Some corner of a foreign field

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A few years ago, the ball-and-chain and I went to visit our friends Paul and Robert in Belgium. It was a flying visit, and my first trip abroad for about 5 years.

I fell in love with the country (I’m bound by the Laws of Journalism to refer to it as “that troubled and divided country”, although the people of Belgium are the last to identify with that soubriquet) instantly. Belgium has everything I want in life: busy cities, quiet countryside, is mostly flat so hiking is a breeze and the most dense railway network in the world. I need nothing more to be happy. Since then, we’ve been back to Belgium 3 or 4 times a year every year – to the point that we had to note that on the census in March, since it came to over a month away every year visiting the same place.

On our first trip, we had a day out to visit Ieper (Ypres that was), which is where the major powers decided to hold World War One, and this has become our second home. It’s a beautiful town, with a wonderful secular cathedral in the Cloth Hall, a busy town square and lots of buildings that look like they date from a pre-Victorian era but actually were built after 1918, due to the Germans having flattened the place.

A short walk out on any of the radial roads will take you to places of singular beauty and calm: the hundreds of Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial grounds. Each of these are different, each of them the same – spiders’ webs is a good analogy. They are places of contemplation, of remembrance; a reminder that all wars are an exercise in futility but one particular war – the Great War – was particularly futile. It was fought for not very clear reasons, in a not very clear way, with a complete disregard for the lives of the boys fighting it. It was a bloodbath.

Out of the strong came forth sweetness, says the bible and the Golden Syrup tins. Out of this pointless massacre came forth beauty, and I developed a new, unusual hobby: I started to “collect” the burial grounds, taking hundreds of photographs, ticking off the Major and Mrs Holt’s list of sites and researching the history of each place. I wasn’t sure quite what I’d do with the results, although I did build some useful articles in Wikipedia (an up-hill battle in itself) and get a huge collection of images held on Flickr under a usefully free licence for others to use.

Then I started on writing a book in my spare time, of which I always seem to have so little (with nothing to show for the rest). Five years later, I’ve just sent it to the printers this morning.

It’s really only for my own amusement, a book I want to have on my shelf – the subject matter makes it quite a hard sell, so I’m unlikely to bother trying to push it. But I’m proud of it, despite the stupid amount of time it has taken.

We’re off to Ieper at the end of the month, and I’ll bag some more sites while I’m there. It’s a weird hobby, collecting war cemeteries. And I’m nowhere near visiting all the ones in the Salient, let alone across the entire Western Front. But it’s worth doing, for the lads I’m visiting as well as for myself.

Preview (and buy) the book here.

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