Read CHAPTER XI - THE CITY OF TRAGEDY of Mud and Khaki Sketches from Flanders and France , free online book, by Vernon Bartlett, on

What does it matter that the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral are in ruins, that the homes and churches are but rubble in the streets? What do we care if great shells have torn gaping holes in the Grande Place, and if the station is a battered wreck where the rails are bent and twisted as bits of wire? We do not mourn for Ypres, for it is a thousand times grander in its downfall than it was ever in the days of its splendour.

In the town, the houses are but piles of stone, the streets are but pitted stretches of desolation, the whole place is one huge monument to the memory of those who have suffered, simply and grandly, for a great cause. Round the town run the green ramparts where, a few years ago, the townspeople would stroll of an evening, where the blonde Flemish girls would glance shyly and covertly at the menfolk. The ramparts now are torn, the poplars are broken, the moat is foul and sullied, and facing out over the wide plain are rows of little crosses that mark the resting-places of the dead.

For herein lies thy glory, Ypres. To capture thee there have fallen thousands of the German invaders; in thy defence there have died Belgians and French and English, Canadians and Indians and Algerians. Three miles away, on Hill 60, are the bodies of hundreds of men who have fought for thee the Cockney buried close to the Scotchman, the Prussian lying within a yard of the Prussian who fell there a year before, and along the Cutting are French bayonets and rifles, and an occasional unfinished letter from some long-dead poilu to his lover in the sunny plains of the Midi or the orchards of Normandy.

And all these men have died to save thee, Ypres. Why, then, should we mourn for thee in thy ruin? Even thy great sister, Verdun, cannot boast so proud a record as thine.

But the awful tragedy of it all! That the famous old town, quietly asleep in its plain, should be shattered and ruined; that so many hopes and ambitions can be blasted in so few hours; that young bodies can be crushed, in a fraction of a second, to masses of lifeless, bleeding pulp! The glorious tragedy of Ypres will never be written, for so many who could have spoken are dead, and so many who live will never speak you can but guess their stories from the dull pain in their eyes, and from the lips that they close tightly to stop the sobs.

God, how they have suffered, these Belgians! Day after day for over a year the inhabitants of Ypres lived in the hell of war; day after day they crouched in their cellars and wondered if it would be their little home that would be ruined by the next shell. How many lived for months in poky little basements, or crowded together in the one room that was left of their home anything, even death, rather than leave the place where they were born and where they had passed all their quiet, happy years.

I knew one woman who lived with her little daughter near the Porte de Menin, and one day, when the next cottage to hers had been blown to bits, I tried to persuade her to leave. For a long time she shook her head, and then she took me to show me her bedroom such a poor little bedroom, with a crucifix hanging over the bed and a dingy rosebush growing up outside the window. “It was here that my husband died, five years ago,” she said. “He would not like me to go away and leave the house to strangers.”

“But think of the little one,” I pleaded. “She is only a girl of five, and you cannot endanger her life like this.”

For a long time she was silent, and a tear crept down her cheek as she tried to decide. “I will go, monsieur,” she said at last, “for the sake of the little one.”

And that night she set off into the unknown, fearful to look back at her little home lest her courage should desert her. She was dressed in her best clothes for why leave anything of value for the Germans, should they ever come? and she wheeled her few household treasures before her in the perambulator, while her little daughter ran beside her.

But next morning I saw her again coming back up the street to her cottage. This time she was alone, and she still trundled the perambulator in front of her.

I went out, and knocked at her door. “So you have come back,” I said. “And where have you left the little one?”

She gazed at me dully for a minute, and a great fear gripped me, for I saw that her best clothes were torn and dust stained.

“It was near the big hospital on the Poperinghe road,” she said in a horribly even voice. “The little one had lingered behind to pick up some bits of coloured glass on the roadside when the shell came. It was a big shell ... and I could find nothing but this,” and she held up part of a little torn dress, bloody and terrible.

I tried to utter a few words of comfort, but my horror was too great.

“It is the will of God,” she said, as she began to unpack the treasures in the perambulator, but, as I closed the door, I heard her burst into the most awful fit of weeping I have ever known.

And, day by day as the war goes on, the tragedy of Ypres grows greater. Each shell wrecks a little more of what was once a home, each crash and falling of bricks brings a little more pain to a breaking heart. The ruins of Ypres are glorious and noble, and we are proud to defend them, but the quiet, simple people of Ypres cannot even find one brick on another of their homes.

Somewhere in England, they tell me, is a little old lady who was once a great figure in Brussels society. She is nearly eighty now, and alone, but she clings on tenaciously to life till the day shall come when she can go back to her Chateau at Ypres, where she has lived for forty years. One can picture her feeble, wizened, and small, her eyes bright with the determination to live until she has seen her home again.

I, who have seen her Chateau, pray that death may come to close those bright eyes, so that they may never look upon the destruction of her home, for it is a desolate sight, even though the sky was blue and the leaves glistened in the sun on the morning when, two years ago, I tramped up the winding drive.

The lodge was nothing more than a tumbled pile of broken bricks, but, by some odd chance, the Chateau itself had never suffered a direct hit. In front of the big white house there had once been an asphalt tennis court there was now a plain pitted at every few yards by huge shell holes. The summer-house at the edge of the wood once the scene of delightful little flirtations in between the games of tennis was now a weird wreck, consisting of three tottering walls and a broken seat. Oddest of all, there lay near the white marble steps an old, tyreless De Dion motor-car.

I have often wondered what the history of that battered thing could be. One can almost see the owner packing herself in it with her most precious belongings, to flee from the oncoming Germans. The engine refuses to start, there is no time for repairs, there is the hurried flight on foot, and the car is left to the mercy of the invading troops. Perhaps, again, it belonged to the staff of some army, and was left at the Chateau when it had run its last possible mile. At all events, there it stood, half-way between Ypres and the Germans, with everything of any possible value stripped off it as thoroughly as though it had been left to the white ants.

By the side of the tennis court, where had once been flower beds, there was now a row of little, rough wooden crosses, and here and there the narcissi and daffodils had sprung up. What a strange little cemetery! Here a khaki cap and a bunch of dead flowers, there a cross erected to “An unknown British hero, found near Verbrandenmolen and buried here on March 3rd, 1915,” there an empty shell case balanced at a comical angle on a grave, and everywhere between the mounds waved the flowers in the fresh breeze of the morning, while away in the distance loomed the tower of the Cloth Hall of Ypres, like a gigantic arm pointing one finger up to heaven.

The Chateau itself, I have said, had never had a direct hit; but do you think the hand of war had passed it by, and that the little old lady would find in it something of home?

Every window on the ground floor had been choked by sandbags, and no glass remained in those upstairs. In a room that had once been a kitchen and was now labelled in chalk “Officers’ Mess” were an old bedstead, two mattresses, a wooden table, and three rickety chairs; but for these, and a piano in the dining-room upstairs, the house was absolutely devoid of furniture. Even the piano, which must have twanged out the tunes of at least three nations since the war began, had sacrificed its cover for firewood.

Rooms where once ladies had powdered and perfumed themselves to attract the fickle male were now bare and empty, and pungent with the smell of chloride of lime. In the dining-hall, where fine old wines had circulated, were a hundred weary, dirty men. In the kitchen, where the fat cuisinière had prepared her dinners, were now a dozen officers, some sprawling asleep on the floor, some squatting round the table playing “vingt-et-un.”

For this is war.

There is one more memory of Ypres a very different one that comes back to me. It is the recollection of our regimental dinner.

The first thing that I heard of it came from Lytton’s servant.

“Please, sir,” he said one morning, “Mr. Lytton sends his compliments, and can you tell ’im where the Hotel Delepiroyle is?”

“The Hotel de what?”

“The Hotel Delepiroyle, sir. That’s what ’e said.”

“Ask Mr. Lytton to write it down no, wait a minute. Tell him I’m coming over to see him about it.” So I strolled across to the other side of the infantry barracks to find him.

