Y

A STORY OF YOUTH IN YPRES, BELGIUM

Matthias rested his head on his arm, leaning against the cool stone. He felt woozy, too much alcohol in the club. Worth it though, a great gig to round of Ieperfest. He had travelled from Munich for the festival, one of the biggest hardcore punk gatherings in Europe.

Ypres was a strange place to hold such an event, he thought. He had only known about it from history at school when they were taught about the First World War. Ypres was strategically significant, the Allies set out to stop the invading German army around the town. The trenches were occupied throughout almost the full four years of the war, each side making small, insignificant advances then being pushed back. It was where the Germans had first used poison gas. In this series of battles the combined casualties from both sides reached over one million.

That was about all Matthias could remember. He had little interest in the history of his country. Like most of the new German generation the World Wars a century ago were a source of shame and embarrassment, the horrors inflicted by their forebearers that subsequent Germans were still making amends for and being punished for.

He sighed as his bladder emptied against the wall. He should have gone in the club before he had left. Instead he was caught short half way back to the hostel, which he was sure was somewhere down this street, although his sense of direction was hindered by his inebriated state.

‘What the hell do you think you are doing?!’

Matthias felt the harsh slap to the back of his head and someone pulling at his arm. ‘Hey,’ he cried, leaping back, fortunately managing to avoid getting any of his urine on his trousers. He hastily tucked himself in and fastened his trousers, swaying and stumbling as he did so. Facing him was a determined petite woman, about his age, dressed in jeans and a long coat, despite the warm August evening. ‘I was just relieving myself, I couldn’t hold it any longer,’ he answered in German.

‘You’re German as well,’ the girl’s face flushed with anger, ‘Brilliant.’

‘Entschuldigung,’ Matthias apologised, before switching to English, ‘You haven’t seen a man pissing in the street before?’

‘You don’t even know what you were relieving yourself against, you idiot,’ she cursed him in Dutch, the local language of northern Belgium.

‘A wall,’ Matthias shrugged, ‘so what?’

‘Come here,’ she grabbed him and dragged him a few paces back along the street. ‘Look up.’

Matthias looked up. The wall was part of an arch. In his muddled state he recalled it was some sort of memorial to the war.

‘The Menin Gate,’ the girl said. ‘A memorial to the Missing, the bodies they couldn’t identify, or couldn’t find, Germans and Allies.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Matthias murmured, unable to look her in the eye anymore.

‘My grandfather was one of them,’ she carried on, more animated with each word, ‘Albert Beckett. I never met him, neither did my mother. She arrived in Belgium as a baby after the war from Malta, her mother was looking for the British soldier she had a brief romance with while he recuperated in the hospital in Malta. She never found him, only a name on a list of missing soldiers.’

With that, she stormed off. Matthias stood feeling drunk and foolish in the street. At least no one else was about to witness their confrontation. He looked up at the white triumphal arch and read the inscription: ‘Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.’

Sobering up rapidly, he walked inside the arch and saw the stone panels filled with names. They stretched the full length of the arch, down both sides and from top to bottom.

It was daybreak before he had walked past each panel, closely looking at all of the names, each a story, each a person, a father, a son, a brother. On one of the final panels, dedicated to the Regiment of the Lancashire Fusiliers, he found the name of a Private: Beckett, A.  – all that the girl had ever known of her grandfather.


Written as part of The A to Z Challenge 2018. Click HERE for more details of the challenge.

Each day in April we will visit a different town or city in the European Union, whose name will begin with the letter of the day – today it’s Ypres in Belgium – for a story based on a theme also corresponding to the same letter.

Over the course of the month and 26 stories, we will visit all 28 member countries to complete a farewell tour before Britain leaves the political union next year, touching on the history, politics, culture and people at the heart of Europe.

For a full list of stories and places visited, visit here: THE A TO Z CHALLENGE 2018.

