Recently, returning from an overseas trip, I had to fill out that form about where I had been and whether I had visited any farms.
I ticked ‘yes.’ I had just finished a 2-day battlefield tour of the Western Front centred on Ypres. There was Flanders’ mud still clinging to my shoes.
A quarantine officer took my shoes away and washed the Flanders’ mud from them. Only then was I welcome to enter my own country.
I sent a text detailing what happened to Robert, my battlefield guide. He replied, ‘I would have been proud to tell the quarantine officer that this mud came from Flanders’ fields.’
It’s odd. We celebrate the Anzacs, but we don’t want their mud.
Often, we sanitise the past without knowing it, washing away the mud that attaches to most experiences.
I believe we do so to return ‘home,’ to the place where memories can be held safely.
However, it’s a little more complicated when visiting WW1 cemeteries.
The Treaty of Versailles (1919) forbade the Germans from using upright, white headstones to mark the graves of their fallen. At best, the gravestones could be off-white, preferably brown or black.
Further, the bodies were buried in groups, not individually. (I also witnessed several massive pits that contained thousands of bodies.)
Metaphorically speaking, the Germans had to be buried with visible evidence of their mud.
Then, it would always be clear who won and who lost.
Unexpectedly, it was visiting a German cemetery, named Vladslo, that I found most meaningful and poignant.
At Vladslo, which is shrouded by oak trees, the gravestones are dark and flat; each one marks the resting place of 20 German soldiers.
There is no cross of sacrifice there (which is common in Allied cemeteries), rather a sculpture of two grieving parents.
The father, with hands clasped tightly across his chest – as though that was the only way to hold himself together – gazes outwards in sadness.
The mother grips a cloak; her head bowed to the ground, unable to view the devastation that lies in front of her.
The sculptures were created by Kathe Kollwitz. Her 18-year-old son, Peter, lies in the grave in front of the grieving parents.
The two parents represent all parents, on both sides, who have lost sons to war.
No one wins in this site of memory. That’s the message I took from this place. No one wins when violence is unleashed.
It is a beautiful and haunting place, a ‘country’ where the mud is allowed to stick.
It is only in countries like this that we can reside with integrity because the mud of human experience and suffering can never be washed away.