A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Uncovering the carnage of World War I
The Belgian city of Ieper--better known by its French name, Ypres--is really two cities. One is a growing center of high-tech entrepreneurship and commerce with light manufacturing, biotechnology laboratories, and software-development firms clustered around the city in office complexes and industrial parks. The other is a place of cemeteries and war monuments: Flanders fields is where "the poppies blow/between the crosses, row on row," according to the poem by World War I Canadian combat surgeon John McCrae.
For four hellish years during World War I, huge armies were bogged down here in a bloody stalemate. By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, this once-proud city, with its massive gothic Cloth Hall, step-gabled shop facades, cathedral, and medieval town square, had been pulverized by incessant bombardment. Its surrounding farmlands were transformed into a cratered, treeless wasteland. It was here that brutal trench warfare claimed the lives of nearly half a million British, Irish, Canadian, Australian, Indian, South African, New Zealand, German, French, and Belgian soldiers.
Today, battlefield tours of the "Ypres Salient," as the Allied position deep in German-held territory was known during the war, the 144 official war cemeteries, and memorial ceremonies annually attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to Ieper. A new, state-of-the-art museum, In Flanders Fields, offers a sobering multimedia vision of trench warfare for tourists, descendants of World War I veterans, and a steady stream of school groups.
Now archaeologists have been thrust into a new battle for the soul of Ieper that pits the city's physical expansion against the commemoration of its tragic past. A plan for a new major highway, intended to bring economic development to the region, threatens its vast archaeological remains. Just beneath the surface of the fields, farmyards, and roads all around Ieper for at least three miles in every direction are the remains of trenches, fortifications, ammunition dumps, bunkers, and dugouts; unexploded munitions; discarded equipment; and the unrecovered bodies of at least one hundred thousand soldiers who are listed as missing in action on the various memorials erected throughout the battlefield.
The struggle over Ieper's future has highlighted many of the challenges facing battlefield archaeology the world over. What right does a community have to expand and develop land that is the site of a historic battlefield? What are the obligations of the present generation to preserve the integrity of battlefield landscapes as a memorial to the fallen and a reminder of the horrors of the past? And what role can archaeology play in examining the nature of modern warfare and preserving its physical remains?
Neil Asher Silberman is an author, a historian, and the coordinator of international programs for the Ename Center for Public Archaeology in Belgium. He thanks Marc Dewilde, Pedro Pype, Mathieu de Meyer, Frederik Demeyere, Wouter Lammens, Janiek Degryse, and Franky Wyffels of the IAP West Flanders regional office for their assistance with this article.