Remember, Simply Remember

Just before I started this Blog I tested positive for Covid-19 three weeks ago, I want to thank everyone for their messages of support in what has been a very difficult and worrying time, It has been a very unpleasant few weeks but I am slowly and thankfully on the mend. Thinking of everyone who has been afflicted with this scourge and remembering those who sadly lost their own individual battle.

This Remembrance Sunday will be very different from the others that I have experienced in my lifetime. In this new period of lockdown, I have spent the last week trying to find a solution of how to deal with the fact that I will not be able to stand at 11am on Sunday near to the War Memorial which stands so proud and remember the great sacrifice that my fellow countrymen made for the maintenance of peace. I have felt this year that although that circumstances have prevented me from going over to France and Belgium, that I have let them down by not going to see them or walk on the fields where so many made that sacrifice. They are with me all the time, ghosts in infinity where I hope they in the presence of the almighty are rewarded. It will still be as solemn and as vitally important as it has been in the years before. It is time once again to put aside differences and remember those who fought to keep us who we are and won bitterly the prize of peace.

I hope that at some point next year I can once again make that pilgrimage. Due to the travel restrictions people like me have looked for an answer to fill the gaping hole that lockdown has brought. Virtual Battlefield tours online have become a new and upcoming solution to the problem, many people have embraced this concept with open arms. It fills their particular void of wanting to be there. I see it however in a more negative light, I think the whole idea, added to the fact that you actually have to pay for the privilege is absolutely abhorrent. I think it is dangerous and corrupts the very thing that needs to be protected and kept sacred, the spiritual and the emotional connection that we get when we are actually there. Virtual tours cannot replace under any circumstances the emotion and acceptance of being in actual locations where so much was given.

I am of a conservative view in that a Google Map virtual tour, although helpful for people who cannot get to Europe at this particular time and are desperate in their pursuit to fill their void, cannot replace actually being on the ground and getting a feeling, a connection of the surrounding area. It takes the whole emotion and passion completely out of it. I know the implications of what I’m saying and im probably going to get a bit of flak on social media for my views, frankly I simply do not care. Many people believe that we have to move forward the concept of the Great War to a more progressive modern setting. I disagree wholeheartedly, we need to keep some of those elements with us order to preserve their memory. Their sacrifice is most importantly above all our inheritance to preserve.

I still find it hard to believe that two years ago, I was stood at Ypres Ramparts Cemetery at 11am on Armistice Day 2018, the centenary of the end of the Great War. How times have changed. Standing alongside the fallen as a humble pilgrim who had completed a journey of his own self discovery. A piper played a lament over the water’s edge and the church bells of Ypres once silenced by incessant shellfire a century before danced in their victorious but mournful lament that rang over the Ypres Salient. It is a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life. The Centenary was over but the message was the same, it still is and most importantly has to be maintained.

This year, very early on Sunday morning as the sun rises, I will take the slow walk to the Town Hall War Memorial and lay down three poppy crosses, one cross is dedicated to two men, Private Robert Wilson of the 8th Battalion Border Regiment, who was killed on the 22nd October 1916 at the Battle of the Ancre. The other man is Second Lieutenant John Morgan Blake of the First Battalion Devonshire Regiment who was killed attacking the Polderhoek Chateau north east of Ypres on the 4th October 1917, he was one of seven officers of that regiment killed that day.

The unending tragedy of the Great War is that these two men have no known grave, no place of rest, Robert is etched on the Imperial Arch at Thiepval, one of the many Missing of the Somme. John is etched at the Tyne Cot memorial overlooking the Salient where he and so many gave his life in the once man made area of hell on earth. But I will remember them with humility, with thanks and pray for the repose of their souls. For all of Them.

The second poppy cross will be in honour of Corporal Archie McArthur Rennie of the Third Reconnaissance Regiment, who was killed after he landed on Sword Beach on D-Day on 6th June 1944, he rests peacefully at Hermanville Military Cemetery in Normandy amongst his comrades. Their is a slight discrepancy on his grave stone, it is said he was killed on the 7th June 1944, when one of his closest friends witnessed him getting shot and killed on the 6th. I hope that very soon that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission clears this discrepancy.

