Passchendaele, Papa Bear and Me

The Road to Passchendaele from the Canadian Memorial at Crest Farm

It was three years ago today that myself and my father travelled to Flanders fields for our first ever trip to the Ypres Salient, the Salient which was to forever be immortalised by those men, British, French, Commonwealth and German troops who fought and died there. Having sailed from Hull to Zeebrugge on a nights crossing the North Sea, I never expected or realised that the Salient would have such an impact on me as it was going to. The Somme to me as a youngster was always the killing ground, the place where men were needlessly slaughtered on a industrial scale. This childish perception was soon about to change.

The Ypres Salient is seen as the main area and focus of the Great War from a British perspective. Surrounding the remnants of a constantly shelled wasteland of a town, Allied troops dug trenches around this last free area of Belgian territory. British and Commonwealth troops defended the Ypres Salient throughout the duration of the war, engaging the surrounding German forces in costly defensive and offensive operations, the Battle of Passchendaele being one of those campaigns which now has a certain degree of infamy surrounding it. As a consequence historians over the last century have debated whether the loss of life sustained on both sides was justified in regards to the conditions, and the sheer futility of the campaign in regards to its overall strategic objective. General Von Kuhl, who commanded the German forces in the Flanders area described the Battle of Passchendaele as ‘the greatest martyrdom of the war, no division could stick it out in this hell for a fortnight.’ This sacred arena in which so many men of many nationalities lie unmarked is now a place of poppies, tractors, rebuilt farms and those who dare to confront the indeterminable agony of the not so distant past.

The journey to Passchendaele began in June 2016. I was watching the England Vs Wales match in the European Championship in a bar in the town of Albert on the Somme. Myself and Papa had gone on our first expedition to the Somme in our centenary pilgrimage and had been absolutely transfixed by the place. As we watched the game i got into conversation with a Stoke City supporter, who had not been allowed to travel on the train to Lens where the match was being played. He asked about the trip, how it was going and when we were heading back home. He then said, “Have you been to Ypres?”. I replied that I hadn’t been yet and that was when father said to me, “What is Ypres son?” I explained to him about the town and the sacred and notorious battlefields that surrounded the area. This was a brief explanation, and it was somewhere I would have to read about properly to truly understand.

But I had already started. On my Confirmation day back in 1997, I was given a bit of spending money and I went into town. Visiting a local bookshop, I found a book called the ‘Great Battles of the Great War’ written by Anthony Livesey, which to an eleven year old captured the imagination especially with the illustrations contained in the book. it depicted Captain Hankey’s Worcesters on its epic charge towards Gheluvelt breaking into the Chateau grounds on October 31st 1914. The capture of Fort Vaux during the Battle of Verdun and the carnage at La Boisselle on July 1st 1916, remembering the golden spire of Albert depicted in the distance as the the Machine gunners created havoc on the advancing British Infantry.

But there were two other illustrations, the opening attack of the Battle Of Messines on 7th June 1917 and one of the failed attacks towards Passchendaele village, in mid-October 1917, the illustration of the assault on Passchendaele was unique as it depicted a battalion of troops trying to advance in a rain sodden lunar landscape, shell craters filled with water with the dead surrounding the battlefield. The German pillboxes in the distance waiting to receive their attackers with machine gun bullets. One could only imagine the carnage and hopelessness of those soldiers on both sides who were in such an ordeal. However it was probably not a accurate description of what happened but the illustrations captured the mind of one who was reading it.

As 2016 progressed towards the winter, I read and studied, and read and studied some more. I bought countless books, trench maps and pretty much immersed myself in the Salient. When we finally arrived in Belgium, we were driving on the bypass (that pretty much sadly cuts straight through the Passchendaele Battlefield) my Father asked me where we were going to go first, and to be honest I was not sure myself. We decided to go to Passchendaele and to Tyne Cot.

Tyne Cot.

