'Pen Picture of the
"Batter"-Field of Ypres' by C. E. W. Bean
If you were to walk out of Ypres across the battlefield on the morning after one of the assaults in this great battle, you would find yourself crossing comparatively green country, battered into holes but with the holes already concealed by thick unkempt grass. It is only here and there that a brown puncture in the green like an ant's nest many times magnified or newly dug grave shows where some high explosive shell or gas shell has pitched into the paddock and exploded.
You can walk fairly comfortably across this bit of country because the old shell holes are not border to border. At the same time the continual unevenness of the surface is so tiring that the road is always a tremendous relief. The road is probably fairly good in the centre like any other well macadamised road in wet weather, but on both sides of it are three to six inches of mud as thin as soup. On various occasions you may have seen dead horses lying in that mud and so when a lorry or waggon shoulders you off into it for the first half dozen times you try and avoid it. About this time something suddenly passes low overhead with the whizz as of steam hissing at a great safety valve. There is a resounding thump of an explosion and a small fountain of mud scraps and black smoke in the grass some fifty yards from the road side. It is the shell from a German high velocity gun.
Oblivious to Rain of Shells
There is a small amount of traffic on the roadway - a line of men with spades going up, some of them in a waggon but mostly on their feet. Probably it is a labour company of the Royal Engineers going in to its day's work on some tramway or new road. Possibly someone turns his head to look at the point-nine out of ten of them do not give it even so much attention. One has seen German prisoners when a shell pitched near them, and they treated it in exactly the same way. What affects many people more than casual German shells is the sudden bang of one of our own guns close behind them. You are passing through the region of our own guns even now, fat monsters squatting like toads. One sends you away with your ear singing for five minutes afterwards.
The Old Line
About two miles out you reach the point where the British line for two and a half years ran. The grass disappears. The country besides you resembles the trampled mud of a farmyard with the hoof marks in it fifty times magnified. In the bottom of each there is water a foot or two deep. Sometimes the line of the old trenches is recognisable as a ditch wandering through the mud half filled with water and with more fragments of equipment three-quarters buried. At several points where the land is high and could therefore be tunnelled you will find that it is pitted with enormous holes large enough to hold a church. They are the craters of old mines. The water stands deep in them to- day-I suppose they will remain for thousands of years as great meaningless pools.
From there on the mud stretches in some parts without a break.
Practically the only way to cross this wilderness of mud except in fine weather is on the duckboards-the wooden footways which wander for miles over every modern battle- field. And yet there are men living in it-you see an occasional group of them somewhere on the face of it. The greater part are artillery. Practically all the field artillery lives in that area. During the battledays this autumn the German prisoners when they came down past those rows of guns raised their eyebrows. At some stages the fieldguns were drawn up almost as if they were soldiers, by platoons, almost wheel to wheel. Their barrages were like the crackle of rifle fire in Gallipoli-something we have never heard since. The gunners slept there week after week in six inches of mud, shelled by day and gas shelled on every still night, constantly answering calls from the infantry for barrage-calls sent up into the air in the shape of flares floating in the dull blue of morning or evening sky.
Avenue of the Martyrs
The country ahead is one landscape of bare brown mud, light chocolate brown mud on the ridges and foal black mud in the depressions. Down the centre of the valleys runs what by some misuse of language is called a stream-the Zonnebeke or the Hanabeek or the Itavebeek. The great shells have so thoroughly pitted them that the stream is simply an area of pools as round as soup-plates, full to the brim. It is almost impossible to pick a way around the treacherous black peninsulas which rim them.
In the mud of the valleys or on the tops of the ridges, each standing much as a battered brick might lie in the slough of the farmyard mud are German concrete blockhouses. The German is a marvellous worker-he actually managed to construct these blockhouses in his front line at fifty to sixty yards from the British in the rim of the Hill Sixty craters. The crests of the Westoek Ridge and the Anzac Ridge beyond are knobbed with them as with a line of warts. We struck through very nearly to the last of them at the Battle of Broodseinde-on that part of the ridge there was very little except open country and newly dug trenches left. As you climb our side of the main ridge you can see the humps of one or two of them against the skyline or just below it. They were the comfortable artillery dugouts from which the German observers, with their long Goertz and Zeiss periscopes sticking up through the roof yards above their heads, used to look out in perfect safety over such a panorama as artillery men might pray for.
Real Country Beyond
On the top of the ridge you come out upon a battered bleak treeless main road, winding in long angles the length of the crest. In front of you, as if you had looked suddenly over the top of a screen, is an entirely different country. First a down slope scattered with the stumps of battered woods; then the upslope of the Keiberg somewhat greener; and down the valley to your right and in the background everywhere trees and hedges showing no signs of wear however dangerous some of them may really be. The Ypres-Roulers railway, which up to there had been a battered dimpled black causeway running through the flats and a hellish grey scar through the top of the hill, winds off into country where it may reasonably become a real railway again.
And in that area our front line meets that of the German. It is very different from the flats, a sandy country in which your feet do not drag. There are black shellbursts in the railway cutting all the day long, and the German spits shrapnel over the ridge and heavy shell into the brickheaps of Zonnebeke and the valleys behind the ridge which are hidden from him. But on the fore slope except for the shell bursts there is scarcely a stir from morning till night. For there our posts and the enemy's face one another over the wilderness which the shells have created.