Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A whistle stop tour of the Ypres Salient

Further Parish Messages.

2: A report on our whistle stop tour to the Ypres Salient.

Like last year's overnight visit to the Somme I feel compelled to write something down, for my own sake if nothing else as I don't want to forget.

You may agree with what you are about to read, you may not,

I'm not particularly bothered either way as this is an honest account of how I felt twenty four hours after our visit to the fields of Flanders.

A little self indulgent perhaps but no clever conclusions or judgement with the benefit of hindsight, just my own observations on a region that few could fail to be touched by.

Lord and Lady Ludgershall would once again be our eminent and excellent guides and we pitched up in Calais a little before 9am. Provisions were purchased in Auchan before we made haste through the hops for Poperinge, the gateway to the Ypres salient and headquarters for much of the war machine operating on that part of the Western front.

It also served as a site for soldiers on a break from time in the front line or in reserve and it was to Talbot House that we headed first. Founded by the Reverend Tubby Taylor it served as an "Everyman's club" for soldiers of all rank in the British Army and provided a brief sanctuary from the madness that is the business of war.

It is remarkably well preserved and still provides accommodation. The Garden in particular must have provided particular solace from an environment reduced to deep mud by bad weather and intense artillery fire.

There was a rudimentary cinema on the first floor and in the roof a tiny chapel. He sounded like a thoroughly decent chap did Tubby Taylor and was obviously highly thought of, as were most of the chaplains who spent time in the front line.

Out of Talbot House and after making brief acquaintance with a statue of Elaine Cossey, known as Ginger to soldiers from all corners of the British Empire for her red hair and vivacity she embodied for many a reminder of human dignity and life that they carried into the hell of the trenches as a spark in their hearts.

The town hall next and the cells where soldiers were held for all manner of misdemeanours including desertion and cowardice, the penalty for these two, being tied to the post that stands in the courtyard and a bullet through the head at dawn. PTSD would be today's diagnosis for many who went this way, but at the time the army relied on Tommy Atkins having enough fire in his belly to climb out of his trench, brave the artillery, machine guns and gas and engage the enemy by whatever means possible, be it rifle, bayonet, club or spade,it was a brutal business maintained by, at times, brutal discipline in an age disparate from today.

Off to Ypres next, a city at the heart of the bulge in the Western Front known as the Ypres salient. It started the war as the third largest city in Flanders after Bruges and Ghent and was dominated by the 13th century Cloth hall and like so many cities in the region was protected by 17th century fortifications by the much vaunted Vauban.

Unfortunately his bulky buttresses and clever ravelins proved no match for several years of Teutonic artillery bombardment from behind the low ridges that surround the city and by 1918 the city was reduced to a pile of rubble.

A million or more Flemish acquired refugee status when the war arrived on their doorstep and were forced to cross international borders to escape the conflict.

Many went to Holland, some went to Britain, others went to more peaceful parts of France.

When the armistice was signed some stayed where they had ended up, but most returned to where they lived before war broke out.

The British called for Ypres not to be rebuilt and stand as a memorial of the many battles that had taken place there, but the Flemish had other ideas and rebuilt the city as it had stood before the bombs began to fall.

And well done the Flemish for that.

I'm not really religious, but there is merit in a resurrection and after the madness of war has receded more than a modicum of faith in humanity is restored when your everyday Joe and Josephine emerge from the wings to pick up the pieces,no matter how shattered the vase.

Welcome to Ypres

It's a city that strikes the right balance between reverence and the requirement to move forward.

It is all too easy to forget that within Pandora's box, hidden beneath all the bad stuff, lay hope.

The Menin Gate straddling the Menin road down which so many trudged never to return stands as a fitting monument to the missing,

although the Last Post in tourist time in high heat was a bit of a scrum as it is an understandable box to be ticked on any organised tour of the area.

It may be more evocative witnessing the event on a bleak day at the end of October in conditions more familiar to the sixty thousand names on the gate.