The Third cross is for the men of the Great War battlefields that are slowly being allowed to fade away with the process of time. The soldiers of Verdun, the soldiers of the St Mihiel Salient, and the brave soldiers of the Chemin de Dames, they are entitled also to be remembered for their own sacrifices, their bravery, their unending devotion to duty. On Sunday I will be thinking of the Ossuary at Douaumont, the Forts of Vaux and Souville, the abandoned church at Chivy, the memorial church at Marbotte to the men who died in the forests of Apremont above it. I will close my eyes and think of the rolling valleys of the Aisne, the Bois de Caures and the immortal General Driant. I will think of the Meuse, Mort Homme, Cote 304, the mine cratered village of Vauquois. Courage!!! On Les Aura!!!!

Eternal rest grant onto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them, may they rest in peace, and may all the souls of the departed through the loving mercy of God our Father rest in peace.

Amen

Cor Unum Via Una (One Heart One Way)

The Battlefield overlooking the Village of Soupir, the Farm is in the background. It was here where the BEF first experienced trench warfare in September 1914.

It is hard to believe that this farmer’s field was once a killing zone for British troops in early September in 1914. It was here also that the crystallisation of the Western Front began for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), resulting in static trench warfare that would claim so many lives in the following four years. It was here where an unknown phenomenon started, a tactical and logistical problem which took countless lives to solve. It was here where the ultimate challenge of the Great War began for Britain. It was here that British troops began to trade with local farmers for a pick or a shovel in order to protect themselves from the enemy.

Last year when the thought of lockdown seemed unthinkable, en route to the Citadel of Verdun in France, myself and my Father touched very gently the area astride the Chemin De Dames. The Chemin De Dames, (The Ladies Road) is a 30 Kilometre road which stretches between Soissons in the west to Corbeny in the east. Running in between the Aisne and Ailette valleys the road gives incredible views on either side, a perfect vantage point for any army considering staying put with unrestricted observation. The road where countless men died is now forever called the D18CD in honour of the sacrifices made. In 1917 the French offensive that took place here almost brought the French Army to mutiny and to it’s knees.

The villages in the valley of the river Aisne are truly hidden gems of the country, the villages of Craonne, Vendresse, Pont-Arcy are absolutely stunning. Over a century ago there also were once other villages near these. One of the Villages, Beaulne-et-Chivy close to the Village of Vendresse by the end of the Great War became sacrificed for the life of France, once a thriving village became a sacrificial ground of martyrdom, joining the villages of Fleury and Ornes in the Verdun battlefield.The only thing that symbolises that a village was ever there is a memorial church, and that church like the village is falling into the category of martyrdom, left to rot and decay, the birds finding sanctuary building nests in the holy water fonts. Once a proud monument of victory, left on its own to return back to nature.

The remains of the Soupir Chateau, it was from this area the Irish Guards headed northwards towards Soupir and the Farm at the top of the ridge.

In early September 1914, the German Army was checked by the French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne, which stopped the impending threat to Paris. Recoiling from this significant defeat the German Army retreated towards the Aisne and the Chemin De Dames. The French Army and the Old Contemptibles of the BEF scented blood and believed that victory would be achieved by Christmas. It could be argued that the British and French were naive in their approach to the situation and began the chase to outflank the German armies in France. This was the beginning of the ‘Race to the Sea’ as both armies tried desperately to keep the war fluid. The Germans reached the Chemin de Dames and with the use of spades as scalpels they cut trenches into the soil of France for the first time, contrary to the rules of the past the Germans decided to stand and fight here overlooking the Aisne where the BEF would have to engage these new defensive positions.

The BEF which had fought in desperate battles such as Mons, Le Cateau and the Marne arrived at the valley of the Aisne tired and battered, but due to their professionalism and sheer discipline. The force kept holding their own. When they arrived at the Aisne, they found that the Germans had blown the bridges along the river, brave men of the Royal Engineers under the cover of darkness constructed pontoon bridges for the infantry to cross as the flashes of German artillery fired in front of them. On the morning of 14 September 1914 the Irish Guards crossed the pontoon bridge over the Aisne at Pont-Arcy and headed towards the village of Soupir.

