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December 2008
» Never Say Never Again

December 2008

Just past midnight on 11 November, the Menin Gate of Ypres is quiet and still. Even the rain, a constant companion on any winter visit to Flanders, falls silently. The peace is disturbed only by an occasional passer-by trotting past, collar upturned against the weather, or a car slipping quickly through the gate, wipers working overtime.

The heart of the night is a good time to arrive at one of the greatest memorials of the Great War. In a few hours, it will be impossible to get close as the town commemorates the 90th anniversary of the Armistice.
Although officially this is a gate, it is so broad many visitors consider it a tunnel. The reason the Menin Gate is so deep is to accommodate the names of 54,896 missing British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in the Ypres Salient, a Dantean hell of noise, mud, blood and slaughter from 1914-1918.

The missing men remembered here are a small fraction of the several hundred thousand killed in this corner of Belgium. They came from a very different Britain, from long-vanished regiments like the 57th Wilde’s Rifles, Lord Strathcona’s Horse and the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, augmented by imperial forces from India such as the 35th Sikhs, 40th Pathans and the 9th Bhopal Infantry.

Flanders Fields Museum, a stone’s throw from the Menin Gate in the vast Grote Markt square, gives a disturbing picture of what it was like to live and fight in the Ypres Salient in this “war to end all wars”. Paul Nash, the English war artist, called it “one huge grave”: “unspeakable, godless, hopeless”. “I am a messenger who will bring back the word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever,” he wrote in 1917. “Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”

By mid-morning, the crowds are lining Meensestraat several deep to get a glimpse of the veterans’ parade and service beneath the Gate. Joining the townsfolk and the largely British visitors are the immaculately turned out veterans. Hundreds of bereted Brits, Belgians, Kiwis and Canadians, as well as Indians in yellow turbans. Medals glimmer and helmets shine in the oozing rain. Waxed moustaches bristle to attention. Those unable to get near the Gate gather under umbrellas in front of a giant screen in Grote Markt.

Benoît Mottrie is chairman of the Last Post Association, which organises the town’s daily honouring of the war dead. Every evening at 8 o’clock, the traffic is stopped beneath the Menin Gate to allow the buglers to sound their mournful tribute.

The clock sounds 11 o’clock. Mottrie gives a moving speech in which he rebuffs recent suggestions that with the Great War receding from personal experience into distant history, it may be time to review the daily act of remembrance. They have sounded the Last Post 27,569 times since 1928, he reminds the crowds. Were they to sound it for every life lost, they would be busy until 2610.

“It is only right and proper that sacrifice on this scale should be remembered,” he says. “Our debt of honour to the past has not yet been paid.” It will be properly discharged “only when people learn to resolve their differences peaceably”.

One by one, suited dignitaries lay wreaths in the heart of the memorial. The Gate is flanked by an expanse of sodden, scarlet poppies, a “Flanders Field” organised by the Royal British Legion. The famous lines from Laurence Binyon’s Ode to the Fallen – “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning / We will remember them” – are written on the petals, with messages of support on the back. “May we never forget your sacrifice and hope that men soon cease to wage war,” a typical one reads.

Back at the St George’s Church Hall, the British veterans are tucking into post-parade beers. The room is filled with a strong sense of British decency and dignity. Most veterans see remembrance at Ypres as an essential way of honouring both those who have served this country and those who serve in distant wars today. “To us as ex-servicemen, Ypres is where the whole tradition of remembrance begins,” says Eddie Hefferman, a trustee of the Royal British Legion.

Yet one can wonder where, if anywhere, remembrance takes us, beyond the simple honouring of the war dead. Siegfried Sassoon despised the Menin Gate and what it represented. “Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime / Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime,” he wrote.

Another veteran in the church hall admits he has “mixed feelings” about remembrance. “You see people laying wreaths while our soldiers are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We just never seem to learn. I don’t think we’re doing enough to frighten the younger generation away from war.”

Remembrance alone can never curb man’s instinct for war. It is as inherent as his need to defecate. Without memory, though, we would be even worse at restraining this primeval urge to fight. One takes away a sense of “never again” defiance, however futile, from the many memorials and oceans of white headstones in Flanders. Perhaps, as Benoît Mottrie suggests, collective remembrance becomes more, rather than less, important as those who fought in the Great War pass away.

Several miles north-east of Ypres, Tyne Cot Cemetery marks the final resting place of a further 35,000 British and New Zealand soldiers, most of them killed in the nightmarish Passchendaele Offensive around Ypres. One of the headstones is particularly striking. It belongs to Second-Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young, of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, killed on 16 August, 1917, at the age of 26. He was, says the inscription, “sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war”.

