Phillip Gibbs 'Now It Can Be Told'
A Visit to Ypres in 1915
The city of Ypres was the capital of our battlefields in Flanders from the beginning to the end of the war, and the ground on which it stands, whether a new city rises there or its remnants of ruin stay as a memorial of dreadful things, will be forever haunted by the spirit of those men of ours who passed through its gates to fight in the fields beyond or to fall within its ramparts.
I went through Ypres so many times in early days and late days of the war that I think I could find my way about it blindfold, even now. I saw it first in March of 1915, before the battle when the Germans first used poison-gas and bombarded its choking people, and French and British soldiers, until the city fell into a chaos of masonry. On that first visit I found it scarred by shell--fire, and its great Cloth Hall was roofless and licked out by the flame of burning timbers, but most of the buildings were still standing and the shops were busy with customers in khaki, and in the Grande Place were many small booths served by the women and girls who sold picture post-cards and Flemish lace and fancy cakes and soap to British soldiers sauntering about without a thought of what might happen here in this city, so close to the enemy's lines, so close to his guns. I had tea in a bun-shop, crowded with young officers, who were served by two Flemish girls, buxom, smiling, glad of all the English money they were making.
A few weeks later the devil came to Ypres. The first sign of his work was when a mass of French soldiers and colored troops, and English, Irish, Scottish, and Canadian soldiers came staggering through the Lille and Menin gates with panic in their look, and some foul spell upon them. They were gasping for breath, vomiting, falling into unconsciousness, and, as they lay, their lungs were struggling desperately against some stifling thing. A whitish cloud crept up to the gates of Ypres, with a sweet smell of violets, and women and girls smelled it and then gasped and lurched as they ran and fell. It was after that when shells came in hurricane flights over Ypres, smashing the houses and setting them on fire, until they toppled and fell inside themselves. Hundreds of civilians hid in their cellars, and many were buried there. Others crawled into a big drain-pipe--there were wounded women and children among them, and a young French interpreter, the Baron de Rosen, who tried to help them--and they stayed there three days and nights, in their vomit and excrement and blood, until the bombardment ceased. Ypres was a city of ruin, with a red fire in its heart where the Cloth Hall and cathedral smoldered below their broken arches and high ribs of masonry that had been their buttresses and towers.
When I went there two months later I saw Ypres as it stood through the years of the war that followed, changing only in the disintegration of its ruin as broken walls became more broken and fallen houses were raked into smaller fragments by new bombardments, for there was never a day for years in which Ypres was not shelled.
The approach to it was sinister after one had left Poperinghe and passed through the skeleton of Vlamertinghe church, beyond Goldfish Chateau. . . For a long time Poperinghe was the last link with a life in which men and women could move freely without hiding from the pursuit of death; and even there, from time to time, there were shells from long-range guns and, later, night-birds dropping high-explosive eggs. Round about Poperinghe, by Reninghelst and Locre, long convoys of motor-wagons, taking up a new day's rations from the rail-heads, raised clouds of dust which powdered the hedges white. Flemish cart- horses with huge fringes of knotted string wended their way between motor-lorries and gun-limbers. Often the sky was blue above the hop- gardens, with fleecy clouds over distant woodlands and the gray old towers of Flemish churches and the windmills on Mont Rouge and Mont Neir, whose sails have turned through centuries of peace and strife. It all comes back to me as I write--that way to Ypres, and the sounds and the smells of the roads and fields where the traffic of war went up, month after month, year after year.
That day when I saw it first, after the gas-attack, was strangely quiet, I remember. There was "nothing doing," as our men used to say. The German gunners seemed asleep in the noonday sun, and it was a charming day for a stroll and a talk about the raving madness of war under every old hedge.
"What about lunch in Dickebusch on the way up?" asked one of my companions. There were three of us.
It seemed a good idea, and we walked toward the village which then-- they were early days!--looked a peaceful spot, with a shimmer of sunshine above its gray thatch and red-tiled roofs.
Suddenly one of us said, "Good God!"
