In the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, “The Two Towers”, Frodo and Gollum pass through the Dead Marshes where, “The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy milky surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long forgotten summers.”. The author of the trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien later attributed his marsh landscape to the fields of Northern France after the Somme, where he had fought as a second lieutenant with the Lancashire Fusiliers.
Image: ‘Landscape around Vimy’, Caitlin Bailey, 2017.
At the end of the war, most of northern France and Flanders resembled Tolkien’s destroyed world, whole towns had disappeared, and what were once fertile fields were flooded, and lumpy with shell holes and trenches. Today, this area is once again farmland and except for the graveyards dotting the landscape, there is little to remind us of how the area was affected by the First World War. When I was travelling in France last week, I found myself asking the question, how was this huge project, the reclamation of France and Belgium, managed after the war?
The photograph above shows the land around the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, which was left largely untouched after the end of the war and is now a reminder of how the landscape was shaped during the many battles fought there. The ground is hummocky, with the remnants of the trenches that once twisted across the ridge interspersed by shell craters. There is still live ordnance buried here, and the ground is off limits to visitors, it is instead groomed by a small herd of sheep who range around the shell holes.
The post-war period highlighted two problems for the Allies, the first was the location, exhumation, and organisation of the remains of thousands of soldiers who had been buried in temporary graves throughout the front, or whose remains were now missing. Exhumation and burial procedures were organised by the Directorate of Graves Registration & Enquiries and the Imperial War Graves Commission, and divided the front into sectors; the Canadian Corps was responsible for the areas around Courcelette and Vimy Ridge.
By April 1919, there were 15 000 Labour Company personnel working to exhume, record, and re-bury the dead. The Army remained in charge of the project until 1921, when the Imperial War Graves Commission took over. Now called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the CWGC is still in charge of the thousands of British, and Commonwealth cemeteries across Europe; the organisation is still exhuming remains in France and Flanders, 100 years later.
The second problem was the clean up of the battle areas themselves. The war produced millions of tons of metal waste, such as shells, bully beef cans, and bullet casings, as well as the remains of hundreds of tanks, trucks, and other vehicles. Much of the clean up work was carried out by the Chinese Labour Corps; Chinese workers had been actively recruited by the British since 1916 to work as civilian labour on the front. During the war, many worked in the tank shops or as blacksmiths, while still more dug the trenches and laid the road systems that transported and protected troops.
The CLC and other clean-up groups worked in extremely dangerous conditions. The battlefields were still filled with unexploded shells, which had to be removed and defused. It was decided that the trenches should be filled in whenever possible, and most were packed with war refuse before being covered over. The same held true for many of the temporary military structures built to house the troops; most were taken apart or demolished.
Looking at northern France as it is now, it is tremendously difficult to imagine the landscapes of the First World War; however, sites like the area around Vimy are there to remind us of how destructive the war really was. Every year, the Iron Harvest turns up still more metal, and every year, people in the area are injured by live ordnance. To travel through northern France is to travel through a secret landscape, one that is hidden just below the surface, but has so many stories left still to tell.