Soupir is to me where the agony of trench warfare began for the BEF. One of the most beautiful places in the world and yet like Verdun, Thiepval and Langemarck hides discreetly the agony of its past. In the area of the village alone there are five National Cemeteries, Two French, Two British, One German and One Italian. The village was destroyed during the Second Battle Of The Aisne in the spring of 1917 and rebuilt after the War. The story of the Irish Guards in fighting in and around the outskirts of the village on September 14 1914 is one of the hidden stories of the Great War. Having reached the Chateau at Soupir under heavy shellfire, the Guards waited for orders to advance. The 3rd Coldstream Guards who were ahead of the Irish Guards attacked through the village and headed northwards towards the Soupir Farm at the top of the ridge where they made contact with the enemy. The 3rd Coldstreamers came under heavy fire from the right, a ridge called point 197 and after a quick consultation with Major Matheson who was commanding the Coldstreamers, the Irish Guards would go into an attack with three companies to assault the wood and to take the ridge that was giving the Coldstreamers a bloody nose.

At 2pm the Irish Guards swept into the wood overlooking Soupir and immediately ran into difficulties, 200 yards to the northern edge of the wood they were stopped by rifle fire from newly dug German Trenches that had been dug 100 yards from the wood in a farmers field. The Irish Guards quickly dug in, whilst also having to deal with snipers that were causing havoc in the wood on the right hand side close to point 197. Famously Lieutenant Greer brought up his Machine Guns and brought fire to the Germans in a Turnip field.

At 2.30pm that afternoon near Soupir farm, 150 Germans were seen resting on haystacks with white flags and men of the Irish Guards with the Coldstreamers left the safety of their trenches to take them prisoner, sadistically the Germans opened up on the men advancing cautiously towards them at the range of 30 yards forcing them to retire. There was also the added danger of German snipers still lurking in the woods and they also needed to be cleared.

The fighting now increased in intensity as the Guards fought for control of the outskirts of the wood and Soupir Farm alongside the Coldstreamers. The acting Quartermaster Lord Guernsey, who had served in the Boer War and had been on duty on the coronation of King George V in 1911, came up to the front line positions and was assigned to number two company to assist Lord Arthur Hay in clearing out the snipers that were still in the wood. Both were shot dead immediately, and as dusk was approaching no further attacks were made. The Guards that had survived the days fighting were tired and exhausted, and spent the night in the wood overlooking Soupir bivouacked in battle outpost formation.

The following morning at 4am the Irish Guards sent a reconnaissance patrol to find that the Germans had dug in on the reverse slope north of Soupir Farm, the Guards reached the outskirts of the wood and spent the day consolidating the new positions. Sadly any attempts to retrieve the dead was suppressed by German artillery fire. The tactical problem of trench warfare began here for the BEF at Soupir and throughout the remainder of the month the trench lines were consolidated and improved. The Irish Guards on the 16 September spent their first night in these trenches as the rain lashed down. It was a foretaste of things to come. The action at Soupir that day cost the Guards lost 49 men, killed or wounded, not a lot of men in comparison to the bloodshed of the Somme or Passchendaele but the loss of experienced battle hardened men was incredibly evident.

In the communal cemetery of Soupir, Lord Guernsey and Lord Arthur Hay who were killed on the 14 September 1914 lay in peace side by side close to the wood where they both lost their lives. These elite officers of the BEF and part of Britain’s first professional fighting force were sacrificed on these hills in the creation of a tactical problem that was to last for four years. The cemetery contains also the remains of the Honourable William Amhurst Cecil MC of the Grenadier Guards who was killed on the 16 September 1914. His Epitaph in Latin, Cor Unum Via Una (One Heart One Way) is a reflection of passing from one life to another. In the midst of their final reckoning their dedication and devotion to duty is inspiring beyond compare.

I visited this battlefield with my father on a beautiful summers day and the ground itself weeps with emotion at one who recognises and remembers what happened here over a century ago. It gives the imagination an overload of emotion that is rarely seen, you honour the sacrifice and it acknowledges that in bounds. Remembering the memory of the Irish Guards who fought so bravely above the village of Soupir 106 years ago today.

