It has nearly been a year since those glorious few days in France and Belgium, a week that will be forever etched in my mind as one of the definitive moments of my life. The happiness and joy of my first presentation as a guide in Delville Wood on the Somme battlefield is a memory I will forever treasure. To show people your true passion, your vocation as to why you should be on earth is something not many people have the chance to share with others. One moment that is the definition of your whole being, your reason for existence.
I was in a foreign country, representing my town, my county, my home, talking to my fellow countrymen from all different walks of life. Telling them a story that with time will slowly fade into the annals of British military folklore alongside Waterloo and Salamanca. The objective being to give a group of people you have never met before a greater and more better understanding of the events that occurred there, and to also give them the best possible perspective of what happened on both sides of no mans land. Being at Delville wood, although forever intertwined with the heroic men of South Africa, brought me far closer to my identity as a Briton than ever before. I was for one brief moment complete. My reason, my vocation completed.
It was an incredible and immersive experience, to watch the masses of British Legion Standards congregate on the Grote Markt in Ypres on that Wednesday morning was a memory that I will never forget. There was not a single moment in that trip where I felt nothing but joy and quiet accomplishment.
And yet it might not have happened at all, I had considered about giving it all up, and considered making pilgrimages as a tourist for the rest of my life. Luckily I have great people around me, my family and my family from the Great War Battlefield guide community, who gave me great support and encouraged me to put the experience to good use. I also had a very strange source of Inspiration as well to keep the journey going. It was on the rolling fields of Picardy on a Summer Solstice evening at the Butte de Warlencourt in June 2018 alongside Papa that beckoned me back to my vocation. I gazed back down the Albert-Bapaume Road as the Sun set. Then towards the positions of the men of the Durham Light Infantry, who attacked repeatedly towards this ancient Roman burial mound in late October 1916 in horrific conditions. With the newly formed German Stormtroopers as their main adversaries, the Durhams only achieved very limited success, and a very heavy loss of life.
The scene was as Siegfried Sassoon, a talented and somewhat tortured individual who had fought on the Somme once quoted, “Like the background of a painted masterpiece”. The coolness of the breeze running through the cornfields of what was once a torn and destroyed landscape beckoned me back. The Somme had brought me home spiritually and mentally once again. I couldn’t give it up, the tragic majesty of it all wouldnt let me do so, it refused to die within me.
A year on and there has been a great deal of change in my life. After the magical and powerful Armistice tour which I hold dearly in my heart, there was also the trip to the Somme in March. The trip in late June that has affected me most in my whole entire Great War journey. The trip to the battleground of Verdun, Meuse Argonne and the St Mihiel Sailient. The experience of those places has certainly defined my whole perspective of the Western Front, it opened my eyes that it wasn’t just Britain and her Empire against Germany. France in turn cut one of its main arteries merely to survive, in defiance to the invader. The United States also gave their brave young soldiers in the persuit of freedom and democracy, fresh logs on a fire that had been slowly been burning itself out after 3 years of being lit.
University is slowly emerging on the horizon, and I am slowly gearing myself up for this incredible blessing and undertaking. It is going to be extremely hard. I have no illusions about that, I am however determined to test myself and my overall capability. It is time to show my true potential. I will need as much support as I possibly can in the days and years ahead.
Wednesday was the 102nd Anniversary of the beginning of the third battle of Ypres, commonly known as Passchendaele, arguably one of the most tragic episodes of the Great War. The British Army, full of optimism and confidence after the success at the battle of Messines 7 weeks earlier, attacked towards the Passchendaele Ridge. The overall main objective being to secure and clear the strategic ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge, which were being used by the Germans as main bases for their U boats, which was giving the Royal Navy a considerable headache, in the North Sea and the English Channel.
On 31st July 1917 after another week long preliminary bombardment, the British Army attacked on the north eastern side of the Ypres Sailient, towards Pilckem Ridge and Langemarck. After making a considerably decent start they ran into the Steenbeek, a innocent looking stream, and then it started to rain, and rain and rain and rain. The stream started to flood and the shell cratered landscape, with the natural drains destroyed by years of continual artillery fire began to fill with water. The wounded soldiers, who hadn’t been evacuated to safety slowly drowned helplessly in the shell craters as the rain water engulfed them, never to see the light again.
The dead too became immersed in the muddy water filled pools, never to be seen again or given a decent burial. It was the wettest August for years, the battlefield became a water filled shell hole death trap and a logistical nightmare for both sides. Many soldiers drowned as they fell off the duckboards leading them to the forward positions, in other cases as they were walking wounded back to the dressing stations. The weight of their packs sending them needlessly to their deaths, their comrades trying desperately to save them from their plight. The rain continued unabated into September. In October the rain stopped for a time. the ravaged battlefield began to dry and limited progress was slowly made north of the Menin Road, before the weather turned for the worst again. Yet more men and material were expended in an attempt to break the deadlock, even today historians debate about third Ypres and the futility of it all.
The new German tactic of defence in depth, which had been used on the Somme in 1916 worked incredibly well. A year later it had now been perfected, it had become elastic defence in depth. Germany had turned to the concrete pillbox and bunkers as a means of defence, which caused havoc and carnage amongst the attacking British and Commonwealth troops. The nightmare and martyrdom of Passchendaele commenced. It alongside the Somme would emerge as a word of futility and hopelessness on a scale no one could have possibly imagined possible. It would haunt the British national psyche as the Somme did for generations to come.
It was to become one continual nightmare on top of another. It was for both sides a test of endurance, to see who would give in first. Men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and finally Canada were used in large scale attacks designed to break the new German pillbox lines of defence, and the losses were on a comparison on both sides to the year before on the Somme. Finally in November 1917, the Canadians, through a battlefield of man made hell, finally achieved the objective of seizing Passchendaele village, 3 months and a week after the offensive had begun. The Battlefield by now resembled a mud churned lunar landscape, villages and farms wiped of the face of the earth, littered with the dead of both sides. After the months of toil the British Army hadn’t even achieved their main objective. It was at Passchendaele for the very first time that the seed of doubt crept into the British Soldiers, who wondered how this slaughter could possibly continue without a outcome. It was to come a year later, under very different circumstances.
And the earth abideth forever,