An iron door had slammed down the corridors of the sky and the hamlet into which we were just going was blotted out by black smoke, which came up from its center as though its market-place had opened up and vomited out infernal vapors.
"A big shell that!" said one man, a tall, lean-limbed officer, who later in the war was sniper-in-chief of the British army. Something enraged him at the sight of that shelled village.
"Damn them!" he said. "Damn the war! Damn all dirty dogs who smash up life!"
Four times the thing happened, and we were glad there had been a minute or so between us and Dickebusch. (In Dickebusch my young cobbler friend from Fleet Street was crouching low, expecting death.) The peace of the day was spoiled. There was seldom a real peace on the way to Ypres. The German gunners had wakened up again. They always did. They were getting busy, those house-wreckers. The long rush of shells tore great holes through the air. Under a hedge, with our feet in the ditch, we ate the luncheon we had carried in our pockets.
"A silly idea!" said the lanky man, with a fierce, sad look in his eyes. He was Norman-Irish, and a man of letters, and a crack shot, and all the boys he knew were being killed.
"What's silly?" I asked, wondering what particular foolishness he was thinking of, in a world of folly.
"Silly to die with a broken bit of sandwich in one's mouth, just because some German fellow, some fat, stupid man a few miles away, looses off a bit of steel in search of the bodies of men with whom he has no personal acquaintance."
"Damn silly," I said.
"That's all there is to it in modern warfare," said the lanky man." It's not like the old way of fighting, body to body. Your strength against your enemy's, your cunning against his. Now it is mechanics and chemistry. What is the splendor of courage, the glory of youth, when guns kill at fifteen miles?"
Afterward this man went close to the enemy, devised tricks to make him show his head, and shot each head that showed.
The guns ceased fire. Their tumult died down, and all was quiet again. It was horribly quiet on our way into Ypres, across the railway, past the red-brick asylum, where a calvary hung unscathed on broken walls, past the gas-tank at the crossroads. This silence was not reassuring, as our heels clicked over bits of broken brick on our way into Ypres. The enemy had been shelling heavily for three-quarters of an hour in the morning. There was no reason why he should not begin again. . . I remember now the intense silence of the Grande Place that day after the gas-attack, when we three men stood there looking up at the charred ruins of the Cloth Hall. It was a great solitude of ruin. No living figure stirred among the piles of masonry which were tombstones above many dead. We three were like travelers who had come to some capital of an old and buried civilization, staring with awe and uncanny fear at this burial-place of ancient splendor, with broken traces of peoples who once had lived here in security. I looked up at the blue sky above those white ruins, and had an idea that death hovered there like a hawk ready to pounce. Even as one of us (not I) spoke the thought, the signal came. It was a humming drone high up in the sky.
"Look out!" said the lanky man. "Germans!"
It was certain that two birds hovering over the Grande Place were hostile things, because suddenly white puffballs burst all round them, as the shrapnel of our own guns scattered about them. But they flew round steadily in a half-circle until they were poised above our heads.
It was time to seek cover, which was not easy to find just there, where masses of stonework were piled high. At any moment things might drop. I ducked my head behind a curtain of bricks as I heard a shrill "coo-ee!" from a shell. It burst close with a scatter, and a tin cup was flung against a bit of wall close to where the lanky man sat in a shell-hole. He picked it up and said, "Queer!" and then smelled it, and said "Queer!" again. It was not an ordinary bomb. It had held some poisonous liquid from a German chemist's shop. Other bombs were dropping round as the two hostile airmen circled overhead, untouched still by the following shell-bursts. Then they passed toward their own lines, and my friend in the shell-hole called to me and said, "Let's be going."
It was time to go.
When we reached the edge of the town our guns away back started shelling, and we knew the Germans would answer. So we sat in a field nearby to watch the bombardment. The air moved with the rushing waves which tracked the carry of each shell from our batteries, and over Ypres came the high singsong of the enemies' answering voice.
As the dusk fell there was a movement out from Vlamertinghe, a movement of transport wagons and marching men. They were going up in the darkness through Ypres--rations and reliefs. They were the New Army men of the West Riding.
