The sacrifice: remembering those who came from near and far

The sacrifice: remembering those who came from near and far

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The Canadian National Memorial at Vimy

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

– A E Housman

As I continued my odyssey along the Western Front, a theme began to emerge at the cemeteries and monuments I visited. My first port of call was the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy, a memorial to the 60,000 Canadians who were killed in battle during the the Great War.  Alongside the famous pylon towers is another memorial to the North African soldiers who fell on Vimy Ridge. In the following days I would spend time at cemeteries and memorials which recalled the sacrifice of others who came, often from other continents, to fight in the European ‘civil war’: Canadians and Newfoundlanders, Australians, Scots, Irish, Welsh and men from the Indian sub-continent.

We’re not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you’ve seen this war. We are the sacrifice.

– Frank McGuinness, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

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The twin pylons of the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy

The Vimy Memorial is an awe-inspiring structure: you see its twin spires rising above the village of Vimy from miles away as you approach Vimy ridge across the flatlands of Picardy.  The Memorial was designed by a sculptor from Toronto, Walter Seymour Allward, its two pylon towers to rising skywards to represent Canada and France, two countries united in their sacrifice to war.The Memorial bears the names of 11,168 missing Canadians, killed in action in France but whose remains have not been found or identified. The monument was located on the imposing ridge of high ground at Vimy Ridge, north of Arras, because this had been the scene of a successful attack by the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1917, during the Battles of Arras.

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The view from Vimy Ridge across the plain below

The Germans had secured the Ridge by October 1914, and remained in control of it despite French Army attempts to dislodge them twice in 1915 without success and at tremendous loss of over 100,000 casualties. In the Second Battle of Artois (May-June 1915) the French 1st Moroccan Division gained a foothold at Hill 145, but could not hold on to it. It was not until the spring of 1917 that the Canadians managed to secure the Ridge.

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The mourning figure of  ‘Canada Bereft’ at Vimy

The two pylons rise 120 feet (30 metres) from the base of the Memorial.  Beneath them, arranged around a vast paved terrace, are twenty sculpted human figures.  The terrace is dominated by ‘Canada Bereft’, a female figure draped in a cloak which stands alone on the wall, head bowed, looking down at a stone sarcophagus representing Canada’s war dead. The figure was carved from a single 30 tonne block of limestone. From this vantage point it is easy to see the advantage gained by the German troops as you look out across the plain towards Lens and the slag heaps at Loos-en-Gohelle that rise like volcanoes on the horizon.

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The Vimy Memorial: The Chorus

The tops of the pylon are sculpted to form The Chorus – a group of eight figures representing Justice, Peace, Hope, Charity, Honour, Faith, Truth and Knowledge. Peace is the highest figure on the monument, reaching upwards with a torch. Between the pylons is The Spirit of Sacrifice,  a group of two figures which comprises a dying soldier who has passed a torch to a comrade.

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Vimy: one of The Mourning Parents figures

On the other side of the Memorial are two reclining figures, located on either side of the steps, representing the mourning mothers and fathers of Canada’s war dead.

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The Names of the Missing Canadians

The names of more than 11,000 Canadians, with no known resting place in France, are inscribed on the walls around the base of the monument in a font specially designed by Allward.

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The Moroccan memorial

At the entrance to the Vimy Memorial stands the reminder of soldiers from yet another continent who died here. The Memorial to the Moroccan Division recalls the bravery of a division that was composed of regiments of Zouaves (North African volunteers) and French Foreign Legion soldiers who seized the ridge in May 1916 but who were forced to retreat. On 9 May 1916, men of the 1st Moroccan Division managed to break through the German lines to begin the attack on Vimy Ridge. Unfortunately, white squares had been sown on their uniforms to help the French artillery adjust the range of their guns. Tragically, this made the men of the Moroccan Division visible not only to the French, but also to the Germans positioned on their flank.  They became easy targets. As the French artillery ran out of ammunition, expected reinforcements failed to arrived. The order to retreat was given, and the position was lost.

French Zouaves North African soldiers in 1WW

French Zouaves –  North African volunteers – in WW1

I know of only one poem of the First World War which recognises the contribution of soldiers from France’s African colonies. Five of the six sections in Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1918 volume of poems, Calligrammes, were composed while he was serving on the front line in the war.  One section is entitled ‘The Sighs of the Gunner from Dakar’, in which, remarkably, Apollinaire adopts the voice of a soldier from Senegal.  Apollinaire died in 1918, not in battle, but in the flu pandemic.

The Sighs of the Gunner from Dakar [Extract]

In the log dugout hidden by osiers
Near grey cannons turned toward the north
I dream of the African village
Where we danced where we sang and made love
And made long speeches
Noble and joyful
I see again my father who fought
The Ashantis
In the service of the English
I see again my sister with the crazy laugh
With breasts as hard as bombshells
And I see again
My mother the witch who alone in the village
Scorned salt
Crushing millet in a mortar


And I was a servant in Paris
I don’t know my age
But at the recruiting
They wrote down twenty years old
I’m a French soldier and so they turned me white
Sector 59 I can’t say where
But why is it better to be white than black
Why not dance and make speeches
Eat and then sleep
And we shoot at the Boche supplies
Or at the iron wires in front of the doughboys
Under the metallic storm
I remember a hideous lake
And couples chained by an atrocious love
A crazy night
A night of sorcery
Like tonight
Where so many horrible eyes
Explode in the brilliant sky

Near to Vimy is Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, the village featured in Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, the book he dedicated to ‘the memory of the comrades who fell beside me at Croucy and on Hill 119’ (locations along the Vimy Ridge):

The village has disappeared. Never have I seen such a disappearance of a village. Ablain-Saint-Nazaire and Carency still preserved some semblance of locality, with their gutted and truncated houses and their courtyards filled with plaster and tiles. Here, framed by the shredded trees – which, in the midst of the fog, surround us with a ghostly sort of decor – nothing has any shape; there is not even a fragment of wall or railing or gate still standing, and we are amazed to discover, under the heap of beams, stones and ironmongery, that there are paving stones – here there used to be a street!

You would think  it was a patch of untended waste ground, swampy,   where some nearby town for years had been regularly emptying its  mess, its litter, its building rubble and its worn-out utensils without leaving a clear spot, just a uniform layer of muck and rubbish into  which we go, walking slowly and with a great deal of difficulty. The bombardment has changed things so much that it has changed the course of the mill stream which is flowing at random and forming a pond on the remains of the little square where the cross used to stand.  A few mortar holes where swollen horses are rotting, others in which are scattered the remains of what used to be humans, distorted by the massive injury of the shells.

Here, lying across our path, which we are following upwards like a disaster, like a flood of debris beneath the dense sadness of the sky, lies a man who seems to be sleeping; but he is flattened against the ground in the way that distinguishes a dead body from a sleeping one.  He was a man on soup fatigue, with his rosary of loaves threaded into a belt and a bunch of his comrades’ mess tins held to his shoulder by a tangle of straps. He must have been hit the previous night, his back holed by a piece of shrapnel. We must be the first to find him: an obscure soldier who died in obscurity.

Perhaps he will be scattered   before anyone else comes across him. We hunt for the identity disc   which is stuck in the clotted blood where his right hand is lying. I copy down the name on it in letters of blood.  Poterloo left me to do this by myself. He is like a sleepwalker, but looking, looking desperately all round. He is looking towards infinity among all these gutted, vanished things; in this void he is staring towards the misty horizon.

Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland memorial

The Newfoundland Memorial

40 kilometres away, to the south of Arras, is the village of Beaumont Hamel, in 1916 one of the German fortress villages which commanded the valley of the Ancre, a tributary of the Somme, which  the attacking troops had to cross in the terrible days of July 1916. This is where I find the Newfoundland Memorial, which commemorates the participation of the Newfoundland Regiment during the Battle of the Somme.

Although the memorial park here was founded to honour the memory of the Newfoundland Regiment, it also contains a number of other memorials, as well as three cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Collectively, they recall the contribution to the war effort of soldiers from Newfoundland, Scotland and England.

Nearly 12,000 men from the sparsely-populated island of Newfoundland, an independent country in 1914, enlisted for the war, representing nearly 10 percent of the total male population, or 36 percent of young men between the ages of 19 and 35. Of these, 1,480 were killed.

On 1 July 1916, in the first few hours of the Somme offensive, the Newfoundland Regiment, was virtually annihilated at the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. The losses sustained by the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel that day, were staggering. Of the 801 Newfoundlanders who went into battle that morning, only 68 survived the day (a loss of 86 percent of its full strength). Few island families were untouched by the calamity: the dead included 14 sets of brothers. So catastrophic was the event that it remained etched into the consciousness of Newfoundlanders for the rest of the 20th century, leading the islanders to see the war’s legacy not as one of nation-building, like much of English Canada, but as one of loss of nationhood.

There was a rather curious reaction to the Newfoundlanders’ sacrifice from the commander of the 29th British Division who said of the actions of the Newfoundland Regiment on that July morning:

It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.

The caribou was chosen as the symbol for the memorial to the Newfoundlanders, and was unveiled by Lord Haig in June 1925 when the park was little changed from the war, with barbed wire entanglements, shell-holes, and war debris scattered around.

Newfoundland 1 Newfoundland 1bNewfoundland 4

Trenches at Beaumont-Hamel

Even today, around the Memorial, there are the remains of the front-line trenches  from which the British and Newfoundland troops attacked on 1 July 1916. The trench system, the only survival of its kind in the Somme, is well-preserved and warning signs indicate the presence, still, of undetonated explosives.  Walking through these fields with the troughs, ridges and mounds that still remain as the scars of war, I thought of Carl Sandburg’s poem, ‘Grass’:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 

What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Newfoundland 3

Duckboard-lined trenches, fringed with wildflowers

There is a trail that winds its way in great loop around the park – through the remains of the trenches now duckboard-lined and fringed with wildflowers, along an avenue of trees, and across the fields that slope down towards the Ancre river. It’s a short walk to the unusual Hunter’s Cemetery, sheltered beneath a small copse,  which commemorates 46 soldiers who fell during the taking of Beaumont Hamel, who were blown up by a shell and later buried here in the same large shell-hole. The spirit of the place is reflected in the unusual feature of the burial ground: the headstones do not stand in rows as grave markers, but are set into a circular wall around a cross.