The largest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world. Overlooking the town of Ypres in the distance it is one of the most comforting yet most harrowing concentrations of futility that I have ever set my eyes upon. 11,900 British, Commonwealth and German Soldiers rest in this place, only 3,606 have a named gravestone above them. Surrounding them is the beautiful Tyne Cot Memorial, etched in stone are the names of 34,952 British and Commonwealth troops who died in the surrounding fields from August 1917 to the conclusion of hostilities in November 1918 who sadly have no known grave. One name in particular for me stands out, Second-Lieutenant John Morgan Blake of the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, he was involved in the assault of the Polderhoek Chateau on the 4th October 1917, he was one of seven officers in the Devons that were killed that day. I received his name in my British Legion Passchendaele Centenary Poppy Lapel Badge box. He was the first person I tried to find on the Salient and I did. Everytime I visit Tyne Cot I make a personal effort to see his name to let him know that I have not forgotten his sacrifice. I was lucky to make a little detour to visit him on the Eve of the Centenary of the Armistice, and always have a poppy cross for him at my Church’s War Memorial on Armistice Day.

On the final full day of that trip 3 years ago, after the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Me and Papa decided to make another trip to Tyne Cot, we walked into the cemetery together and climbed onto the pillbox which now has the Cross of Sacrifice on the top of. There we watched the sun slowly descend over the Ypres Salient, as it had done for these men a century ago. Their legacy and bloodsoaked inheritance had not yet quite disappeared over the horizon just yet. It was a beautiful still evening with just enough heat left in the day. We were on our own and yet we weren’t. The spirits of those men, known and unknown shared that sunset with us. The Sun went down, but as we went back to Britain the next day, Myself and Papa certainly remembered them. We have been every year since, and in God’s good time we shall return once again to Passchendaele.

‘A light in the unending darkness’

This years Palm Sunday dawn was very quiet, sombre and still. Walking through Barnsley town centre one would think of a scene of ’28 days later’ as opposed to a normal Sunday morning stroll to work. The silence was extraordinary and slightly disturbing. We are now in the third week of restrictions and it is starting to bite on us all. How much longer will this agony last, how much more are we going to take. But we have to be strong and be able to take whatever is thrown in our direction. In the words of Stoker in his novel ‘Dracula’, ‘we have to taste the bitter waters before we can reach the sweet.’

The world is very troubled, frightened and is facing a incredibly difficult challenge. Many people have lost their lives, people have given their lives to save others. The key workers on the front line, who knowing the potential dangers to their own health have gone fearlessly to work in the supermarkets, warehouses and banks to keep our country going. The brave doctors and nurses of our wonderful National Health Service, who have worked incredibly hard, some of whom have given their lives also have shown inspiration to our nation and its children. As Her Majesty so eloquently said on Sunday evening, ‘we will meet again’, I hope that that dream will come to us in much brighter and more positive times. We pray and remember the ones who have been lost.

It makes me quite sad to think that this will be the strangest Holy Week in living memory. The churches of different Christian denominations will not be celebrating Christ’s resurrection from the grave, and members of the Jewish faith will not be able to go to their synagogues to celebrate their deliverance from slavery. Faith is a bystander for the terror and the darkness that surrounds us. But we have to endure, and we will.

Last year’s Holy week was dominated by the fire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, as the blazing spire fell into the burning medieval roof. That has been quickly forgotten as the journalists look for different stories and switch attention to other more pressing matters. This year will be focused on looking after each other and staying safe. Celebrating the feast of Easter behind closed doors will be a first for many of us.

Maundy Thursday is also the 103rd anniversary of the Battle of Arras, which in 1917 fell on Easter Monday. As part of a diversionary action designed to help the French offensive on the Chemin de Dames, the British launched an attack around the city of Arras, It is a day which in Canada became more than a dominion of the British Empire, it had become a nation entire. The seizure of Vimy Ridge was a outstanding success for the Canadian army, who had come through the German Gas attacks at Ypres in April 1915 and the autumn agony of the Somme at Courcelette in 1916. By seizing this vitally strategic point the Allies dominated the Douai plain and were able to see what the Germans were up to for miles around with unlimited observation. Their achievement was a astonishing Allied success.

Despite making good progress around Arras the British offensive stalled, the Germans after taking a huge blow immediately put into practice the defensive technique that had worked really effectively on the Somme a year before. The process of ‘Defence in Depth’ held off the British hammer blows. The French offensive failed which led to mutiny, and the Canadians went to their own garden of gethsemane, the calvary of Passchendaele.

