If you want to visit World War I memorials, go in August where the grass is at its greenest.
It provides a stark contrast to the grey headstones of buried soldiers. Visit it the early afternoon, preferably when it is raining. The overcast skies and the pattering of the rain against the leaves and muddy ground create a background sound to otherwise entirely silent surroundings.
Visiting memorial sites a century later, it is easy to feel removed from the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ these sites came to be. The aged beauty of the site itself may distract from what lays beneath the manicured grass – 44,000 men sent to their deaths.
Langemark German War Cemetery
Langemark and the Hooge Crater are two sites that transport you back in time to a place where it wasn’t just the rain that provided a soundtrack to the area, but the sounds of artillery firing past instead.
It sits among the hills of the Belgian province of West Flanders. If you arrive by car, you’ll drive up slowly on a gravel road. Getting out, the first thing you will notice is a structurally simple black tunnel that you have to walk through to get to the main site. Inside, sheltered from the rain there will be videos of the Great War playing.
Walking through the tunnel, the wind will howl and wail and for a moment you are transported back in time 100 years ago where those same haunting moans become those of the injured and dying.
Emerging from this tunnel, you will walk between two rows of hedges on a cobblestone path. Still the cemetery is mostly shielded from view. You will reach a small wooden sheltered entrance. On the left side is a detailed map of key WWI German burial sites in Belgium. On the right side, walls are covered with names of fallen German soldiers.
Maybe you will come across names that are familiar. Analyzing the names inscribed on the wooden wall, I saw a ‘Josef Wirtz.’ My grandfather, who was born and raised in Germany, also carried the last name of Wirtz. Running my finger through the carved grooves of the letters, I imagined this would-be relative and his experiences, along with the plethora of names written in solidarity on the wall.
“Listen to the wailing around you as you take in the images of World War I one last time. Maybe it’s the cries of the dead and dying, maybe it’s the cries of grief stricken wives and mothers or maybe it’s just the wind.”
Once you emerge from this entrance, there is a mass grave directly in front. This ‘comrade’s grave’ has over 24,000 buried servicemen, of which nearly 8,000 are unknown. The names of the known soldiers are written on basalt grave markers.
Langemark is the final resting place to more than 44,000 soldiers. The village of Langemark was the site of the first gas attacks by the German army. This marked the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. Next to this mass grave, between the oak trees is another group containing over 10,000 soldiers. In the third part of the cemetery, 3,000 schoolchildren who were killed during the First Battle of Ypres are buried.
I think of the soccer stadium that I visited just the day before in Mönchengladbach, Germany. It could hold a little over 54,000 people at its capacity. Imagine all those faces filling up the stands and then imagine those same number of faces buried beneath your feet. The massive scale of those fallen puts into context how deadly this war was.
At the rear of the cemetery, a group of four mourning figures stand. The rain running down their faces makes the area all that more sombre. The group is said to stand guard over the fallen.
Every so often you will come across a grave marker with one phrase across the stone: “Einer unbekannte Deutsche Soldaten, ” or “one unknown German soldier.” The numbers may change but the feeling of having a lost soul beneath does not go away easily.
It was August 25, 2014. Walking amongst the gravestones of young men not much older than I was, I came across one who died on August 23, 1914. Nearly 100 years to the day.
When you have finished walking amongst the gravestones, with only the rain to keep you company, take your time walking back through the tunnel. Listen to the wailing around you as you take in the images of World War I one last time. Maybe it’s the cries of the dead and dying, maybe it’s the cries of grief stricken wives and mothers.
Or maybe it’s just the wind.
When you’re ready to leave behind this solemn memorial, get in your car and drive about 15 minutes and you will reach the Hooge Crater and Museum.
Hooge Crater and Museum
The Hooge Crater resides just off the highway, on the grounds of Kasteelhof ‘T Hooghe, a tearoom and hotel. This roughly occupies the site of where the stables to the Hooge Chateau used to stand. The Chateau was a manor house, which was a country house for the local landed gentry and the residence of the lord of the manor. The Chateau itself was destroyed during a German attack in 1914.
The Hooge Crater is the site of German trenches, which were blown up by the British in 1915. The crater was estimated to be 120 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Looking at it from afar, one wouldn’t realize that it was a crater created by a mine, as it is now filled with water and looks like a natural pond.
This area changed hands between the British and the Germans many times during World War I and was the site of the first German Flammenwerfer (flamethrower) attack against the British.
The water remains calm despite the rain, the lime green algae resting on the surface is undisturbed.
It’s ironic that something that looks so serene now was a battle ground in the past.
There is suggested route to follow around part of the crater. Small information signs dot the edges of the pathway. These provide background information for the area, images of the Chateau and the area just after the war.
The rain makes the pathway slick and muddy. When you walk down between the trenches you may have to duck your head to avoid hitting the aluminum coverings. The sides are muddy but for the most part you don’t get wet. You’re wearing sensible shoes and clothes and have an umbrella. But the soldiers in the trenches would not have. They would have felt the rain on their faces, seeping into their clothes, sending a chill down to the bone. They would have had no reprieve until the sun came out.
“Maybe it’s the cries of the dead and dying, maybe it’s the cries of grief stricken wives and mothers.”
Along the designated path lie artifacts such as small shelters for rusted unspent artillery shells stacked inside. In some spots, piles of empty artillery shells collect rust, blending into the surroundings. You could easily pass over them without ever noticing.
On the other side of the pathway there is a fence that divides the property. Looking through you can see the apex of a rollercoaster. This large theme park is situated on the land where the Hooge Chateau once stood.
Every so often the whir of the roller coaster cars interrupt the solemn atmosphere, sending joy-filled cries into the air. A contrast, so jarring, as you realize that it was only 100 years ago that these screams were not of children squealing in excitement, but of men crying in the grips of death.
The editor responsible for this piece is Katherine Huitema and can be contacted at email@example.com.