Beaumont Hamel Hunter's cemetery

Beaumont Hamel: Hunter’s cemetery

At the furthest edge of the park stands the memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division which captured the village of Beaumont Hamel on 13 November 1916. Rough blocks of granite assembled in a pyramid form are topped by the statue of a kilted Highland soldier, looking east towards the village of Beaumont Hamel.

Beaumont Hamel 51st Division memorialBeaumont Hamel 51st Division memorial from afar

 Beaumont Hamel: the 51st Division memorial

I recalled a poem that echoes the actions commemorated here. On 16 May 1916, E. A. Mackintosh, an officer in the Seaforth Highlanders, led a raid on German trenches just north of Arras. The death of one of his men, a close friend, in the raid had a profound effect on Mackintosh, leading him to write the poem, ‘In Memoriam’.  As the attack went wrong, Mackintosh carried the wounded Private David Sutherland through 100 yards of German trenches with the Germans in pursuit. Sutherland died before Mackintosh managed to get back to the British trenches, and his body had to be left behind.  He has no known burial place. Mackintosh’s bravery won him the Military Cross, and in memory of Private David Sutherland he wrote ‘In Memoriam’. On 21 November 1917, Mackintosh himself was killed.

In Memoriam: Private D. Sutherland Killed in Action in the German Trench, May 16th 1916, and the others who died.

So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.

Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year got stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.

You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight —
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.

Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.

Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed, “Don’t leave me, Sir,”
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.

Newfoundland Hawthorn Ridge cemetery

Hawthorn Ridge cemetery

In addition to the Newfoundland and 51st Division memorials, there are three British cemeteries in the park.  As I follow the path back to the entrance I look back across the fields to where Hawthorn Ridge cemetery lies surrounded by trees, from a distance looking like a sheepfold you might see on a hillside in northern England.  This, too, was farming land until war came, and men arrived from near and far, many to leave their bones beneath this turf.

In his account of his own pilgrimage to the Western Front, The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer wrote of Beaumont-Hamel that ‘some part of me will always be calmed by the memory of this place, by the vast capacity for forgiveness revealed by these cemeteries, by this landscape.’  His book ends here, with the knowledge that ‘even in your moments of most exalted emotion, you do not matter’:

Because these things will always be here: the dark trees full of summer leaf, the fading light that has not changed in seventy-five years, the peace that lies perpetually in wait. […]

Tomorrow, a year from now, it will be exactly the same: birds lunging and darting towards the horizon; three crosses silhouetted against the blood-red sky; a man walking along the curving road; lights coming on in distant farmhouses – and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Island of Ireland Peace Park 1

The round tower of the Island of Ireland Peace Park

I spent the last day of my odyssey in Flanders, moving through a landscape in which everything is near and neighbourly: small towns, villages, farms – and cemeteries, which are often tucked in behind back gardens on suburban streets or in the corner of some ploughed field.

I was driving towards Mesen (known as Messines in 1914-1918) when I caught my first glimpse of the traditional Irish round tower that rises from The Island of Ireland Peace Park, located by the road from Ploegsteert, not far from the centre of Mesen.

Island of Ireland Peace Park 7

The Island of Ireland Peace Park

It’s a recent memorial,  officially opened at 11:00 on 11 November 1998, and dedicated to the soldiers of Ireland, of all political and religious beliefs, who died, were wounded or missing in the Great War. About 300,000 Irish men and women served in the war – not only in the British army, but also with the armies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.

The tower was built as a symbol of reconciliation, and opened in the same year that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast.  With the support of the people of Mesen, the tower was commissioned by the All-Ireland Journey of Reconciliation Trust, a broad-based cross-border Irish organisation which hopes to bring together people of diverse beliefs, It was constructed using stones from a demolished workhouse in Mullinger, County Westmeath. The design is that of a traditional Irish round tower of the 8th century. It is 110 feet high, and is designed so that the inside of the tower is lit up by the sun only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Inside the Tower there are record books with the names of the 49,400 known Irish who gave their lives in the First World War.

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 The approach to the Peace Tower, lined with inscribed tablets

Near to the entrance of the Peace Park a bronze plaque is inscribed with a Peace Pledge:

From the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage in the First World War on which we have built a peace park and Round Tower to commemorate the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland who fought a common enemy, defended democracy and the rights of all nations, whose graves are in shockingly uncountable numbers and those who have no graves, we condemn war and the futility of war. We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour.

As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic Soldiers when they served together in these trenches.

As we jointly thank the armistice of 11 November 1918 – when the guns fell silent along this western front – we affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the Island of Ireland died in both World Wars would be permanent peace.

Island of Ireland Peace Park 6

Three stone pillars record the sacrifice by three volunteer Irish Divisions

Three stone pillars are engraved with the numbers of killed, wounded and missing of the three voluntary Irish Divisions which fought with the British Army in WW1 – a reminder that the Irish people’s experience of the war was complex and its memory divisive. At the outbreak of the war, most Irish people, regardless of political affiliation, supported the war, with both nationalist and unionist leaders initially supporting Britain. Both Catholics and Protestants served extensively in the After the suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and the execution of its leaders by the British, however, the Irish nation was divided over continued support for Britain.

This is exemplified by two remarks of the volunteer  soldier and poet, Francis Ledwidge, who died in the Third battle of Ypres in 1917 and who is commemorated here in the Peace Park. When he enlisted he said, ‘I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy of civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing but pass resolutions’.  But, after the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed, he expressed a different view: ‘If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!’

Island of Ireland Peace Park 3

The tablet commemorating the poet Francis Ledwidge

Along the approach to the Peace Tower are nine stone tablets, each inscribed with prose, a poems or part of a letter from an Irish serviceman.  They express a variety of different views of the war.

One of the tablets displays a quotation by Francis Ledwidge, killed in the Ypres Salient on 31 July 1917, the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele:

It is too late now to retrieve a fallen dream, too late to grieve a name unmade, but not too late to thank the Gods for what is great. A keen edged sword, a soldier’s heart is greater than a poet’s art. And greater than a poet’s fame a little grave that has no name.

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The tablet with words by War Artist William Orpen 

Two other tablets offer a very different view of the war.  One, with words by William Orpen, official War Artist, reads:

I mean the simple soldier man, who when the Great War first began, just died, stone dead from lumps of lead, in mire.

Another bears the words of Charles Miller of the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers:

As it was, the Ypres battleground just represented one gigantic slough of despond into which floundered battalions, brigades and divisions of infantry without end to be shot to pieces or drowned, until at last and with immeasurable slaughter we had gained a few miles of liquid mud.

Island of Ireland Peace Park 4

The words of Charles Miller of the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Francis Ledwidge’s poetry was neglected until, in Field Work (1979), Seamus Heaney published his elegy ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge, killed in France, 31 July 1917’.  Carol Rumens wrote in the Guardian that:

Heaney’s elegy weaves in the agonised remarks Ledwidge made after learning of the British executions of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: ‘To be called a British soldier while my country/ Has no place among nations … ‘ But, of course, Ledwidge was originally a volunteer. … And at that stage he no doubt believed he was fighting, ultimately, for Irish freedom as well as British: there was no insoluble conflict for him, as a moderate Nationalist, in military action against Germany. All that changed after the Easter Rising, and he wanted only to return home to County Meath. He survived the battle of Arras (which had cost the life of the great English poet Edward Thomas), only to be killed in the slaughter at the third battle of Ypres.

Seamus Heaney: ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge, killed in France  July 31 July 1917’

The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape
That crumples stiffly in imagined wind
No matter how the real winds buff and sweep
His sudden hunkering run, forever craned

Over Flanders. Helmet and haversack,
The gun’s firm slope from butt to bayonet,
The loyal, fallen names on the embossed plaque –
It all meant little to the worried pet

I was in nineteen forty-six or seven,
Gripping my Aunt Mary by the hand
Along the Portstewart prom, then round the crescent
To thread the Castle Walk out to the strand.

The pilot from Coleraine sailed to the coal-boat.
Courting couples rose out of the scooped dunes.
A farmer stripped to his studs and shiny waistcoat
Rolled the trousers down on his timid shins.

Francis Ledwidge, you courted at the seaside
Beyond Drogheda one Sunday afternoon.
Literary, sweet-talking, countrified,
You pedalled out the leafy road from Slane

Where you belonged, among the dolorous
And lovely: the May altar of wild flowers,

Easter water sprinkled in outhouses,
Mass-rocks and hill-top raths and raftered byres.

I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform,
A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave,
Ghosting the trenches like a bloom of hawthorn
Or silence cored from a Boyne passage-grave.

It’s summer, nineteen-fifteen. I see the girl
My aunt was then, herding on the long acre.
Behind a low bush in the Dardanelles
You suck stones to make your dry mouth water.

It’s nineteen-seventeen. She still herds cows
But a big strafe puts the candles out in Ypres:
‘My soul is by the Boyne, cutting new meadows …
My country wears her confirmation dress.’

‘To be called a British soldier while my country
Has no place among nations …’ You were rent
By shrapnel six weeks later. ‘I am sorry
That party politics should divide our tents.’

