Each year, thousands of people visit cemeteries in Belgium to honour the soldiers who lost their lives in WWI. Few of those people, however, come to remember the German soldiers who perished.
The bugles that sound daily at a number of sites in Belgium serve as a haunting reminder of the hundreds of thousands of men who laid down their lives along this stretch of the Western Front.
At one of those war memorials, however, there is significantly less activity. Even on Armistice Day, the official day of remembrance, it seems the only beings here are the birds in the trees. The Langemark cemetery is the final resting place of 44,294 German soldiers. More than half of them are buried in one mass grave, the Kameraden Grab, their names etched on large dark plaques running alongside the site.
The rows of gravestones lie flat on the ground, as Belgium imposed strict restrictions on German memorials. Headstones were not allowed to stand, no crosses were permitted and there were many other rules that applied only to Germans. There were hundreds of burial sites of German soldiers after 1918, but in the 1950s, Belgium ordered that the bodies be regrouped in no more than four sites, of which Langemark is one.
Germany lost nearly two million men in the First World War, the greatest number of casualties suffered by any nation. Yet for decades, this chapter of history was hardly taught at German schools. Today, the care of German memorials in western Flanders, where some of the bloodiest battles took place, is carried out by a voluntary association, the German War Graves Commission, and its grounds are tended by students.
At the back of Langemark, rain-sodden fields stretch ahead, the same ground that turned into a giant, water-clogged inferno of craters and trenches almost a century ago. It is here that 3,000 German students were killed in 1914. They had received just six weeks basic training before they were sent to the front to accompany German soldiers in what was meant to be a triumphant march to victory. But they were all killed in the ensuing battles and it is why this cemetery is otherwise called the Studentfriedhof Cemetery.
Visitors are few and far between and it is significant that the German people themselves don’t visit the graves of their fallen. Only a tiny number of Germans visit this part of Belgium, as opposed to the thousands who come to visit the Commonwealth graves from as far away as Australia. A glance at the visitors’ book shows that most visitors are UK school students, who visit the site as part of their trips around Ypres. The aura is very somber compared to the pristine white cemeteries where the British are buried, which are more like English gardens. However, it is important to recognize that these soldiers also died for King and Country.
Remains of soldiers are still found in the area every year, and these are added to the mass grave. These days, their burials are done with full military honours and are attended by officials from Germany and Belgium – a sign perhaps that, in time, more recognition will be given to these men who volunteered to lay down their lives.
“Deutschland muss leben auch wenn wir sterben müssen,” reads the plaque above their graves. “Germany must live even if we must die.”