Review of “Understanding the Ypres Salient”

Understanding the Ypres Salient: an illuminating battlefield guide
by Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys
Published by Helion & Company, 2017
ISBN 978 1 911512 50 9
Paperback. 282 pages plus appendix, bibliography and index. Illustrated.
Reviewed by Chris Baker

The battlefields of Ypres are a magnet for British tourists, for whom the area has a deep emotional connection. There can be few other areas so crammed with the memorials, cemeteries and, even at this length of time, the detritus of the Great War. Over the years, particularly the last twenty or so, the old battlefield has begun to disappear, lost to mass development of housing, commerce, industry and, ironically, of the effect of battlefield tourism. The views and small geographic features that used to be so important in understanding the story of what happened here are gradually being erased, particularly as one approaches the city.

There are plenty of guide books for the visitor, including the classic “Before Endeavours Fade”; the frequently updated, comprehensive Holts’ guides; and the volumes of the “Battleground Europe” series. What does “Understanding the Ypres Salient” bring to the party?

I got off to a bad start. Opening at a random page, I found a map that contained three errors in the spelling of place names. Hmm. Then, being something of a 1918 devotee, I found that the book follows virtually all others in having something of a “… and then we all went home for tea” approach, in that events after the capture of Passchendaele in November 1917 receive very short shrift. Ready to bin it, I persevered and found the book to be not so bad after all. The map errors, I am glad to say, were not repeated.

The authors take a rather “British Official History” approach to the story of the salient, describing events of the First, Second and Third Battles of Ypres and the various phases by which they are defined. They guide us around the places of most interest in each battle, illustrating them with a simple battle map and plenty of colour photographs of the area as it is now.  For example, the opening phase of the Second Battle is described by narrative at four locations. There is a literal guide, a “turn right at the crossroads” style description to help the tourist reach the locations described, and a narrative explanation of events that relate to it. This is at a fairly high level: we do not get down to unit level very often, let alone to the experience of individual men. The narrative is strongly British-centric, with the German units being named only infrequently. I was pleased to see that it does not turn into a cemetery crawl or try to pinpoint every memorial: by taking this approach the story is made rather easier for the new tourist, and the reader’s eye is kept on battle rather than over-focusing on the dead. Ypres itself is omitted, and the book concentrates on the salient battlefield on its eastern side. We go no further south than Hill 60.

The “now” photographs are very good: the sunny fields of Flanders as they can be on a nice day. I haven’t been for a while and I enjoyed seeing the places I know so well. But about half way through I began to realise that something was missing. I was getting little sense of the appalling devastation, danger and squalor of this battlefield. Perhaps the addition of a few “then” photographs would have helped to serve as a reminder of why this place is of such importance.

Overall, this is not a bad book. Many new tourists will enjoy using it; many more experienced hands will like the photographs and the condensed history.

I understand that the same authors have also produced “Understanding the Somme, 1916: an illuminating guide”.

Buy it