Happy Easter and please stay safe!!!!!!!!!!!

The Indeterminable Agony of a Resit

I cannot believe that it is 3 months since I wrote on the page, unfortunately I have had a bit of trouble and difficulty. My first University assignment failed, I was 3 marks short of passing which in all honesty, could have been a lot worse. I felt extremely deflated, coupled with a bit of a mental breakdown. I took a step back, reflected and then with a new perspective and the determination to succeed decided to try again for the resit. That was submitted yesterday thank heavens and hopefully I will squeeze through this time.

It has been nearly a year since that photo at Pozieres, a photo where I became one with the spirits of nature and the ghosts of history. It is still the greatest photo of the Western front that I have ever taken. I considered whether I should go and put it on canvas, but it doesn’t and would not do it justice. The solemness and the realisation that that was a moment that will be forever etched in my memory and heart. I treasure that particular moment with great reflection and a lot of faith too. I got something from that morning that I will never be able to truly explain. You would probably argue and agree that it is completely insane to suggest you get something from a place of death and suffering. But when you visit certain places for example Thiepval or Tyne Cot or even the fortress of Verdun, your own perceptions and your thoughts of mortality come into being. You go deeper and deeper into your own mind as never before, not by choice but of a inner conviction to justify the reasons of why this suffering and waste was allowed to happen. The ghosts of history step into play and dance within the mist as the sun rises on the Somme. The immersion of your own self is dictated and determined by them. They welcome you, but as you leave, you take a bit of them with you. It is a binding contract that will never be broken. That is Their Legacy.

In the year on from that picture, there has been a lot of agony and joy and accomplishment, tears have been shed and decisions have been made. The world has turned full circle again, people have have passed beyond the limit of human sight. Remembering those people today. I also want to thank everyone that has shown me support and love over the past weeks. It has been an incredibly difficult few weeks but I’m confident that I will go into the new assignment, Mesopotamia and Palestine in a far more better frame of mind.

Also, I send my prayers to all the members of staff in France and Belgium who have had to close their businesses and museums for the foreseeable future as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. In Particular the Somme Association at the Ulster Tower at Thiepval. One of the nicest places to visit on the Somme, and one of the most welcoming cups of tea that I have ever had in a foreign country. I hope that this pandemic passes quickly and that they will open as soon as they possibly can. As all the other places of interest on the Western Front. It is going to be a testing time but i think if we can all pull together, all will be well in time.

And the Earth Abideth Forever

Martin Joseph

1917, The Review

The last Great War related film I went to see at the Cinema before 1917 was Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, however to me it is a documentary film and although it was a incredible experience to watch the new digitalised coloured clips and the generation of the Great War I dont class it in the same category of 1917. The last attempted interpretation of the Great War for me was the film ‘Journey’s End’ which was released in 2017, starring Sam Claflin and Paul Bettany. Based on the 1928 play written by R.C. Sherriff, For me it was a really good film. I felt personally that the film didn’t get the proper praise it deserved and I felt that had it been advertised a bit better or released nearer the awards season, it probably would have got more plaudits than it actually did. The director Saul Dibb did everything in his power to make the tension and fear of the coming German 1918 Spring offensive ooze through the screen to the audience and it worked magnificently.

1917 is a incredible, immersive, heartbreaking film. Sir Sam Mendes, (probably the second best British film director at the moment behind Christopher Nolan in my opinion) makes you (in your seat) the third person in this journey of two young soldiers who have to go beyond ‘No Man’s Land’ into the German lines to relay a very important message. The story and the mission sounds incredibly simple, but it is in the perilous journey that these young men take, as we do through life itself, that it makes you feel every human emotion possible. Every human emotion is conveyed in this film, horror, panic, bravery, sorrow, sacrifice and that also you always need to keep looking to your front. Self preservation comes at all costs. You always have to keep watching because you and the two main characters are on a extremely dangerous and extremely important mission; and you never know what’s over the next ridge, German front line trench, concrete bunker or deserted farm. People might be disappointed that there wasn’t any large firefight set-pieces in this film but there doesn’t need to be, the fear and the tension compensates for that in bounds. And I certainly jumped out of my seat on a couple of occasions. The sets were also breathtaking as well, the decaying dead in ‘no man’s land’ were as grotesque and realistic as the rats that were eating them. The imagery as well was the work of someone who knows how to draw the audience in and keep them fixed. It is Mendes’s greatest strength as a film director, and in the films I have watched him direct previously, he has never disappointed, and he still never has.

