On November 11th of this year, a full century has passed since the Great War came to an end. The war that left a ravaged continent in the wake of millions of casualties. On the Western Front, names like the Somme, Verdun and the Ypres Salient have become synonymous to unprecedented loss of life.
After all that time, are there still soldiers on these battlefields? Not so long ago, many of them still walked the fields of Flanders and France. But since then, memories have become history. As their old haunts (literally) vanish and life goes on, many ghosts have disappeared. Many, but not all…
Whenever you visit the Belgian town of Ypres, keep an eye out for signs of people hanging about a lot longer than most tourists.
Our first stop is a small museum that is famous for the preserved trench system on its terrain. It is a popular spot that attracts many visitors every year, meaning that ghosts don’t tend to hang about. A safe place to start, it would seem.
Despite the absence of real ghosts, there are still ‘shadows’. These are memories that linger in the land itself, like photographs of the past superimposed on the present. From the corner of your eye, you can still see men lying under the improvised shelters of corrugated steel. Perhaps they were sleeping when the imprint was made. Or perhaps they were already dead.
Hooge Crater features a museum and a restaurant, with a small park at the back where you can find the craters that have named this site. The museum is well-worth visiting, but holds neither shadows nor ghosts. The park, however, is a different matter.
At the front of the park is an oddly cup-shaped meadow, possibly with some sheep. Beyond it is a large pond. Now look closer: the meadow consists of two shallow craters, left by the excessive shelling that pocked the landscape of the Salient. The pond is in fact two further craters, so deep that they filled up with water.
The small bush around the pond is riddled with shadows and wispy ghosts. Most of them want little to no contact and will frighten visitors if they can. The pool itself is foul and dark, like a cist pool. Gazing into the water, you may get a sense of people drifting just below the surface. The feeling is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Dead Marshes (not by accident, since Tolkien was a WWI veteran).
If this notion is scary and unsettling to you, you might want to skip the next stop.
This huge crater was created by one of the Messines Ridge mines, which were detonated on June 7, 1917 as a preparation for the Third Battle of Ypres. It is now a pond measuring over 120 metres across and at least 12 metres deep. For reference: build a four-story house on the bottom and the roof wouldn’t breach the surface.
The trees now lining the crater make the site look very tranquil indeed. However, it is hardly as peaceful as the name suggests. Approaching the edge of the water, you may get the distinct feeling of hands reaching up to grab your ankles. They may not succeed to pull you under, but it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.
It’s in such moments that you realise that this gorgeous pool is in fact a mass grave.
This crater landscape turned park is as beautiful as it is macabre. When you take a look at what happened here, it should come as no surprise that shadows and ghosts favour this place.
Throughout the war, the hill was repeatedly blown to pieces in heated underground tunnelling battles. Like what is now the Pool of Peace, Hill 60 was another site for the Messines Ridge mines. These mines were veritable mega-charges. The explosion on June 7th 1917 ripped the hill apart – killing all the men working in the tunnels when it did.
Small wonder then, that shadows of mutilated corpses abound. Soldiers from both armies walk the hillsides, not always aware that the war is over. A handful of German soldiers haunts one of the deeper indentations. They don’t realise they’re dead, never mind have any idea of where and when they are. All they are aware of is their anger and spite. It’s wise not to come too close.
A wonderful forest for a stroll by day, but out of bounds by night.
During the day you will mostly find quiet shadows here. In certain parts of the wood, the trenches are still visible – some as depressions in the ground, some as shadows in the landscape. The wood is also the home of Buttes Cemetery and the Australian Memorial. A number of graves is still inhabited, or at least frequently visited, by the resident ghost. As cemeteries come, this is a rather pleasant one. Together with the tiny Polygon Wood Cemetery across the road, the site is more intimate but no less impressive than war cemetery behemoth Tyne Cot.
But while Tyne Cot can become coolly inhospitable after sunset, the woods around Buttes cemetery come alive when the daylight goes. And not in a good way. Don’t be surprised to see dark figures move between the trees, homing in on any dawdling tourist to chase them out. Some of these ghosts are wraiths, and they’re very hostile. Horror-movie hostile.
Make no mistake: at night, this is their terrain. You have been warned…