Il ne passeront pas

(They will not pass)

That famous quotation spoken by General Robert Nivelle in 1916, is arguably one of the most famous of the great war. It was said at a time of absolute crisis and yet that quotation gave belief and a glimmer of hope to a nation that was literally fighting to stay alive against the attacker who was determined to destroy it.

In a month’s time, myself and my father are visiting a new area of the western front, it is for me a new experience and a brand new challenge, a new battlefield, a new area to learn and study, another great chance to understand the story of over a century ago. The unbelievable and titanic struggle, the unending human suffering. The epic struggle of 2 nations, France and Germany, Gaul and Teuton, one with the intention of bleeding another one white, the other side merely holding on for survival, locked in a do or die duel that lasted longer than any other battle in the great War. This is one of the definitive and notorious battlefields of all time and the 20th century, Verdun.

However the decision to move the focus away from Flanders and the Somme for the year was a extremely difficult one. I love visiting the Ypres Salient and the Somme, but after 3 years its time to explore further south, past Picardy, towards the region of the River Meuse. If anything the events at Verdun in February 1916 above everything else, had massive implications to the lives of thousands of British and Commonwealth Soldiers in the summer of that year, engaged in battle on the Somme.

In December 1915 at Chantilly, the French and British high command discussed the strategy for 1916, they both agreed on a combined summer offensive on the Somme, however the German High Command under General Falkenhayn had also created a plan that was to strike at the very heart of France’s spiritual soul. Verdun.

The operation was called “Gericht” Judgement or place of execution. Falkenhayn believed that if the German Army attacked Verdun, he would put the French army into a position where they, out of duty and obligation would throw every available soldier into the battle to avoid the city’s capture. In his words he would attempt to make France “bleed to death”, under the weight of heavy artillery shelling, flamethrowers and infantry attacks. Verdun would become what Ypres had become to the British, a place of absolute determination.

Verdun, a town on the banks of the Meuse in early 1916, was in most respects a quiet sector for French soldiers, Most of the fighting had been conducted further north in Flanders and Artois, notably north of Arras near Vimy Ridge. Verdun was surrounded and protected by mighty fortresses, and dense woodland. Many of the forts were built and modified after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The main fort and lynchpin in the Verdun defensive area was Douaumont, but there was also the Forts of Vaux and Souville which mutually protected each other. In the eyes of the French Public, these forts alone had the ability to repel the German attack towards Verdun and Paris. In February 1916, the French were tested to a new more extreme and extreme limit. The combined offensive on the Somme would now have to become a predominantly British operation, the French high command did commit troops to the offensive on the Somme. But not on the scale that had originally been planned.

Events around Verdun possibly and probably hurried British plans in the attack on the Somme, the fight for survival at Verdun was becoming so severe that Joffre, the French commander in chief begged his ally, the British General Sir Douglas Haig to begin the offensive earlier as he possibly could. Haig, as a result of pressure switched his attack plan from August to late June. The following events in Verdun although ending in overall victory, were not only to haunt France but would also hinder and effect the mental psyche of France for years to come. The failed Nivelle offensive of April 1917 on the Chemin de Dames led to mutiny within the French Army, which had had enough of poor food, poor wages and the French High Command, who were seemingly willing to lose men in poorly co-ordinated operations. General Petain was brought in to retrieve the situation. He did but it would take time for the French army to recover.

It also ensured that Britain and her Empire would be the only force on the western front with the capability to take on the Germans in the remainder of 1917, resulting in the offensives on Messines and Passchendaele. The mutinies made France switch to defensive operations and it took a year for France to recover. Luckily the Germans opposite had no idea of what was going on, and never fortunately capitalised on the opportunity.

20 years later when France was again asked to rise to face Germany in a feat of arms, tactics that had been used in 1914, were now deemed null and void, the forces of the Wehrmacht used new modern and devastating tactics using tanks and aircraft, which led to a catastrophic and humiliating defeat in May-June 1940.