The cinematography of this film was exquisite and extremely immersive. The scene where Lance Corporal Schofield (played by George McKay) was walking through the attacking British soldiers was an absolute masterpiece of art in itself. Mendes has perfected techniques through his films such as ‘Road to Perdition’, ‘Skyfall’ and one of the last great films of the 20th Century ‘American Beauty’. It is in this film where he brings his experience and technical expertise as a film director to the fore, and it is for me a joy to behold. The opening scene of the two soldiers going into the labyrinth of the trench system was astonishing, It was also nice to see Andrew Scott (The Priest from Fleabag) playing as an Lieutenant from the York and Lancaster Regiment, who sends the two main characters ‘over the top’. (I hope i’m not wrong with the regimental badges!).

Another important element of the film was the musical score.(The Music is a essential part of any film in my opinion) Thomas Newman is an exceptional writer of film music, despite scoring most of Mendes’s great films in the past, this is his best by a mile. And it is Music in one particular scene brings so much humility, and returns humanity to a situation that nobody then truly understood. It was that scene alone that took me back to France and the wind flowing through the trees, around so many cemeteries. I have never been in a cinema where, even as the credits rolled, the audience remained in their seats and soaked in what they witnessed. Everyone left the auditorium in complete silence and to a certain extent reverence too.

This past weekend I have seen the various reactions to this film on social media by certain individuals and it was the reaction that some gave and their resistance to the film that I found upsetting. Yes there were inaccuracies, like every historical film made before and after it. Yes there were some mistakes made in certain areas. But if we look at it in a certain context, we have to (whether we like it or not) ignore the little niggly things and take things from a far larger and broader perspective. How are we going to be able to keep the general public interested in the topic or introduce future generations to what happened in the not too distant past? I hope that this film sparks a genuine interest of the Great War in the hearts of younger people. I truly hope that it does.

More importantly, I think overall that it will. Sam Mendes, you have given us through your masterful celluloid interpretation, the Great War enthusiasts of my and future generations a massive, critical and vitally important boost. I really hope that this film wins the Best Picture gong at the Academy Awards in February.

10 out of 10 for me.

Review of the Year 2019

Pozieres memorial shrouded in the mist March 2019

Well yet again we have come near to the end of the year and most importantly the decade, arguably the most tumultuous decade in recent times. But as you know me I am always hopeful that things will turn out right in the end. In regards to my journey 2019 has been a extremely positive and rewarding year. Although I haven’t visited the Western Front as much this year as I would have liked to have done, as compared to 2018, I have still managed to cover a new area of that line that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea over a century ago. 2019 opened up to me a new meaning to the Great War, not only in the physical aspect but on the spiritual aspect of it too. It led me to a new darker and far more potent meaning of the suffering endured by all sides in the War to End All Wars.

I visited the Somme in March and took a incredibly great deal from it. I enjoyed the early morning walks on the hallowed battlefield. Walking Mash Valley at La Boisselle over the Ovillers spur towards Thiepval was incredibly special, seeing as the Sun rose the chalk lines of the German front line positions marked indelibly for all time in the soil. Notably also the walk on the other side of La Boisselle at Sausage valley where I walked from Lochnagar Crater over the German front line towards Gordon Dump Cemetery and the infamous village of Contalmaison. Finally on the last day, alongside my friend Lucy, we walked through the dense Somme mist up the once bloodsoaked Albert-Bapaume road towards Pozieres, with the beautiful Cemetery and Memorial hugging the road. Probably one of the most stupid and dangerous things I have ever attempted, but incredibly rewarding. As we walked into the complex the Cemetery was surrounded by the morning mist. The spirit of the dead of the Somme emerged quietly, with dignity, honour and purpose as the sun tried to burn through, it gave me an incredible uplifting feeling which i had never felt before. I was immersed in the Spirit of the Glorious dead, it was pleased to welcome me, and yet also it begged me to return very soon. I took probably my best ever photo and captured the moment forever. I hope that that memory will never leave me.

