I died in hell
(They called it Passchendaele)
Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Memorial Tablet’
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), ‘The Soldier’
Recently I watched Dunkirk, the celebrated, ‘true-to-life’ film of the evacuation of Dunkirk of the British Expeditionary Force and some of the French troops at the end of May and beginning of June 1940. As a viewer you sit in a real Spitfire as the Stukas bomb you even on the pier.
Nevertheless, this is fiction, not historical reality. We might even read a Brexit metaphor into it: British soldiers yearning for ‘home’ and leaving that damned Europe behind. The physical enemy is nowhere to be seen, unless we discern it in the silhouettes of a few German helmets taking the courageous Spitfire pilot captive on a French beach at the end of the movie.
I was immediately reminded of the memorial of the Battle of Passchendaele on 30 July 2017 at the Market Square in Ypres and the next day at Tyne Cot Cemetery.
The British Royals William and Kate, at Tyne Cot, accompanied by Charles, turned it into an English in-crowd event. The impressive TV show in Ypres Market Square, and in fact the entire memorial, was in the hands of the BBC. The Belgian royal couple looked on from the sidelines.
No sign in the memorial of an enemy who also suffered, with the exception of the testimony of a German soldier, read out among the gravestones, and some bouquets of flowers placed on the few German graves which by some miracle remain in the cemetery to challenge the immaculate geometry of the British funerary scenography.
The British Empire no longer exists, except as a ‘lieu de mémoire’: ‘(…) some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England’ (Rupert Brooke). Grand, heroic, but tragically ironic. I too am impressed, but still, I recommend Sassoon’s grim poem ‘On Passing The New Menin Gate’, which can be read here.
For the true story of the emblematically futile battles of the twentieth century, see this piece by Piet Chielens, director of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. And the article by Dominiek Dendooven, researcher at the same Museum, on the Menin Gate and the Last Post Ceremony, places the difficult art of remembering in a more reliable context.