had decided not to go back.

After the Armistice, two action plans for rehabilitating Flanders were hastily formulated and implemented. The first was to retrieve, identify if possible, and bury the bodies of the soldiers who had died on the front. Many of these had lain unburied for years and all clues to their identity had been lost. Others had been buried in temporary graves. These were exhumed and laid to rest in permanent cemeteries.

The second task was to level the ground. The British Army’s Chinese Labour Corps played a key role in this work. Initially shipped over from China to dig trenches and latrines and provide other support to the fighting soldiers, they stayed in Flanders after 1918 to help clean up the war zone. They did not return to China until 1920. German prisoners of war were also used. Trenches, craters, and shell holes were filled in, and at some point it was declared that civilians could be allowed to re-enter the war zone. They were told to expect the worst.

It would have been an extremely traumatic return–a nightmare scenario. One farmer returned to his farm, found absolutely nothing recognizable, and committed suicide. Another man from Ypres couldn’t find a trace of his farm until he found a tap to an underground water pipe that he had installed in 1914. It was the only thing remaining of his property.

Their first priority was to build temporary accommodation, and the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Flemings came to the fore. Scattered around the battlefields were huge dumps of wood and scrap iron. Using such materials, basic huts and sheds were constructed.

Author and British Veteran Henry Williamson Discovered a Destroyed Tank Still Sitting on the Battlefield Near Zonnebeke During His 1925 Honeymoon
(Henry Williamson Society)

Other families took over abandoned Nissen huts. These were prefabricated, portable multi-purpose huts developed by Major Peter Nissen of the Royal Engineers in 1916. At least 100,000 of them were produced in World War One as temporary barracks for soldiers. The Belgian government also provided their people with temporary wooden huts.

The availability of clean drinking water was a problem. The River Iser and the two lakes that provided water to Ypres were totally contaminated and unfit to drink. Local breweries came to the rescue. They drilled deep boreholes and pumped up clean water. They used it for their own brewing processes and to provide potable water to local inhabitants.

The next task was to redevelop and re-stock the land. This was necessary not only in the war zone itself but up to ten kilometers on either side. One of the reasons was the extensive use of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases in the region. These poisonous gases were not only fatal to humans but also killed everything living in their path, including livestock as well as vegetation. The Belgian Ministry of Agriculture provided new seeds and plants, while farmers in the Netherlands–particularly from the province of Limburg–donated cattle, horses and even chickens. Slowly but surely, new life began to return to the Devastated Lands.

However, working in Flanders Fields in the early 1920s was a dangerous occupation. It has been estimated that a quarter of the failed to explode but remained live. Flanders farm laborers were constantly being maimed or killed by unexploded ordnance. It was apparent that the initial clean-up operation had been too superficial.

Around this time some clever opportunists appeared on the scene. They would perform a service of “deep digging.” For a fee they would thoroughly dig out a hectare of land, remove all the shells, and proclaim it as clean land. A number of family fortunes were made in this way.

Also amassing great personal wealth were the scrap metal merchants who went from battlefield to battlefield collecting shells and selling the iron and copper. Both jobs were fraught with danger and frequently led to workers losing limbs, if not their lives. Unbelievably, the so-called Period of Reconstruction of the Verwoeste Gewesten lasted until 1967, when the final annex to the Cloth Hall in Ypres was finished.

Sources: Discovering Belgium, The Great War, 1914–1918 Website, the Henry Williamson Society, Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. This is something we don't always think about when studying the Great War. Much could also be said about the human bodies and body parts that would be found after the ceasefire.