Then in June, myself alongside Papa travelled on our annual Battlefield trip. But this time we did something completely different and fresh. We travelled to the Chemin De Dames, and did a flying tour of certain locations on the first day. Cerny en Laonnois, Soupir Farm, Vendresse Cemetery, the 1914 battlefield alongside the River Aisne. Soupir churchyard, the destroyed village of Chivy which made a lasting impression, the chapel abandoned, the birds nest in the holy water font, the birds flying around the chapel of remembrance with excrement everywhere, Faith had left that place, and it was not going to return at any particular point in the near future. After visiting the chapel we headed towards the French Cemetery at Craonne before going round to the Meuse. To the citadel of Verdun.

Beautiful, horrific, breathtaking beyond compare, Verdun for me is a place of such heroism, sacrifice, bravery, defiance, endurance and absolute sheer futility. It is to me a place where, not too long ago Hell became present on this earth and yet a century later it holds so much more than that. Once a place of unimaginable darkness, the worst form of the human condition, and its capacity to destroy so many. A century later Verdun has retreated well away from the forefront of the French nation and its overwhelmingly conflicted consciousness. Alongside the ghosts of the past in the natural amphitheatre above the city, it is trying and thankfully succeeding to adopt a far more tolerant and patient stance in the troubled world we now live in. It taught me incredibly valuable lessons. Not to take things for granted, treat people with a lot more respect than i ever did before, be more tolerant of my own mortality and others and most importantly to be thankful that I live in more peaceful times. But most importantly accept that the Great War maimed, destroyed, poisoned and killed so many. Not only men of my country but other European nations as well. The remains of French and German soldiers underneath the ossuary of Douaumont forever stays with me, and questions my own mortality and of what will happen to me when I pass beyond the limit of human sight. It probably gave me more questions to answer, more explanations to make. It in all fairness I probably didn’t Verdun the respect it deserved at first, but by the last day of visiting Cemeteries, bunkers, forts, hills, destroyed villages I accepted and respected the significance of the place that is Verdun. There is no other place like it. To truly understand Verdun, you have to allow yourself to disappear into its inner darkness before you can step into the new light that shines around it.

I also visited the area around Verdun and St Mihiel, the beautiful, symbolic memorial church of the village of Marbotte, below the killing ground of the forest of Apremont, the Church floor once covered in the blood of many French Poilus who waited for their own enteral reckoning, some as holy mass was taking place. Many of them now lie buried in the French Cemetery across the main road. The notorious trench of thirst, the remnants of abandoned trenches and bunkers hidden deep in the forests. I became immersed in it all alongside Papa. The beautiful but sterile American Cemeteries of Meuse Argonne and St Mihiel, the Memorials at Montsec and Montfaucon. But also the majestic beauty of the Vauquois region and the remains of a village that was mined into oblivion. It had so much to give and yet in the woods beyond, it was so desperate to hide.

I look forward to 2020 with a great deal of optimism, I’m doggedly trying to complete my first University assignment before the deadline day in January. I will hopefully be returning to the Western Front in March, before the Annual expedition to Flanders in June, returning hopefully to the Somme and a new battlefield, either the Battlefield of Le Cateau or Cambrai. We will see how things progress. I hope it all goes well.

Venite Adoremus Dominum.

Wishing Everybody a very Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for the New Year and Decade!

And The Earth Abideth Forever

Martin Joseph

Farewell my son

Dedicated with love and affection to my dear Uncle Kevin, who we lost on Thursday November 14th 2019, aged 51. Loved by all who knew him and leaves a gap that that will never be filled, reunited with Grandad and Great Uncle Joe, Requiscat En Pace.