Planning has been long and hard, its going to be a hard 4 hour drive from Zeebrugge to Verdun, but there are a couple of sites im thinking of stopping off near the Chemin de Dames, either the Commonwealth Cemeteries at Vendresse or the villages of Soupir and Pont-Arcy on the banks of the river Aisne. It is going to be difficult for me and most especially for Father, we are going out of the comfort zone but we are certainly looking forward to embracing this new and historic battlefield.

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

Promotion, and Wilfred,

Wilfrid Bartrop’s Grave in Warcoing Churchyard, Belgium


Dedicated to my Father on his 57th Birthday on Sunday, the first person I ever guided and toured with on the Western Front, our first trip to the Somme in 2016 with him set me on this incredible and rewarding path, long may it continue, and looking forward to another great trip to Verdun next month.

Last night, surprisingly and wonderfully, my beloved football team Barnsley F.C sealed promotion to the Championship at the first time of asking, without even kicking a football. I have always maintained that I, as a Barnsley supporter have been part of the luckiest generation of supporters that the football club has ever had. The argument being that I have seen them win trophies at Wembley, Cardiff and experienced a season in the Premier League, many many years ago when I was a boy. Also to have seen them at the old Twin Towers of Wembley in 2000, in the last competitive final to be played in that most famous of stadiums although we were beaten by a far superior Ipswich Town side

Over 100 years ago however there was another successful generation of Barnsley supporters even more luckier than my own. In 1910 Barnsley reached the F.A Cup final against Newcastle United at a sold out Crystal Palace, the Final went to a replay at Goodison Park only for Barnsley to be beaten. One of the players that wore red in the final was a man called Wilfred Bartrop.

Wilfred Bartrop, FA Cup Winner 1912

Born in November 1887 in Worksop, the same year as Barnsley FC was created, known then as Barnsley (St Peters). As a attacking forward Wilfred joined Barnsley Football Club from his hometown club in June 1909 and made 160 appearances for the side, scoring 15 goals. Having played in the FA Cup Finals of 1910 against Newcastle, he then played in arguably the greatest Barnsley team of all time in April 1912.

Under the management of Arthur Fairclough they brought home the FA Cup, beating West Bromwich Albion in a replay at Bramall Lane, the first and last Yorkshire team to win the trophy on Yorkshire soil. Harry Tufnell scoring the winner. Wilfred however won the man of the match and was praised by the national press, notably the Manchester Guardian for his exceptional all round performance in the replay. It would be the last major piece of silverware that Barnsley would win in a major final for 104 years, finally matched by Paul Heckingbottom’s Football League Trophy winners in 2016 at Wembley.

Wilfred’s 1912 FA Cup winners medal, on display last year at Barnsley Town Hall as Part of the Armistice Centenary Celebrations and in remembrance of him and his sacrifice.

Wilfred was to stay at Barnsley for another two years, the team narrowly missing out on promotion to the old First Division to Arsenal in spring 1914 under very suspicious circumstances. He also played for Barnsley against Celtic at Hampden Park in a England/Scotland Cup winners match where the honours were shared. But by then Liverpool had become very interested in signing him. Much to the Barnsley supporters despair the club sold him and sent him to Anfield therefore ending Barnsley’s hope for further success that decade.

He only played 3 times for Liverpool, and then in early August 1914, Britain went to War against Germany. Wilfred seeing that he had to answer his country’s call, joined the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner in a trench mortar battery which was extremely dangerous. Sadly just 4 days before the Armistice was signed he was killed, just short of his 31st Birthday. He lies buried alongside 4 other Soldiers in the churchyard of Saint Armand in Warcoing, which was bombarded heavily in the final days of the Great War as the Germans were pushed back towards their frontier by the Allies.