"Carry on there," said a young officer at the head of his company. Something in his eyes startled me. Was it fear, or an act of sacrifice? I wondered if he would be killed that night. Men were killed most nights on the way through Ypres, sometimes a few and sometimes many. One shell killed thirty one night, and their bodies lay strewn, headless and limbless, at the corner of the Grande Place. Transport wagons galloped their way through, between bursts of shell- fire, hoping to dodge them, and sometimes not dodging them. I saw the litter of their wheels and shafts, and the bodies of the drivers, and the raw flesh of the dead horses that had not dodged them. Many men were buried alive in Ypres, under masses of masonry when they had been sleeping in cellars, and were wakened by the avalanche above them. Comrades tried to dig them out, to pull away great stones, to get down to those vaults below from which voices were calling; and while they worked other shells came and laid dead bodies above the stones which had entombed their living comrades. That happened, not once or twice, but many times in Ypres.
There was a Town Major of Ypres. Men said it was a sentence of death to any officer appointed to that job. I think one of them I met had had eleven predecessors. He sat in a cellar of the old prison, with walls of sandbags on each side of him, but he could not sit there very long at a stretch, because it was his duty to regulate the traffic according to the shell-fire. He kept a visitors' book as a hobby, until it was buried under piles of debris and was a hearty, cheerful soul, in spite of the menace of death always about him.
My memory goes back to a strange night in Ypres in those early days. It was Gullett, the Australian eyewitness, afterward in Palestine, who had the idea.
"It would be a great adventure," he said, as we stood listening to the gun-fire over there.
"It would be damn silly," said a staff officer. "Only a stern sense of duty would make me do it."
It was Gullett who was the brave man.
We took a bottle of Cointreau and a sweet cake as a gift to any battalion mess we might find in the ramparts, and were sorry for ourselves when we failed to find it, nor, for a long time, any living soul.
Our own footsteps were the noisiest sounds as we stumbled over the broken stones. No other footstep paced down any of those streets of shattered houses through which we wandered with tightened nerves. There was no movement among all those rubbish heaps of fallen masonry and twisted iron. We were in the loneliness of a sepulcher which had been once a fair city.
For a little while my friend and I stood in the Grande Place, not speaking. In the deepening twilight, beneath the last flame-feathers of the sinking sun and the first stars that glimmered in a pale sky, the frightful beauty of the ruins put a spell upon us.
The tower of the cathedral rose high above the framework of broken arches and single pillars, like a white rock which had been split from end to end by a thunderbolt. A recent shell had torn out a slice so that the top of the tower was supported only upon broken buttresses, and the great pile was hollowed out like a decayed tooth. The Cloth Hall was but a skeleton in stone, with immense gaunt ribs about the dead carcass of its former majesty. Beyond, the tower of St. Mark's was a stark ruin, which gleamed white through the darkening twilight.
We felt as men who should stand gazing upon the ruins of Westminster Abbey, while the shadows of night crept into their dark caverns and into their yawning chasms of chaotic masonry, with a gleam of moon upon their riven towers and fingers of pale light touching the ribs of isolated arches. In the spaciousness of the Grande Place at Ypres my friend and I stood like the last men on earth in a city of buried life.
It was almost dark now as we made our way through other streets of rubbish heaps. Strangely enough, as I remember, many of the iron lamp- posts had been left standing, though bent and twisted in a drunken way, and here and there we caught the sweet whiff of flowers and plants still growing in gardens which had not been utterly destroyed by the daily tempest of shells, though the houses about them had been all wrecked.
The woods below the ramparts were slashed and torn by these storms, and in the darkness, lightened faintly by the crescent moon, we stumbled over broken branches and innumerable shell-holes. The silence was broken now by the roar of a gun, which sounded so loud that I jumped sideways with the sudden shock of it. It seemed to be the signal for our batteries, and shell after shell went rushing through the night, with that long, menacing hiss which ends in a dull blast.
The reports of the guns and the explosions of the shells followed each other, and mingled in an enormous tumult, echoed back by the ruins of Ypres in hollow, reverberating thunder-strokes. The enemy was answering back, not very fiercely yet, and from the center of the town, in or about the Grande Place, came the noise of falling houses or of huge blocks of stone splitting into fragments.
