Tunnel vision: The accidental visitor
Wartime photographs show it as a destroyed landscape of mud and craters, with bullet-riddled screens hung along the road in a vain attempt to keep troop movements hidden from the view of German gunners in the opposing trenches. It became too dangerous to pass here in daylight; contemporary accounts record nightmarish scenes of Hellfire Corner in pitch blackness, with men, horses and supplies pushing through the mud and the constant explosions of shells.
It's hard to imagine the terror of the setting now. While soldiers marched through cloying mud, I've come on a daytrip, catching a comfortable Eurostar for the two-hour journey from Waterloo to Lille and from there, two short train rides to the pleasantly-restored medieval town of Ypres (or Ieper to its Flemish-speaking inhabitants).
It's a sunny August day and I take the Menin Road out of town, a hazardous route during the war that many columns of men would have taken, not knowing how or if they would return. Now there's a shop selling garden furniture, a line of smart new houses, and a poster for a rodeo competition. When I reach the sleepy roundabout that is today's Hellfire Corner, I'm overtaken by a convoy of plump Belgians on mountain bikes.
It's a cheerful, everyday kind of scene and, as I stop for some water, I look up towards the higher ground nearby, towards the village of Passchendale, where in the summer of 1917 the British and their allies charged towards heavily-fortified German lines. In the ensuing battle, in one of the worst periods of blood-letting in the entire war, an estimated quarter of a million men were killed.
Such massive losses are hard to comprehend - even the numbers themselves vary wildly depending on the sources. But I'm made suddenly and surprisingly closer to the events when I look inside the Menin Road South war cemetery.
The first two headstones I come across are inscribed with the date of my visit, but in 1917 rather than 1997. J O'Reilly and P Johnston, both in the Royal Irish Rifles, are buried side-by-side, both young men who died 80 years ago. In the same line of graves are other young men who died here this week in August 1917, presumably in the same murderous push towards Passchendale. The coincidence makes me wonder how and where they died, and how differently this same place and same date has been for them and for me,their accidental visitor.
This war cemetery holds more than 1, 000 neat white headstones, beneath which are young men from Britain, Canada, Australia and a Maori regiment from New Zealand. At least for the families of these men, there is a grave to visit, while the massive memorial at the Menin Gate is covered with the names of more than 50,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found. There are war cemeteries all around Ypres - the largest at Tyne Cot holds nearly 12,000 graves and another memorial there records the names of more than 30,000 soldiers without graves.
It's a hot day and I take my time walking back into Ypres, taking a country lane that crosses through farmland. It's the kind of country walk that makes my thoughts race, particularly about what I think I should be feeling, trying to find an authentic response to the memorials that I've seen. It's difficult to understand the 20th century without understanding the depth of impression that the First World War made on all the many countries involved. In school I was taught the causes and course of the war, the social context, the war poetry, I grew up with war memorials all around me - in the school chapel, in Portsmouth's city centre, even in the railway stations.
But here, where the war was actually fought, on what was once the Western Front, it seems further away than I'd imagined. Ypres, almost levelled in the course of the war, has been rebuilt into an attractive reconstruction of its former self. While historians of the next century will come to Ypres looking for clues into the meaning of our own old, passing century, today the town is gearing up for a fun-fair, with a merry-go-round filling the main square with music. It shows how life goes on.
In fact, apart from a nightly playing of the Last Post at the Menin Gate,I get the feeling that the connections between Ypres and the battles that made it famous are almost downplayed. Fortunately, there are no mawkish theme parks and, when I visited, the town's war museum had a sign up saying it was closed until next Easter. When I walk out from the town, following directions to a section of preserved trench, I find that the small stretch of the defensive line, preserved in concrete, is entirely deserted, with nothing really to explain its place there. It's a poignant scene, with the frozen trenches only 100 yards or so away from another war cemetery, filled with the lines of men who died.
Unlike the soldiers who fought here, I can escape Ypres after a five-hour stay - and even feel sorry to be leaving so soon. It's a very modern European journey back as well, changing trains again at Lille Europe, a brand-new station for the high-speed rail network and symbol of the city's commitment to a new, more unified, Europe. When I step off the train at Waterloo, I can't help but think of how much the soldiers at Ypres would have envied me these familiar London streets and how far away Flanders must have seemed.
Eurostar: 0345 30 30 30
London to Ypres from #163;69 return