“Out of the great strafe all serene”: Experiencing and Remembering Third Ypres

After three days of hard fighting on the front lines at the Third Battle of Ypres, Jack Peirs and his battalion retired to the Micmac Camp. Jack took no time to rest before he began to write to his family, informing them in individual letters that he had seen action but was now safely behind the lines. The first letter he wrote was to his mother, to tell her that he was “out of the great strafe all serene” after leading his battalion to take “all its objectives” despite the “vile” weather and the trenches that had been “made absolutely filthy.” He included few other details, but admitted that he was “covered in mud and must wash.” In four sentences, Jack said everything that he needed to say to her. He neither shielded her from the reality of his experience, nor did he give her reason for excessive worry by focusing on the terrible conditions for more than a couple short lines. Jack spent as much time telling her of his survival and the Battalion’s solid performance as he did of the disintegration of the trenches.

The three letters that he wrote the following day, on 3 August, were much chattier. He didn’t write of his own experience before first commenting on life at home. Jack remarked on family news and, to his sister Gladys, shared his opinions on his “fat and lusty” godchild’s comportment, expecting that she be “spanked sufficiently” and suggesting, humorously, that “muzzling” her might be the only solution. He expressed concern about his father’s weight loss, writing to Hugh Vaughan that he hoped he could “manage a holiday.” To his sister Odile, Jack offered up the use of his beloved pram. Only after composing these casual openings did Jack speak of his time in the trenches. He wrote honestly, but lightly.

Jack didn’t delve into the horrors of what he saw, instead focusing on the spoils his men had “collared off their prisoners” – watches and cigarette cases and the like. He maintained a particularly well-designed nonchalance, managing his tone so that he wouldn’t give his loved ones anything to worry about; Jack went so far as to say that there was “no particular news at the moment,” despite the fact that he had just returned from a major battle, and observed that the “Army Authorities” had been “quite satisfied with the result” of the offensive’s first few days and that he would be “writing this from Berlin or some such place” if it weren’t for the rain.

When he did discuss the specifics of his time in the trenches, Jack spoke frankly. And all of the images that became legend about Third Ypres – immortalized by poets and artists and filmmakers alike – appear in Jack’s letters home in those first few days after he went over the top. On battlefields “pulverised” from years of shelling, the “infernal” rain was simply “soaked up like a sponge.” The ground became nothing but mud, and Jack expressed concern for the “poor devils” that had relieved his battalion because the trenches were “more than waterlogged.” It was, despite his efforts to put it into words, “indescribable.” What Jack described became synonymous with Third Ypres. In just three days at the front, he experienced the very terrors that separate it from all other battles of the First World War.

One hundred years later, as we commemorate the battle, the images that Jack evoked in his letters continue to define our modern understanding of the offensive. The memorial events that were held over the past week were designed to reckon with the incredible, unimaginable devastation of Third Ypres. These ceremonies – in scale and grandeur and beauty – needed to live up to the “indescribable” experience in the trenches. To commemorate a battle like Third Ypres, and to adequately honor the generation lost to the mud of Flanders’ Fields, these memorials had to surpass all those that had come before. And so, 54,000 paper poppies fell from the Menin Gate as the Last Post sounded over the fields. Royalty laid wreaths at memorials all over Europe. A mud sculpture of a soldier was unveiled in London’s Trafalgar Square, designed to melt away with the rain in a poetic tribute to the suffering of the men who fought at Third Ypres.

The one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of Third Ypres has now passed, but Jack’s words and the mud that inspired them will forever haunt our memory of the event. The letters that we release here every week are a particular memorial to one individual and his experience. And this week, Jack’s letters take on another layer: they become entrenched in and inseparable from the larger truth, from the collective experience of the thousands of men who fought on those fields. This week, our attempts to remember and honor those who fought and died at Third Ypres were defined by thoughts of mud and rain and filth, but also by images of paper poppies falling from the sky and trumpets echoing in the night.

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