Last year, alongside my Father on the same day England played Tunisia in the World Cup finals, we made a special pilgrimage to the grave of this remarkable individual, we laid a scarf around his grave, in deep gratitude for what he did, not just as a soldier, but as a man who had represented our football club, our town. When Wilfred’s 1912 winners medal was put up for Auction in 2008, it was bought by the then Chairman of Barnsley FC, Patrick Cryne for 3 times its value at £14,400.

It was wonderful to finally see his winners medal in the town hall last November as part of the towns commemorations for the centenary of the Armistice. And finally in the very small trophy cabinet at Oakwell alongside the ball that was used at Bramall Lane that famous day in 1912, lies the medal of one of the Fallen but remains immortal in the hearts of supporters of Barnsley Football Club, Wilfred Bartrop.

And the Earth Abideth Forever

Martin Joseph

Oakwell, much altered from the days when Wilfred played, but hìs memory lives in our hearts.

Easter Reflections

Happy Easter to everyone, it was a great relief to finally close the Easter ceremonies at church yesterday morning after 4 straight days of prayer, meditation and thanksgiving. It has been a wonderful weekend of joy and celebration and most importantly of reflection. I’m greatful that I shared it with my wonderful family and my God children. As it says in the Psalm, “The stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone, let it be so, Amen”

As a Altar Server/ master of ceremonies I have served my Parish for nearly 24 years, I have celebrated Masses with Bishops and curates alike. It is very different now than it was 20 years ago, most servers at my parish then were from the scouts, I never joined the scouts, it was something that never really interested or appealed to me, although looking onwards in my future endeavours it might have put me in good stead. I volunteered to become a server, I was 10 years old, the first mass I ever served was on Christmas Day 1995, It is a experience that I still remember to this day. In 1997 sadly the Scouts were dissolved in the Parish.

Altar Servers have existed in my Parish since the current church was completed in September 1905, 3 of them served in the Great War and thankfully came home, however many of the Parishoners, one of them notably a Irish Immigrant called John Glynn, was killed on the opening day of the Somme in July 1916, his body was never recovered and his wife, because she couldnt read or write, asked the Parish Priest at the time, Canon John Hill to write a letter to the officer of which John was under command to find out his whereabouts. A copy of that letter was put on display in the town hall to mark the centenary. It was not until March 1917 when the Germans retreated to the Hindenburg Line when John Glynn was officially noted as missing presumed dead. His decendants still place a poppy cross on the War memorial in church every year in November with reverence. His name is alongside 72,000 others on the Thiepval memorial to the missing.

The Archconfraternity of St Stephen as it is called is celebrated on December 26th, with a Mass dedicated to the First (Proto) Martyr of the Christian faith, Stephen. He is the patron saint for Altar Servers across the world. His martyrdom is documented in the Acts of the Apostles, and led to the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus.

Young Servers usually have to serve a full liturgical year on the Altar to become a member of this elite group of people, of which they learn how and understand why mass is celebrated in the way it is. First and foremost servers are there to assist the Priest on the Altar and to help him complete the sacred mystery of the Holy Eucharist. Secondly we are also there to assist the congregation by our actions and our responses of prayer. On the completion of a full liturgical year they are enrolled on the following Boxing Day and recieve the medal of St Stephen as a symbol of completion of their apprenticeship. Every Boxing Day since 1996 I have gone to Mass to renew the vows I made. I said I would do 10 years, its nearly 24 now.

I have been asked on many occasions why I still go to Church, why I celebrate something that mankind now feels at liberty to challenge with the assistance of modern science. My feelings on that particular front is to keep ones belief to oneself and only to be open whenever I am asked, although sometimes you are asked questions that even you are unable to answer yourself. It is now more easier and accessible than ever before to question God and his teachings as a means of sustaining yourself spiritually.