In you, our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium
And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze
I hear again the sure confusing drum

You followed from Boyne water to the Balkans
But miss the twilit note your flute should sound.
You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones
Though all of you consort now underground

Francis Ledwidge

Francis Ledwidge

On 31 July 1917, a group from Ledwidge’s battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were road-laying in preparation for an assault during the Third Battle of Ypres, near the village of Boezinge, northwest of Ypres. While Ledwidge was drinking tea in a mud hole with his comrades, a shell exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others. A chaplain who knew him, Father Devas, arrived soon after, and recorded ‘Ledwidge killed, blown to bits’.

He is now buried in Artillery Wood Military Cemetery, Boezinge, (where the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, killed on the same day, is also buried).

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making rills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind,
And there I wander as I will.

– Francis Ledwidge, ‘In France’

Hedd Wyn

Hedd Wyn

Hedd Wyn, buried in the same cemetery as Francis Ledwidge (born Ellis Humphrey Evans), was a sheep farmer turned poet-soldier who chose Hedd Wyn (‘blessed peace’) as his pen name.  He was born in Penlan, Trawsfynydd, the eldest of eleven children, and lived for much of his life at Yr Ysgwrn, a hill farm east of Trawsfynydd.

I sang to the long hope of my life
And the magic of the inspiration of youth;
The passion of the wind and the scent
Of the lighting of the path
ahead were in my poem.

My muse was a deep cry
And all the ages to come will hear it,
And my rewards were grievous violence;
And a world that is
One long bare winter without respite.

– Hedd Wyn, from ‘Hero’

Wynn chose to go to war in order to prevent his younger brother from enlisting, even though he was very close to being a pacifist, as his chosen bardic name indicates. Following a period of training in Liverpool, Private Evans was despatched for active service in Flanders and found himself stationed with his regiment at the notorious Pilckem Ridge in August 1917, immediately prior to the opening of the Passchendaele offensive. He died in the first day of the offensive. Six weeks later, on 6 September, he was named was the posthumous winner of the bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod. As Phil Carradice has written on his BBC Welsh history blog:

His death in battle shocked not just those present at the Eisteddfod but the whole of Wales. A stunned silence fell over the Eisteddfod field as the news finally began to sink in. The Archdruid summed up the feelings of the gathering when he said, simply, ‘Yr wyl yn ei dagrau a’r Bardd yn ei fedd – the festival in tears and the poet in his grave.’ There could be no question of any form of investiture and amidst a funereal silence the Bardic Chair, the Chair that now belonged to the dead poet, was solemnly draped in black cloth.

A year ago, the Guardian published a poem by Gillian Clarke, ‘Eisteddfod of the Black Chair’ inspired by this account.  Until I saw that piece, I had never heard of Hedd Wyn. But there was one poem by a Welshman, about the war but written long after, which I had read and remembered from some anthology of war poetry: ‘His Father, Singing’ by Leslie Norris, in which the poet recalls his father singing ‘ the songs he’d learned, still a boy, up to his knees in French mud, those dying songs’:

My father sang for himself,
out of sadness and poverty;
perhaps from happiness,
but I’m not sure of that.

He sang in the garden,
quietly, a quiet voice
near his wallflowers
which of all plants

he loved most, calling them
gillyflowers, a name
learned from his mother.
His songs came from a time

before my time, his boy’s
life among musical brothers,
keeping pigeons, red and blue
checkers, had a racing cycle

with bamboo wheels. More often
he sang the songs he’d learned,
still a boy, up to his knees
in French mud, those dying songs.

He sang for us once only,
our mother away from the house,
the lamp lit, and I reading,
seven years old, already bookish,

at the scrubbed table.
My brother cried from his crib
in the small bedroom, teething,
a peremptory squall, then a long

wail. My father lifted from
the sheets his peevish child,
red-faced, feverish, carried
him down in a wool shawl

and in the kitchen, holding
the child close, began to sing.
Quietly, of course, and swaying
rhythmically from foot to foot,

he rocked the sobbing boy.
I saw my brother’s head,
his puckered face, fall
on my father’s chest. His crying

died away, and I
read on. It was my father’s
singing brought my head up.
His little wordless lullabies

had gone, and what he sang
above his baby’s sleep
was never meant
for any infant’s comfort.

He stood in the bleak kitchen,
the stern, young man, my father.
For the first time raised
his voice, in pain and anger

sang. I did not know his song
nor why he sang it. But stood
in fright, knowing it important,
and someone should be listening.

Menin Gate India monument

The Indian Forces Memorial, Ypres

They came from Canada and Newfoundland, North Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  On the last afternoon of my trip, at the Menin Gate in Ypres, I encountered yet another memorial to men who came to fight in Europe’s war.  Near to the Menin Gate is a new memorial – it wasn’t there when I last visited this place – dedicated to the 130,000 troops of the Indian Forces who ‘fought in Flanders fields’ during the Great War. The monument records that over 9,000 died in France and Flanders

At the end of the trail I had followed along the Western Front in Flanders and the Somme, and wondering again about the motives that had impelled me to make the journey, I recalled two poems that offer a commentary on the business of visiting war cemeteries. The first is ‘The War Graves’ by Belfast poet Michael Longley, whose father’s survived the Great War :

The exhausted cathedral reaches nowhere near the sky
As though behind its buttresses wounded angels
Snooze in a halfway house of gargoyles, rainwater
By the mouthful, broken wings among pigeons’ wings.

There will be no end to clearing up after the war
And only an imaginary harvest-home where once
The Germans drilled holes for dynamite, for fieldmice
To smuggle seeds and sow them inside these columns.

The headstones wipe out the horizon like a blizzard
And we can see no farther than the day they died,
As though all of them died together on the same day
And the war was that single momentous explosion.

Mothers and widows pruned these roses yesterday,
It seems, planted sweet william and mowed the lawn
After consultations with the dead, heads meeting
Over this year’s seed catalogues and packets of seeds.

Around the shell holes not one poppy has appeared,
No symbolic flora, only the tiny whitish flowers
No one remembers the names of in time, brookweed
And fairy flax, say, lamb’s lettuce and penny-cress.

In mine craters so vast they are called after cities
Violets thrive, as though strewn by each cataclysm
To sweeten the atmosphere and conceal death’s smell
With a perfume that vanishes as soon as it is found.

At the Canadian front line permanent sandbags
And duckboards admit us to the underworld, and then
With the beavers we surface for long enough to hear
The huge lamentations of the wounded caribou.

Old pals in the visitors’ book at Railway Hollow
Have scribbled ‘The severest spot. The lads did well’
‘We came to remember’, and the wood pigeons too
Call from the wood and all the way from Accrington.

I don’t know how Rifleman Parfitt, Corporal Vance,
Private Costello of the Duke of Wellingtons,
Driver Chapman, Topping, Atkinson, Duckworth,
Dorrell, Wood come to be written in my diary.

For as high as we can reach we touch-read the names
Of the disappeared, and shut our eyes and listen to
Finches’ chitters and a blackbird’s apprehensive cry
Accompanying Charles Sorley’s monumental sonnet.

We describe the comet at Edward Thomas’s grave
And, because he was a fisherman, that headlong
Motionless deflection looks like a fisherman’s fly,
Two or three white after-feathers overlapping.

Geese on sentry duty, lambs, a clattering freight train
And a village graveyard encompass Wilfred Owen’s
Allotment, and there we pick from a nettle bed
One celandine each, the flower that outwits winter.

High Wood & Thistle Dump War Cemetery

High Wood & Thistle Dump War Cemetery

The second poem might be considered prophetic, since it was written in 1918 by John Stanley Purvis, under the pseudonym of Philip Johnson. Purvis had been invalided out of the army after being wounded during the Battle of the Somme, and in his poem he envisages a time when tourists will travel to the battlefields of the Western Front. He didn’t have to wait long: battlefield tourism developed as soon as the war was over, with tours organised by companies such as Michelin and Thomas Cook from 1919 onwards.

High Wood is not far from Beaumont-Hamel and is still frequently visited by tourists.  Most are respectful – pilgrims seeking to connect with the experience of ancestors, or (like me) paying respects to admired figures or simply trying to work out the damn meaning of it all. I didn’t visist it, but High Wood is still, apparently, an eerie place that never has been thoroughly cleared of bodies and debris. Something like 8,000 German and British soldiers who were killed here between 1 July and 18 November 1916 – fighting over a wood of no more than one-tenth of a square mile.

 Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.

 So why did I come? Siegfried Sassoon puts it best, I think, in ‘Aftermath’, written in 1919:

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

See also

Noel Chavasse: WW1 hero from Liverpool

Noel Chavasse: WW1 hero from Liverpool

Noel Chavasse in uniform

When the Liverpool One complex opened in 2008 it incorporated a once-shabby open space named Chavasse Park, named in commemoration of Noel Chavasse, son of a former bishop of Liverpool and the only man to be twice awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery during the First World War.  Knowing something of the extraordinary acts of bravery that earned him the double VC, and having had read some of his remarkable letters home from the Western Front, I knew his grave was one place I wanted to visit on my recent WW1 trip.

This hero from Liverpool wasn’t even a frontline soldier, but a medical officer.  However, he was awarded the double VC  for some of the bravest and most unselfish acts of the entire war.

Noel Chavasse grew up in Liverpool, where his father was the Bishop of Liverpool (he launched the project to build the Anglican cathedral). Noel qualified as a doctor and was 30 when the war broke out. Like most families, the Chavasses were deeply affected by the war. Noel’s brothers, Bernard, Aidan and Christopher, also served in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Noel and Aidan were not to return – Noel died in Flanders, and Aidan was one of the Flanders missing (his name is recorded on the Menin Gate at Ypres).

