Page last updated at 14:04 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Looking for Ypres' 'iron harvest'

On a recent visit to Ypres, Chris Moore discovers how the former battlefields are still revealing their secrets more than 90 years after World War I ended.

When you enter Patrick Indevuyst's shop in Ypres, the authentic, musty smell of old pages gusts into your face.

WWI Soldiers silhouetted against the sun in Ypres
Ypres saw millions of soldiers pass through its fields during WWI

But The Shellhole, as it is called, is not your typical second-hand bookshop. It is crammed with military salvage: shell cases, bayonets, helmets.

Even, propped in one corner, the giant propeller from a World War I biplane.

Patrick, himself, is a pale, bearded student of sage-like ambiguity.

We share the same obsession: Trench Fever - a fascination with World War I, its books and its battlefields.

But do not call Patrick a scavenger.

With every season the Salient yields what is called the 'iron harvest'

He follows a strict code, as I discovered when he took me to a sodden maize field out in the Salient, the expanse of farmland around Ypres where between 1914 and 1918 an estimated one million soldiers were killed or wounded.

Peace pushed the wreckage of their battles deep underground.

With every season the Salient yields what is called the iron harvest. Tonne after tonne of ploughed up weaponry.

Curious finds

Patrick squelched on ahead.

Having studied the trench maps he knew where the German infantry had dug in, where the British artillery had sited their guns.

He pointed at what, to my untutored eyes, looked like a muddy stick.

"British," said Patrick, triumphantly hauling out a heavy brass shell-case still packed with explosive.

I was almost standing on an unexploded hand grenade
I looked back the way we had come. Having adopted the approved Patrick searching method - head down, searching, searching, eyes out on stalks - I felt slightly miffed that I had nothing to show for it.

Patrick indicated a small bottle lying in plain view. He had clearly put it there to test me.

How else could a German medicine bottle survive intact after four years of war and 90 years of ploughing?

Patrick was so affronted by the accusation he proposed his own proper test. The next time he spotted something he would leave it in for me to find.

A further minute of muddy squelching brought us to a meaningful pause.

"You must be blind," said Patrick.

I looked down at leaves, pebbles, a blackened maize pod and then something brown, something evil. I was almost standing on an unexploded hand grenade.

"You'll see more now," said Patrick, "now you have got your eye in."

'British obsession'

He was right.

Back at the shop after dumping our rusty ordinance for the bomb disposal squad to deal with, I spotted straight away among the higgledy-piggledy shelves a copy of my own book about World War I.

Men in the trenches of Ypres during WWI
Ypres and its Flanders surroundings were the scene of three major battles
"You scavenger," I said, "I gave you this as a present."

Patrick hunched his shoulders. "A hard backed copy showed up," he said. "What could I do?"

In Patrick's code it is one law for the war, another for books. That struck me as fair.

All around were better books than I could ever write. Most of them, 90%, written in English.

Patrick does not get many French or German visitors.

"The Germans," he says, "are burdened more by Hitler and the Holocaust than anything that happened at Ypres.

"The French with hundreds of miles of the Western Front running through their territory have more than enough to explore without coming to Belgium.

"Ypres remains a stubbornly British obsession."

In answer to the question about whether he had ever been to England, Patrick put on his most sage-like expression and embraced me, his shop, the rainy street outside with a gesture that included the whole Salient. "England," he said, "England comes to me."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 29 January, 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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