I have been thinking about what to write this past week with great overwhelming sadness and a sense of overwhelming loss, I have lost an Uncle, my Father has lost a brother, my Auntie has lost her husband, my Grandmother has lost her son. How could this happen? Why did this sudden blow come to us five weeks before Christmas, to a man who gave so much love, laughter and overwhelming kindness to so many. He leaves so much behind when he still had so very much to give. In many ways one of the great cornerstones of my family has gone beyond the horizon of our sight. He will be sorely missed. His legacy will remain in our thoughts and prayers for many years to come.

In June 1942 on the steppes of Russia, Lieutenant Vladimir Antokolosky of the Red Army was killed defending his homeland against the threat of Nazi occupation. His father Pavel, absolutely devastated and distraught wrote a poem dedicated to him the following year later. His powerful poem resonated around the country that had lost over twenty million men, women and children. It is a passage that never fails to move me. It is a piece of literature that many people have never read before. It is a poem of Soviet propaganda designed to aid the war against their their bitterest ideological rival Nazi Germany. But is also a poem of heartbreak, torment and unprecedented loss, the memories shared, and the future memories cruelly taken away. But also it is a poem of reluctant acceptance that his Son died for a noble cause and that the fight for victory must continue. It is quite a long poem so i will give you a few quotations.

“Do not call me, father, do not seek me, Do not call me, do not wish me back.

Will there be a rendezvous? I know not. I only know we still must fight. We are sandgrains in infinity, never to meet, never more see light. Farewell my Son, farewell my conscience. My youth and my solace my one and my only.

And let this farewell be the end of the story, of solitude vast and which none is more lonely. In which you remain, barred forever and ever, From Light and from Air, with your death pangs untold. Untold and un soothed, not to be resurrected. Forever and ever, an 18 year old.

Farewell then, no trains come from those regions scheduled or unscheduled, no aeroplanes fly there. farewell then my son, for no miracles happen, as in this world dreams do not come true.

Farewell…………..

The earth where so many lie buried. This song to my son. is come to its close”

The German invasion of Russia in late June 1941 was the beginning of the greatest land battle of the Second World War, and arguably the defining military campaign of the twentieth century. Hitler and the Wehrmacht had achieved astonishing success in its objective of conquering vast swathes of the European continent, the Low Countries, Poland, Norway, the Balkans and France was now subjugated under the Nazi jackboot. Because Britain had maintained and successfully defended its airspace in the summer of 1940, it prevented a German assault over the English Channel. Britain although not beaten was not in a position to attempt an invasion of the continent and switched its focus to fighting on the ground in the western desert and to conduct bombing raids over German airspace. Hitler, his generals and his army who were greedy for more victories turned towards the Soviet Union.

In 1939 the Nazi-Soviet pact had guaranteed Poland’s dual subjugation under the two ideological countries. When the 2 armies met up in occupied Poland, the German forward units had noted that their Soviet allies were very poorly equipped and led. This led to Hitler, who had written in his book “Mein Kampf” believing in creating new “Land space” for the German people by invading the Soviet Union and increasing Germany’s wealth in food and raw materials, something that Germany critically lacked. The Soviet Union and its Red Army was in Hitler’s view rotten and that it “Would only need a kick in the door and the whole structure would come crashing down”. The Slavic race would be sent to work in German factories as slave workers, the Jewish race would be exterminated in the concentration camps. The Jewish Bolshevik disease completely eradicated from existence.

In the winter of 1941-42 the German panzers were stopped at the gates of Moscow, the Russian winter and fresh divisions from Siberia halted the Germans progress although great swathes of Soviet territory had been seized. The winter had hampered the Germans as it had done to Napoleon’s Grand Armee in 1812. In late July 1942, Hitler made the decision to seize the oilfields of the Caucasus. Hitler’s 6th army under General Von Paulus, victorious in France in 1940 was sent on its own to attack the city of Stalingrad, with a precarious supply line, and no reinforcement if anything went wrong. Stalingrad bore the name of Hitler’s ideological rival and it became an obsession for him. It had to be taken.