Kicking back in Ypres, because yes, it is not a maudlin place. We devoured a fine repast ( Flemish stew, Moules, Shrimp Croquettes, Steak and no little wine) in a popular restaurant in the square before heading home to bed.

After the conventional European breakfast we headed to the In Flanders Field Museum housed in the rebuilt Cloth market.

It's a very good museum.

We shared the place with people from many nations who fought on both sides of the war.

As well as the excellent and informative exhibits, it is worth paying the extra two euros to climb to the top of the clock tower which provides an excellent view of the city and the route out of town to the front line and the low ridges held by the Germans.
It takes two hours to do the museum and pick your time to climb the tower as during the rebuild they installed a clever carillian that strikes every fifteen minutes. It's an elaborate series of gongs to signal the passing of time and the stairs to the top pass within a few feet of the many bells, Lord Lugg timed his run wrong and had sparrows circling his crown (see The Beano) for quite a few minutes.

Heading out of town, it was off to Essex Farm and the advanced dressing station where the Canadian Medico John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields" after witnessing his mate obliterated by a direct hit to the artillery battery to which he was assigned on the bank of the nearby canal.

We visited McCrae's grave on our trip down the coast to Etaples last year. Madam's school use the text each year when the curriculum requires them to make mention of the First World War. How McCrae came up with such easy prose in the most desperate of circumstances is beyond me, but then I refer you back to the top of this guff, it is impossible to comprehend what was possible in such circumstances with the benefit of hindsight.

Vancouver corner next and a stunning art deco memorial of a brooding soldier that marks the site where a Canadian division were subject to one of the first gas attacks during the second battle of Ypres
The designer of the memorial had finished second in a competition to the chap who came up with the Vimy Ridge memorial.

The Vancouver corner memorial may be substantially smaller than the winner of the competition, but the impact is the equal of Vimy Ridge.

And so to Tyne Cot, the largest CWGC in existence on top of the Passchendaele ridge looking back across all those Flanders Fields to Ypres.

In preparation for our visit I'd read "Passchendaele" by Nigel Steel and Peter Hart. It's a good book that relies heavily on anecdote from those who were there, the German take on matters is a little lacking , but it is evident that men (a lot of whom had already been through the misery of the Somme) were operating at mental and physical limits difficult to comprehend today. Dreadful Weather and intense artillery bombardment rendered the field of battle close to impassable. The Germans held the higher ground and constructed a series of pill boxes that covered each other if attacked. The Allies adopted new tactics of "Bite and hold" with the objective of a decisive breakthrough abandoned they sought smaller gains of a thousand yards or so that they would then endeavour to retain in the face of the inevitable German counter attack. This was then abandoned briefly with disastrous results before a return to a more prepared approach under the command of a Canadian which was also doomed to fail in impossible conditions as the fields of Flanders became the very embodiment of hell.

A few words from one who was there

The approach to the ridge was a desolate swamp, over which brooded an evil menacing atmosphere that seemed to defy encroachment. Far more treacherous than the visible surface defences with which we were familiar; deep devouring mud spread deadly traps in all directions. We splashed and slithered, and dragged our feet from the pull of an invisible enemy determined to suck us into its depths. Every few steps someone would slide and stumble and weighed down by rifle and equipment, rapidly sink into the squelching mess. Those nearest grabbed his arms, struggled against being themselves engulfed and, if humanly possible, dragged him out. When helpers floundered in as well and doubled the task, it became hopeless. All the straining efforts failed and the swamp swallowed its screaming victims, and we had to be ordered to plod on dejectedly and fight this relentless enemy as stubbornly as we did those we could see. It happened that one of those leading us was Lieutenant Chamberlain, and so distraught did he become at the spectacle of men drowning in mud, and the desperate efforts to rescue them that suddenly he began hysterically belabouring the shoulders of a sinking man with his swagger stick. We were horrified to see this most compassionate officer so unstrung as to resort to brutality, and our loud protests forced him to desist. The man was rescued, but some could not be and they sank shrieking with fear and agony. To be ordered to go ahead and leave a comrade to such a fate was the hardest experience one could be asked to endure, but the objective had to be reached, and we plunged on, bitter anger against the evil forces prevailing piled on to our exasperation. This was as near to Hell as I ever want to be.