The story of Albert Beckett featured in an earlier post in this challenge: B IS FOR BIRKIRKARA, MALTA

84 thoughts on “Y IS FOR YPRES, BELGIUM

  1. I passed through Ypres last year on the way back from Waterloo. We had no time for anything but lunch because we had to make the Chunnel car train. I wanted to see Ypres properly so badly! Wonderfully written story, Iain!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking at the walls of names (Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, DC; Holocaust Museum in NYC) is a humbling experience and a reminder of the horrors that have gone by. Think of all the names over the years that are lost.
    Sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That was quite an awakening, although I have to question that such an experience would sober him up faster than normal, since the human liver can only process alcohol so fast.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like to think, and hope, that war memorials on the scale of the Menin Gate are still a sobering experience for those young enough and fortunate enough not to have lived through loss on such a colossal scale.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. An excellent story Iain! I have been to the Menin Gate several times and have participated in the very moving Last Post Ceremony which happens every evening at 8.00pm. The first time the ceremony was held was in July 1928, and since 11th November 1929 has been held every day whatever the weather. The only time it ceased was during the German occupation of Ypres in the Second World War. I have never been there when there have been less than 200 people present and, in fact if you don’t get there shortly before 7.00pm you won’t get a good position to see what is going on.

    It is also very moving to visit the Anglican St George’s Church near the Cloth Hall wher teh In Flanders Fields Museum is located.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Novotel Ypres is a good place to stay: a touch modern soulless but very handily placed for the Menin Gate and Cloth Hall and Market Square. A good place to eat is Markt22 in the main square (unfortunately the website in in Flemish!, but make sure that you eat either well before or after the Menin Gate Ceremony as the service is leisured: they want you to enjoy the food not get indigestion! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Sobering reminder of the cost of war; we have the Vietnam Memorial in our capital of Washington, DC with walls full of names. From the first, it attracted emotional throngs of people. I can well understand how people would still react to a monument of something that happened 100 years ago. May we never forget; WWI certainly isn’t well taught in American schools.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The indifference of people to the bricks and mortar that make up a city – how well it comes through in this story Iain. I really enjoyed reading this one. I liked this line –
    “It was daybreak before he had walked past each panel, closely looking at all of the names, each a story, each a person, a father, a son, a brother. ”
    And that he heard the girl. Absorbed the words.

    Yearning for a Boat Ride on Chilika Lake – Panthanivas, Satpada

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A touching story.. War memorials always remind us the soldiers who lost their lives in war. Here in sg we have the war memorial when japan attacked and many lost their lives. Y is for YOLO and Z is Zilch. Do have your say as we are in the last two letters of the challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Incredible writing Iain. I felt an almost visceral revulsion to Matthias’ act, surprised myself with the strength of the reaction,and then was surprised all over again at how pleased I was over his redemption. You’ve got this short form nailed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Roland, very kind. I’m looking forward to catching up with a few blogs now that the madness is coming to an end! Hope you enjoy reading more of my posts.

      Like

  9. Time marches on. The young don’t really get the history of a place. Although, it seems like Ypres would be a great place for a punk gathering. Punk thrives on the unexpected.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. And it’s so sad and unfortunate that sometimes the only memory we might end up having of someone is a name on the wall. There’s so many more casualties of the war that we know nothing about.

    Cheers,
    Deepa
    2018: A-Z

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I loved how you wove in the past and the present in your story. By a strange coincidence I had been reading about how the contribution of Indian soldiers who died in the first world war has often been overlooked. It was only in 2002 that a separate “Memorial Stone‟ was installed on the lawns of Menin Gate in Ypres, honouring the Indian Soldiers who had bore the brunt of the first gas attacks and stopped the German advance which prevented the town of Ieper from being captured.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It is sad when we lose sight of what a memorial stands for, and hard to believe that in the case of the Great War this could ever happen. These two young characters are so well drawn – that is one feisty young lady who put Matthias right. And he seems to have taken on board the enormity of what the gate represents.

    Liked by 1 person

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