Stalin was also aware of the city’s significance, and contrary to his rival Hitler allowed his Generals to take control the situation that was developing in Stalingrad. The fighting was of a savagery almost reminiscent of the medieval age, houses, rooms and cellars were fought to the death. Hundreds of Soviet soldiers were sacrificed in suicidal attacks designed to consume German ammunition stocks. The Red Army fought under the slogan of an order of their commander in chief Stalin, “not one step back”. General Zhukov during the autumn of 1942 created Operation Uranus, which was a counterattack designed to cut off the 6th Army from its supply line and encircle it. The 6th Army was fighting desperately in a attempt to take the city before the Russian winter would wreak havoc again. General Chuikov, who was commanding the Red Army soldiers in the city was just about hanging on to the west bank of the Volga, with a trickle of reinforcements coming over the river by boat into the city which were constantly harassed by German aircraft. Whilst vast reserves of men, tanks and heavy artillery were saved north and south of the city for the counter attack.

Paulus saw the oncoming threat of encirclement and asked to evacuate the city, Hitler refused believing that one more attack would see Stalingrad would fall into his hands. Hitler was warned by his Generals and chiefs of staff of the precarious position of the 6th Army. These concerns were ignored. In late November the Soviet counteroffensive began and the 6th army was surrounded in the snow covered ruins of the city. Hitler believed that the 6th Army could be supplied by the Luftwaffe, and had been reassured by its Commander Hermann Goering that they could do it with the aircraft they had, whilst General Manstein would try to reach the army trapped in Stalingrad by a counter attack. The relief was a complete disaster, the air supply brought a tenth of the supplies that the 6th army needed to sustain its operations. Manstein’s counter offensive was successfully repelled.

Knowing that Hitler and his Generals couldn’t save the soldiers trapped in Stalingrad, the Soviets started to squeeze the pocket that had been created. The German soldiers fought bitterly and desperately in an attempt to survive, horses and dogs were eaten in a attempt to stay alive. The Russians were determined to recover the city of their leader, whatever the human cost. In February 1943. General Paulus and over 90,000 freezing and starving German Soldiers surrendered to the Soviet forces. Paulus who had been made a field marshal, was the first German field marshal to ever have been taken alive. Hitler had expected him to commit suicide and retain his honour.

The defeat of Stalingrad and to an extent the defeat of the Afrika Korps at El Alamein in 1942-43 cannot be underestimated. The German defeat at Stalingrad was a complete catastrophe for Hitler and his ambitions in Soviet Russia, the Red Army had slowly, and at great cost had finally learned how to break the Wehrmacht, it was an absolutely astonishing victory and signalled the eventual and total defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, when the red flag was flown high above the Reichstag in Berlin. King George VI presented Stalin with the Sword of Stalingrad in recognition of his triumph, and further enhanced Stalin’s reputation as the leader of the Soviet Union. His ideological rival had been comprehensively defeated. A shadow would slowly emerge and develop over Eastern Europe that would last for nearly 50 years.

Hitler’s decision making militarily would lead to more catastrophes at Tunisia and at the Falaise pocket in Normandy, where yet thousands of more prisoners were taken by the western Allies. Of the 91.000 German Prisoners of Stalingrad, only 5,000 men came home from the gulags in Siberia over a decade later. Many soldiers died of malnutrition, lack of medical treatment and brutal treatment by their Soviet masters. The Geneva convention on prisoners of war was irrelevant in a total ideological war.

After Stalingrad was over Hitler said “What is life? Life is the nation, the individual must die anyway, but beyond the life of the individual is the Nation”.

Hitler was beaten and the slow disintegration of his Third Reich was achieved by the Red Army at Stalingrad but the cost of victory for Russia was so huge and far beyond our imagination. We remember our Soldiers who fought on Normandy, Arnhem and in the desert and Burma, but we must recognize the huge contribution that the men of Soviet Russia made in the pursuit of freedom, regardless of the ideological differences.

