Trees in the landscape around Ypres, in Belgium, mark stubborn boundaries of the first World War.
By Michael Dumiak
Off the Menin Road in Flanders, Belgium, there is a lane leading to a working farm and a stand of trees. This copse is called Railway Wood.
On a raw day in early spring, the wind runs through the wood over the adjoining field, rustling the leaves of a slight elm sapling at the side of the lane. The elm is protected by a steel frame, and it is marked with a red-trimmed sign. The tree stands in a spot that looked very different once upon a time, from June 1915 to July 1917. At that point there were no trees, none with leaves, or branches, or tops, anyway, and this place was called the Idiot Trench.
The elm flagged number 78 is one of 138 planted in a rough semicircle around the old city of Ypres, Ieper as it is known in Flemish, Ypern in German, or “Wipers,” as it was called by the British troops who fought here in the hundreds of thousands during World War I. The red piping on the Idiot Trench elm marks the German line. It was named by British maps marking it. The “I” sector started with that letter: Idiot followed Idea, Identity, and so on. A hundred yards away there is another elm, trimmed in blue, tree 77, on a spot along the British line.
The Ypres regional government and curators at the In Flanders Fields Museum commissioned the elms for the centenary of the beginning of the war, in 2014, and again to mark the subsequent first use of chlorine gas in the war, which happened just northeast of the city in 1915. They dot a line curving along the eastern flank of Ypres, a front that shifted back and forth over the fields during the course of the four-year war, though never moving very much. From 1914 to 1918 this was the site of four major battles at the cost of 800,000 dead soldiers and untold civilians. The final cost will never really be known. As the 100-year anniversary of the war armistice approached last November, the elm commissioners put down more of these Remembrance Trees, also called Herdenkingsbomen, Arbre de Mémoire, Gedenkbaum.
These trees draw a specific and particular experience in a viewer, hard to describe, related to but different from the experience evoked by standing in front of a grand object like the Menin Gate, the archway at the entrance to the city inscribed with 54,395 names of missing soldiers from Britain and its Commonwealth. They also mark another try at answering an old and recurring question, one raised as soon as the guns fell silent on World War I on the morning of November 11, 1918.
“How do you capture such an immeasurably large number?” asks Robert France, a Canadian environmental scientist and writer.
France spent the last four summers walking the Western Front from Mulhouse, near the Swiss border, across northern France through Ypres and to its end on the Belgian coast of the English Channel. As a scholar of landscape history, memorial, burial, and pilgrimage, France explores ideas maybe as familiar to the chalk hill builders at Avebury 4,000 years ago as to those looking over the Flanders fields blasted into lunar pits: What is memorial and how, in this case through the mud and blood around Ypres, to express the inexpressible?
Ypres Salient, the name given the bulging front around the medieval city (or dent in the line, from the German perspective), extended for about 17 miles around Ypres like the lip of a saucer. It was the result of early maneuvering after the German army advanced through Belgium, briefly occupied Ypres, and then dug into the higher ground (higher being 200 feet above sea level) outside the city. As the Allied Powers defended the city to hold the coastline and avoid being flanked, the Ypres Salient became an awful, sucking stalemate. The area drew half a million visitors in 2017.
There are other parts of Europe, says In Flanders Fields Museum Coordinator Piet Chielens, where World War I battlefields installed themselves in the landscape. (In fact there are still 65 square miles in northern France called the Zone Rouge made uninhabitable from World War I munitions and organic decay, the soil composition altered. All across this band of territory what is called the “iron harvest” still produces century-old metals.) It’s a bit different in Flanders, that area being inhabited so densely. The local populace stirred quickly after the war and, facing a grim economic situation, perhaps even hunger, wanted to get back to work. The war imprint around Ypres became a step removed from its primary settings. Land went back to use. The layers of memory passed into and became expressed by sculpted monuments and the more than 100 war cemeteries found today across the Salient.
“You needed to look closer to find that there are still abundant traces left in the land,” Chielens says. “You need to be guided into it.” The way the lines formed around the front, the zigzagged, dragon-teethed trenches following the scramble for high ground, the hundreds of millions of shells that churned the Salient into a blasted soup, created a footprint nearly, but not quite, identical to the land itself. There should be a way, Chielens and his colleagues figured, to come up with a system showing this. This was their first idea, their principle. The elms became their answer.
It sounds straightforward enough. It wasn’t.
“Each square meter here in Belgium is claimed by different groups: for housing, for industry, for agriculture, for leisure, for nature. And be aware: Every single group is going to claim it,” Chielens says. A decade ago the museum and local government launched an international competition to create a kind of memory park along the front, perhaps with hedges or tree rows that would give the line. It drew a lot of interest—and a lot of opposition. By the early 2010s the ideas were evolving.
