Road Trip Through History: Driving the Ypres Salient

Normally I’d hesitate to describe something as a road trip that begins with a transatlantic flight.  The driving tour of the Ypres Salient* is an exception.

The Belgian town of Ieper (Ypres in French, “Wipers” in British Tommy) was the center of a series of bloody battles in World War I.  The kind of battles where 500,000 men die to gain eight kilometers of ground and a lush green landscape is reduced to black mud.  By the end of the war, Ieper and the surrounding towns were no more than rubble.  (Winston Churchill suggested that Ieper should be left in ruins as a war memorial.  A local minister responded, “Belgium does not need to keep its ruins to remember its misfortunes.”  I wonder if Winnie remembered the exchange after German bombers destroyed large portions of London in WWII?)

Today thousands of visitors, most of them from the UK and the Commonwealth, drive through along a well-organized tour of Ypres Salient.  For many it is an act of pilgrimage.

My Own True Love and I set off in the morning, planning to drive the north loop of the tour in one day and the south loop the next.  We had a self-guided tour brochure, a battlefield map, two Belgian road maps, and a great deal of enthusiasm.  We immediately overshot the first stop on the tour by 30 kilometers, thanks to a badly written tour brochure (honest!) and our own confusion about the scale of things in Belgium.  (It’s a really small country.)

Driving the Ypres Salient is very different from touring a Civil War battlefield in the United States.   Instead of battlefields you see cemeteries, memorials, cemeteries, the occasional reconstructed trench, and more cemeteries.  The British Commonwealth War Graves Commission does an amazing job.  More than 160 small cemeteries are beautifully maintained.  The largest of them include interpretive displays that use modern museum technologies to bring the war, the destruction, and the young men who were lost to life.

Highlights (if you can describe war memorials with such a jolly word) include:

  •  The Essex Farm Cemetery, located at the site of the medical dressing station where Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Field”, which inspired the use of the poppy as the symbol for remembering those lost in foreign wars.
  • TheTyne Cot cemetery, where a solemn female voice intoned the names of the dead as their pictures were displayed, life-sized, on a wall
  • The Deutcher Soldatenfriedhof at Langemark, where 45,000 German soldiers are buried in a mass grave and we saw poppies growing wild against the memorial wall.  (I was close to tears for much of the day.  Those dang poppies did me in.)
  • The Yorkshire Dugout Site, an archaeological site that made the misery of trench warfare more vivid than any trench reconstruction or war memoir ever could.  The water was up to the edge of the dugout.  Even with constant pumping, the trenches and dugouts were wet all the time.  We knew this in our heads before;  now we know if for real.

By day’s end, we were heart-sore, overwhelmed, and very glad we’d made the trip.  We abandoned the southern loop of the driving tour.

If you make it to Ieper, be sure to visit

  • In Flanders Field Museum.  Probably the best World War I museum I’ve ever visited. (And given our interests My Own True Love and I have been to a few.)
  • The Last Post:  Every night the volunteer fire brigade of Ieper plays the traditional bugle salute to the fallen soldier at the Menin Gate.  The gate itself is an imposing memorial to soldiers whose gravesites are unknown.  The nightly ceremony is moving.  Bring a hanky.

 

*  In military terms, a “salient” is a battlefield feature that  is surrounded by the enemy on three sides, making the troops occupying the salient vulnerable.

History on Display: Tipu’s Tiger

“Tipu’s Tiger” is one of the most popular exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  For generations, British school children and American tourists have lined up to watch the large mechanical tiger maul a fallen British gentleman.   Today the toy is too fragile to operate, but once upon a time the tiger roared and its victim screamed when the mechanical device was activated.

Tipu’s Tiger is a fascinating example of eighteenth century clockwork, designed to appeal to the ghoulish eight year old that lurks inside each of us.  But that’s not the main reason it occupies prime space at the V & A. The gruesome mechanical toy belonged to Tipu Sultan, the self-proclaimed “Tiger of Mysore and once a serious threat to British power in India.

Seen through the perspective of the British Raj at its height, it’s easy to forget how precarious the British position in India was in the eighteenth century.  The East India Company was only one of several regional powers competing to fill the power vacuum left by the disintegrating Moghul Empire.  One of the most powerful of the Company’s rivals was the state of Mysore in southern India.

Mysore and the East India Company went to war four times between 1761 and 1799.   At the end of the first three Anglo-Mysore Wars, plays, political cartoons, and sensational pamphlets confirmed the public image of Tipu as political bogeyman, one step down from the rascal Bonaparte.

Tipu Sultan’s final defeat at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799 led to public rejoicing.* “Tipu’s Tiger” was brought back to London and paraded through the streets in triumph.  The imagery was simple, brutal, and effective:  the Tiger of Mysore was dead.

 

*As well as plays, political cartoons, pamphlets, a giant panorama with accompanying musical pantomime, and commemorative prints.  By comparison, we are very restrained about the death of despots and terrorists.  (Or maybe not. )

Easter Island: Not So Mysterious After All

Once upon a time, like many nerdy little girls, I wanted to be an archeologist.  Today I get my hands grubby with old books and the occasional leaking ink pen instead of the sands of time, but my copy of C. W. Ceram’s classic Gods, Graves and Scholars remains a prized possession and I still enjoy a good archeological read.

I was delighted to have the chance to read and review The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo.

Anthropologist Terry Hunt and archaeologist Carl Lipo turn the accepted wisdom about the ancient culture of Easter Island on its head in this well-written story of scientific discovery.

 

From the time the first Europeans arrived on Easter Island in the eighteenth century, Westerners have been fascinated by the island’s monumental stone sculptures and baffled by how an impoverished prehistoric culture could have built them.  The standard explanation was that the island had once been as fertile as other inhabited islands in the Pacific.  Over time, its population committed ecological suicide, cutting down thousands of giant palm trees to support the statue cult.

When Hunt and Lipo arrived on Easter Island in 2001, they expected to simply add a few details to the already well-developed account of its early history.  In their fourth year of fieldwork, they found evidence of the giant palms that scholars believed covered the islands when Polynesian settlers first arrived.  It was a major discovery. There was only one problem: the oldest layers were several hundred years later than the latest accepted date for colonization. If the island was deforested over decades instead of centuries, then everything archaeologists thought they knew about the early culture of Easter Island was in question.

Hunt and Lipo re-examined, and re-built, archaeology’s fundamental assumptions about Easter Island, using discoveries from other Pacific island cultures, local oral traditions, previously discounted field research, satellite images from Google Earth, studies by evolutionary biologists, game theory, and accounts by early European observers. They make a compelling case against the traditional version of Easter Island’s pre-history.  Instead of “ecocide”, they describe a culture of careful environmental stewardship.  And along the way, they prove how a small number of men can make a giant monolith “walk”

(A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.)