Private Norman Cliff. 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards.

The hope that sprung from Pandora's box is evident in the rebuild of Ypres, the desolation of war is all to evident at Tyne Cot. It is an affecting place sited on the low ridge looking back at Ypres across the Flanders fields in which so many met a miserable end.

You enter the cemetery on a path with hidden speakers through which the voice of a young woman issues a roll call of the dead. Most were around the age of my own children, which raised the first lump in the throat. Enter the visitor centre and a minimalist display draws the eye,

as do some quotes on the wall

but driven by the background roll call

the eye is drawn to a screen on the end wall displaying the photo of each person announced,

and at this point I nearly went because after all the grave stones, crosses and memorials there were human beings with their own identity and story to tell behind each set of eyes.

Here's a quote from one who made it home

"The next night my pal came out with me. We heard one of their big ones coming over. Normally within reason, you could tell if it was going to land anywhere near or not. If it was, the normal procedure was to throw yourself down and avoid the shell fragments. This one we knew was going to drop near. My pal shouted and threw himself down. I was too damned tired even to fall down. I stood there. Next i had a terrific pain in the back and chest and I found myself face down in the mud. My pal came to me, he tried to lift me up. I said to him, "Don't touch me, leave me, I've had enough, just leave me" The next thing I found myself sinking in the mud. I don't hate it any more- it seemed like a protective blanket covering me. I thought "well this is death, it's not so bad" Then I foudn myself being bumped about and realised I was on a stretcher. I thought "poor devils these stretcher bearers - I wouldn't be a stretcher bearer for anything" I suddenly realised I wasn't dead and that if these wounds didn't prove fatal I should get back to my parents, to my sister, to my girl who I was going to marry. The girl that had sent me a letter every day from the beginning of the war. I thought "Thank God for that!" Then the dressing station, morphia and the sleep that is so badly needed. I didn't recollect any more till I found myself in a bed with white sheets and I heard the lovely wonderful voices of our nurses. Then I completely broke down."

Bombardier J.W Palmer, 26th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery laying communication lines who had survived three years in action.

It is difficult to portray the scale of Tyne Cot with a camera from the ground so here's one from the air.

Many of the graves and names on the wall are of soldiers who travelled a long way around the world (when transport was not so simple as today) to fight the hun. Rows and rows of Australians, Canadians, Africans, Indians and corners of Europe that I had previously thought unaffected by the war.

And then it was time to go home.

The final display in The Flanders Field museum states that this was the war to end all wars,

it wasn't, and there is a list of every war that has taken place since 1918 above the exit.

It is important that we continue to remember and also retain hope that a future generation will adopt an alternative means of settling national or religious differences than through armed conflict

"Well then you ask, why did men apparently unhesitatingly go forward in attack and capture strongpoints sometimes with reckless bravery? The answer is simple - I must repeat that there is no alternative to the firing squad but to go forward and you do your damnedest to kill the men who are trying to kill you. If you do not, you just die. In all this fighting when trenches and strongpoints are captured you are not a hero - you are obeying not man's instinct to kill, but man's instinct to live by killing the man who would kill you. Those that believe in the inevitability of war will always emphasise that man has an inherent killer instinct, that it is human nature and little can be done about it.
Another "Old Lie" a perfidious Old lie.
Man is not born a killer, it is the society in which he grows up which makes him one and that society must continually reiterate the lie to justify the act of killing in war.
I never wanted to kill anyone,
but I did...."

Private W.H.A Groom 1/5th Battalion London Regiment (Rifle Brigade)

Clicks Playlist of Joan Baez, Bill Withers and Country Joe and the Fish and sits back slightly dumbstruck, but grateful never to have experienced war at first hand.

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