The Dreaded Salient
Over 100 years have past since men from a distant generation rose to answer the call to fight for freedom and to release Europe from occupation.
Men of all ages, class, colour and nationality rushed enthusiastically to fight in the Great War.
The war to end all wars, it would all be over by Christmaas; instead it raged on for four years, consuming everything in its path, a juggernaut of destruction and death on a scale unheard of to the generation of 1914, which by the end of 1918 had consumed over 10 million lives.
A huge mechanised industrial conflict, where flesh and blood met bullets, explosives and shrapnel, all designed to butcher its victims.
Flanders, a place where men floundered and drowned in the hell that became known as the Ypres Salient.
The dreaded Salient, a sector of front line roughly 25 miles long and approximately 4 miles deep, curved and protruding into the enemies line. This line was the last bastion of the British Empire, only a few miles from the Channel ports; it had to be defended at all costs. If the line broke here then the British Empire may well break also.
Overlooked by high ground and fired on from three sides, the men of the British Empire, with their French and Belgium comrades, fought heroically for every inch of ground.
For four years, attack and counter attack ebbed and flowed over a four mile depth, the same ground fought over again and again, until total destruction was achieved in the battle grounds of the Ypres Salient . The Salient had truly become ground zero. A ground which had witnessed the first poison gas attacks, the first flamethrower attacks, early tank warfare, huge underground mine explosions and death on an unimaginable scale.
The names of the Salient became etched in the minds of the families at home across all sides, as the horrors of the Salient were reported; Langemark and the Kindermord, St Julien and the first use of poison gas, Hooge and the use of flame throwers, Hill 60 where men battered each other to death over a mound no more than 60 metres in height, and of course, Passchendaele, where men of the British Empire slogged for 100 days through waist- deep mud at the cost on average of 780 men killed each day, to finally push the Germans off the Passchendaele ridge, only to give it up in the spring of 1918 in the face of the great German offensive.
By the end of the war, the slaughter of the Salient had consumed the lives of over 200,000 soldiers of the armies of the British empire, 210,000 German soldiers, and in total across all nationalities, over 500,000 men perished in the dreaded Salient.
Today the Salient is quiet, almost serene. An area where the resilience of mankind has been more than proven. Battlefields have returned to agriculture and industry, villages rebuilt and the beautiful city of Ypres restored to its former majesty and glory.
Yet the Great War still remains - the monuments remind us of the glories and heroic deeds of regiments and men long since gone, but also of the men who today lie here still. Men buried in the 201 commonwealth war grave sites in the area of West Flanders, and also men whose bodies were never recovered, who lay in their tens of thousands in the earth of Flanders fields.
This clay of Flanders still regularly yields echoes of the Great War . Bodies of soldiers from all nationalities are still recovered every year, and also ammunition, at an average of 250 tons per year. Some intact, some not, all of it potentially lethal. Shrapnel shells, high explosive shells and, of course shells containing poison gas, chemical weapons, Chlorine, Phosgene and Mustard Gas (Yperite to the locals ). Even today the Great War is still adding to its terrible toll of death. There are accidents here most years, and sometimes fatalities, as a result of this "Iron Harvest".
If you think the Great War ended here 100 years ago, think again.
At the end of the war the authorities and historians started to put names and dates to battles. What the Tommies on the ground knew just as the next "big push" became known as the first, second or third battles of Ypres.
The reality though is this - there was not three, or even five battles of Ypres, there was one, and one only. It started in 1914 and ended in 1918.
Such was the sustained ferocity of the Ypres Salient.
© Roger Steward 2019