“What, haven’t you heard about it?” asked Lytton. “The new C.O., Major Eadie, is giving a dinner to-night to all the officers of the regiment as a farewell to Major Barton before he goes off to take command of his new crowd. It’s at the Hotel de l’Epee Royale, wherever that may be. Let’s go and track it down.”

So we wandered down the Rue de Lille, as yet relatively free from the ravages of war, for the shops were open and the inhabitants stood talking and gossiping at the doors of their houses. Here and there rubble lay across the pavement, and what had once been a home was now an amorphous pile of bricks and beams. Just by the church was a ruined restaurant, and a host of little children played hide and seek behind the remnants of its walls.

On our way down the street we came across Reynolds, who had only joined the regiment the night before, while we, who had been nearly three weeks at the front, felt ourselves war-beaten veterans compared to him. He was standing on the pavement, gazing excitedly up at an aeroplane, around which were bursting little white puffs of smoke.

“Come along with us,” said Lytton. “You’ll get sick to death of seeing aeroplanes shelled when you’ve been out here as long as we have. Come and discover the scene of to-night’s orgy.”

In the Grande Place, at the side of the Cloth Hall, we discovered the Hotel de l’Epee Royale. A “Jack Johnson” had made an enormous hole in the pavement just in front of it, and a large corner of the building had gone.

“By Jove,” said Reynolds in an awed voice. “What a hole! It must have taken some shell to do that.”

Lytton smiled patronisingly. “My dear fellow,” he said, “that’s nothing at all. It’s hardly any bigger than the hole that a spent bullet makes. Let’s go inside and get some lunch to see what sort of a place it is.”

But Reynolds and I were firm. “Rot!” we said. “Let’s go home and fast. Otherwise we shall be no good for this evening; we’ve got our duty to do to the dinner.”

So we went back to the Company Mess in the infantry barracks, past a house that had been destroyed that morning. Hunting in and out of the ruins were a man and a woman, and another woman, very old, with eyes swollen by weeping, sat on what was left of the wall of her house, a broken photograph frame in her hands.

There are many fellows who have laid down their lives since that little dinner in the Hotel de l’Epee Royale; he who gave it died of wounds six weeks later, as gallant a commanding officer as one could wish to have. If the dinner were to take place again, there would be many gaps round the table, and even the building must long since have been pounded to dust.

If this should meet the eyes of any of you that were there, let your minds run back for a moment, and smile at your recollections. Do you remember how we dosed Wilson’s glass so that he left us before the sweets were on the table? Do you remember how we found him later sitting on the stairs, poor fellow, clasping his head in a vain effort to stop the world from whirling round? Do you remember the toasts that we drank, and the plans we made for that dim period, “after the war”? I confess that I have completely forgotten everything that we ate beyond the whisky, I forget even what we drank; but I know that the daintiest little dinner in London could not have pleased us nearly so much. And then, when it was all over and we broke up to go home to bed, do you remember how young Carter stood in the middle of the Grande Place and made rhapsodies to the moon though, to the rest of us, it seemed much like any other moon until we took him up and carried him home by force?

It does you good to look back sometimes. You may find it sad because so many are gone that were our companions then. But this is the way of war; they must die sooner or later, and they could not have chosen better graves. If one must die, why not die fighting for England and Ypres?

There is one street in Ypres that I knew in peace time. It wound in and out between the stiff, white houses, and the little Flemish children would make it echo to their shouts and laughter, until you could scarcely hear the rumble and the rattle of the carts on the cobbles of the main street, near by. And I passed along the same winding way during the second battle of Ypres. The shattered houses stretched jagged edges of brickwork towards the sky, the road was torn up, and the paving stones were piled up grotesquely against each other. Outside the convent, where I seemed to catch the dim echo of children’s laughter, lay a smashed limber the horse was on its back, with its legs stuck up stiffly; and, just touching the broken stone cross that had fallen from above the convent door, lay the figure of the dead driver.

And, of all that I remember of Ypres, it is of this that I think most often, for it is a symbol of the place itself the dead man lying by the cross, sign of suffering that leads to another life. The agony of Ypres will render it immortal; for if ever a town deserved immortality, it is surely this old, ruined city on the plains of Flanders.