In Flanders Fields – Visiting Sanctuary Wood

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This is a World War I site with original and partially restored trenches outside Ieper, Belgium (called “Wipers” by the British soldiers of the time). The woods gave temporary sanctuary from German guns (hence the name) during the various battles that raged through what is now peaceful Belgian countryside. One of the first exhibits in the museum, which you enter before seeing the trenches, is a dozen or more old-style stereograph viewers, which show the gruesome aftermath of battle… dead soldiers, even the partial remains of a horse which had been blown into a tree by the explosion that killed it. I saw a kid looking through the photos and hoped the nearby dad had looked at the pictures first… I’m not sure a kid should see that. Although I do think politicians who are sending troops into battle should regularly have to see the results of their decisions.

The family who owned the farm filled in much of the damage when they returned after the war, but left this section. I can imagine them looking at all the holes, equipment, shell casings, gun emplacements, trenches, trench covers, etc. and saying, “oh, screw it. Leave it and we’ll turn it into a museum.”

The last photo is the battlefield cemetery nearby… This site saw battles both early and late in the war, and the first British cemeteries in this area were from fighting in 1915. Those cemeteries were damaged or lost during subsequent fighting; the current cemetery was rebuilt on the remains of one of those previous cemeteries, although the graves of those earlier burials were no longer marked and so many of the current markers say “Known to be buried in this cemetery.”

When I see a military cemetery like this, especially one built on or near the site of a battle, I wonder… do you suppose these cemeteries represent a feeble attempt to impose order and meaning onto events that are inherently chaotic and perhaps ultimately meaningless? This war, more than WWII, seems to me to be particularly horrific… the politicians inept, the commanding officers blind, the battlefield losses unimaginable.

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