There's a cold in Europe that's different from the cold in New Zealand. It isn't coming up from the ground, or carried in the wind. It's like it's already inside you, and no matter how many clothes you have on, after half an hour... " />

Belgium: From the ends of the Earth

We’re lucky enough to have an extract from Tell You What, a great new collection of blogs and travelogues, memoirs and journalism from New Zealand writers. Here, Kate Camp shares her experience of visiting the former battlefields of Ypres in Belgium.

There’s a cold in Europe that’s different from the cold in New Zealand. It isn’t coming up from the ground, or carried in the wind. It’s like it’s already inside you, and no matter how many clothes you have on, after half an hour all you can think about is getting indoors. I am astonished that anyone survived the wars of Europe. Even without the gas, gunfire, shelling, rats and disease, just surviving the weather is unimaginable.

Ypres is a beautiful town. Or maybe I should say, Ypres was a beautiful town, and the new Ypres, rebuilt brick by brick after World War I, is beautiful too. It’s an almost exact replica but with more room for parking.

I checked in to my hotel which had the rare luxury of a kettle in the room, reflecting how many English tourists pass through. As I ate my omelette in a cafe off the town square, I watched an elderly couple. He ordered steak and frites, and she had the mussels: a huge, two-tiered steamer affair, full of the tiny Belgian mussels that are so time-consuming to eat compared to our New Zealand ones, but so tender and delicious. They each had a glass of wine.

How very European, I caught myself thinking, and maybe it was, because she was wearing shoes with heels and was dressed in black. He was either wearing a beret, or my imagination has inserted one in the intervening years.

Having signed up for a minivan tour of the battlefields, I found myself with seven Dutch tourists and our Belgian guide. Humiliatingly, the Dutch majority opted to have the tour in English, for my benefit.

There are so many things that will break your heart when you think about the fighting in Belgium. The bunkers by the canals where doctors operated their butcher’s shops. The gas attacks that left the ground littered with rabbits, mice and moles, driven from their holes by the low-rolling cloud. The gravestones laid out in groups – when a number of men were killed at once, so that the parts of their bodies were all mixed up, the collective remains would be buried together and the gravestones set in a row, touching each other, like a row of teeth.

Graves of fallen soldiers in Ypres. Photo / 123RF
Graves of fallen soldiers in Ypres. Photo / 123RF

But the thing I find most depressing is how flat everything is, how unimpressive and undistinguished it is as a landscape. Here is a ridge that changed hands a dozen times: it’s a hump in the ground not much higher than a railway crossing. Here is the famous wood that cost hundreds of lives – it’s just a bunch of trees, like you’d get on some scrap of land down the back of a farm.

I’d read about the battles for the high ground, for Hill 60, for vantage points unassailable to the enemy. But to my New Zealand eyes, my Wellington eyes, the whole place looks so flat and anonymous. It’s like there’s no real geography, just names and lines on land as level as a map.

Our guide does a great job. He has copies of letters and diaries with him, which he reads from, and aerial photos of the area after the war. It looks like something under a microscope, like the surface of an atom. One of the letters talks about the destruction being so absolute, that the locations of villages could only be identified by brick-coloured stains on the ground. There is something very haunting about the way that trees and medieval churches and goats and men and cellars and blades of grass were all pulverised and mixed up together, ‘as in a mortar and pestle’.

(This is a quote from Ernst Junger’s classic war memoir Storm of Steel, which I buy in Ypres town later that day, and read that night. The trip and the book will always be tied together in my mind.)

We visit some of the New Zealand memorials, which are dotted around, apart from the other monuments. They always say “FROM THE UTTERMOST ENDS OF THE EARTH”. It is very affecting, but also, infuriating. It is so insane to die in war, but to travel so far around the globe for that purpose? And there’s something about that phrase, ‘the uttermost ends of the earth’ that annoys me too, because it is this battlefield, this war that was the uttermost: this was the end of the earth.

Trenches in Flanders Field. Photo / 123RF
Trenches in Flanders Field. Photo / 123RF

New Zealand war memorials are always separate from the others, because New Zealand decided that the graves should be as close as possible to where the men had fallen. The effect of this is that they can be hard to find, and when you do find them, they might be just there at the junction of two country roads, next to a give way sign, or with a sheet metal factory nearby.

As you drive around, you sometimes see old shell casings left by road signs. They still dig them up and they are left out for the authorities to collect. Every now and again they find a big one, or one goes off and kills someone, our guide says.

Tyne Cot is the big Commonwealth cemetery. By the time we arrive, it’s so cold we all have drips on our noses and watering eyes. It’s a kind of ersatz emotion, because it’s hard to feel much in the cemetery, having already been to so many more intimate sites of death and suffering.

The sun’s come out by the time we get to the German cemetery, Langemark. Unlike the Commonwealth war graves, German war cemeteries are rarely visited.

For obvious reasons, the Germans don’t go in much for war memorials, war tourism, looking up the old relatives. But of course these dead Germans are the “good” ones. The remains of 44,000 World War I German soldiers are interred here in a mass grave.

I get a shock when I see paper poppies on one of the German graves, with a wreath. I should know this from reading All Quiet on the Western Front, how you forget that it’s the same war, on the same ground, in many ways the exact same experience. And, of course, the same flowers.

The Menin Gate. Photo / 123RF
The Menin Gate. Photo / 123RF

In fact, I always thought that All Quiet on the Western Front was an English book about English soldiers. I was a quarter of the way through the novel, when Paul is heading home on the eastward-bound train, before it dawned on me he was German.

Before we leave Langemark, I use the public toilet, although it is bitterly cold. I tell our guide that my mother taught me never to pass up the chance to use a toilet. He says his mother taught him the exact same thing.

Back in Ypres the streets are decorated for Christmas, with stars of white fairy lights strung across the narrow pedestrian street that leads down to the Menin Gate. There has been a service there every night since the end of the war. My guide said that when the Nazis occupied Ypres, the service was stopped, but it was re-started by Poles five days later as soon as the town was retaken.

At least that’s how I remember the story. It might have been five months. And maybe they weren’t Poles, maybe I just have Poles in my head because a few weeks earlier I’d made a trip to Warsaw, and stayed in another beautiful, ancient city that had been rebuilt from scratch after being bombed to dust.

Sometimes it feels like Europe is one big cemetery.

We have three copies of Tell You What to give away, courtesy of Auckland University Press. The non-fiction collection features great writing from the likes of Steve Braunias, Nicky Hagar, Elizabeth Knox and David Fisher. Tell us what your favourite travel book is and what you love about it. Entries close December 31. Email your details to travelcompetitions@nzherald.co.nz

- NZ Herald