Flan­ders fields ran with blood

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Raf Casert

YPRES, BEL­GIUM» Dis­mem­bered sol­diers sucked into cesspools of mud. Shat­tered tree trunks and the waft of poi­son gas hov­er­ing over the wounded who were await­ing their fates on the scarred soil of Flan­ders Fields.

The Third Bat­tle of Ypres, fought in western Bel­gium a cen­tury ago, was as bad as World War I would get. Half a mil­lion sol­diers were es­ti­mated to have been killed or wounded dur­ing the 100-day bat­tle and one name keeps com­ing back: Pass­chen­daele, now as grim a sym­bol as any field of war ever re­mem­bered.

Mon­day marks the cen­ten­nial of the start of the Al­lied of­fen­sive, which ended up barely mov­ing the front line. Thus it be­came a metaphor for the folly of war as sol­diers from Aus­tralia, Canada and New Zealand joined mostly Bri­tish forces at­tempt­ing to break Ger­many’s hold on the Western Front.

“It is the largest mas­sacre ever to have taken place on Bel­gian soil,” said cu­ra­tor Piet Chie­lens of the In Flan­ders Fields Mu­seum, which has recorded over 150,000 dead — and still count­ing — in the months of fight­ing.

Bel­gium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde are ex­pected to join Bri­tain’s Prince Charles, Prince Wil­liam and the Duchess of Cam­bridge over two days of cen­te­nary cer­e­monies, start­ing with a Last Post at Ypres’ Menin Gate on Sun­day.

When the Third Bat­tle of Ypres started on July 31, 1917, World War I was en­ter­ing its fourth year, bogged down in trench war­fare. Both sides were des­per­ate for a break­through fol­low­ing the hun­dreds of thou­sands of ca­su­al­ties the year be­fore at Ver­dun and the Somme in north­ern France, two other bat­tles that vie with Pass­chen­daele as the most costly of the Great War.

Bri­tain’s Sir Dou­glas Haig was con­vinced he could force a break­through at Ypres, even though two ear­lier bat­tles there had failed. The goal was to shut down Ger­man sub­ma­rine op­er­a­tions on the Bel­gian coast. Haig’s plan to take the vil­lage of Pass­chen­daele in a few days and move on to the coast turned out to be wildly am­bi­tious.

With rain turn­ing the swampy ter­rain to mud and the Ger­mans armed with mus­tard gas, it would take un­til Novem­ber for the Al­lies to cap­ture the vil­lage. They never got close to the ports.

Bri­tish painter Paul Nash was at Pass­chen­daele in Novem­ber and used the depth of de­spair he wit­nessed as in­spi­ra­tion for his paint­ing “The Menin Road.”

“The rain drives on, the stink­ing mud be­comes more evilly yel­low, the shell holes fill up with green­white wa­ter, the roads and tracks are cov­ered in inches of slime, the black dy­ing trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease,” Nash wrote to his wife. “An­ni­hi­lat­ing, maim­ing, mad­den­ing, they plunge into the grave which is this land.”

The Bri­tish would ar­gue that even though the ad­vance stalled, the long and costly bat­tle weak­ened the Ger­man en­emy. His­tory, how­ever, has high­lighted the fu­til­ity of the ex­er­cise point­ing out that Pass­chen­daele could not be held once it was taken.

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