Aidan Chavasse Menin Gate

Aidan Chavasse: one of the missing, his name recorded on the Menin Gate, Ypres

With his background in medicine, Noel Chavasse served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as Medical Officer to the Kings Liverpool Regiment in Flanders. He was in the trenches at Sanctuary Wood, near Ypres, and experienced the horrors of  the battle of Passchendaele. Throughout his time in Flanders he wrote home regularly to his family. These letters provide a graphic and moving account of trench warfare and record his increasingly critical observations on the brutality and waste of the war. His father, the Bishop, had some of them printed and privately circulated back in England.

Noel Chavasse’s letters form the core of Ann Clayton’s book, Chavasse: Double VC, from which these examples are taken.

Marching away to war

The Liverpool Scottish, leaving for the front in 1914

The Liverpool Scottish, leaving for the front in 1914

‘Thank you for the parcel of clothes for my RAMC boys. They are not Liverpool Scottish lads, but are detached from a St Helens Field Ambulance (5 of them) to look after water carts etc. They are poor boys and are not well off like most of our Liverpool Scottish, so they need better clothing and are very grateful. This is our last night in Old England. I don’t quite know what lies ahead, and I rather dread the thought of roughing it through the winter, but I have got devoted to the battalion. I have inoculated and vaccinated them, had all their teeth put right, and settled up their feet, and I think now that as far as fitness goes, they want a lot of beating.’

‘Even marching from the station [St Omer] yesterday through the crowded streets, they marched past as if they were marching from Sefton Park, but finer and steadier than ever Liverpool people saw them march. I believe and hope fervently that the Liverpool Scottish will ‘get into it shortly’, and that if they do a great boost will be given to recruitment.’

– 5 November 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p71.

We hate the war worse than we thought we could.

Liverpool Scottish Bellewaarde Farm 16 June 1915

The Liverpool Scottish under fire at Bellewaarde Farm, 16 June 1915

Noel Chavasse records the death of Captain Arthur Twentyman, the first Liverpool Scottish soldier to die. The Liverpool Scottish occupied trenches in the Kemmel area, five miles south of Ypres. They suffered their first fatality on 29 November –  Captain Arthur Twentyman, killed while attempting to return to British lines. The combination of severe winter and trench warfare soon depleted the strength of the Liverpool Scottish. From an establishment of 26 officers and 829 men recorded in November, the battalion had dwindled to 370 able-bodied men by January 1915.

‘We heard the sad news by telephone from the trenches. He had been over rash – he was screened by a hedge, but not sufficiently, and was shot through the heart. I feel very sad about it because I liked him the best of the whole lot, and he has always been invariably kind to me… and I miss him very much. That evening the Colonel told me he wished me to take my stretcher-bearers up, and bring him down. At first the zip, zip of bullets hitting the sandbags close to one’s head was rather disconcerting, then it became just part of the general environment. At one point we had to get past a gate where a sniper lay in wait. I went by doing the 100 well within 10 sec…. We had to rest 5 times while crossing a ploughed field as the Captain was very heavy on the improvised Stretcher (2 poles and a greatcoat). On the way I saw a group of 10 dead Frenchmen. Next evening, the men came out of the trenches. The young chaps were haggard, white, and stooped like old men, but they had done gallantly…. 2 men have lost their nerve….Two days ago the King inspected us from a motor car, and now we are to go back to the trenches, tomorrow night. We all hate the war worse than we thought we could. Today, we are the supports. We are on a hill and look over a plain towards the spires of Ypres, for all the world like Oxford from the Hinksey Hill.

– 5 December 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p80.

Knee-deep in mud: another graphic account of life in the trenches

Liverpool Scottish trench, 1915

 Liverpool Scottish trench, 1915

‘Our men have had a terrible experience of 72 hours in trenches, drenched through and in some places knee-deep in mud and water. To see them come out, and line up, and march off is almost terrible. They don’t look like strong young men. They are muddled to the eyes. Their coats are plastered with mud and weigh an awful weight with the water which has soaked in. Their backs are bent, and they stagger and totter along with the weight of their packs. Their faces are white and haggard and their eyes glare out from mud which with short, bristly beards give them an almost beast like look. They look like wounded or sick wild things. I have seen nothing like it. The collapse after rowing or running is nothing to it. Many, too many, who are quite beat, have to be told they must walk it. Then comes a nightmare of a march for about 2 to 4 miles, when the men walk in a trance…and in about 3 days, they are as fit as ever again.’

– 11 December 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p82.

The tortured city: Noel Chavasse describes the effects of the German shelling of Ypres

Ruins of Ypres Market Square, 1915

The ruins of Ypres Market Square, 1915

‘Every now and then there passes overhead a thunderous shriek, like an express train tearing through a small station. This is followed by a dull roar, these are the real Jack Johnsons on their way to level an ancient city to the ground. I don’t know what thunderbolts of wrath were hurled on the cities of the plains, but they could not have been more terrible than those forged by the Hun. We hear them pass all day and we hear them crash and looking over tangled and shell-pocked fields we can see great pillars of smoke and dust rising from the tortured city.

It is wonderful to see how quickly but how graciously Nature tries to hide the hideous scars made by man in the countryside. I have now lived for a month in a shattered village 400 yards behind our trenches. When we came at the beginning of April, all around was a stark, staring, hideous abomination of desolation. The place was a ruin and wreckage of homes, with an awful collection of refuse left by French troops and a stink of decaying organic matter.

Now the shells of the houses are being veiled by blossom, in the rubbish flowers are forcing their ways up to the sunlight, and a kindly green veil is being drawn over all the unsightliness and shame of the outraged homestead. Meanwhile, between the bursts of cannonade, the birds sing ever so sweetly and are building everywhere. I found one only yesterday in a dugout. Every morning I walk across green fields, drinking in the sunlight…’

– 2 May 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p107.

In this letter, Noel Chavasse describes the extent of destruction in Ypres by June 1915 (though not naming it for fear of the censor):

At the time of writing I am in a trench on short rations which we don’t like half as much as shortbread. We had to go through a city of which you have heard a lot and it is now all knocked to pieces, it is practically only a rubbish heap. You pass between rows of empty houses all gutted by fire and only bits of the outer walls standing, some are absolutely levelled to the ground, and one passes between heaps of smouldering rubbish. When we went through there were two big fires blazing and the whole city is given over to the flames. The smell is appalling. I was afraid a great many people are buried in the cellars under the debris.

– 5 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p116.

A sad but necessary job

Liverpool Scottish Bellewaarde Farm 16 June 1915

The Liverpool Scottish near Hooge, 16 June 1915

This letter was written to Madeleine, the daughter of Professor Twemlow, with whom Noel had become acquainted whilst at Liverpool University. The Twemlow family lived on Upper Parliament Street, a short walk from the Bishop’s Palace on Abercromby Square. The letter provides a vivid account of his life under fire in the Hooge area, just outside Ypres. He also describes in a very matter of fact manner, the ‘sad but necessary job’ that led to his reputation for bravery and selfless concern for the soldiers.

As we carried our stuff to the trenches we had to pass through a little copse. It was about 11 p.m. and in the copse a nightingale sang most sweetly. This was most remarkable because bullets were spattering through the trees all the time and frequently shells burst quite near so that its song was drowned. But it did not mind and continued singing all the time. It sings every night and I love to hear it.

When we got to our dug-outs we found we had a hot spot because they are played upon by a machine gun. We found this out to our cost two days ago because as one of my poor stretcher-bearers was chopping up some wood to boil some tea the Maxim gun suddenly let off and a little shower of bullets kicked up the earth all round him. One bullet pierced his head and he dropped unconscious. He lived still when we put him onto the ambulance, but we hear he died on the way to hospital.

I have now had 4 stretcher-bearers killed and one wounded, and one has had to go home with a strained heart and another because his nerves gave way after a very bad shelling. That is 7 out of 16 already. Last night I had a bad but necessary job. I had to crawl out behind part of the trench and bury three poor Englishmen who had been killed by a shell. I am going out after another tonight. This is the seamy side of war, but all is repaired in the feeling of comradeship and friendship made out here. It is a fine life and a man’s job, but I think I shall be glad to get home again.

– 5 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p116.

 The attack itself was somewhat on this wise

The site of Hooge battlefield in 1919

The site of the battlefield at Hooge in 1919

The battle of Hooge took place on 16 June 1915, and the Liverpool Scottish played a major part. The objective was to capture the German trenches that lay between the Menin Road and the Ypres-Roulers railway, where a salient had been formed, bulging into the British lines. This is Noel’s account:

I have not been able to write for some time, but I have much to tell you now. All leave was cancelled, and we were told…that the Battalion would take part in a charge on the German trenches… The attack itself was somewhat on this wise. Our brigade had to take a thousand yards of trenches. Another battalion was to take the first line. We were to rush over and take the second line, and then they were to come over us again, and take the third line. The artillery were to bombard each line before it was taken. As a matter of fact our men made such a splendid rush that they carried all three trenches in fifteen minutes, and even penetrated the 4th line. But the artillery continued to shell the advanced trenches, according to order – the smoke obscuring everything. A great many of our own poor fellows were wiped out by our own shells. Then for some reason the people on our right gave way, and the Germans also began to come round us on the left, so our men were in the air at both ends, and had to retire to the first line we had- taken, and at one place to our second line. In this way a great many wounded fell into the German’s hands, among them three great friends of mine — Kenneth Gemmeil, and Captain Ronald Dickinson (the latter, I fear, dying), and Captain McKinnell, who went on ·leave with me. The remnant of our battalion was relieved the same night. 130 men reached the camp out of 550 who had marched out the previous day; 2 Officers (both Lieutenants) were left out of 22. The trench is a great gain, as it commands a very extensive view of our part of Belgium.

