When the Great War ended in November 1918, farmers in northern France and Belgium returned to find their fields and villages totally destroyed by four years of trench warfare. Much of the area was covered over with grass, hedgerows, and forests. Except for one place.
A Belgian farmer called Schier returned to his land on a hill overlooking the ancient medieval city of Ypres, and, after clearing the trenches and craters of debris and casualties, simply left the site as it was.
Once part of the British front line, the hill witnessed some of the most intense battles of the war. It lies there today looking much as it did a hundred years ago: a mess of rusted barbed wire, shell holes full of water, trees shattered by artillery fire, and a system of mud-filled trenches and tunnels.
Called “Hill 62” on military maps (a reference to its elevation), it was known as Sanctuary Wood by the tens of thousands who lived and died there. The name was given in the early days of the war when the heavy woodland provided perfect cover for respite from German guns and a place to treat the wounded. Within months though, the constant artillery bombardments turned the wood into a devastated nightmarish landscape.
Sanctuary Wood now operates as a memorial and museum. Climbing down into the ruins of the original trenches, it is a rare opportunity to physically understand the daily horrors of life on the Western Front. The preserved farmhouse is filled with the rusted artifacts Shier found on his property: rifles encrusted with mud, German steel helmets riddled with bullet holes, and a collection of period stereoscope photographs of the battlefield.
Walking through the farmhouse into the back garden, past rolls of barbed wire and an alarming stockpile of German artillery shells, a wooden signpost indicates the way to the “British Front Line.” Just down the road from the museum and trenches is Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, where more than 2,000 soldiers are buried.