Retracing a journey made before placenames resonated with war

Signs of turmoil were there when Carl Clancy rode his motorbike through northern France 100 years ago

Candle-lit memorial shrine to Bishop Oscar Romero, murdered in El Salvador in 1998, in the Church of Notre Dame in Bruges. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

Candle-lit memorial shrine to Bishop Oscar Romero, murdered in El Salvador in 1998, in the Church of Notre Dame in Bruges. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

Wed, Apr 3, 2013, 06:01

The Dutch, Belgian and northeastern parts of France through which Carl Clancy rode his motorcycle in November 1912 were shortly to experience war on a scale never before witnessed in human history.

It is strange how, passing through or near places such as Verdun, Ypres, the valley of the Somme and Picardy, the names have a resonance that simply wasn’t there in Clancy’s day. These were places then where ordinary people got on with their lives; where farming areas nudged up against market towns with cobbled streets, modest homes, churches and market squares in which farmers sold produce to town folk.

The war with which their names are now indelibly associated had yet to happen. But the signs were there when Clancy and Walter Randell Storey rode through on their Henderson bikes.

“All through France, as in the British Isles and Spain, soldiers are to be found wasting time in every large town,” wrote Clancy for his magazine in New York. “During a dinner discussion with a German in Paris over the [first] Balkan war [which began in October 1912 and lasted seven months], he informed me that Russia and Austria were mobilising their armies. ‘And how about Germany?’ I asked. ‘Ah!’ was his quick reply, ‘Germany is always mobilised.’ And that is one reason, I declared, why England is so afraid of her, and France, thirsting for revenge, is helpless. Germany is the dog in the manger that makes international peace nothing but a dream.”

Today one cannot but notice the history of the place, festooned as it is in medieval churches, ancient buildings of government, squares lined with the 400-year-old homes of wealthy merchants, but also war graveyards and memorials to the people who inhabit them.

We leave Dordrecht and the Netherlands behind and head into Belgium.

In 1912, Clancy went to Antwerp where he spent an hour trying to find a way to cross the river Scheldt. In Ghent, he and Storey spent an afternoon exploring the “grim recesses and terrifying dungeons of the stern Chateau des Comtes”. It’s still there, a brooding lump in the centre of the city, modelled on the crusader forts of Syria.

Bruges is heaving with tourists and we get off to a bad start with the waiter in La Belle Vue restaurant. “Bonjour!” pipes Geoff as we enter. “Why you speak French to me? You think I am frog?” he replies. He pays those bastards enough tax, he adds helpfully, but does not have to speak their language.

In the Church of Notre Dame, they remember Bishop Oscar Romero, murdered in El Salvador in 1998 but there in Bruges seven weeks before. He left an “unforgettable impression” on people, says a notice by a candle-lit make-shift shrine amid the rubble of restoration, “and keeps inspiring us today”.

Death is never far away in these parts. Two years after Clancy and Storey were in Antwerp, it was besieged by the German army. For six days, the Belgian and British armies tried to save the city and hold bridges between it and Ghent.

Paris’s report of trying to withstand the siege during those October days in 1914 makes for grim reading. It concludes with the casualty list: “1st Naval Brigade and 2nd Naval Brigade, 5 killed, 64 wounded, 2,040 missing. Royal Marine Brigade, 23 killed, 103 wounded, 388 missing.”

Of the missing that were found, most, and many more besides, are in the war graveyards sprinkled across the region.

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