Magazine article The Spectator

War and Peace

Magazine article The Spectator

War and Peace

Article excerpt

I was in Ypres, about which Churchill said, 'A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.'

Thousands of members of that race were knocking about in the town. We were easy to spot among the more prosperously dressed Belgians. But not always. I said bonsoir to this bloke who was coming out of the hotel as I was going in, and he said, 'I'm English.

You don't have to "bonsoir" me, mate.'

'Here for the war cemeteries?' I said. 'Oh, yes, ' he said. 'I come twice a year every year without fail. I am obsessed by the Great War.

I came here once and that was it. Hooked for life.'

I told him I had just arrived and that I was disoriented; disoriented above all by the scale of the killing. They are telling us that there are 90,000 British soldiers from the Ypres salient alone with no known grave, and just a name etched on the wall of a memorial, I said. And the killing was even worse still down the road at the battle of the Somme. In five months two armies fired 30 million shells at each other and suffered a million casualties between them in an area seven miles square. Statistics like these, I was having difficulty getting my head round, I said. What got into them all? Were they mad? 'Family feud, ' he shrugged, as if the explanation was crystal clear. 'The heads of Europe were all related and there was a black sheep in the family.'

The delightfully succinct summing-up of the causes of the first world war took me aback. But now I come to think of it, 'family feud' was an admirable explanation. In fact, it explains more or less any historical event one cares to mention. Perhaps the bloke was a professional historian. While I was at it, I thought, I might as well get him to clear up some other matters that had been troubling me lately.

'This is Belgium, right?' I said, for coming by coach from Calais it was by no means clear that a national border had been crossed. No wonder the German army divisions treated it so lightly on each occasion.

'Ye-es, ' he said slowly, suddenly losing confidence in my intelligence. And Ypres is also known as Ieper, I said. (Thinking that the first letter was a lower case letter 'L', I had been looking at the road signs and happily imagining Europe's last remaining leper colony still open for business a few miles off the main road. …

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