I probably seem very backward to a majority of people in today’s society, and many times I have been ridiculed and looked down upon because of my faith and beliefs. It gets harder and harder every year, I am witnessing the progressive and slow decline of the largest institution of western Europe. I see more and more the empty spaces in the pews as the years have gone by. I feel also that the Catholic Church has to adapt even more and has a moral obligation to relate more to the attitudes of the modern 21st Century, in order to keep alive. However their are elements of the Institution that need to remain and must continue to be sustained, it is what separates it from everything else. The media rightly showed and highlighted the deplorable actions of certain members of the Clergy in Ireland, Spain and in America, which rightly gave a great deal of negativity, not only in my faith but other Christian faiths in general also. It also adds fuel to the Media’s fire to slowly destroy peoples perception of what having a religion actually is, that having a religion is no longer acceptable in the 21st century.

Having Faith in something that happened 2 millenia ago is a greater challenge than it has ever been before. I must admit there have been many occasions where personally out of hate and resentment towards the Churches teaching, I have wanted to throw my medal away and question the point of having faith and beliefs. But that inner voice in my head continues to tell me to stick to it and not to give it up. No one ever said that faith is a walk in the park, it is more like a walk on a pavement with shattered glass with no shoes on, you will get cut but you still keep moving forward.

St Martins Cathedral Ypres,

The Lenten season has come with great blessings for me personally, qualifying and being enrolled to University at Wolverhampton in October has brought so much to look forward to later this year and I am looking forward to finally achieving my potential. I owe it to myself to achieve and complete something that I have been destined to do all my life. Given the opportunity and the chance, I’m determined this time not to fail.

Now I look forward to visiting France in June with Father, Im starting my preparations for the trip to Verdun in earnest, hopefully with a little trip towards the Aisne and the Chemin de Dames if possible. But it is time to further understand a battle that did more damage to a Nation than ever before, the scars still being unable to heal, even to this day, a battle that gave a nation psychological trauma, with greater consequences 20 years later in 1940.

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

A Hint of Maple,

Mother Canada overlooking the Douai Plain, Vimy Ridge 2016

102 years ago yesterday, on the slopes of Vimy Ridge in northern France, the 4 Divisions of General Sir Julian Byng’s Canadian Corps came of age, and engaged the German Army for the first time as an combined and collective force. As part of General Robert Nivelle’s 1917 spring campaign on the Chemin De Dames, the British were asked to conduct a diversionary action north east of the town of Arras, to help drain and pin down German reserves. Vimy Ridge was the strongest German bastion on the Western Front, the French Army had spent the best part of 2 years trying to take this significant vantage point, they had got close to the objective in 1915 when they held part of the heights before they were pushed back down the ridge. By taking this strategic strong point, it opened up a unlimited view of the Douai plain, allowing the Allies to have a unrestricted view of German activity in the area. On Easter Monday 1917 the men of a young emerging nation, with the combination of mines, concentrated and co-ordinated heavy artillery, improved infantry tactics and a mix of sleet and snow showers managed to take and consolidate Vimy Ridge, this victory created a nation and a legend, but to me personally, it is a combination of previous events and experiences that the Canadians endured that allowed this success to be achieved, and here are a few examples.

The Canadian Corps first arrived at Neuve Chapelle in early spring 1915, but their first baptism of fire on the Western Front was during the 2nd Battle of Ypres on 22nd April 1915. The first poison gas attacks in history had created a massive 4 mile gap in the Allied lines north of Ypres. French colonial troops in terror ran away in absolute terror from the chlorine gas cloud that had slowly enveloped their trenches, drowning and maiming men in their thousands, the newly arrived Canadian Corps managed heroically to plug the gap that had been created, the troops improvised protection by unrinating on their handkerchiefs and wrapping the wet cloths around their faces. They managed to hold and bravely kept the attacking Germans at bay. Many Canadians soldiers died as a result of gas poisoning, and many were maimed for life. As a result, the Germans for the second time in 6 months were contained on the Sailient, it created and forged a reputation that became a legend. The Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner bears witness to the heroism of those men who bore the brunt of the first use of chemicals in warfare.

