Nick Dunne visits a humble roadside shrine near the trenches of Passchendaele built to house an extraordinary image of Christ crucified
To the poet and composer Ivor Gurney, Hill 35 must have seemed an insignificant dent in the landscape. For a Gloucestershire man those slight ridges emerging from the flatlands around the Belgian town of Ypres could not compare with the great rolling landscapes he knew and longed for. Yet, as an experienced soldier, Private Gurney knew the importance of holding even just a few feet of ground that was higher than his enemy. Three weeks previously, on August 22 1917, the Germans had been pushed off Hill 35 in bitter fighting. Now, from the vantage point afforded by those extra 35 metres of height, Gurney could see the battlefield unfold in front of him. All around was a mass of churned mud, twisting trench lines and broken stumps of trees. Three miles to the north-east lay the battle’s objective: another ridge of modest, yet awesome height, known by the name of its principal village, Passchendaele.
The 1917 campaign had started well for the British. A series of mines on the Messines Ridge had blown great holes in the German lines allowing rapid advances across the southern sector of the Ypres salient. On July 31 the next phase of the battle commenced but rain, and the destruction of the drainage systems which controlled the water table, soon turned the fields into quagmire. Any hope of a quick advance died in the mud, along with some quarter of a million men from the opposing armies. When Passchendaele itself was finally captured on November 6 1917 its name had become synonymous with a special type of hell, where men were consumed by mud, and broken by a relentless rain of iron.
Today, the battlefields of Passchendaele form a peaceful landscape, its farms intact and its woodlands rich and full. Walking the quiet lanes there is little traffic and a great sense of open space. When you climb the gentle gradients and reach their top you can see for miles.
On the crest of Hill 35 a memorial at Gallipoli Farm records that Ivor Gurney’s war ended here on September 12 1917. He was gassed and sent back to England to recover. Although his physical wounds were modest, his ordeal was not over. In February 1917, he had written a poem, “Pain”, which suggests some of the terrors he carried with him back to the home he’d longed for:
Pain, pain continual, pain unending;
Hard even to the roughest, but to those
Hungry for beauty… Not the wisest knows,
Nor the most pitiful-hearted, what the wending
Of one hour’s way meant. Grey monotony lending
Weight to the grey skies, grey mud where goes
An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows
Careless at last of cruellest Fate-sending.
Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in shell-holes both, slain by the mud.
Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun. –
Till pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her,
The amazed heart cries angrily out on God.
Gurney himself was one of those“hungry for beauty” for whom the pain of war was particularly acute. Although his physical injuries healed, his mental wounds did not. Within a few years life had become chaotic as he slept rough and walked long distances trying to control the voices in his head. The last 15 years of his life were spent in an asylum in Dartford, where he died in 1937.
Most visitors to the Passchendaele battlefields will travel to the huge cemetery at Tyne Cot and wander among nearly 12,000 graves lined, in military order, around the sunken pillboxes of this former strong point. But not far from the tribute to Ivor Gurney, on the approaches to Hill 35, there is another barely noticed memorial which offers its own moving witness to the tragedy of war, and the hope of lasting peace.
A cobbled track runs along the old front line from Gallipoli Farm down towards Pond Farm. Here, in August 1917, massive German bunkers had turned the farm into a fortress and Ivor Gurney’s Gloucesters had to capture it during their assault
on Hill 35. One great bunker remains as a sinister reminder of that costly fight.
At the entrance to the track leading to Pond Farm there is a small chapel to Our Lady. Such shrines are common along the country lanes but they are now mostly ignored as cars rush by at speeds too fast to notice them. Only the occasional walker will pause to benefit from their blessing and, as a result, these shrines are often just sad, neglected relics of a slower, more pious age. But the little chapel at Pond Farm is very different.
The shrine is the result of a pledge made by a local farmer, Arsène Marant, who lived at Pond Farm when his country was once again the focus of a terrible conflict. In May 1940 German troops were racing to capture the Channel ports, just as they had tried to do in 1914, but this time British and French forces were in disarray. Amid the confusion, Marant, his sister and other neighbours decided to hide in one of the huge bunkers that had survived from the previous war. That night, a French cavalry unit rested at the farm before hurrying on towards the battle. After they had gone, Marant found a beautifully carved figure of the crucified Christ that he was sure one of the soldiers, perhaps the artist himself, had left behind in his haste. Marant was moved by the skill and care taken in creating this holy image. Separated from His Cross, Jesus seemed helpless and particularly vulnerable, suffering again as the world turned to war. He had lost both arms and the remaining stumps were flung upwards in despair, like the limbs of a disfigured soldier.
Marant promised that, if he survived the war, he would build a shrine for this figure of Jesus. In 1946 he kept his promise, dedicating the little brick building to Our Lady of Peace for “peace in our families, and peace among peoples”. At the height of its popularity, pilgrims would come from the nearby village of St Julien to pray at the shrine and it was said that their prayers could be heard by neighbours a mile away. Today, the Butaye-Parrein family work Pond Farm and care for the little chapel. When they and their neighbours plough their fields, debris from the battlefields still comes to the surface. They’ve unearthed enough shells and equipment to open one of the old farm buildings as a small museum (see Depondfarm.be).
The carving of Christ crucified is now kept safely in the family’s home, but there is a photograph of it in the wayside shrine. Beside the image there is a statue of Our Lady surrounded by polished shell casings from the war. The British soldiers of 1917 called this area “Passion Dale” and it is as if Mary is again standing at the foot of her son’s Cross, sharing the pain of so many who, like Ivor Gurney, experienced suffering beyond the imagination of most of us walking the battlefields today.