The huts stand grey and hopeless against the illuminated colours of the cemeteries. Their occupants, workers from the industrial area of Valenciennes. Flemings with plastered down, red-blond hair and broad, helpless hands, take refuge between the graves on Sundays. They promenade backwards and forwards on the clean gravel paths. Defiantly exhilarated, they inhale the scent of the trees, which belong to the dead.
The sing-song of demanding children accompanies the baby carriage. Some of them, blond girls with thin voices, are carrying flowers which they stole from the graves, because the narrow gardens of their parents are taken up by crops and the paralyzing need for potatoes. While the English are building a massive triumphal arch, costing three million francs, inside the walls of the completely restored civic centre, up here, cheated life borrows a little gloss from death.
In front of the elegant cemetery, the guide tells us that a Prince Battenberg is buried there. A few English tourists who need to take some photographs, disappear quickly behind the crosses. The rest of the battlefield tourists retreat to an Estaminet, the air is heavy, and the embarrassing impression of the outskirts of town are more easily forgotten when drinking a beer and writing postcards. Why look too closely how life is squeezed into the corner here? They came with the best of intentions to pay their respects to the dead. They can’t change the other situation which, sad though it is, they can just as well stumble over and shrug at at home. They want things which are worthy of a memorial. “Doff your hats before the mass grave… A dog’s life is a private problem!” I leap out of the hot leather seat. Above me is the powerful early August sun. It soaks into the stones, and then bursts out of them with twice as much force. Indistinct noises, hammer blows, or the rattling of carts between lifeless houses, come from Ypres, which floats in the thick smoke of its fireplaces. Otherwise, everything is still. Only the engine vibrates in a constant rhythm, and a dry wind rustles in the bushes. I first saw the hill where the road sinks. The driver, a delicate, kindly Frenchman, pointed out, “Kemmel, red and black hills, Hill 60”. “The village in the hollow?” “Langemark”. “On the slight plateau?” “Poelkapelle”. “Down there below, to the right, where the pond is reflecting?” “Zillebeke”.
I am standing in front of a cultivated landscape. A handful of fresh, red-cheeked houses with a defiant little church between them, harmless hilltops wrapped in a coloured strip of fertile fields, a little hill which rises in comical self-importance from the plain: these all carry names which were the first major incisions in my youth. So this is where they fell, the seniors whom we enviously watched as they marched away with their matriculations for life and death in their pockets. How you stood on those drum-filled days for the last time behind the grey school gates, laughing, with shining teeth, your sentences accompanied by suddenly rising blushes. Just kids, really, but for us, men, who were now devoured by life. None of you knew what war was, you made jokes about death just like you did about unpopular teachers, you listened with a smile when they spoke to you about manly virtues. And as the stiff-legged headmaster with reddened eyes and a beard gnawed at by all the mice of hypocrisy, cried out after you, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, you staggered off, light-intoxicated butterflies, to war, which meant freedom to you. Declared heroes from the semi-hell of your awakening years. Not yet old enough to grow a proper beard, surrounded by the tales of the old men who drew new strength from your enthusiasm, you fell by the hecatomb in the machine-gun fire of European madness.
There, perhaps, on this crossroads, where the yellow sand blows around, or over there, by the pond, in which the air reflects noiselessly, is that where it was? Where did the cloud of gas descend which rolled your swollen bodies around in the mud?
The car horn calls us back. The driver signals nervously to us to get back on board. Someone lets a handful of small change fall, the children chase after it, fall over each other, strike out each other ferociously with their little fists. The engine comes to life, and the vehicle jerks backwards. The driver smiles and changes gear, and we drive towards Hill 60 at an even pace. The sky hangs heavy and low. The fields are deserted, except for an occasional peasant counting the sheaves. Geese chatter on the pond at Zillebeke. We cross a railway line at which three roads meet. A signal changes in the little signal box. The guide gets up and stands bent over next to the driver, who slows down. His white cap is dusty, and wet at the edges.
The arteries stand out blue on his hand, which grips the leather. His voice is hoarse and keeps breaking, because he tries to force it. “That narrow hill there is Hill 60! It was contested violently for four years, like few other places. Only the ‘dead man’ at Verdun is comparable. You will find it as the combatants left it.”
We climb the narrow track. Fifty paces, not more. We notice a strange movement at the top. There is a scattering of people. They are bent over. We pass a tidy village. Cattle steams in big barns. A footpath leads into the field to the right behind the last house. It stops in front of a barbed wire gate. A man with an arm missing, sporting the gratitude of his country on his chest, demands two francs entry fee. A barrier is raised, we are at the top.
