Landscape and Memory

Brian James revisits Ypres, where new ways of commemorating the events of the First World War are enthralling visitors of all generations.

Stories of the great battles that shaped our world cannot be just lists of dates, causes and consequences. They must also recall the men who fought and the places where they died. Very few of the soldiers who endured the four years of obscene slaughter which made the fluctuating Battle of Ypres a benchmark of the First World War are still alive. But the footprint of their struggle is an indelible imprint on the land and  deserves preservation.

That, at least, is the idea behind this year’s initiative by the Flanders Field Museum – already one of the most innovative of all battlefield memorials. ‘The Last Witness’ is a reference to the land itself, once a sea of pock­marked mud and rubble, resting place of 500,000 dead, now mirac­ul­ously veneered by gentle farmland. Yet almost every hedgerow, ridge and copse has a story to tell.

In 1998 the Flanders Field Museum created a device to display the faces of those who had fought about this ancient city. Visitors were invited to select from a row of labelled press-buttons such as ‘Allied Soldier’, ‘German Soldier’, ‘Belgian Civilian’. Doing so produced a bar-coded card, which when swiped through machines dotted about a new exhibition told the story of the selected individual – his or her entire war, and even­tual fate. Nearly 200,000 visitors per year have passed through the museum since, 45 per cent of them British, and as they toured they also heard the oral histories spoken by survivors. But even this, the museum decided, was not enough.

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