All the next day I had to look after my 11 wounded, and to try to shelter them from the sun under the mud wall. I then made a tour of the trenches, to see if any wounded were lying out, and learnt that one had been heard to cry from a trench between the lines, and got a bullet through the shoulder for his pains. A brave Officer had slipped out and given him a drink. J also found a great many wounded Germans and English – in ‘dug-outs’ in the trenches, but none of our men. I reported them, so that they could be carried back at night. When it was dark I brought up a stretcher, and an Officer of the regiment holding the trenches crawled out to the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole where the poor Scottie was lying. When we crawled to the hole I found that it was an Officer, such a nice chap, with a broken thigh. You may be sure he was glad to see us. The other Officers went back to get the stretcher, and the poor wounded chap put his hands in mine, and we sat in the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole, holding hands like kids. Then we got him into the stretcher, and ran him back to the trench, where many willing hands helped to lift him in.

Just after, Germans were heard crawling in front, and we expected the trench to be attacked. They gave me a spade. But nothing happened, except that a Maxim of ours swept the ground where they were. We got him back, and dressed him, and saw him carried off to hospital.

And then I went to see another bit in front of another part of our trench. The Engineers were there already, putting up barbed wire, and they had searched the ground thoroughly, but we found and carried back a poor chap from another regiment.

Then I was beaten for a bit, but a drop of brandy made me feel all right, so I did one more little crawl to search some ‘dug-outs’ in front of another part of our line, but only found dead Germans.

– 20 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p121.

Letter to a twelve year old

Attending to wounded in the advanced dressing station on Hill 60

Attending to wounded in an advanced dressing station on Hill 60

This letter was written to Cecily Twemlow, aged 12 and describes aspects of trench life and Noel’s work as a Medical officer.

Advanced Regimental Aid Post,
You know of what Regiment but
You don’t know where exactly – In Flanders.
July 23rd. 1915.

My Dear Cecily,

Just after I had got back from leave we were ordered back to the trenches. We were not able to take up much of a line, as we are only 200 fighting strength but we have a nice little compact piece of trench to manage. I will explain it to you. First, there is the fire-trench about 1SO yards away from the Germans. This trench is fairly comfortable and although we have been in the trenches 9 days I have only sent 3 sick men to hospital. We draw lime-juice for them instead of fresh vegetables and meat and we send a petrol tin round on all hot days at noon and give each man a good cupful. We also give them a great treat. There are potatoes in a farmhouse close by and we buy them for the men. You should see how they fry them on little fires they make out of chips of wood in tins. But best of all a stream flows through the trench. It comes from the German lines and has been poisoned with arsenic and they must not drink it but I have got basins made out of biscuit tins by a clever Sergeant of mine, and have canvas baths brought up and the men wash three at a time.

Behind this trench is a wood and through the wood a little fort called a redoubt (I think that is how it is spelt). In this little fort are 50 men, who if the Germans break through the first line never leave it but fire on the enemy all round, till they drive them back or get wiped out.

Then close by the fort is the sapper trench and at one end of this trench, I have my Advanced Dressing Station and live in a little dug-out I have had built. In two other little dug-outs live two medical orderlies and four stretcher-bearers. These are round a little square, and in the middle of the square we are building a large dug-out with one side open, and large enough to hold four stretchers. This is our hospital. From this medical square, a communication trench goes back for ‘half a mile to a road and there is also a path over the fields for night.

A way back by the road is a large house, in the cellar of which I keep a medical corporal and four men. Here I send seedy men for the night, and they can have a stretcher and a blanket and milk, eggs and bread, and are very comfortable, and soon get well. Here too I keep most of my dressings and bad cases are properly dressed here, after I have given first aid in the trench. The ambulances come here every night and take the wounded men away. Of course, any man who can walk can get back to the dressing station in the daytime down the communication trench. The bad cases must wait till night and be carried down the path.

I am writing this in my little dug-out. I am very cosy. It is very wet outside and the men go slosh, slosh, along the trench and so I have drawn the curtain (a sand bag) across the little window (a real little window with glass) and am waiting for my supper – fish (sardines), thick bread and jam. A fine feast, if no-one gets hit …

With love,

Your affect. friend,

Noel Chavasse.

– 23 July 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p127.

A smell of death hung on the damp air

Sanctuary Wood 1915

Sanctuary Wood in 1915

Noel provides a vivid account of the attack on Sanctuary Wood in late September 1915, ‘the dreariest and most dreadful spot in the whole of that desolation of abomination called the firing line’.

I have been the witness of as gallant a charge as ever took place, which has ended, so far as we are concerned, in our line here being exactly the same as it was before; but two regiments at least are cut to pieces. I doubt if much attention will be paid to it in despatches; yet it was the biggest thing that has happened since we came into this tortured spot, and as usual everybody responded to the call of duty, and blood was poured out like water, and lives cast away as carelessly as old boots. I am sick of seeing men sent out to die in the mud which is the mould of former battalions ‘gone under’; but it will always be a delightful honour to lend a hand to the wounded heroes, and so in spite of all, in a selfish sense, this year has been the happiest of my life.

Our Brigade was in reserve. There was a barn for the men and good dug-outs for the Officers. We had hardly laid down when a terrific bombardment took place. The Huns did not make much reply, but some shells dropped very close to our dug-outs I believe; I was too sleepy to notice much that happened. At 7.30 a.m. batches of prisoners arrived and I went out and inspected them. The first batch was pretty good; afterwards there were some very poor, low, types of men; but among them was one Officer who gazed about him with defiance and hauteur, and marched off with head erect and stiff back. He was only nineteen, but everybody liked him. In the afternoon the bombardment began again…

Finally, we reached the wood, and I got my men settled in about 11 p.m. The wood we were in was full of dressing-stations, and I wandered about till at last I hit on one. It had been the dressing-station of a Highland regiment, but the doctor and stretcher-bearers had been sent off exhausted, and the relieving doctor was trying to tackle the work. His relief when I offered our stretcher-bearers’ services was very plain. The trenches; he said, were choked with wounded. He could not cope with it. The R.A.M.C. had gone to lend a hand, but they were insufficient. I asked our Colonel’s leave, and he said he thought it was our duty to do all we could. So I called out my poor, sleepy, tired men, who came with splendid grace, saying that they knew how they had appreciated help given to them after June 16th. I was now wide awake and fresh as a goat. We had the communication trenches pointed out to us. It was a dark night, but lighted up by the flares shooting up nearly all round us.

The trench first led through a dreadful wood. The trees, stark and blasted, dripped with rain. Straggling briars were the only vegetation. The ground was pocked with shell holes, through which poured muddy water. A smell of death hung on the damp air. Bullets snapped amongst the splintered and blasted trees, and every now and again a shell fell and burst somewhere.

We hurried on, picking our way by the spasms of light, and suddenly found the trench ended in a large shell hole, in which floated the body of a Highlander. A Highlander limping back from the trenches — the only thing near us – pointed out our direction, and we emerged from the wood, and saw before us a muddy, shell-stricken rise of clay, on the ridge of which were our trenches.

I have described this place in detail, because by many it is supposed to be the dreariest and most dreadful spot in the whole of that desolation of abomination called the firing line. It is indeed the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Bunyan alone could describe its weird horror. It fairly grips the heart … Just here about a little party of wearied men who had charged so gallantly told us that close by in a bomb store two men had lain wounded and forgotten for nearly two days, so my men set off to bring them in. I believe that these poor fellows would not have been found for another two days if we had not heard of them, for no reinforcements were sent there.

It was now getting near morning, and all my men were gone, but I had a haversack full of dressings, and helped by a capital medical corporal, searched among the trenches for the wounded. Some of these were pitiful beyond words, but bore their sufferings with a patient courage, of which mere words are not worthy. I thought I might as well wash the mud away, and put a dressing on, even if we could not get them all removed at once, but the Officers near spared a man here and there. My men, though very tired, came back in the early morning for a second carry, and one by one the worst cases were borne away down the stricken slope, through the dismal wood, to the dug-out dressing station, where the doctors made good my clumsy trench efforts, and then despatched them to the collecting post, from which they had to be carried a mile through mud to the ambulance wagon.

At 4 a.m. some men came trooping along from advanced trenches, because they were not safe by day, as they were shelled. They reported that these trenches were full of wounded. These were the very advanced trenches, dug in front of our wire, out of which the men jump for the charge.

I could not bear to think of our wounded lying in trenches which would be shelled. They get so terrified. So I went up with my faithful orderly, to see how many there were. We found in one sector about nine. We got two of them dragged down. It was a long and tedious job…

– 28 September 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p136.

The mud was fearful

PilckemRidge1August1917 British stretcher bearers carrying wounded in deep mud near Boezinge

British stretcher bearers carrying wounded in deep mud

Here Noel describes the attack on Guillemont, August 1916, in which the Liverpool Scottish suffered heavy casualties. It was here that Noel Chavasse performed the acts of bravery in searching for wounded in front of enemy lines for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation states that ‘under heavy fire, he carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey…Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men…His courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise.’

‘We found an R.E. man. My S.B. Corporal bent over him and found him bleeding badly from one arm and held the main artery, and then we put a tourniquet on with a respirator string. Then I found that the arm was all but off and was only a source of danger. So I cut it off with a pair of scissors and did the stump up. We had to do everything by the light of an electric torch and when we got a stretcher it took us two hours to get him out of the wood….

The mud was fearful. While I and my Corporal were dressing a case we both sank up to our knees in the mud of the trench. Men had to be dug out and some poor wounded of another battalion perished in the mud. We had one sad casualty. A poor fellow was crouching at the bottom of the trench when there was a slip which buried him, and he was dead when he was dug out. Both his brothers have been in the Scottish and have been killed. His mother committed suicide after the death of the 2nd. There is only a sister left.’

– 26 September 1916. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p163.

