This July marks the ninetieth anniversary of the start of third Ypres – better known as the battle of Passchendaele .
It was an offensive designed to break out of the stalemate of the salient – the bump in the line that bulged around the Flemish town of Ieper, known in French as Ypres and to the thousands of English speaking troops as “Wipers”. Like Hiroshima and Guernica the name Passchendaele is an infamous watchword for the horror that is war and the battle which lasted into November is a symbol for military futility, misery and failure.
Passchendaele (painting by Alfred Bastien/Canadian War Museum).
The struggle over who was responsible for this disaster offensive –whether military commanders usurped control or civilian rulers abdicated responsibility for strategy – still burns as a topic for historians.*
Wherever the responsibility lies the battle was a quagmire. Siegfried’s Sassoon’s poem about the battle is aptly named “Mud and Rain”.
Ieper – a center of the cloth trade since the middle ages – was flattened by shelling and bombardment. The medieval cloth hall – a symbol of regional trade, prosperity and civic pride for centuries – was reduced to a stump.
The countryside beyond is filled with cemeteries marking those who died in the fields of Flanders. The names carved into the walls of the Menin Gate that faces east of the town mark the names of the almost 55,000 of the unfound dead of the British Empire. The mournful Last Post is still played and the traffic stops on the Menin Road at twilight.
But Ieper is again a busy bustling center of commerce. To visit Ieper now is to see a town rebuilt. The cloth hall is long restored and now houses a museum.
It is perhaps fitting, and certainly hopeful, that the region that is the literal graveyard of so many in a “war to end all wars” has given birth to the international Creativity World Forum. Flanders initiated the concept of interconnected districts of creativity and the third international Creativity World Forum was held there last year. (The fourth will be held in Qingdao, China. The topic will focus on “the Western Creativity Combines with Eastern Innovation.”)
Daniel Pink was a keynote speaker at the 2006 Flanders forum. So was Sir Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. Standing in for John Cleese he made a lively and case for an education system that develops and cherishes creativity, rather than undermining it.
So from the dismal region that has seen the very worst that human beings can inflict on one another comes creative hope for global collaboration and change.
*See –British Decision Making 1917: Lloyd George, the Generals and Passchendaele by Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior in Facing Armageddon: the First World War Experienced Hugh Cecil and Peter H Liddle (editors)