2014 - 2018
In October, 1914, early in the First World War, a Salient was born. The German Army came to a halt, just at the edge of the semicircle formed by the hills surrounding the Belgian town of Ypres. Satisfied with their position, the soldiers entrenched themselves, awaiting a more propitious moment to advance. The French, Belgians and British on the other side, took advantage of the pause provided by the Germans. They too seized the opportunity to improve their defence of the Flemish stronghold, which they had managed to retain at great cost to life. It was exactly in those few days that the Ypres Salient was formed. One hundred years later, on a rainy October day, I walked down a muddy track running alongside the Bellewaerde Ridge, just a few kilometres away from Ypres. They were the first steps of a long path, which led me to travel more than 1,000 kilometres over the area of the Salient. In the four years of the centenary of the First World War. It was in an effort to have a better understanding of this unique area – one of the First World War’s most iconic landscapes – and tell its story with photography.
I sought out signs, sometimes hidden, sometimes still evident, left by the conflict in the countryside extending around Ypres. It is these signs which have ultimately created this very special landscape.
For me, the Salient was more than anything an endless source of tales. Practically every square metre of the area is associated with an event or a memory. On a number of occasions, this profusion gave me the impression that my journey was not a mere trip through the physical space - which I had travelled over - but also a journey through different “dimensions.” My project was to create a map of the Salient, which can depict and document not only the visible, present countryside I have travelled across, but also the absent landscapes which memory has revived.
At the time I began walking along the pathways of the Salient, it already seemed crystal clear to me what the American artist, Robert Smithson, had meant when he said, “Each landscape, no matter how calm and lovely, always conceals a substrata of disaster.” I have used this sentence as a “guide” throughout this journey.
These places, which appear so calm, have never recovered from that huge disaster. They are marked by it forevermore. The roads leading to the hill have been renamed, “Suicide Road” and “Hun’s Walk”; the copses “Battle Wood” and “Sanctuary Wood.” These war-related names have replaced older designations. The boundaries of the fields today, still follow the broken lines of trenches. The lakes with their croaking frogs are actually large craters created by bombs. The war has fashioned the geography anew. General Plumer’s self-fulfilling prediction which he made before the Battle of Messines holds true to this day, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”
Battle scars are not the only traces permanently left on this landscape by man. Several generations have, in various ways, commemorated, recounted tales and reminisced about the war and its victims, victories, defeats and tragedies. Dozens of cemeteries, mausoleums, obelisks and other monuments are dotted about the countryside.
One summer afternoon, a hundred years after the beginning of the Battle of Passchendaele, in a puddle at the border of a field, I found a large fragment of rusty metal with ragged edges. I picked it up and felt its weight for a few moments. It was as big as my hand and extremely heavy. Probably the shard of an artillery shell. Despite the extensive mine clearance operations carried out at the end of the conflict, today there are still hundreds and hundreds of fragments like this one – shrapnel, grenades, shards, projectiles, bombs – which surface from the mud. The people there call this the “Iron Harvest.”
On another day, not far from one of the big mine craters near Wijtschaete, the face of a man in uniform seemed to be watching me, from a small photograph which was tied to a tree with a piece of string. It had been printed on ordinary paper and, although it had been laminated, the rain had almost entirely erased it.
Who had put that photo there at the foot of a tree in a little Flemish wood?
Since then, I have found dozens of small photos, often poorly printed and weathered so much that the faces of these young men who had fallen during fighting were almost or totally worn away.
Not only collective memory – the common imagination associated with the war – but also a plethora of individual, private recollections, which are yet more moving, put their signature on the landscape, marking out places.
An eerie unease, a sense of sadness and inexplicable melancholy hanged in the air. Like a ghost.
For me, walking was not only a necessary, but a conscious act. I was convinced that only by going on foot would I be able to comprehend the numerous aspects which make up this landscape.
By walking, I wanted not only to travel through and visit the “space” in which the events that made the Salient so famous had taken place, but also turn back the “time” which separated me from those years – return to the present to observe, listen and feel.
To use the words of Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst: “Since to follow a trail is to remember how it goes, making one’s way in the present is itself a recollection of the past…onward movement is itself a return.”
Walk to remember. Walk on a quest for a memory or memories. The memory evoked by a landscape which continues, resiliently, to reveal battle scars. The strange “souvenirs” recalled by metal fragments, which remind us even today of the horror of mechanised warfare. The private memories of those who touchingly carry on, paying tribute to their fallen antecedents. Perhaps it is also the memory of those who died in this war; a memory which, akin to a spirit, continues to hang in the bluish air thickening around the birches, that stand guard before a cemetery at twilight. On a summer’s evening.