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Peter's Travels - The First World War Battlefields 

 September 2002

Late in 2002 I heard two very different people state that two very different experiences were "like being on the Somme."

The first comment related to a car park which had been turned into a mud heap by the affects of too much rain and too many vehicles on a spare piece of land. The second referred to the state of a football pitch where a game had to be postponed.

Until October neither of these comments would have had much affect on me. All that changed, however, thanks to a short two day visit to the First World War battlefields of Ypres and the Somme in France and Belgium.
Today the battlefields are situated in peaceful rolling countryside - the kind of insignificant scenery that wouldn't usually command a second glance.

But amongst the peace and tranquility lie appalling stories of degradation and waste of human life. I defy anyone visiting the area not to return with a one word question on their lips: "WHY?"

On  purely historic grounds there could be justification for the Great War. Too many nations were positioning themselves to dominate too few. On humanitarian grounds, however, there can be no justification for the bloodshed that turned peaceful hamlets such as that in the photograph on the left into raging blood-letting which ended with thousand upon thousand of young lives being lost.

There are literally thousands of war graves in the area I visited in hundreds of cemeteries. Many of those buried there were teenagers fighting for their King and country because they believed that this would bring them a better life than the one they left at home.

And the Somme and Ypres are just a small part of the massive theatre that was the Great War.

I returned to Norfolk with a feeling of the futility of it all and an anger that so many people could be mis-led into believing that they were part of an elite fighting force moving on towards glory when the stark reality was that many were moving on to be simply butchered for a cause that the politicians soon lost sight of.

To read the individual graves is heart rending enough but you only realise the size of the calamity by visiting sites such as the Menin Gate at Ypres or the Thiepval Memorial where the names of those missing are inscribed on the towering walls.

It is also hard to comprehend that these names were fathers, sons, brothers and uncles. They were living flesh reduced to  letters a few inches high - each one a life cruelly extinguished. 

It is impossible to imagine what some of these men could have contributed to our country had they survived and lived to make their mark on life. How many children were never born because of the Great War?

And of course I refer not just to the United Kingdom. Our trip also took in the German cemetery at Langemark where thousands of students are buried. They included students of philosophy, medicine and the classics. How the world could have benefited from their futures!

I have split my trip into sections to tell the story of the visit. Follow the links below to read more.