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» A Classical Grand Tour with Herodotus

So, you thought the Grand Tour was an 18th-century phenomenon? The preserve of languid young aristocrats milording it through Europe, swanning across Paris and Geneva, cutting a dash in Turin, Florence, Rome and Venice, before hightailing it to Innsbruck, Heidelberg and Potsdam? Think again.

The Greeks were at it well before that. Two millennia, in fact. And you’d struggle to find a better, more dashing Grand Tourer than Herodotus, the fifth-century father of history, whose gallivanting expeditions across North Africa, the Aegean and the Middle East form the perfect itinerary for the traveller of today. He did it over the course of a lifetime, admittedly, but it’s perfectly possible to squeeze the highlights into two or three weeks. Much as we’d love to visit Babylon, we’ll leave Iraq to one side for now and concentrate on Turkey, Egypt and Greece.

Let’s begin in the resort town of Bodrum, Herodotus’s home town of Halicarnassus on Turkey’s Aegean coast. There’s little left of the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, but the 16th-century Castle of St Peter is magnificent and the sailing in island-studded turquoise seas is superb. History buffs can immerse themselves in the faded glory of Ephesus, Priene and Pergamum, leaving the dedicated clubbers to enjoy Halikarnas, which describes itself as the most beautiful disco in the world.

From the ruins of Turkey, it’s off to Egypt, which completely mesmerised our Greek traveller. As he wrote in The Histories, his one-volume masterpiece, “more monuments which beggar description are to be found there than anywhere else in the world”. No surprise to find the sky-grazing pyramids on the itinerary. No Egyptian monument is quite as magical, especially at dawn and dusk, when the crowds have disappeared. Guides told Herodotus no end of nonsense about the pyramids. Someone told him that the pharaoh Cheops, running out of money while he was building the Great Pyramid, decided to send his daughter to a brothel, where she charged her customers one block of stone – think 2.5 tons of limestone – per romp.

Next we take to the Nile to visit many-templed Luxor, the Thebes of old, where monumental overload is a distinct possibility. Apart from the sublime Temple of Hatshepsut, my own favourite, a stone’s throw from the rather impersonal royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, are the deliciously informal – and much less visited – Tombs of the Nobles, a riot of colour, everyday life and romance. Then we’re off again further south to Aswan – a spot of luxury at the Old Cataract Hotel never hurt anyone – and Kom Ombo where the ancient Egyptians once worshipped the snout-faced crocodile-god Sobek.

When you’ve had enough of the Nile, the Sahara beckons, and there are few more evocative spots amid its sandy wastes than the oasis of Siwa, which Herodotus visited a century before Alexander the Great arrived in February 331BC to consult the famous oracle of Ammon. Standing in Alexander’s footsteps in the crumbling ruins of the temple is an unforgettable experience not to be missed. To the north, the sun-singed escarpment of limestone, folded in shadow; to the east, the flashing jewel of Lake Aghurmi; Jebel al-Mawta, mountain of the dead, to the west and, beyond it, the incomprehensibly vast mirror of Lake Siwa; to the south, the snub-nosed mountain Jebel Dakrur, the whole panorama overwhelmed by a floating sea of feathery palms that melt eventually into the crashing ocean of dunes, wave upon glittering wave, of the Great Sand Sea.

Where else but Greece should our Herodotean odyssey end. In Athens we must make the obligatory pilgrimage to the Parthenon, beacon of democracy and pinnacle of Greek classical art. Impossible to miss the Archaeological Museum, even if museums aren’t your thing. This is one of the world’s greatest. We leave the city on a day trip to the sacred site of Delphi, scattered across terraces beneath twin fangs of rock and the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus. The setting of the Pleistos Valley, studded with olive trees and cypresses, is preternaturally beautiful – precisely why the Greeks chose it as a place in which to honour Apollo and Dionysus and consult the Oracle.

Then, with a final flourish, it’s off the beaten track to Samos, a wonderful, whale-shaped island perched off Turkey’s Aegean coast. Herodotus was wowed by three spectacular monuments on the island, and if the Temple of Hera and the Polycrates harbour breakwater don’t do it for you, you’ll still be captivated by the most exciting of the trio, the sixth-century BC Eupalinos Tunnel that slices through Mount Kastro with aplomb. Failing that, tuck into large quantities of the sweet Samian wine that Byron, among others, recommended.

By now, you’re probably reeling from all these tumbledown tombs and temples. You’ve had your fill of sylvan groves and scattered columns and pyramids, and you just want to kick back with a sundowner. So, without further ado, we sail overnight from Samos to Thessaloniki and hotfoot it to Kavala to stay in the incomparable Imaret, which is as much monument as unspeakably magnificent hotel – an award-winning conversion of a 19th-century school, baths, prayer hall and soup kitchen.

Enjoy the luxury. Herodotus would have approved.

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