In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields
The 1917 Campaign
by leon wolff
The fields of Flanders are mostly flat, flatter than the plains of Kansas, flatter than the lowlands of Hungary. On such terrain a ten-foot rise is a military prize worth fighting for. This was once a land of grassy, tree-filled, primeval swamps. Even after three years of war its scrubby desolation still gave the impression of a forest clearing.The plain is part of the one that runs from the Pyrenees to Russia, the only gateway into France which bypasses formidable mountains and plateaus.

Flanders at any time is a monotonous countryside. There are no landmarks except houses and the gentlest of ridges. Single hills are rare. One of the few is Mount Kemmel, the loftiest peak in all the land, three hundred fifty feet high. Rivers and canals wind their way at random, merge into one another, separate, flow toward the ocean, then away from it; for the slope of the ground is too slight to create a normal pattern.

During the rainy seasons the rivers cannot discharge their waters because of the faintness of the gradient. Most of them flood once or more yearly. When they do, they spread their waters far and wide. Many of them have been straightened and canalized. Dikes and drainage watercourses are everywhere and marshes have been generally reclaimed, but still the waters overflow to some extent yearly, especially in the late summer and fall. And in the words of Sir Douglas Haig's Chief of Intelligence,

The one major exception to the flatness is the famous ridge, an arc of feeble hills and highlands running from some miles north of Passchendaele southward to Messines and then west toward Hazebrouck. Its average elevation is about one hundred fifty feet. Yet the German holders of these modest heights enjoyed a great military advantage not only in observation but in the placement of guns and defensive fortifications.

Since earliest times military offensives have failed in this mild-seeming land because of a physical obstacle not apparent to the glance; for in Flanders the ground is almost pure fine-grained clay, sometimes with a crust of sand on top or a thin coating of loam. In certain places there is no topsoil at all; these clay fields, called clyttes, exist at their worst north of Ypres in the vicinity of the Houthulst Forest. Because of the impervious clay, the rain cannot escape and tends to stagnate over large areas. Unable to soak through, it forms swamps and ponds, and sluggishly spreads toward one of the already swollen rivers or canals. The ground remains perpetually saturated. Water is reached at an average depth of eighteen inches and only the shallowest of puddly trenches can be dug by the troops, reinforced by sandbag parapets. When the topsoil dries during fair weather, it cracks open. The next rain floods the fissures. Then the clay blocks slide upon themselves, causing little landslides.

The problem of terrain has bedeviled military commanders in Flanders throughout history. In the early 1700s Marlborough told how "our armies swore terribly in Flanders." By a curious transposition of numerals, in 1197 Philip Augustus was trapped with his army in the morass southwest of Ypres, and similar frustrations occurred during the days of the Roman conquest. For clay plus water equals mud --- not the chalky mud of the Somme battlefield to the south, but gluey, intolerable mud. The British War Office Archives are full of reports in this vein:

When one officer was instructed to consolidate his advance position, he wrote back,

Everywhere by 1917 the water was contaminated, and the deIivery of fresh water was a major operation. The filthy surface wash was locked in by the clay. Rivers and canals were polluted by refuse from the flooded land, and even the artesian wells had become poisoned. The decay and refuse of millions of men, alive and dead, sank into the soil and were carried by the blackened waters throughout the inland plain. These conditions were most severe on the maritime strip west of the Yser, where the land is lower than sea level at high tide. If not for the drains and dikes, some sections would be ten feet under water, and, in fact, this had become the precise situation after the Belgians inundated the area in 1914...

In this landscape nothing existed but a measureless bog of military rubble, shattered houses, and tree stumps. It was pitted with shell craters containing fetid water. Overhead hung low clouds of smoke and fog. The very ground was soured by poison gas. Not one building was intact. Only mounds overrun with scrub grass, interspersed with old brick and fragments of wood, showed where many houses had formerly stood.

In the center of this incarnation of ruin lay the dead city of Ypres --- "Wipers" it was always called --- obliterated, crushed like a pile of discarded baby's toys left out in the rain. Yet this mournful corpse, like a skeleton in a nightmare, seemed to live; for though it no longer possessed a normal spirit it was a turmoil of military activity. The traffic on the roads and in the shattered market place was enormous and without end, though the town was shelled day and night, and since 1914 had been bombed more than any other target on the Western Front, Major General John Monash, commander of the 3rd Australian Division, in a war letter to his wife described the scene thus: