YPRES, BELGIUM: There are times when travel can be uncomfortable and justifiably so. It could the sudden realization of how much poverty exists in a large percentage of the world. Perhaps it occurs the first time someone experiences the seemingly never-ending sea of humanity in places like India and China. Or, possibly, your eyes are opened the first time you encounter a historic landmark such the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or a former World War II concentration camp-like Treblinka, Auschwitz or Dachau.
Many Western travelers refuse to visit such places, opting instead to ignore them so as not to ruin their holiday. On the one hand, their reasoning is valid, but from another perspective, such a refusal is tantamount to a denial of the existence of such events.
Such outings are by no means pleasant but they do arouse our curiosity about man’s inhumanity to man while adding a layer of comprehension to the stories that serve to magnify two powerful words sculpted into a work of art at Dachau: “Never Again”
Yet, here we are, nearly a century removed from such travesties, where, at times, the message of those 10 letters above is lost in the chaos of other wars and/or terrorism.
One such place, The Bluff, remains just south-east of Ypres in Belgium. Created from a spoil heap left by the digging of the Ypres-Comines Canal prior to World War I, The Bluff is a mound of grass-covered terrain that is, today, a provincial park and picnic area.
During the war, The Bluff was 30 feet high on the western side with a gentle slope to the east, making it one of the best vantage points in the Ypres Salient. As such, The Bluff was the site of several Battles of Ypres that took place between the Germans and Allied Forces in 1916 and 1917.
In the spring of 1915, there was constant underground fighting in the Ypres Salient at Hooge, Hill 60, Railway Wood, Sanctuary Wood, St Eloi, and The Bluff. Much of the combat required the deployment of new drafts of tunnelers for several months following the formation of the first eight tunneling companies of the Royal Engineers.
Though reducing the First World War to its lowest common denominator is a gross over-simplification. The conflict amounted to a massive tug-o-war where each side would gain control for a while before yielding it back later on.
In the process, there were mammoth casualties on both sides with little or nothing being accomplished, other than dying, in between.
In the end, the atrocities at The Bluff, thus become a poignant metaphor for the senseless insanity of war.
Saving Private Ryan
When Steven Spielberg released Saving Private Ryan in 1998, the first 30 minutes of the film graphically depicted the Allied assault on D-Day at Omaha Beach in Normandy as it had never before been shown on the screen before. Fulfilling the adage War is Hell.
So realistic were the scenes that many people to this day will only watch it once, if at all. Instead, many viewers who will view the movie again will opt to fast-forward a half-hour ahead to join the story in the middle of the picture.
In a similar way, perhaps nothing drives home the horrors of the sanitized versions of combat we so readily imagine in our heads than the actual descriptions written down by someone who lived them.
Following are the words of 2nd Lieutenant John Glubb M.C. RE 7th field coy on the 7th March 1916 from his diary the Reality of the Bluff (NOTE: The descriptions are graphic):
“I never knew a place like the Bluff for corpses. During the battle last month, the troops, suffered heavily and were too tired to bury their dead. Many of them were merely trampled into the floor of the trench, where they were soon lost in the mud and the water. We have been digging out a lot of these trenches again, and are constantly coming upon the corpses. They are pretty well decomposed, but a pickaxe brings up chips of bones and rags of clothing. The rest is putrid grey matter. It makes me sick.
At other times, they scooped out hollows in the rear face of the trench, or in the traverses, and stuffed their corpses into them. There was part of a hat sticking out of the back of one trench, the head inside which still seemed to be bleeding after at least a fortnight. One often sees hands or boots sticking out. In a disused dugout behind the old front line, half a man’s head was sticking out. It had been largely eaten by rats.”
As travel goes it is easy to see why visitors would have no desire to willingly expose themselves to such horrific circumstances. On the other side of the coin however, one has to ask what evils exist in supposedly civilized societies that would allow human beings to even consider letting such atrocities occur?
The Bluff is a little known example of why those of us with a passion for travel should occasionally endure the uncomfortable aspects of our hobby in order to better grasp the realities of some of the unpleasantness of history. In so doing, we can aid in the education of others with eyewitness truths rather than accepting the words of those who deny them.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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