We groped along, scared with the sense of death around us. The first flares of the night were being lighted by both sides above their trenches on each side of the salient. The balls of light rose into the velvety darkness and a moment later suffused the sky with a white glare which faded away tremulously after half a minute.
Against the first vivid brightness of it the lines of trees along the roads to Hooge were silhouetted as black as ink, and the fields between Ypres and the trenches were flooded with a milky luminance. The whole shape of the salient was revealed to us in those flashes. We could see all those places for which our soldiers fought and died. We stared across the fields beyond the Menin road toward the Hooge crater, and those trenches which were battered to pieces but not abandoned in the first battle of Ypres and the second battle.
That salient was, even then, in 1915, a graveyard of British soldiers- -there were years to follow when many more would lie there--and as between flash and flash the scene was revealed, I seemed to see a great army of ghosts, the spirits of all those boys who had died on this ground. It was the darkness, and the tumult of guns, and our loneliness here on the ramparts, which put an edge to my nerves and made me see unnatural things.
No wonder a sentry was startled when he saw our two figures approaching him through a clump of trees. His words rang out like pistol-shots.
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"Friends!" we shouted, seeing the gleam of light on a shaking bayonet.
"Come close to be recognized!" he said, and his voice was harsh.
We went close, and I for one was afraid. Young sentries sometimes shot too soon.
"Who are you?" he asked, in a more natural voice, and when we explained he laughed gruffly. "I never saw two strangers pass this way before!"
He was an old soldier, "back to the army again," with Kitchener's men. He had been in the Chitral campaign and South Africa--"Little wars compared to this," as he said. A fine, simple man, and although a bricklayer's laborer in private life, with a knowledge of the right word. I was struck when he said that the German flares were more "luminous" than ours. I could hardly see his face in the darkness, except when he struck a match once, but his figure was black against the illumined sky, and I watched the motion of his arm as he pointed to the roads up which his comrades had gone to the support of another battalion at Hooge, who were hard pressed. "They went along under a lot of shrapnel and had many casualties."
He told the story of that night in a quiet, thoughtful way, with phrases of almost biblical beauty in their simple truth, and the soul of the man, the spirit of the whole army in which he was a private soldier, was revealed when he flashed out a sentence with his one note of fire, "But the enemy lost more than we did, sir, that night!"
We wandered away again into the darkness, with the din of the bombardment all about us. There was not a square yard of ground unplowed by shells and we did not nourish any false illusions as to finding a safe spot for a bivouac.
There was no spot within the ramparts of Ypres where a man might say "No shells will fall here." But one place we found where there seemed some reasonable odds of safety. There also, if sleep assailed us, we might curl up in an abandoned dugout and hope that it would not be "crumped" before the dawn. There were several of these shelters there, but, peering into them by the light of a match, I shuddered at the idea of lying in one of them. They had been long out of use and there was a foul look about the damp bedding and rugs which had been left to rot there. They were inhabited already by half-wild cats--the abandoned cats of Ypres, which hunted mice through the ruins of their old houses--and they spat at me and glared with green-eyed fear as I thrust a match into their lairs.
There were two kitchen chairs, with a deal table on which we put our cake and Cointreau, and here, through half a night, my friend and I sat watching and listening to that weird scene upon which the old moon looked down; and, as two men will at such a time, we talked over all the problems of life and death and the meaning of man's heritage.
Another sentry challenged us--all his nerves jangled at our apparition. He was a young fellow, one of "Kitchener's crowd," and told us frankly that he had the "jimjams" in this solitude of Ypres and "saw Germans" every time a rat jumped. He lingered near us--"for company.
It was becoming chilly. The dew made our clothes damp. Cake and sweet liquor were poor provisions for the night, and the thought of hot tea was infinitely seductive. Perhaps somewhere one might find a few soldiers round a kettle in some friendly dugout. We groped our way along, holding our breath at times as a shell came sweeping overhead or burst with a sputter of steel against the ramparts. It was profoundly dark, so that only the glowworms glittered like jewels on black velvet. The moon had gone down, and inside Ypres the light of the distant flares only glimmered faintly above the broken walls. In a tunnel of darkness voices were speaking and some one was whistling softly, and a gleam of red light made a bar across the grass. We walked toward a group of black figures, suddenly silent at our approach--obviously startled.
