Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - Ypres to Bruges

Published: June 8th 2016
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For all the horror that was D-Day and the Falaise Pocket, the horrors of trench warfare in World War I were probably even worse. Thousands of men would die in gaining two meters of ground. In addition, static troop positions made it easy to inflict deaths with mortars and with an even greater destructive power, underground mines. Perhaps the greatest example of this was at Messiness. The start of the Battle of Messiness Ridge was marked by the explosion of giant underground mines which the British had planted by excavating under the German lines. The simultaneous explosion of the mines created the largest non-nuclear explosion of all time. It came from the explosion of 454 tons of ammonal and guncotton. In an instant, 10,000 German troops simply ceased to exist. Giant craters were left behind. A 50,000 pound mine was not used due to tunnel collapse and remains in place deep under a Belgian farm barn. Today we visited the area around the Ypres Salient where somewhat smaller scale mines were used with devastating results as well. At Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood we were able to see trenches still in place. At first, the surrounding ground just looked unloved, but at closer glance you see that in fact the ground is completely covered with the craters of artillery shells. Nearby, an amusement park sits next to a large pond formed from water accumulation in a large mined crater hole.

Ypres was also the site of the first large scale use of gas warfare. The Germans used chlorine against the Martinique troops, and claimed that the use of the gas was not banned by the Hague agreements of 1899 because they used gas projectors rather than chemical shells. Poison gases were fairly ineffective at killing, but often left the victims with severe and permanent damage, particularly to lungs. As is common, the use of gas had a positive side. A German raid on Bari Italy resulted in an explosion of a ship in the harbor containing canisters of nitrogen mustard gas (both sides had chemical warfare stores in World War II, but they were never used). It was noted that survivors in the harbor area had decreased numbers of lymphocytes, and autopsies show a virtual absence of lymph nodes. This led Goodman and Gilman at Yale to start experimenting on the use of nitrogen mustard as a chemotherapeutic agent, and for many years it was a mainstay of treatment for Hodgkins' disease. My grandfather developed HD in the late 1940's, was treated with nitrogen mustard, and developed a secondary leukemia cause by the nitrogen mustard itself. This potential side effect of the drug was one of the factors that led to its dramatically decreased use in the modern treatment of lymphomas.

American military cemeteries abroad are managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission. There are 25 cemeteries, and one from World War I is near Waregem Belgium, and is know as the Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial. Jennie and I visited here several years ago, and were given a personal tour by the American caretaker, who described the loving care given to the grave markers and the grounds. Every year, the gleaming white marble markers are carefully rubbed down with pumice to maintain their white appearance. Also, the fine powder thus generated fills small res and limits freeze-thaw damage. Here at Flanders Field, there is a section devoted to unknowns. In that section, 16% of the graves are marked with a Star of David rather than a cross, since it is known that 16% of the soldiers from that war were Jewish. This practice was discontinued for the later military cemeteries. We did not have time to return to that melancholy place. Perhaps the enduring writing about this was by Lt. Col. John McCrae (Canadian) who was a physician but also an artillery specialist, preferring the latter. He himself died some months after writing these words, but from pneumococcal pneumonia and meningitis.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Because of the easy maneuvering area of the plains of Belgium, countless soldiers and armies and cavalries and tank troops have crisscrossed this area. Thus this small country includes names known to all military historians, such as Ypres, Waterloo, Bastogne - places where craven men have attempted to build empires and where brave men have stood in their way, even when it meant dying. But Belgium is also the home of small places of great beauty, and our final destination today was the beautiful small town of Bruges. Along the way we stopped in Ostend to visit the Atlantic Wall Museum.

IT was no secret that the Allies planned to attack the continent, and little doubt that the attack would come across the English Channel, although there was also an attack from southern France of smaller proportions. In 1942 Hitler ordered that impregnable fortification be built along the French, Belgian, and Dutch coasts facing the Channel. With the collaboration of the Vichy government, 600,000 Frenchmen were impressed into labor and built gun emplacements and fortifications. In 1944, with Allied intentions becoming more obvious, Erwin Rommel was detailed to even further fortify the coast. He built hundreds more concrete pillboxes, placed underwater obstructions along the beaches, and mined the waters and land. It was thought that this collection of defenses was nearly impregnable. The Atlantic Wall was breached within hours on D-Day. An interesting aside: the Channel Islands are British land, and Hitler held them. He placed great store on the propaganda value of holding them, so he directed that 1/12th of all the materials for the Atlantic Wall should go toward providing defenses for the Channel Islands. However, the Allies did not feel that they held any strategic significance and simply bypassed them. They did not surrender until two days after the main German surrender in Germany. At Raversyde, a large section of German defenses in the dunes has been preserved, resulting in an interesting our of these extensive, expensive, and ultimately worthless defensive positions.

Bruges was settled during the Iron Age. It had a great port until about 1500, but at that point silting gradually closed its access to the sea and it was virtually forgotten. Like the antebellum architecture in Charleston, the medieval architecture in Bruges was preserved by virtue of the populace not having enough money to replace it. Bruges today is the recipient of about 2 million visitors a year, drawn to the canals, the medieval city, the bridges. We had our traditional moules et frites (with mayonnaise rather than ketchup) on the main square. Since lunch was late, we just went back for dessert and wine in the evening. The less hardy among us went back to the hotel, but Lucie and I took a walk down to and along the canal. In the evening, Brugge is deserted of tourists, and becomes a much more serene and to my mind beautiful place.

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