The First World War may have ended 100 years ago this Sunday, but for Stijn Butaye, it’s still a part of daily life.
Butaye operates the “Pond Farm” in St-Julien, Belgium on what was a century ago the heart of the Western Front.
All these years later, the earth around his farm is still turning up everything from weapons and ammunition to gas canisters and buttons. For Butaye, who is passionate about history, these finds fuel a hobby. He’s built a small museum that gets about 2,000 visitors a year.
For a Canadian visitor, Butaye’s property is steeped in Canadian history. The farm is in the middle of some of the most important battlefields in Canadian military history. The cities of Passchendaele and Ypres are just up the road, while only a few hundred meters to the south is Canada’s “Brooding Soldier” monument. It’s a 10-metre tall white granite column depicting a solemn soldier at the top. It was erected in honour of the 2,000 Canadians killed in the first gas attacks of the war. The Canadian 1st Division was hit by chlorine gas over three days in April 1915.
Butaye’s latest find had him stumped for a while. It’s a 2.5 m long wood beam that is pock-marked with bullet holes. After some research, he found out it had been part of a German tank.
“It’s a ditching beam,” Butaye says. “They used that on the top of the tank to pull them out when they got stuck.”
Butaye is a farmer and electrician by training, but his passion is history. He’s collected hundreds of items from his land, enough to build himself a small museum. He gets about 2,000 visitors a year, by appointment only.
The piece that kicked it all off about a decade ago was an old rifle. It’s mostly rotted away and caked in dirt, but there’s no mistaking it’s an old Lee-Enfield, the rifle used by British Commonwealth soldiers, including Canadians.
“I don’t know what it did in the war,” Butaye says. “How many soldiers were killed with it? I’m always thinking about that if I’m finding something.”
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During the war, control of the land went back and forth between five armies. Butaye almost runs out of breath going through the chain of possession.
“First we had it in Canadian hands,” he says. “Then it was in German hands, then it was British, but then they lost it again, then it was German, then it was British, then at the end it was Belgians and it was our property again.”
Butaye’s grandfather bought the farm in the 1960s, and set about destroying some of the remnants of the war, 38 fortified bunkers. He blew them up, and removed all of them except one. Butaye says it was too close to the farmhouse and the pressure from the explosions was damaging the foundation.
Instead of destroying the bunker, it’s used to store manure. Butaye says that was what his grandfather wanted.
“He really didn’t like German soldiers.”
Butaye finds lots of artifacts of Canada’s clashes with the Kaiser’s army. Gas canisters are something Butaye sometimes finds in what he calls his “iron harvest.” Each year, items from the war are pushed up from the ground by the spring thaw. The other dangerous season is the fall when the tractors are in the field for the harvest.
Butaye found two gas canisters this year. He keeps them in a secure cage until a special team from the Belgian military picks them up for disposal. He also has several unexploded British shells.
“They are high explosives,” he says. “So they can explode. If you hit them just on the fuse, they can still go off. That’s quite dangerous stuff.”