ON A CITY THAT WAS
I saw in a newspaper a few days ago some pictures of the ruins of the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral at Ypres. They were excellent photographs, but the impression they left on my mind was of the futility even of photography to convey any real sense of that astonishing scene of desolation which was once the beautiful city of Ypres. We talk of Ypres as if it were still a city in being, in which men trade, and children play, and women go about their household duties. In a vague way we feel that it is so. In a vague way I felt that it was so myself until I entered it and found myself in the presence of the ghost of a city.
How wonderful is the solitude and the silence in the midst of which it stands like the ruin of some ancient and forgotten civilisation. Far behind you have left the hurry and tumult of the great armies—every village seething with a strange and tumultuous life, soldiers bargaining with the women for potatoes and cabbages in the marketplace, boiling their pots in the fields, playing football by the way side, mending the roads, marching, camping, feeding, sleeping; officers flying along the roads on horseback or in motorcars, vast processions of lorries coiling their way over the landscape, or standing at rest with their death-dealing burdens while the men take their mid-day meal; giant “caterpillars” dragging great guns along the highway. Everywhere the sense of a fearful urgency, everywhere the feeling of a brooding and awful presence that overshadows the heavens with a cosmic menace. It is as though you are living on the slopes of some vast volcano whose eruptions may at any moment submerge all this phantasmal life in a sea of molten lava. And, hark! through the sounds of the roads and the streets, the chaffering of the market-place, the rush of motor-cars, the rhythmic tramp of men, there comes a dull, hollow roar, as from the mouth of a volcano itself.
As you advance the scene changes. The movement becomes more feverish, more intense. The very breath of the volcano seems to fan your cheek, and the hollow roar has become near and plangent. It is no longer like the breaking of great seas on a distant shore: it is like thunder rending the sky above you. A little further, and another subtle change is observable. On either hand the land has become solitary and unkempt. All the life of the fields has vanished and the soldiers are in undisputed possession. Then even the soldiers seem left behind, and you enter the strange solitude where the war is waged. Before you rises the great mound of Ypres. In the distance it looks like a living city with quaintly broken skyline, but as you approach you see that it is only the tomb of a city standing there desolate and shattered in the midst of a universal desolation.