Brandhoek 2Brandhoek 1

Brandhoek New Military Cemetery

Noel Chavasse is buried in the New Military Cemetery at Brandhoek, a little village just west of Ypres.  It was here, in May 1915, that Field Ambulance No. 81 of the British 27th Division established a dressing station as medical units were pulled back from Ypres in the face of German attacks. Brjtish serviceman soon began burying their fallen comrades in a field adjojning the dressing station, which became Brandhoek Military Cemetery. Brandhoek remained a site for medical units, from field ambulances and dressing stations to large casualty clearing stations, throughout the war.

In the summer of 1917, in preparation for the major Allied offensive which would become known as ‘Third Ypres’, three
casualty clearing stations were sent to Brandhoek. Land was also set aside for two new cemeteries, Brandhoek New Military
Cemetery and Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No. 3. The former contains over 550 burials, including those of 28 German soldiers, all dating from 1917. Over 500 British officers and men werelaid to rest here in July and August 1917,including captain Noel Chavasse, one of only three men in history to have been awarded theVictoria Cross twice. All three of the Brandhoek cemeteries were designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architect of the Menin Gate Memorial.

It’s a small cemetery, tucked (like the one where I found the grave of Edward Thomas) behind the back gardens of a quiet street (though when I arrived the street was noisy with machinery digging a trench to lay new mains water pipes) . On one side, back gardens with greenhouses and vegetable plots; on the other a field of maize, reaching taller than I am.

Brandhoek approach

The approach to the cemetery

Noel Chavasse was awarded his first VC for ‘the most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’ during the attack on Guillemont, in the Ypres salient, in August 1916. The second VC was awarded posthumously for his bravery in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in August 1917.

After setting up an Aid Post in a captured German dugout he was wounded in the head during an attack. Chavasse returned to his aid post after treatment at the Main Dressing station at Weiiltje. For a further 2 days and nights without rest or food he carried out further treatment on wounded men. He received two further serious wounds but refused to leave his post. Several times he searched the surrounding area under heavy fire for wounded, eventually receiving a mortal abdominal wound from a shell which penetrated the dugout. He was evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station but died there on 4 August 1917 (the third anniversary of the outbreak of war).

This is the account given by Ann Clayton in her book:

Early in the attack on 31 July, while standing up and waving to soldiers to indicate the location of the aid post, Noel was hit by a shell splinter. It may be that his skull was fractured… He was, however, well enough to walk back to the dressing station at Wieltje dug-out, where the wound was dressed. He was told, or at least advised, to stay in the dug-out until he could be taken back to the casualty clearing station for proper treatment. But he refused, declaring that there was no one to take his place. So back he went to the aid post on the Passchendaele Road.

There was very little food, a shortage of water, and the constant scream of shells overhead. Again and again the stretcher-bearers went out to fetch the wounded, and as night fell Noel collected his torch from the box of medical supplies brought up by his orderlies and systematically combed the torn-up area that the Germans had fled from only hours earlier. This was not no-man’s-land as such, as it was now in the possession of the Allied forces, but it was under continual bombardment, from the guns of the retreating Germans and from Allied artillery, whose shells might fall short at any time.

At about eight in the evening it began to rain. Sergeant Bromley, in the headquarters trench beyond the Steenbeke, was appalled by the conditions in which men were having to fight:

‘The rain continued incessantly throughout the night, and in a very short time our trench became merely a muddy ditch half full of water, and our condition became absolutely filthy . The night brought a certain amount of relief from hostilities, but the climatic conditions became even worse, and we simply stood and shivered until daylight came. What an indescribable scene presented itself as dawn came, and we looked back to our old trenches. Mud and water everywhere, stranded limbers, dead men and mules, damaged tanks, broken trees etc., made a scene of desolation comparable only with the Somme.’

For the next 24 hours, Noel continued to treat the wounded. At some point during August 1, Noel received a wound which would normally have required his removal from the battlefield. He was hit twice in the head and suffered intense pain, but carried on caring for the wounded. Then.within hours, Noel was wounded again, this time mortally when, early on August 2, as he was taking a rest at his first-aid post, it was struck by a shell:

What had happened was that another shell had entered the aid post, this time during the night while Noel was sitting in a chair in the lower room, leaning on the table in an attempt to get some sleep. All the occupants of the dug-out were either killed outright or wounded so seriously that they were immobilized. Herd recorded that a primus stove in use in the dug-out was untouched and still alight, but a man who had been using it was dead, presumably from concussion, and with no visible wound. It is ironic, after all his brave sorties into no-man’s-land at Hooge, Guillemont and elsewhere, that Noel should have been felled inside his own aid post.

He had received four or five wounds, the worst being a gaping hole in the abdomen from which he bled profusely. Nevertheless, aware that relief would be a long time in coming, he managed to drag himself up the stairs and out along the remnants of the trench to the road. He stumbled and crawled along this lane in the darkness, in the direction of Wieltje, the filthy mud of Flanders entering and infecting the wound… He stumbled across a dug-out occupied by Lieutenant Charles Wray of the Loyal North Lancs. Regiment, who later sent an account to his local newspaper telling how Chavasse examined his own wound because the medical personnel went to help his men.

He was taken through Ypres to the 46th Field Ambulance and then on to the 32nd Casualty Clearing Station, but his face was unrecognisable and he had suffered that serious wound to the abdomen. After an operation on the abdominal wound, he found the strength to dictate a letter to his fiancée in which he explained why he had carried on working in spite of his injuries, insisting that ‘duty called and called me to obey’. Noel died at one o’clock in the afternoon of 4 August 1917. It was the third anniversary of the outbreak of war.

Chavasse grave

The grave of Noel Chavasse

Noel’s grave has the only headstone in the world to have two Victoria Crosses engraved upon it. The inscription, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’, was chosen by his father.  There is are other memorials to Captain Noel Chavasse at his old school, Liverpool College, in Mossley Hill, Liverpool – and in Abercromby Square, where a statue dedicated to Chavasse, commissioned by the Noel Chavasse VC Memorial Association was unveiled in August 2008.  It’s by Liverpool sculptor, Tom Murphy.

Chavasse Memorial' Abercromby Square, Tom Murphy

The Chavasse Memorial in Abercromby Square

For more on Noel Chavasse visit local historian Mike Royden’s website. His latest book, Tales from the ‘Pool contains a chapter on Chavasse and is out now.




Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone

Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone

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Storm approaching over the Somme

I’m driving south from Lille towards Arras, tailwinds from hurricane Bertha sending clouds skittering across the sky above the plains of Picardy – beginning a journey that will take me through the physical landscapes of the First World War – the Somme valley and the old Ypres salient.  At the same time, though, this is very much an inner journey as I attempt to find some meaning in the terrible events that began to unfold here one hundred years ago.

My plan is to follow stories from the war that have a special meaning for me: that shape a narrative which will, no doubt, differ from those traced by others who pass this way. For this summer the road is full of those seeking meaning or consolation in the places where battles were fought, and in the hundreds of wayside cemeteries spread across Flanders and northern France in which are buried the young men who fell in those battles.

Unlike many of those making this pilgrimage, I am not seeking out places where family members were laid to rest. My paternal grandfather survived the war, having served in Macedonia .  Unlike most, it seems possible that he might have had a good war. He was stationed near a village, then known by its Austrian name of Kalinova.  In the 1930s he managed to buy a suburban semi in Hazel Grove and named the house ‘Kalinova’.  No one left alive knows why, but it suggests that he did not have traumatic memories of the place. On my mother’s side, one family member was killed in the war, and is buried in northern Italy.

No. If there is one single reason why I am here, pursuing ghosts in graveyards, it is because of who I am and when I came of age.  I am a child of the sixties and the son of a conscientious objector.  In my teens, Peace News was always in the house – bought by my father who had been a conchie in the Second World War, having been swept up in the Peace Pledge Union in the thirties.

There had been conscientious objectors in the First World War.  They weren’t the first: in 1575 Dutch Mennonites were allowed to refuse military service in exchange for a monetary payment, whilst British Quakers were exempted from military service in the mid-18th century.  But objectors to war had a higher profile in WW1, beginning with the suffragettes who, in 1914, delivered a petition to Downing Street, urging British political leaders to use diplomacy to avoid war.

There were 16,000 conscientious objectors in the first world war – men whose decision not to fight, or to stop fighting, for religious or political or ethical reasons often led to opprobrium and disgrace in their communities. Since 1995, they have had their solitary memorial in Tavistock Square in London

Tavistock Square memorial

The  memorial stone for conscientious objectors in Tavistock Square

Most 1WW conchies were not affiliated to any organisation, taking their stand as a matter of individual conscience and morality, usually founded on their religious affiliation. However, one of the earliest anti-war organisations was founded at The Hague in 1915 when 1,200 women from many different backgrounds and nationalities gathered, committed to study and eliminate the causes of war. They sent out delegations to most countries engaged in the First World War and founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

This reminds of a letter written by the philosopher Mary Midgley and published in the Guardian on 19 June:

Simon Jenkins remarked (about recent proposals to bomb Iraq) that “politics remains stuck in Homer’s day, in human vanity and tribal loyalty”. Indeed. And if warfare were not already a respected national institution – if it were not already accepted as the correct ultimate way of resolving disputes – would anybody now think of proposing it? Would someone then solemnly get up and say, “since we are not getting on very well with solving these problems, we had better just go out and start killing each other”? If they did, how would that proposal be accepted?

The Peace Pledge Union, which influenced my father’s stance in World War 2, emerged from an initiative by Dick Sheppard, canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1934.  He also had published a letter in the Guardian, inviting men (but not women!) to send him postcards pledging never to support war. 135,000 men responded and became members. The initial male-only aspect of the pledge was aimed at countering the idea that only women were involved in the peace movement. However, in 1936 membership was opened to women, and the newly founded Peace News was founded as the PPU’s weekly newspaper. The movement gathered a number of noted public figures as sponsors, including Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and Siegfried Sassoon.