“You have to be very modest in this debate. We then thought it could be enough to have anchor points,” Chielens recalls. “It was not very brave. But it could be enough,” he says. They could plant trees wherever there was a road cutting through the front lines. “Nobody could be against that, no agricultural land was going to be taken away, no grants for industry would be taken away.” It was a simple way of doing things, and it succeeded. By 2012 he and city environmental official Lieven Stubbe were managing a plan for the project.
At that point Chielens was working with Birger Stichelbaut, an archaeologist at Ghent University with expertise in visual analysis of World War I-era aerial photography. The two collaborated on museum exhibits matching aerial shots of wartime Ypres and its surroundings to contemporary digital images and maps. This led to a smartphone app mapped to the numbered tree locations. At first the idea was to use oaks on the German side of the lines, linden on the Allied side. But advocates on both sides wanted the oak. So Stubbe and Chielens went with elm for everyone: They would pick out a cultivar resistant to the Dutch elm disease that by 1990 had wiped out most European mature elms, a culling from which the continent is still recovering.
The walking system became the elms, the signs, the images, the app.
It was on one of his summer walks that Robert France came across his own name on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. It was just coincidence, but it was an eerie one. The Menin Gate is a massive arch of Portland limestone leading through the city rampart over the Menin Road. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, it is sculpted, Roman, monumental, mournful, heavy.
The years after the armistice saw controversy about even rebuilding Ypres. Winston Churchill, Britain’s war secretary in 1919, wanted it kept in ruins, a shrine to the war. The concept of the missing was ushered in during World War I: that something might happen in an area to a large number of combatants rendering fates and burial sites unknowable, in no specific place. Eulogy becomes elusive. “He is not missing. He is here,” Field Marshal Herbert Plumer said at the Menin Gate’s inauguration in 1927. For the British side, these names are everywhere through the arch, even to Indian water bearers. The British poet Siegfried Sassoon, who fought in the Salient, saw it otherwise. He called it a sepulchre of crime. Buglers still play the “Last Post” at the gate every night.
“I am interested in how the landscape recovers from war and how people memorialize death,” says France. He’s taught landscape ecology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design; he organized a symposium on restoration and the southern marsh of Iraq, devastated after a rebellion against Saddam Hussein. Walking the long Western Front led him to a variety of experiences, including finding human bone in a field near a small memorial. “One of the challenges in something like the Menin Gate is that you are overwhelmed by the numbers,” France says.
Chris Stevens, ASLA, is a landscape architect for the Historic American Landscapes Survey at the National Park Service. Stevens was part of a Heritage Documentation Programs team documenting, scanning, photographing, and drawing World War I American cemeteries and memorials in France and Belgium. He notes a variety of preservation and interpretation. At Gettysburg, for instance, the park service is peeling away successional vegetation to restore the battlefield-era forest and field configuration. Stateside commemorative parks for World War I, as with Heroes Grove at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Cleveland’s Liberty Row of oaks along Lake Erie, slip into the surroundings over time. The American cemetery and garden at Flanders Field, designed by Paul Cret and administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, remain as formal as it gets. “If a stone gets even slight wear they replace it,” Stevens says.
Monuments like the Menin Gate use their own gravity to create a place. Context is an influence, but the actual placement of the object could be anywhere. Marking a scar on the land, though, connects it to an event. It has to be specific.
On the southeast round of the Ypres Salient, elm number 96 is marked “Caterpillar.” It is steps away from a pond in the bottom of a massive bowl in a clearing formed in 1917 by 35 tons of explosive detonated by British tunnelers mining under the Germans. Luc Wallays and his colleagues at Omgeving, a landscape architecture studio in Antwerp, Belgium, designed paths around this site and a nearby area where the Allied and German lines were only 50 feet apart: the length of an office corridor.
Omgeving worked on these sites preparing for the centennial commemorations. Wallays realized, in talking to his parents and grandparents who come from the area, that there is still a lot of unease. “They want to forget about it,” he says. “People do not want to live in a war scene. They do not want to be in constant contact with the difficult time they had during these events. A small park is fine, but don’t make it too big.”
Last November participants in the landscape project ComingWorldRememberMe by Koen Vanmechelen began to pick up hundreds of thousands of small sculptures arranged in a temporary installation on a nature reserve in what was no-man’s-land, a bitterly contested, torn apart but never won field called Palingbeek on the southeastern Salient. The sculptures filled a field and represented those who died in and around Ypres between 1914 and 1918.
These large numbers are now leaving the field. It is going back to nature. Meanwhile, the remembrance elms—now numbering 300—are being speckled through Flanders, north toward Nieuwpoort and the coast and south toward the French border.
The centenary is receding. One hundred years ago this spring, the belligerents were working on the Treaty of Versailles to end the conflict, the war to end all wars, which would not.
Michael Dumiak writes about architecture, design, and science and is based in Berlin. He is the author and editor of Woods and the Sea: Estonian Design and the Virtual Frontier.