It’s been 93 years since the last of the many millions of shells was fired in the Great War, but every year, farmers in France and Belgium still find dangerous munitions on their land. In Flanders fields alone, some 10,000 unexploded bombs are ploughed up each year. It’s known as the “Iron Harvest”, and farmers place their finds by the roadside for the bomb disposal units to collect. Ironically, people are still being killed by WW1 munitions. Canada’s Vimy Memorial apparently has one unexploded shell for every square metre, which is why there are fences and signs warning people not to stray off the paths.
So imagine how hazardous the devastated landscape was immediately after the war. That’s why I was surprised to discover that Michelin published tourist guides to the battlefields and cemeteries! I just read one about Ypres that was published in 1920. Illustrated with pictures of piles of rubble where villages had once stood, muddy, debris-ridden fields with water-filled shell-holes, and rough roads lined with naked, broken tree stumps, it gives detailed directions on what to see and how to get about. Some roads were not yet passable. Here’s a quote: “Beyond the cross-roads there is a confused heap of rails and broken trucks in the middle of shell-torn ground.”
It seems macabre to me to tour the battlefields when they are still raw, highly dangerous, and gruesome, as dead bodies were being discovered and recovered. Having said that, my own tour of them and the military cemeteries a few years ago was a powerful and moving experience.
The magnificent, medieval city of Ypres was virtually razed, as you can see in the 1919 photo above. Are the people standing there tourists, or citizens returning and trying to imagine rebuilding their homes and lives? Fortunately, they did, as you can see in this photo taken by my daughter.
Photo copyright Melanie Wills
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