So there’s that. And perhaps most important in shaping my view of the war is that I am a child of the sixties, when I read the verses of  1WW poets like Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg, seeing in their invocation of the horrors of a futile war obvious parallels with the war then raging in Vietnam.  The poetry of the First World War seemed to echo the ant-war sentiments of songs being sung at the time by the likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs:

The First World War, boys
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.

– Bob Dylan, ‘With God on Our Side

For I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all wars
Oh I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore

– Phil Ochs, ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore

The poetry, Oh! What a Lovely War, and much else that I read at the time, left me with sense – that has never left me – that war in 1914 was avoidable: the feeling of what a waste it all was, of futility:

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

– Wilfred Owen, ‘Futility’ (written in May 1918)

The poets gave imaginative shape to the war, while from the histories I have read has come the realisation that the war was undoubtedly the most significant event of the 20th century: the event that made the modern world, contributed crucially to the rise of Nazism, and led inevitably to the second global war.

Then there’s the scale of the disaster: with close on 18 million military and civilian deaths, and 20 million wounded, the war ranks as one of the deadliest conflicts in human history (I remember how Blackadder described the Great War as: ‘a war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week’).  More than double the number of British citizens died in the 1WW than in the second.  For some countries, the percentage of those mobilised who were killed was devastating: 37% for Serbia, more than 30% for Romania, more than 20% for Turkey and Bulgaria. (For France the figure was 17%, Germany 15%, and the UK 12.5%).  Vernon Scannell, in his poem ‘The Great War‘ (written after the Second World War) wrote:

Whenever war is spoken of
I find
The war that was called Great invades the mind:

Scannell’s poem summons up the familiar images of trench warfare with its references to ‘fractured tree-trunks’, ‘wire’, ‘zero-hour’, ‘duckboards, mud and rats’, and he concludes that the Great War had more influence on him than the 1939–45 war in which he served:

And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.

The First World War still runs through the British psyche like no other conflict.  The horrors of the war touched everyone, irrespective of class. It closely parallels Vietnam in having left an overwhelming sense of futility, with so many lives lost for such little gain. In this respect it differs from the Second World War, which more convincingly falls into the ‘just war’ definition.   The trauma of the war, and the way in which it continues to haunt the modern memory has been explored by novelists such as Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker, who said in accepting the Booker prize in 1995 for the final volume of her 1WW trilogy, The Ghost Road: ‘The Somme is like the Holocaust: it revealed things we cannot come to terms with and cannot forget. It never becomes the past.’

In Regeneration (1992), Pat Barker has one character reflect on the war’s terrible reversal of expectations:

The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure (the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys) consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed.  The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known.

Although I know that the Western Front is not, by any means, the whole story of the war, this was the place I had to come in this centennial year. I want to pay my respects to the poets by visiting the graves of  Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. I’m going to visit the grave of a Liverpool hero – Noel Chavasse, the only to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the war – and the graves of those who were shot at dawn for desertion. And I want to return to the German cemetery at Vladslo near Ypres, where, twenty years ago, I first encountered Kathe Kollwitz’s deeply moving sculpture The Grieving Parents, a tribute to her youngest son, Peter, who was killed in October 1914 and is buried nearby.

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North of the Somme: through fields of gold 

On the road from Bapaume, I drive across the Arras plain under huge skies, through a landscape of hedge-less, golden fields of grain, already harvested, the rolls of wheat awaiting transportation to winter stores.  Today the scene is peaceful and bountiful, but this landscape still – and will always – hold the memory of carnage. For every mile or so there is a sign for a war cemetery or a small roadside burial ground.

The place names – Fricourt, Mametz, Pozieres – recall the offensive launched here on 1 July 1916 that lasted 141 days – the largest and deadliest of the war, in which more than a million men lost their lives.  On the first day alone, as 11 British divisions walked towards the German lines and the machine guns opened up, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead.

Troops attacking during the Battle of the Somme

Troops attacking during the Battle of the Somme

Nevinson painted the road I am following  in 1917.  No fields of golden grain then.  In his portrayal of the British supply route between Arras and Bapaume, the road stretches beyond the horizon through a bleak and featureless terrain.

CRW Nevinson,The Road from Arras to Bapaume

CRW Nevinson,’The Road from Arras to Bapaume’, 1917

This is farming country, a prairie landscape in which tractors are busy and flocks of crows sweep and settle. Snuggled down in the folds of the plain, the villages through which I pass are places that, but for the disasters of a century ago, might have slept anonymously through history.

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Approaching Thiepval

Where to start on this journey?  It’s 9:00 am and I’m approaching a place I have wanted to see ever since reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.  From many miles away I can see it, a mountain of red brick and white stone that rises above a copse of trees on the ridge to the west: Thiepval.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields bears the names of 72,194 officers and men of the British and South African forces. These men died in the Somme battle sector and have no known grave. Over 90 percent of those commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial died just in the 141 days of the Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916. They are the Missing.

The Memorial stands on the ridge above the neat little village of Thiepval.  At the crossroads in the village a multitude of signs point the way to other memorials with famous names.  The village consisted of a few houses, a château and some outlying farms when the Germans first arrived here at the end of September 1914.  Even to a non-military person, the significance of their position atop the ridge is obvious.  The aim of the Franco-British offensive that began in the early morning of 1 July 1916, was to remove the Germans from strong-points such as this.

The ruins of Thiepval village, 1917

The ruins of Thiepval village in 1917

William Orpen Thiepval

William Orpen, Thiepval, 1917

However, in places such as Gommecourt, Serre, Beaumont-Hamel and Thiepval, the Germans were well entrenched, in numerous large bunkers dug deep underneath the chalk downs.  German troops were able to survive the preliminary bombardment with few casualties, and with their machine gun posts intact. The losses to the British on the first day of the attack were unprecedented for the British Army, with approximately 58,000 casualties for that day alone including 19,000 of them being killed.  The battles of the Somme 1916 carried on over a period of several months from the first day of July to the middle of November. Every village, hamlet, farmhouse, wood and copse were fought over until the winter weather closed in. Only a few miles of ground had been gained by the end. The village of Thiepval was finally captured by the British at the end of September 1916.

A few months later, the war artist William Orpen returned to the scene of the battle to find the ruins of the village littered with skulls, bones and fragments of clothing. In his painting, Orpen observes the human remains and broken objects with an unflinching eye. Beneath a fine summer sky,tufts of grass and poppies are pushing through around scattered skeletons.

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The Thiepval Memorial

I was lucky; in this centenary year, places of remembrance such as Thiepval are attracting large numbers.  But, arriving at around 9:30, I had the place to myself for nearly half an hour.  It overwhelmed me.

The Thiepval memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was built in red brick and limestone between 1928 and 1932, and is the largest British battle memorial in the world.  It takes the form of a gigantic memorial arch, a sort of Rubik’s cube of interlocking arches in four different sizes: each side of the main arch containing a smaller arch at right angles to the main arch. Each of these smaller arches is then pierced by a still smaller arch, and so on.

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The main arch of the Thiepval Memorial

The main arch is colossal, dwarfing those who stand beneath it.  At its centre is the Stone of Remembrance bearing the words ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’, a phrase taken from Ecclesiasticus and suggested by Rudyard Kipling who lost his son, John, killed in his first hour in action at the Battle of Loos. Kipling died before his son’s body was found in 1919, and he felt especially deeply for those families who had lost sons, fathers, brothers and who were ‘missing in action’.

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The Stone of Remembrance at Thiepval

For this great memorial stands in remembrance of the Missing: the 72,194 names that are inscribed on the huge stone panels which line the piers of the building being only those of the men missing in action on the battlefield of the Somme.  In The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer’s account of his own pilgrimage to the Somme,he describes the Memorial as ‘palpably here, unmissable’:

The monument has none of the vulnerability of the human body, none of its terrible propensity for harm.  Its predominant relation is to the earth – not, as in the case with a cathedral, to the sky.  A cathedral reaches up, defies gravity effortlessly, its effect entirely vertiginous. […] The Thiepval Memorial … is stubborn, stoical.  Like the deadlocked armies of the war, it stands its ground.

The contrast with a cathedral is telling in another, broader sense.  In keeping with Luytens’ general preference, the Memorial is stripped of Christian symbolism; there was, he felt, no need for it.  For many men who survived, the Battle of the Somme (which, in memory, represents the core experience and expression of the Great War) put an end to the consoling power of religion.  ‘From that moment’, a soldier has said of the first day’s fighting, ‘all my religion died’.

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The Missing

The names of quiet villages and woods on the gently rolling chalk downs hereabouts became associated for ever with the famous battles of 1916. Each pier of the Thiepval Memorial carries the names of these battles: Albert, Gommecourt, Serre, Bazentin Ridge, Delville Wood, Pozières, Guillemont, Ginchy, Flers-Courcelette, Morval, Thiepval, Le Transloy, Ancre Heights.

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Behind the Memorial is an Anglo-French cemetery that contains 300 Commonwealth burials and 300 French burials, mostly those of bodies recovered from the 1916 battlefields on the Somme.  The French gravestones take the form of a simple concrete cross emblazoned with the single word ‘Inconnu’, whilst most of the British and Commonwealth headstones are inscribed with the phrase ‘A soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’.

Alone here for a while, I try to absorb the meaning of this place, try to contain my emotions.  There is only the sound of the soughing of the wind in the trees which surround the Memorial, trees planted when the Memorial was erected that have now seen as many summers as the men remembered here might have hoped to know.  Swallows swoop above the graves, and for a moment I imagine them to be the souls of the lost.

