No tour of the Ypres Salient, the most intensive and prolonged theatre of the Western Front during the First World War, could be quite like this. Today we were privileged beyond measure to have been given an expert guided tour of the front line trenches by Piet Chielens – the curator of the In Flanders Fields museum. It is one thing to study photographs of the trenches in school, and pour over the maps of the changing battle lines, but it is quite another thing entirely to stand in the geography and see with one’s own eyes the environment in which these poor souls were poured out like wine, and to see the proximity of the opposing trench lines where men were expected to sacrifice themselves in hand-to-hand combat with other mothers’ sons. We were led through the reconstructed trenches where the Yorkshiremen faced off the Germans, and from there up to the subtle rise where the German lines were blown asunder by the mines which signalled the beginning of the June 7 1917 Battles of Messines. It is only when one considers mayhem, suffering, and murder on this scale that the vocabulary of sacrifice becomes infuriating. This was not a place of sacrifice. No god demanded this. This was wholesale and unnecessary slaughter.
Atop the ridge, where once Germany’s victims were having their tea, we walked around the huge crater in the hill left by an Allied mine. On the morning of the Battle of Messines nineteen mines were exploded long the German lines which blew their trenches to smithereens and allowed the Allies a rapid ascent towards the town of Messines. The names list, with which we are to be concerned for the rest of this project, bears out the true horror of what was to unfold on that day; one name after another lists the dead who fell in the assault. Men from all over Ireland; Catholic and Protestant, Northern and Southern, fell, along with countless other Allied and German soldiers, in a day that can only be considered as a hell on earth. Looking back all that we can see is the horror, and yet for almost a hundred years this has been packed as part of the great glory and sacrifice of an utterly futile war. What is more disturbing is that this was only a single day in the life of a nightmare that lasted four years. For us the tour ended well in a perfect little bar at the ramparts of the city. We definitely needed it, but the thought hung over us like a pall that so many others who did that same tour never had the reward of a beer in the city.