The British Tommies called it Wipers in World War I, when they and the Anzacs and Canadians fought five murderous battles here against an enemy they called the Hun. First Ypres in October and November of 1914, Second Ypres in April and May of 1915, Passchendaele from July to November in 1917, The Lys in April of 1918, and Fifth Ypres in September and October of the same year.
No one really knows how many died in these conflicts, if only because so many were simply vaporized without a trace, but it numbered somewhere in the low millions. Ypres formed the Western end of the great flanking movement that started out as the much vaunted Schlieffen Plan and then petered out as the Race to the Sea. A race the British and Belgians ultimately won, because once the German armies were bottled up by the Allies and the English Channel, it was only a matter of time and vast body counts before the war had to end badly for their Empire.
We’ve spent more than a month total driving the World War I battlefields of southern Belgium and northern France, searching for evidence of the war beyond the random civic monuments and military graveyards that dot the landscape. The shocking truth is, the conflict has all but disappeared. At the western end, the forests above Verdun are littered with overgrown shell holes and signs that warn you to keep to the paths lest you step on the pulverized bones of the unknown thousands. But here, off Route N8 just east of Ypres, lie the only trench works we’ve been able to find, and they are a tacky, Disneyland-on-the-cheap embarrassment with a café, tourist shop, and just enough of an admission price to insult the fallen.
And yet World War I still kills and maims farmers, soldiers, and tourists alike–including an eight-year-old girl named Maité Roël, who will receive a 70-euro pension and half-price railway tickets for the rest of her life in compensation for the leg she recently lost while building a campfire with an unexploded artillery shell she mistook for a log. Nearly 100 years since the first conflict here at Ypres, one of the braver detachments of the Belgian Army (Dienst voor Opruiming en Vernietiging van Ontploffingstuigen, or DOVO) continues to dig up and destroy more than 200 tons of unexploded munitions each year. In the four years of the war, the Allied and Entente powers flung more than 1.6 billion shells at each other–just along the Western Front–so there is still no end in sight.