For four long years, Flanders Fields in Belgium was a place of unprecedented carnage. When peace was finally restored on 11 November 1918, virtually nothing was left of the original landscape. The area became known as the Verwoeste Gewesten – the Devastated Lands.
These ‘Devastated Lands’ were given a special status by the post war government. Two action plans were quickly formulated and implemented.
The first was to retrieve, identify (if possible) and bury the bodies of soldiers who had died on the Front. Many of these had laid unburied for years and their identities had been lost. Others had been buried in temporary graves – these were exhumed and laid to rest in permanent cemeteries.
The second task was to clean-up, level out and fill in the scarred ground, which was covered in trenches, shell-holes, barbed wire and craters. Ammunition was collected where possible and made safe. The British Army’s Chinese Labour Corps played a key role in the clean-up. Initially they dug trenches and latrines and provided other support to the fighting soldiers, and then they stayed in Flanders after 1918 to help clean up the war zone. They did not return to China until 1920.
When areas were declared safe, civilians were allowed to re-enter the war zone. But they were told to expect the worst. The vast majority of civilians returned home. A smaller number – particularly Flemish farmers who had fled to France – remained in their adopted countries to build new lives there.
For many, what they found was the worst case scenario. Many returned to find that the buildings and places that they had previously known and lived in every day were gone. One man from Ypres could not find a trace of his farm until he found a tap to an underground water pipe that he had installed in 1914. It was all that remained of his property.
Whilst the clean-up and reconstruction took place, many civilians were housed in temporary accommodation. Basic huts and sheds were constructed and some civilians took over abandoned huts previously used as temporary barracks for soldiers during the war.
Buildings, houses and monuments were gradually rebuilt one by one. From July 1919 a subsidy was offered to those who wanted to return to Ypres and the surrounding ruined landscape of the Ypres Salient. The subsidy helped towards the costs of building basic accommodation to live in. Payment for war damages was also offered to help people make a new start building again on their old property.
A major issue whilst reinhabiting the area was the lack of access to clean drinking water. The River Ijzer and the two lakes that Ypres sourced its water from were totally contaminated and unfit for drinking. Local breweries came up with a solution to this issue through drilling deep bore holes and pumping clean water out – a technique they used for their own brewing processes.
The extensive use of chlorine, phosgene and mustard gases in the region, had killed everything living in its path. The Belgian Ministry of Agriculture provided new seeds and plants, while farmers in the Netherlands donated cattle, horses and even chickens. Slowly but surely, new life began to return to the devastated lands.
For civilians and workers who returned to the area, it was not without danger. It is estimated that a quarter of the one billion projectiles fired during the First World War failed to explode and remained live. Farm labourers were frequently maimed or killed by unexploded ordinance. It became quickly apparent that the initial clean-up operation had been too superficial.
Some used the situation to their advantage and even made fortunes from collecting and selling war items or performing the service of ‘deep digging’ where they would thoroughly dig out land, remove all the shells, and proclaim it as clean. But both jobs were fraught with extreme danger.
Unbelievably, the so-called ‘Period of Reconstruction’ of the Verwoeste Gewesten lasted until 1967, when the final annex to the Cloth Hall in Ypres was finished.
The effects of the First World War are still felt to this day, and each year tonnes of rusting bombs, grenades, mortars and shells are unearthed. The locals call it the ‘Iron Harvest’.