"Who's there?" said a voice.
We were just in time for tea--a stroke of luck--with a company of boys (all Kitchener lads from the Civil Service) who were spending the night here. They had made a fire behind a screen to give them a little comfort and frighten off the ghosts, and gossiped with a queer sense of humor, cynical and blasphemous, but even through their jokes there was a yearning for the end of a business which was too close to death.
I remember the gist of their conversation, which was partly devised for my benefit. One boy declared that he was sick of the whole business.
"I should like to cancel my contract," he remarked.
"Yes, send in your resignation, old lad," said another, with ironical laughter.
"They'd consider it, wouldn't they? P'raps offer a rise in wages--I don't think!"
Another boy said, "I am a citizen of no mean Empire, but what the hell is the Empire going to do for me when the next shell blows off both my bleeding legs?"
This remark was also received by a gust of subdued laughter, silenced for a moment by a roar and upheaval of masonry somewhere by the ruins of the Cloth Hall.
"Soldiers are prisoners," said a boy without any trace of humor. "You're lagged, and you can't escape. A 'blighty' is the best luck you can hope for."
"I don't want to kill Germans," said a fellow with a superior accent. "I've no personal quarrel against them; and, anyhow, I don't like butcher's work."
"Christian service, that's what the padre calls it. I wonder if Christ would have stuck a bayonet into a German stomach--a German with his hands up. That's what we're asked to do."
"Oh, Christianity is out of business, my child. Why mention it? This is war, and we're back to the primitive state--B.C. All the same, I say my little prayers when I'm in a blue funk.
"Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child."
This last remark was the prize joke of the evening, received with much hilarity, not too loud, for fear of drawing fire--though really no Germans could have heard any laughter in Ypres.
Nearby, their officer was spending the night. We called on him, and found him sitting alone in a dugout furnished by odd bits from the wrecked houses, with waxen flowers in a glass case on the shelf, and an old cottage clock which ticked out the night, and a velvet armchair which had been the pride of a Flemish home. He was a Devonshire lad, with a pale, thoughtful face, and I was sorry for him in his loneliness, with a roof over his head which would be no proof against a fair-sized shell.
He expressed no surprise at seeing us. I think he would not have been surprised if the ghost of Edward the Black Prince had called on him. He would have greeted him with the same politeness and offered him his green armchair.
The night passed. The guns slackened down before the dawn. For a little while there was almost silence, even over the trenches. But as the first faint glow of dawn crept through the darkness the rifle-fire burst out again feverishly, and the machine-guns clucked with new spasms of ferocity. The boys of the New Army, and the Germans facing them, had an attack of the nerves, as always at that hour.
The flares were still rising, but had the debauched look of belated fireworks after a night of orgy.
In a distant field a cock crew.
The dawn lightened all the sky, and the shadows crept away from the ruins of Ypres, and all the ghastly wreckage of the city was revealed again nakedly. Then the guns ceased for a while, and there was quietude in the trenches, and out of Ypres, sneaking by side ways, went two tired figures, padding the hoof with a slouching swiftness to escape the early morning "hate" which was sure to come as soon as a clock in Vlamertinghe still working in a ruined tower chimed the hour of six.
I went through Ypres scores of times afterward, and during the battles of Flanders saw it day by day as columns of men and guns and pack- mules and transports went up toward the ridge which led at last to Passchendaele. We had big guns in the ruins of Ypres, and round about, and they fired with violent concussions which shook loose stones, and their flashes were red through the Flanders mist. Always this capital of the battlefields was sinister, with the sense of menace about.
"Steel helmets to be worn. Gas-masks at the alert."
So said the traffic man at the crossroads.
As one strapped on one's steel helmet and shortened the strap of one's gas-mask, the spirit of Ypres touched one's soul icily.