It was Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong that first awoke my desire to visit this place – reading this passage in which Elizabeth, the grand-daughter of the novel’s protagonist, Stephen Wraysford, seeking to learn more about her grandfather’s experiences in World War I, arrives at Thiepval:

The next day she drove to Bapaume and followed the signs for Albert, a town, Bob had told her, that was close to a number of historic sites and which, according to the book, had a small museum.  The road from Bapaume was dead straight. Elizabeth sat back in her seat and allowed the car to steer itself, with only her left hand resting on the bottom of the wheel. […]

After ten minutes she began to see small brown signs by the side of the   road; then came a cemetery, like any municipal burial ground, behind a  wall, belched on by the fumes of the rumbling container lorries. The signs began to come faster,   even though Albert was still some ten kilometres away.  Through the fields to her right Elizabeth saw a peculiar, ugly arch that sat among the crops and woods. She took it for a beet refinery at first, but then saw it was too big: it was made of brick or stone  on a monumental scale. It was as though the Pantheon or the Arc de Triomphe had been dumped in a meadow.

Intrigued, she turned off the road to Albert on to a smaller road that led through the gently rising fields. The curious arch stayed in view, visible from any angle, as its designers had presumably intended. She came to a cluster of buildings, too few and too scattered to be called a village or even a hamlet. She left the car and walked towards the arch.

In front of it was a lawn, lush, cropped and formal in the English style, with a path between its trimmed edges.  From near to, the scale of the arch became apparent: it was supported on four vast columns; it  overpowered the open landscape. The size of it was compounded by its brutal modern design; although clearly a memorial, it reminded her of Albert Speer’s buildings for the Third Reich.

Elizabeth walked up the stone steps that led to it.  A man in a blue jacket was sweeping in the large space enclosed by the pillars. As she came up to the arch Elizabeth saw with a start that it was written on. She went closer. She peered at the stone. There were names on it.

Every grain of the surface had been carved with British names; their chiselled capitals rose from the level of her ankles to the height of the great arch itself; on every surface of every column as far as her eyes could see   there were names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundreds of   yards, over furlongs of stone.

She moved through the space beneath the arch where the man was sweeping.  She found the other pillars identically   marked, their faces obliterated on all sides by the names that were carved on them.

‘Who are these, these .  .  . ?’ She gestured with her hand.

‘These?’ The man with the brush sounded surprised. ‘The lost.’

‘Men who died in this battle?’

‘No. The lost, the ones they did not find. The others are in the  cemeteries.’

‘These are just the . . . the unfound?’

She looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as though the surface of the sky had been papered in   footnotes.

When she could speak again, she said, ‘From the whole war?’

The man shook his head.  ‘Just these fields.’ He gestured with his arm.

Elizabeth went through and sat on the steps on the other side of the   monument. Beneath her was a formal garden with some rows of white headstones, each with a tended plant or flower at its base, each cleaned   and beautiful in the weak winter sunlight.

‘Nobody told me.’ She ran her fingers with their red-painted nails back   through her thick dark hair.  ‘My God,  nobody  told  me. ‘

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The Missing of the Somme: display in Thiepval Visitor Centre

Discretely situated some distance away, amidst the trees, is the Thiepval Visitor Centre where displays explain the course of the battles that took place here.  One display panel features photographs of some of the men who are commemorated on the Memorial. The panel consists of 600 head and shoulders pictures which were selected to provide a representative cross-section of the 72,000 on the Memorial.  The display represents an ongoing project which attempts to gather photographs and biographical information on each of the individuals named on the Memorial and add them to a computer database.

One of those named on the Memorial is George Butterworth, an English composer with a promising future, a contemporary of  Vaughan Williams, now best known for the romantic pastoral, ‘The Banks of Green Willow’. In August 1916, when the Battle of the Somme was entering its most intense phase, at Pozieres (just below the ridge on which the Thiepval monument stands), Butterworth was shot through the head by a sniper. He was hastily buried by his men in the side of the trench, but his body was lost in the fierce bombardments of the next two years. I was interested to discover a local connection: the première of ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ took place in February 1914, when Adrian Boult conducted a combined orchestra of forty members of the Hallé and Liverpool orchestras in West Kirby.

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George Butterworth’s name on the Memorial at Thiepval

A small aside: a few months after the premiere of Butterworth’s work, Vaughan Williams was composing ‘The Lark Ascending’ whilst holidaying on the coast at Margate in Kent.  It was the day Britain entered the war, and offshore ships were engaging in fleet exercises. The tune came into the composer’s head as he walked the cliff, and he jotted down the notes. A young scout then made a citizen’s arrest, assuming he was scribbling details of the coastline for the enemy.

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Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
                                                                   I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

                                                                            What place is this?
                                                                            Where are we now? 
                                                                            I am the grass.
                                                                            Let me work.

 – ‘Grass’, Carl Sandburg

As Geoff Dyer observes in The Missing of the Somme, there had been military disasters before the Somme, but calamities such as the Charge of the Light Brigade served ‘only as indictments of individual strategy, not of the larger purpose of which they were a part’.  With the Great War, for the first time in history, comes a sense of the utter waste and futility of war.  So much of the meaning of the 20th century is, Dyer argues, concentrated in the once-devastated landscape of the Somme:

Thiepval is not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy, of birth as well as of death: a memorial to the future, to what the century had in store for those who were left, whom age would weary.

Later on my journey I would stand at the grave of Isaac Rosenberg who produced some of the most uncompromising poetry of the war.  At Thiepval I thought of his poem ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, the plainest and most brutal explanation there is of how the bodies of the Missing came to be lost:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls’ sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘an end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie;
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight,
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

Menin Gate 1Menin Gate 1c

The Menin Gate, Ypres

After Thiepval, I wasn’t done with the Missing.  Many of the cemeteries I visited during the next few days contained, alongside the graves of those whose bodies were identified, monuments to those who had been killed in some local offensive, but whose remains were never found. Finally, I ended my brief trip in Ypres, standing at 8:00 in the evening with several hundred other people at the Menin Gate to hear the Last Post.

The Menin Gate is another Memorial to the Missing, one of four British and Commonwealth memorials to the missing in the area of the Ypres. The memorial bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who fell in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. The names are engraved on stone panels on the inner walls of the central Hall of Memory which spans a main road into the town, and also on the sides of staircases leading from the lower level to the upper exterior level, and on walls inside the loggias on the north and south sides of the building.

Menin Gate 2 Menin Gate 3  Menin Gate 5 Menin Gate 6 Menin Gate 7 Menin Gate 8

The names of the Missing

In 1914 this was simply a crossing point over the moat that surrounds Ypres, a place most soldiers would have passed when leaving the city along the Menin road that lead eastwards into the battlefields of the Ypres Salient. The first sounding of the Last Post took place on 1 July 1928. and has been sounded at the Menin Gate every night since, the only exception being during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from May 1940 to September 1944. The Last Postis played by buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade.

Menin Gate Last Post  Menin Gate Last Post 2

Crowds gather for the Last Post in August 2014

During the 1990s I would accompany my European Studies students to the Menin Gate for the Last Post.  It was usually February, and a few hundred of us would stand in the central archway with a clear view of the buglers. Last week, on the evening I visited, there must have been several thousand people gathered under and around the Gate, so I could only hear, but not see, the buglers.  Not surprisingly, visitor numbers have increased significantly in this centenary year. The problem is that the Gate is a major access point to the centre of Ypres, and the road under the Gate is now closed for an hour or more while ceremony takes place.

You might think that an event that has become a major tourist attraction, drawing a gathering of so many people would lose any sense of solemnity or meaning.  But that is not the case.  Silence is observed throughout the ceremony, and who could fail to reflect on the meaning of this act of remembrance when surrounded by all those names?

Menin Gate Last Post 3

An Ypres newspaper image of the Last Post ceremony

On the city ramparts adjoining the Gate is a garden of remembrance where I found a plaque with the words of  ‘Last Post’ by Flemish poet Herman de Coninck, in an English translation by Tanis Guest.  The poet imagines driving like the clappers from his home town of Antwerp to reach Ypres in time for the Last Post.  The poem references Edmund Blunden who saw action, not just at Ypres and in the Salient, but on the Somme as well:

This evening I was going to Ypres. Getting on for six.
I drove into the setting sun, and three storeys high
Dali-esque clouds which were being seen off by a force –

nine gale, the heavens blew away from the earth,
no way I could stop them, I drove and drove, 95 mph,
and every minute fell ten minutes behind. There went my horizon.

When I get into Ypres it’s 1917. Germans have blasted the sun
to smithereens. What light there still is, is explosions.
I’m in a poem by Edmund Blunden.

From the trenches he’s writing an ode to the poppy.
Earth has a great super-ego of flowers over it;
Blunden has them literally in his sights.

Here for all of a couple of years
it’s the second before you die.
Little things are all there is.

Later I listen to the Last Post at the Menin Gate:
three bugles you can hear cut back through eighty years
right to whatever’s left now on the bone.

 The ruins of Ypres and the Menin road, 1918

The ruins of Ypres and the Menin road, 1918

And here’s a photo that explains why the citizens of Ypres maintain this daily act of remembrance.  During the war, the town was under constant  bombardment, and was reduced to ruins. Its most beautiful building, the Cloth Hall, completed in 1304, lay in ruins, devastated by artillery fire. Between 1933 and 1967, however, the hall was meticulously reconstructed. It now houses the brilliant, award-winning In Flanders Fields museum.

Ypres Cloth Hall

The Cloth Hall today

Passing the news-stands, although I can’t read the headlines, I can see they all concern war: Gaza, Iraq, and on the fringes of Europe, Ukraine. All sites where the Great War was fought and where today’s borders were defined at the close of the war. Unfinished business. Past and present touch.

The mood at the war’s inception was very different to that of its end.  ‘The Send-off’ by Wilfred Owen captures those contrasting moods:

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Menin Gate 4


The 1WW trip