Lord Guernsey’s epitaph strikes me as the most beautiful and symbolic of that War, and I conclude this blog with his gravestone on the 106th Anniversary of his passing in the defence of his nation.

The Whistle has blown for Half Time,

On Monday I managed to hand in the third essay for my MA in Britain and the First World War.The essay was based on the technological cutting edge of artillery during the war. It was extremely hard going, and at times I found it extremely difficult. It is not a understatement when I say that it was the hardest thing I have done since I was 16 years old. I have found it extremely difficult this year and at times extremely frightening. I think it is the fear of failure and embarrassing yourself, especially when you know that you are pitting your wits against the best academic minds in the United Kingdom. I must admit that it hasn’t been easy and it has been a reality check, in my own abilities and my knowledge. If you want this Masters degree you certainly have to earn it, and it has taken its toll on me. I have spent the past 10 months in the back room of my house, books on the table, trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with multiple solutions. I have almost acquired the status of a hermit.

But this journey is still only half way and it is only going to get harder. I must admit the entry into academia has been extremely difficult. It is no illusion when I say that at times this year it has tested me to the absolute limit, there have been times where I have cried in despair, moments of joy and disbelief. This was a journey where I have had to rediscover what I am capable of, to delve deeper and deeper into my mental capability. When I was at my lowest in January I was lucky that there were others around me who picked me up very quickly, having lost my Uncle Kevin suddenly in November and his cremation the week before Christmas, the preparation for my first essay was not as good as I hoped and as a result my first essay probably didn’t get the attention that it deserved at that moment. As consequence I just failed the first assignment. Although I passed the resit it left a particularly bitter taste. It still bothers me.

The second assignment was based on the campaign in the Middle East, and it I have to say a welcome relief. I felt I had a chance to redeem myself, having learned the lessons from the first assignment. It was a subject that I really enjoyed, tackling the Legend of Allenby entering Jerusalem in November 1917 and the capitulation of General Townshend’s army at Kut-El-Amara. I prepared properly and I must admit that the lockdown also played its part. I studied and read and wrote, learning all the time, suffering with my eyes and worked late into the night. even on evenings at the height of the pandemic. But it was a particularly satisfying moment when I passed this assignment. I had finally delivered, and I have to thank Field Marshal Allenby of Megiddo for his inspiration.

Yes, I have been tested to the fullest, it is by far the hardest thing I have set myself on. Sometimes there have been moments when I have considered throwing in the towel. There were moments especially on the train home where i felt sheer despair. But with reverses come success and having a good circle of people in the same boat as you, you realise very quickly that you are not alone in this struggle. One of the greatest things of being a human being is that you have a choice, a choice to endure, to stand and keep faith in your own abilities. The second choice is to stand back, evaluate the situation and decide to quit, thankfully yet that moment has not yet arrived and I am prepared to endure a little bit more. I see this enterprise as the fulfilment of a destiny i inherited as a 10 year old at Holy Rood, it is Half Time and I still have the second half, with extra time and penalties if need be.

Today is the 104th anniversary of the seizure of Pozieres by the Australians during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Pozieres is a very special place and is enshrined in the spirit of the people of Australia. 23,000 Australians were killed or wounded in the attempt to take the small village which lies on the Albert-Bapaume road. The Australians who fought at Pozieres never forgot it. Many of the Australian soldiers who arrived on the Somme had fought at Gallipoli and had combat experience. But fighting in Turkey and fighting in France were two totally different beasts. The Australians found out that the German Army was just as hard a nut to crack that the Turkish troops at Lone Pine or at the Nek. The Aussies paid for the seizure of Pozieres in their blood. South of the Albert-Bapaume road, hundreds of men were killed in their attempt to seize the fields south of the village, many were wounded. When Pozieres was finally seized, the agony continued for the Australians as they attempted to seize Mouquet (Mucky) Farm to the north west of the village.