The hill dominates the surrounding area like a splendid pulpit. The plain kneels at its feet. The war raised its brows on the hill, and the surrounding countryside lay bleeding. This promontory is unsettling, a throne resting on bones and broken skulls, occupied for four years by the great dramaturgy of destruction. It was right to separate the hill from the emerging normality of the surrounding plain with a fence of barbed wire, because the senseless determination with which death claimed its victims here was so much more absolute than almost anywhere else, that no transition to normality is conceivable. It clawed itself remorselessly into the ground, which is still as cold and lifeless as when the last shell landed. Hill 60 is the nature conservation park of war.
A group of little girls sings, “Sovenir. Souvenir”, at us. They are holding bayonets which they have scratched out of the ground. One of them is struggling with half of a broken helmet. There are also helmet covers, “Fearless and True”. Souvenirs… I wade through the shell-holes, which are real and full of shrapnel. Some of them filled up with water, which is green and sludgy, and refuses to reflect at all. Yellow bubbles, which are so thick that they don’t burst, sit involuntarily big on the surface. The ground itself has a grey crust, as though the sun had starved it for years. Or is it so hard because it is trying to hide what is underneath?
There is a young, broad-boned man next to me, with a naked, brown torso. He loosens the earth with stubborn blows of a pick-axe. His face is tense. The feverish expectation of the treasure hunter flickers around his mouth. The ground breaks under his blows, and the brown, rolling earth reveals itself modestly. He digs in with a shovel. The brown clods tumble on it, and fly through the air in a hard arc onto a heap which grows next to him. He digs… As I am observing him, the guide takes me to one side. He is excited. His voice quivers. I must excuse him… he hadn’t known that someone would still be ‘working’ at this time of day. But the greed of the peasants knows no limits. Greed? “Yes, he is digging for corpses. He gets ten francs for each one he finds!” And the guide whinges as though on a scale. I look at the peasant. He shovels the earth regularly. He takes a wide backswing with his arms. The fee dances in front of his eyes while his rusty spade digs sharply into the brittle rib cages of the forgotten dead.
Ten francs for a corpse! We used to get that much for a hamster when we were kids, although we did have to kill it ourselves first. That aspect has already been thoroughly seen to here.
“Where do the corpses that he digs up go to?” “To the cemeteries, sir. They get a Christian burial”. “But they get iron forced between their weathered bones again first”. “Yes, but then they are identified, and people can put flowers and crosses on their graves.” “Leave them in peace, for God’s sake!”
Instead of answering, he draws me towards the left-hand side. There is a shell-hole in front of us. It is deep, with glass-smooth walls. There is a cross on the ground at the bottom. Two pale boards nailed together. I jump in and read the inscription: Un Allemand. Letters stamped in cheap tin that force me to kneel. Or curse?
The guide is standing at the edge of the hole with his legs apart. His tale makes me choke. “Five days ago, the labourers dug up nine corpses. Bones and metal. Six Englishmen, two Frenchmen, and a German. This one here. They left him here because his cemetery is too far away, and it’s harvest time. They buried him again and placed the cross. That’s where he is now, un allemand.”
I don’t know how long I stood in front of this cross. Perhaps I thought about the fate of this dead soldier, dug up by the peasants and buried again, because it was too much trouble to get him to consecrated earth. And compared his fate with that of his people, which in contrast to its neighbours, who all created valid forms of life, has been underway for centuries, torn by numberless currents, never finding a fixed abode. I saw his western comrades in death, covered by marble, accompanied by the eternal flame, the quiet genuflections of the crowd, whereas around him, who finds little rest, only the wind whistles. Perhaps, on the other hand, something in me refused, correctly, to exploit this deepest and most hopeless of graves that I have ever experienced, symbolically. I can’t remember, because the silence which surrounded me drove every thought into the ground…
When I turned round, the vehicle was gone. I hadn’t heard the signal. The sky was blue-grey, and torn over Ypres. Night was coming up from Kemmel, accompanied by a gentle wind. It got caught up in the leaves of a wreath which hung on the cross. With difficulty, I deciphered the washed out writing on a black, red and golden sash: of three German Jews. I tear off a few tough shrubs of yarrow, the only thing which dares to grow here, force them between the boards, and leave, watched suspiciously by the invalid at the entrance barrier, towards the village, to find a bed. The first rain for a long time fell that night…