And the Earth Abideth forever

Rest In Peace Uncle Kevin

Martin Joseph

Eternal Remembrance Part II

The Glorious Dead, etched forever on the Menin Gate Ieper, 10th November 2018

Watching the rain fall outside, it is not difficult to think of the great and wonderful things that this year has brought. From the misty surrounding of Pozieres Cemetery in March, to watching the sun set over the Ossuary at Douaumont, the sun shining brightly over Tyne Cot, to the hidden, blood soaked agony of the Mort Homme. This season of remembrance is very different from last year, completely different. It is not how I will remember the past, it is a overwhelming feeling of how we are going to commemorate the Great War in the future. Will Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday still have that same meaning in 15, 20, even in 100 years time? What I know for certain is that I will not be able to bear witness in my mortal frame, but it is a important fundamental question. Will the people of this country still bear witness to the agony and slaughter that we as a nation endured?

This time last year I was preparing for my maiden tour as a guide for the Centenary of the Armistice, this year I’m off to university for my second set of lectures. When I’m on the train back to Wolverhampton, I will reflect on a time not too long ago that saw the chapter close on a very unique period of our country’s history. To be there on that particular weekend, to witness the end of 100 years of commemoration, 100 years of honouring the fallen. 100 years since the beginning of the end of Britain’s imperial power. I can be able to bear witness to something that meant so much, something that only few people can truly understand.

The Menin Gate, Armistice Centenary Day 2018

Last Armistice Day, alongside my friend Ellen, who had also been part of the Armistice Tour, came with me to the Ramparts Cemetery at Ieper. Where just before 11am the relatives of the late Battlefield Writer, Rose Coombs came to see the end of the centenary celebrations. It was where her ashes were scattered after her death. We were blessed with a solitary piper who played a lament over the water. It was a cloudy day, with a chilly wind over the waters of Iepers fortress moats. As Ieper fell silent and quiet at 11am as we reflected on all those heroes who had gone before us. It was a spine tingling moment, one of many that weekend. Then as soon as the piper finished his lament, the bells of St Martin’s Cathedral rang out the sound of victory over the immortal salient, where tens of thousands of British, French, Commonwealth and German troops fought to the death, and thereby creating a legend that hopefully will last for centuries and millennia to come.

Then I spoke in prayer, Laurence Binyon’s epitaph to the fallen, it was probably the first time that I had ever invoked those words that have been spoken reverently at the Menin Gate every night at 8pm after the Last Post. It is more than just a poem, it is a covenant, it is a declaration of devotion to that generation that now is in the presence of the almighty. A promise to uphold and remember their sacrifice, and most importantly to keep the peace that they won. To remember those who have given their lives in recent times for the same cause that they died for. I wondered about the future and wondered what it would bring. Even today I haven’t found the answer.

This Remembrance Sunday, and Armistice Day 2019 remember not only the British and Commonwealth soldiers, but the French, German, American, Senegalese, Algerian, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Serbian, Italian and Turkish soldiers who in their turn gave their lives in the Great War, they were a extraordinary generation in a very extraordinary time. As the American General John Pershing once quoted “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.” To me that statement is not wrong. It has as much importance now as it did then. Why cannot we have such inspiration as we did then? What did we do wrong? We certainly live in very different and disheartening times. But we have to keep moving forward and to try and see the light in the overwhelming darkness that surrounds us everyday.

How do we Remember our Glorious Dead? Have we in the words of St Paul to Timothy in the New Testament “Kept the Faith?” We have all different ways of commemorating our Glorious Dead, from the Cenotaph in London, to the Imperial monuments in Belgium, France and all corners of the globe. Even to a family burial plot in a local churchyard. Their Soldier etched on the stone because he has no grave, no marker of his final place of rest on a field many miles from home. A hope and belief that they in heaven will meet in the presence of God. Think of that aspect of remembrance too.

Pieces of music, such as Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth stick as spine tingling moments in our national psyche. Elgar’s Nimrod to me is the most poignant piece of all. Standing under the Menin Gate on the last full day of the centenary celebrations. Listening to that piece of music sent a shiver down my spine, a tear rolling down my face. It was the end of a chapter, a chapter that was now coming to its conclusion. A year has now past and I still have as many questions now as I did then. I hope that we keep them in our hearts, not just for one Sunday a year, but for the whole 365.

That is their legacy. It is our inheritance to Remember and reflect.

Their Name Liveth For Evermore

Martin Joseph