Mouquet Farm, (On the road between Pozieres and Thiepval) before the Battle of the Somme had been originally a headquarters safe behind the front line positions, but as the British and Commonwealth soldiers attempted to break through along the Albert-Bapaume road. The situation from a German perspective became very serious and as a result, Mouquet Farm became a underground fortress, complete with underground tunnels and a interlocking defensive system. It was at Mouquet Farm where the German Army began to refine the technique of ‘Defence in Depth’, where they learned to counteract British attacking units. Many Australian soldiers learned the true nature of the Western Front as the German troops used the sloping ground to their full advantage, creating machine gun nests in the shell craters that the British heavy guns had created before an attack. Killing and wounding many Australians as they inched towards the now completely destroyed farm complex. As a result of continual heavy losses, the Australians were moved out of the lines and the Canadians moved in.

Mouquet Farm 2016, the original farm buildings were to the left of the Farm where the trees are now, notice the slope to the road. The British and Commonwealth forces had to attack up the slope.

After a month of heavy and continuous fighting Mouquet farm was taken on 16th September 1916 by the Canadians only to be lost by a heavy German counterattack. It wasn’t until the 26th that the farm was finally seized by the 11th (Northern) Division during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge on the 26th September 1916. This once innocent farm had now become a notorious killing ground, and many soldiers that were killed in the constant artillery battle were never found, many of them, their names etched on the Thiepval Memorial that is visible in the distance. Australia remembers Pozieres and Mouquet Farm and will continue to do so for many years to come. The legacy lives on.

‘Amid Death’s harvest on France’s Plain’

The Barnsley Pals Memorial at Sheffield Memorial Park, Serre

104 years ago this very evening in Picardy, a new and inexperienced British army marched towards the trenches of the Somme. This unique volunteer army raised by the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener was preparing for its first major battle of the First World War. They were waiting for the moment for which they, for the best part of two years they had trained and laboured for. These men were fresh, high in morale, full of confidence and were preparing for the ‘Big Push’. On a 16 mile front from Serre in the north to Montauban in the South, this raw and never been challenged British volunteer army were preparing for an assault they believed would change the course of the war.

24 hours later, 60,000 British Soldiers were casualties, nearly 20,000 men were killed in one single day, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army before or since. The dream of a walk to Berlin was shot away in seconds, as multiple machine gun bullets hurtled with ferocity into the lines of advancing infantry cutting rank and file into pieces. 1st July 1916 left a psychological scar that still although past living memory, leaves an indelible scar on our national psyche. The innocence and ideals of that generation that was sacrificed on that day has haunted us ever since. After that one single day everything changed. Some see it as the beginning of the end of our Imperial journey, some see it as a massive error in judgement and over expectation. In the case of a future Field Marshal in a war a generation later, the experience of the Somme made him more determined to protect his own soldiers when they advanced and provide every means at his disposal to keep them alive. So that the nightmare would never again be repeated.

Plans for a combined British-French on the the Somme had been agreed at the Chantilly Conference in December 1915, in which both armies would attack together side by side along the banks of the River Somme. When Germany struck at Verdun on 21st February 1916, France’s priority was centered around the survival of the citadel. Britain for the very first time would have to take the leading role. It was time for Britain to prove her capability to make battle on her German adversary. In France’s opinion it was time for Britain to pay her war effort with blood.

The German positions on the northern uplands of Picardy were arguably the best defensive trench systems on the Western Front. Using the high ground and incorporating occupied villages into their defensive systems, the German army had used two years of occupation to develop their trenches and create defensive redoubts. In front of their front line trenches and redoubts vast belts of barbed wire were placed to hamper any potential attacks. Near Serre was the Heidenkopf, which to the British was called the Quadrilateral. At Beaumont Hamel was ‘Y’ Ravine. At the soon to be infamous village of Thiepval there were 2 defensive redoubts. To the north was the Schwaben Redoubt, to the south the Leipzig Redoubt and the Wunderwerk section of trenches. Villages such as Ovillers, La Boisselle, Fricourt, Mametz, Montauban and Carnoy were converted into mini fortresses by the Germans, each were interconnected by trenches, defensive dugouts, interlocking fields of fire, barbed wire entanglements and most importantly deep underground shelters for the soldiers manning the front line trenches.

