9 May 2008

Notes from the Western Front (off the Jünger track)

Aerial photograph of Spanbroekmolen Crater.

I had a look in one of my old notebooks from one of my first longer tours to the Western Front, when I visited all the must-see sites. These particular notes (below) are from Flanders in the beginning of the 1990s, at Spanbroekmolen Crater, also known as the "Lone Tree Crater" or "The Pool of Peace" (since it was bought by a British oil baron in the 1920s, who then in 1930 gave it to the newly founded Talbot House Association or Toc-H). The preserved but water-filled crater is 75 meters wide, 12 meters deep and with a 4 meter high rim 30 meter wide. The Spanbroekmolen mine was blown by the British the 7th June 1917 in the beginning of the Messines Battle and the Third Ypres. Now it is like a forested pond in middle of the Flanders fields. From my notebook:

"Early misty morning. Doves coo-coo, cows moo. A path leads through the thick undergrowth to an idyllic lagoon. Another path follows the rim, it seems. I follow the path along the rim. The dew on the bushes makes the clothes, the shoes and the camera wet. The woolen sweater get stuck in the thorns. Halfway around, the path opens out to the water-filled crater. I return to the road. Towards me at the road comes a dirty little old man in dirty blue overall. He stops and throws his old bicycle in the ditch, grinning. With gestures and words in German, English, French, Flemish and probably other languages too, I am persuaded into following him out at the muddy field. We walk half-way around the crater, where he suddenly disappears into the bushes. He returns and shows me a tilted concrete bunker hidden by the bushes at the edge of the crater rim. As a young boy he climbs down and in through an opening. Inside, in the darkness, he removes a part of the steel reinforcement which he hands over to me through the opening: ”Souvenir, souvenir”, he says. He climbs up again, while keeps babbling. He tells me that he was sent to Germany during the Second World War for forced labour, and that he was born at the farm which he points at, where there is another bunker, which he point out in a field. He also, chuckling, points out in the landscape and on his body (the crutch) where - he says - Hitler was wounded 1917. Frenetically, wearing no socks in his old heavy boots without shoelaces, he runs around in the muddy field picking up shrapnel bullets and grenade splinters, which he insists I should have as keepsakes.

I find it quite amazing: The German lines of the Western front crossed the farm he was born at, and he was sent Germany during the Second World War. When we say goodbye, this little friendly giggling old man realize that I am not German."