Go back to the trenches and find the hardness of our history under the ground. Who would say to archaeologists that they would find the traces of so many lives on Hill 80, on the outskirts of the current Belgian town of Wijtschate? Thus they have baptized the place where, since ancient times, there was a mill on top of a hill, in Flanders; a strategic location from where the landscape is dominated and the wind runs that made the blades creak. But one day everything changed, at the beginning of the 20th century. The wind of war blew and destroyed everything on this border that had soaked blood so many times before.
World War I broke out in 1914, millions of men fought and dragged themselves through the destroyed anthill of Europe – in Pound’s expression – through the trenches of that first mechanized conflagration in which the destruction reached industrial dimensions. Millions of lives lost in the mud. The entire Ypres area witnessed one of the great offenses of the trench warfare. Three battles in one of which the chemical warfare with gas was released. Hill 80 where there was a mill, and then a fortification, was filled with history, suffering, heroism, gunpowder and blood … And then poppies and wind again: forgetfulness. Until three years ago, at the moment when the archaeologists’ pickaxe reached the rusty offal.
In Wijtschate they were going to urbanize the site and the legislation requires, as in Spain, an archaeological impact report prior to the license. What archaeologists, led by Simon Verdegem, were finding, exceeded any expectations and changed their lives. And the story they have rescued deserves to change our vision, especially now that Sam Mendes’s film “1917” has been released and the hardships of the millions of soldiers take on today. There, on Hill 80, in a few hundred square meters, they hoped to find only a handful of skeletons and some object of military equipment, but huge trenches have been excavated that cross the site as scars of successive battles and have recovered more than a hundred bodies that the earth chewed.
The early morning of November 1, 1914, the German army wanted to take the hill to the assault and by surprise. Two Bavarian regiments participated in the action. On that first night alone, the 17th registered 897 casualties (211 men killed, 506 injured, 141 missing and 39 taken as prisoners) and the 21st over 400. Each is a story. This was only the beginning of a very hard war that would last five years. Before the end of November 1914, of the 3,000 troops of the 17th Bavarian regiment, 2,078 men had died. Everyone knew each other. The impact on the cities of origin was terrible.
The method and the memory
To tell this story, against oblivion, nothing better than the scientific method of the archaeologist and the historian. Against a national vision, the sum of the contenders, united under the earth and finally in the study of that time. Two military historians, the British Peter Boyle and the German Robin Schäfer, immediately joined the project and gave archival support and wealth to the group of Flemish archaeologists, led by Verdegem. What in principle was a limited inspection budgeted at 150,000 ended up needing 300,000. So he went to the micro-patronage, thanks to which they soon raised 178,000 euros. Verdegem tells ABC that “an integral excavation is necessary to understand the battlefield, here actions that occurred in different periods overlap.”
To be able to disassemble and understand the puzzle, the team not only sold t-shirts and cups, but also allowed the public to participate in excavation days for low prices and was not limited to the inhabitants of Wijtschate and added the participation of citizens of different countries and Secondary school teachers and students from some schools in Germany. It is essential for Verdegem that “former enemies, who we brought to the battlefield where their ancestors fought, participated. All of them could contemplate the site, the trenches, even the human remains. When you see something like that you open your mind, there is no book, photo or story that can teach you so much, ”he replies with emotion.
«All of them could see the site, the trenches, even the human remains. When you see something like that you open your mind, there is no book, photo or story that can teach you so much »
The lists of fallen from those nights of November 1914 devastated the families of small cities in Bavaria, who lost all their men in less than a month. Whole populations remained, in addition to no parents, brothers and children, no workers, artisans, officials … They have recovered letters and diaries from relatives commenting on the impact of knowing the list of casualties. History would be repeated in Britain.
Archaeologists excavated the mill, which the Germans immediately fortified by taking advantage of old existing stone bastions. They found bodies of soldiers – they expected to dig 20 or 30 and have studied and buried 118 – their impediment and everyday objects. From both sides. Some were in mass graves. Others were simply forgotten under the debris of the explosions, ground in the bowels of the earth, friends with their pocket watches marking the same time: 10:55, that of his death in unison. They have been able to identify a few, rescuing their rusty plate, their lost history and their service sheet intact.
«Some bodies were forgotten under the debris of the explosions, ground by the bowels of the earth, friends with their pocket watches marking the same time: 10:55, that of his death in unison»
The archaeologist confesses that «there is no room for feelings when you are working, you are only worried about meeting the highest scientific standards. But when I drive back home I take time to think about the meaning of what we have found and it moves me deeply ».
A charger, a mauser, a watch, a button, a helmet draw the shape of a person. «And especially when it comes to human remains I am moved by the idea that I am attached to each of them and I will do my best to be precise and find a way to identify them. That feeling of responsibility does not disappear when you continue adding findings. I think I have recovered the remains of 200 World War I soldiers and it does not get out of my mind. I am a scientist and work with method and coldness, but I do not block my emotions when I reflect on the meaning of what I do, ”Verdegem confesses expressly.
The landscape must have looked like the moon with the craters of the bombs flooded, under a rain of shells, day and night, for weeks. The soldiers withstood that rain and crawled along the puddles in which the remains of their companions sometimes floated, as also appears in Sam Mendes’ film. But the soldier had to resist all this and much more, he had to survive and for that he had to learn to kill. Men of every condition, simple and cultured, strong and squalid, Boyle suggests, had to become bayonet-tipped killers.
The day came when you had to leave the trenches. When he arrived in town, the battle continued house by house. The cost was very high, each portal ended in a melee fight. That is why they decided to burn the houses with their defenders inside. There are testimonies that relate it.
All the witnesses have already died, only the landscape remains as a witness to that gable devastation in the history of the nations. After the war everything quickly transformed, leaving those forgotten remains as foundations of the present, under the fields, sometimes less than a meter deep. In Europe we step on an ancient magma of war and destruction and this excavation proves it.
Verdegem complains that «war is often studied only from the side of the barbed wire. That is why our team is led by academics from the contending nations. We excavated in Flanders but found remains of the heritage of many nations. That it was here the battle is casual ». That lesson is valid for all sides, for all historical memories.
Thanks to this «we have learned many perspectives that we would not otherwise have known. A Belgian archaeologist could not attend to some cultural details, nor appreciate visions of the military historian, because there are customs in the trenches that only a veteran knows, that have even remained until now. It is impossible to understand everything that surrounds a historical event that was international if you do not expand your vision beyond national borders, ”adds the archaeologist to ABC.
The futility of war
Its object of study is so concrete that it is an achievement «to put faces to numbers and statistics. I prefer to tell the story from events, places and specific people. This makes it easier for all of us to identify with them ». Verdegem adds: “It is important for me that Hill 80 shows that there is a committed community that invests time, money and effort in the investigation of the war.
to. Archeology is, in addition to science, work in common and value the heritage we share. That is why the results of the projects must be accessible ».
And where does this work take us and the feelings surrounding what happened there? Verdegem is clear: «I think the excavation of a battlefield will always show the futility of war. Hundreds of lost men, almost all very young, dead so far from their homes and loved ones. The students who came to the site said: So many dead for what?
While the world answers that question with the usual blindness, there remains the lucidity of a few scientists who go into the mud of the old trenches and take off rusty irons, dented helmets, treating each relic with respect: «I will continue dedicated to the recovery of These men already improved the methods so that nothing is lost. Seeing what has been achieved on Hill 80, it would not be strange if we encourage another project very soon ». .