Eighty-seven years ago today, on the afternoon of Thursday 22 April 1915, at about 5pm, soldiers of the Allied armies entrenched in the salient north of Ypres saw a yellow-grey fog drifting toward them from the German lines: it was the first use of poison gas in the First World War. Panic broke out and swiftly spread through the lines; men fled in terror, abandoning trenches and guns, as gas- masked German troops marched onward. Over the next five weeks of furious fighting, 60,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded or went missing; this was later referred to as the Second Battle of Ypres.
I was in Ypres 10 days ago, with a party of journalists on a trip organised by Tourism Flanders to publicise Dead.lines - War, Media and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century, an exhibition at the In Flanders Fields Museum, situated in Ypres' magnificent medieval Cloth Hall. Not that it's really medieval: the original Cloth Hall was destroyed during the war, along with most of the rest of Ypres. The worst damage was done in the days leading up to Second Ypres, when the town faced sustained heavy bombardment from German guns, including the infamous Big Bertha, with her one-ton shells. After the war, Germany was made to pay for the place to be restored; which is why the centre of Ypres - more properly, Ieper - is now an unnaturally perfect, Legoland place, though overlaid with modern street furniture and shop fronts. As our guide Simonna informs us on a coach tour of the area, Winston Churchill proposed leaving the town in ruins, to serve as a permanent reminder of the Great War. He was overruled; and anway, Simonna adds, what with all those cemeteries and museums, they have more than enough reminders.
Hard to disagree. Everywhere you go, leftovers of war jog your memory: vast cemeteries and memorials, such as Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate; tiny clusters of graves marooned in the middle of ploughed fields, and smaller statues and crosses by the wayside; plaques commemorating this or that dead poet or artist, road signs pointing out the little private museums or directing the war tourist along the In Flanders Fields Route; gleaming polished shell casings and medals on display in the local restaurants. Battlefield detritus regularly pops up from the soil: shells, bayonets, the odd disembodied bone; unexploded shells are left by the road for the Belgian army to collect and dispose of.
Forgetting the war is not an option here; and in Britain, where it might be, we aren't prepared to let go. As the last old soldiers fade away, the memory is kept alive by novels such as Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong and Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, and by television series such as that piece of well-intentioned idiocy The Trench. In recent years, the two minutes' silence on Armistice Day has been observed with renewed fervour; and though nobody can give reliable figures, everybody in Flanders seems to agree that the number of British visitors to the battlefields has increased enormously in recent years. (If you accept the In Flanders Fields Museum's estimate that it is visited by two-thirds of all British visitors to the Ypres battlefields, then a total of 135,000 went last year. If you suspect, as I do, that the museum takes an optimistic view of its own appeal, the overall number of visitors may be considerably higher.)
Remembrance is not straightforward. The real problem is: how do you get across the scale of the slaughter while maintaining a sense of decorum? The approach of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is, according to Jeremy Gee, the director of the Northern Europe area, to emphasise the individual loss. This is not always easy: the Menin Gate is inscribed with the names of 54,896 British Empire troops who died around Ypres, whose bodies were never found - some were blown to pieces, others drowned in the putrid mud of Passchendaele. In the local British cemeteries, a high proportion of the headstones read, simply, "A soldier of the Great War, Known unto God" (a phrase composed by Rudyard Kipling, whose own son John was among the unmarked dead until a few years ago, when his body was discovered). …