This new inexperienced British Army was very different of the ‘Old Contemptibles’ of the early days of 1914. They comprised of the finest generation of men that Britain arguably had ever produced. This generation of men was the first to be educated by the state, the first to be given a hot school meal, and had very high hopes for the future. The upper class officers had been taught the exploits of Wellington at Waterloo, Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim in 1705 in their respective universities and military colleges. They had total belief and conviction in that what they were doing was for the King and most importantly their country and Empire. This attack, they believed would signal the beginning of the end of the war and finally bring Germany to its knees. It would be a glorious return home.

Using similar tactics which had been used to some success at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, the British High Command believed that Artillery alone could smash and destroy one of the most elaborate trench systems on the Western Front. Vast quantities of Shrapnel shells would be used to cut the barbed wire entanglements, whilst the heavier artillery guns would be used to destroy the German trench system. Then after a significant bombardment which was supposed to last five days, (it became seven after bad weather) the advancing British infantry would cross No-Mans-Land and literally walk through the German defences without seeing any German troops alive. Rather than take these trenches, they would be consolidated before moving on to the next objective.

The overwhelming problem was that the British did not have the sufficient amount of guns per yard of the 16 miles of German trenches, a historian later wrote ‘It probably would have taken several small nuclear devices to achieve the objectives’. The vast majority of shrapnel shells, cases of shells filled with lead balls were not properly capable of cutting the German barbed wire entanglements, and that the high explosive shells did not detonate on impact due to faulty and rushed manufacture. Over a million Shells were fired at the German defences on the Somme Battlefront in the period 24th June-1st July 1916, the estimate is that probably 1 in 10 shells actually detonated on impact. Reports were made saying that the shrapnel shells were having little or no impact on the barbed wire defences. But the plan was kept the same, and nothing was changed. As a result the barbed wire would be as much as a nuisance than the rattle of a German Maxim machine gun.

German soldiers, hidden in underground shelters up to 40 feet deep waited for the seemingly unending hell of artillery bombardment to cease. They waited under tremendous strain, nerves wracked with the noise and vibration of constant shell fire, as well as the fear of being buried alive. They were also very hungry as food and water supplies were none existent. Food ration parties were killed on their way up to the bombarded front line positions. The tension was slowly racking up to breaking point.

Just before 7.30 on the morning of July 1st 1916 the bombardment stopped and the Germans emerged unscathed from their underground shelters. In the skies above the larks were singing their song. Waiting for their adversaries to advance towards them. They loaded their rifles and machine gun belts. Then the whistles blew to signal the beginning of the attack. Stunned that the attacking British Infantry were walking casually towards them, they waited until the very last moment. The machine gunners prepared for the order to fire.

The rest is as they say history,

Memories and the Joy of Success

The German Trenches of Vauquois June 2019

This week has been a a very mixed one. This Sunday I was supposed to be travelling to the Western Front for the annual family pilgrimage to the Battlefields of the Western Front. Not only with my Father but with my Brother in Law Justin on his first ever trip to the sacred fields of Flanders and Picardy. Sadly the Covid 19 pandemic has sadly dented our hopes of making that trip. Hopefully in late September we will be able to fulfil the covenant that we made with those heroes back in 2016, a trip that still has a very significant impact on me to this day.

It was about the same time last year that me and my Father delved and drove for the very first time into the killing fields of the Chemin de Dames and the mincing machine that was the citadel of Verdun. I think of all the numerous trips I have made to France and Belgium, the cemeteries and memorials I have visited that show the suffering endured on the British side of the wire. All those sites are nothing compared to the now forest covered secret of the battlefield of Verdun. That place has every possible emotion shrouded, its ghosts linger underneath the trees begging for the reclamation of their souls. Abandoned fortresses, heroic bunkers of men such as General Driant in the Bois de Caures. Long abandoned trenches, bone filled ossuaries and the legacy of a battle that mentally and scarred France, its ramifications probably in part contributed to France’s eventual capitulation in 1940. A generation later and in a completely different war at the hands of the German Wehrmacht with its array of Panzers and wailing Stuka dive bombers. The carnage of Verdun was too much of a burden to bear again.

Futility, fear, terror, a place where humanity no longer was allowed to exist as industrialised mechanical warfare destroyed and maimed many. The villages that once thrived with life, now left in ruins, destroyed heroically for the survival of a nation. The village of Ornes and Fleury a testament to the carnage and suffering endured on both sides. It was a place of overwhelming sadness of which I have never known in my existence.

To have experienced Verdun was to change my whole perception of the Great War in a new and inspiring way. It was an incredible honour and privilege to be there. It was no longer looking at one sides perspective but also the other side of the wire. Remembering that the German army in their attempt to destroy France in February 1916 lost tens of thousands of men. You also have to bear in mind that later in July to November 1916, the British and a comparatively smaller French Army would give battle on the German forces on the Somme and the that the bloodletting in both campaigns was from German point of view unsustainable, and contributed to eventual defeat in 1918.

Tens of thousands of German soldiers were killed attacking at Verdun and defending their gains on the Somme in 1916. The bloodletting of that year changed the German Army immeasurably in loss of manpower and in its tactical development as a fighting force. In my opinion their tenacity and determination to hang on in such horrific conditions has to be accepted, acknowledged and most importantly admired. The losses sustained at Verdun and the ferocity of the battle on the Somme was so extraordinary in its violence that the newly appointed German commanders, Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul Von Hindenburg constructed new defences on ground of their own choosing in the spring of 1917. Reducing the ground occupied allowed the German Army to have more troops in reserve if they needed them, as and when they were needed on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The Hindenburg Line became Germany’s new frontier defences. The unrelenting nature of the fighting in 1916 undoubtedly left its scars and influenced their overall tactical thinking.

The Entrance to Fort Souville, the high point of the German Assault on Verdun in 1916

This Wednesday I received results of my second University Assignment that I had written on the campaigns of Mesopotamia and Palestine and I’m delighted to have passed with a far better score than I originally thought I would receive. It was a particular moment of joy for me to have finally broken the academic stalemate that has really hindered me. On the other hand I have been able to look at a new and considerably different area of the the Great War. Being allowed to delve into the new campaigns that I really did not really understand was something that I really enjoyed, to have been introduced to characters as the infamous General Townshend of Kut, Generals Nixon, Maude and one of my heroes of the Great War, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby.

Allenby, who had commanded the British Third Army on the Western Front at the Battle Of Arras in April 1917, triumphed in the Palestine campaign later on in the year, notably with victories at the Battle of Megiddo, the third Battle of Gaza and at Beersheba. The successive victories as well as bringing his experience of modern industrialised warfare from the Western Front was to prove instrumental as he led the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) from Gaza to the gates of Jerusalem and Damascus. His army’s entrance into Jerusalem in November 1917 became legend as he entered the city on foot, showing humility to the Holy City and the bringing the end of Ottoman rule. It gave the British people a much needed ‘Christmas Present’ in the words of Lloyd George. Politically it was significant for his government as it relieved the pressure after the unending bloodletting in the mud of Passchendaele. Allenby had finally achieved in Jerusalem what General Maude had accomplished in March 1917 with the seizure of Baghdad. Britain was fully in control of the Middle East and its oilfields, with a modern and industrialised force.

Allenby probably saw his removal from the Western Front to Palestine as a punishment for his failure to break the deadlock at Arras. But due to the organisational and logistical efforts made by his predecessor in Egypt, General Archibald Murray, Allenby was able to bring his experiences in France and have the freedom to put his methods into practice. In the planning of his operations, although the administration was controlled by London, militarily on the ground and many miles from home he had full autonomy over his intentions, and his officers shared his vision of using combined arms using every means at their disposal. The use of aircraft, artillery, armoured vehicles, cavalry, camels and the continual construction of a water pipeline and railway system contributed to eventual victory, and the defeat of the Ottoman Turkish Army.

But the British occupation of the Middle East and Palestine sadly was to bring consequences, sadly of which last to this very day, and the legacy of British rule is still seen with contempt amongst many.

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