Vancouver Corner, St Julien

After the heroism and valour of 1915, early in 1916, the Canadians held part of the Ypres Sailient known as Hill 62, known today as Mount Sorrel, close to Sanctuary Wood, where they held the line during the early summer of 1916. You can see by the photograph below that you have a unlimited view of Ypres and the British positions surrounding the town, the line had to be held in this sector of the Sailient.

The View of Ypres from Hill 62 (Mount Sorrel)

But then the First, Second and Third Canadian Division were moved down to the Somme for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in September 1916. They replaced the shattered Australian units that had been repeatedly attacking Pozieres and Mouquet Farm on the Thiepval ridge during July and August with very losses. On the 15th September 1916, as part of the British Army’s third attempt to achieve a breakthrough on the Somme, planned under the protection of a creeping, co-ordinated artillery barrage and Tanks that were being tried in battle for the first time, the Canadians attacked towards the village of Courcelette, advancing toward the German trenches, the protective barrage moved through the German defensive positions at timed Intervals, allowing the Canadian soldiers to keep pace under the protective blanket of fire, helping them to achieve and consolidate their objectives. They suffered heavy losses, some due to ‘friendly fire’ but they took the village on the same day, a remarkable achievement given the circumstances, however the main British offensive, which lasted for nearly a week, overall failed to achieve its strategic objectives of breaking through the German defensive system towards Bapaume.

On the 26th September 1916 the Canadians again made a further contribution to the Somme Offensive, elements of the 1st and 2nd Canadian divisions alongside the British 11th and 18th, attacked the German defensive lines between Thiepval and Courcelette, the Canadians were given significant objectives to take, one being the unknown German Regina Trench, just north of the recently taken village. At 2 miles long, it was the longest German Trench line in that area, dug on a exposed reverse slope it was almost identical to the Switch Line at High Wood, it made artillery observation almost impossible, and made life very easy for the German machine gunners, exposing any attacking infantry that came towards them. Having made significant progress, the Canadians were halted at Regina, and as a result during October 1916, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions repeatedly made attempts to break the German strong point, conscequently as a result the Casualty lists became truly appalling, resulting in the loss of over 20,000 men. They also began to run into the newly emerging German Stormtroopers, which were designed to counter and suppress any breakthrough by ruthless counterattack.

The strength of each Battalion in the divisions was severely diminished, having fought through Courcelette and the heavy fighting for Regina Trench. By the end of the month, General Byng had recommended to General Haig that the first three Canadian Divisions should be withdrawn. They were slowly withdrawn, but the Fourth Canadian Division still hadn’t been engaged in serious fighting. They would be used for the first time on the 21st October, they would attack Regina again.

Regina Trench Cemetery April 2018

Regina Trench wasn’t taken until 11th November 1916, the Fourth Canadian division had engaged the German defenders on a battlefield that now resembled a shell cratered muddy swamp, the dead lay everywhere, many of the dead were of their own countrymen, killed in previous, futile attacks. Regina had achieved the same notoriety as Pozieres and Delville Wood. But the attacks continued, the last Canadian attack took place on the Somme on 18th November 1916, when Desire Trench, north of Regina Trench was taken and consolidated, the Battle of The Somme officially ended on that day.

The experience of Second Ypres, the Somme and Vimy forged a reputation for the Canadian units, they became one of the most respected and feared elements of the Allied Formations in the Great War. Many of the cemeteries around Courcelette, notably Regina Trench Cemetery, Adanac Cemetery and Courcelette Cemetery itself, bear witness to the heroism and terror endured by the Canadian Corps on the Somme. But the actions at Vimy helped create and cement the Canada that we know today, a modern and independent country proud of its history and willing to embrace the past in order to bring its lesson to future generations, they should be remembered for that for many years to come.

Adanac Military Cemetery April 2018

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

Back to the beginning, again

The depiction of Christ’s Crucifixion at St Quentin Cathedral, which was a frontline city during the Great War and suffered heavy shelling.

Passiontide and Easter are emerging on the horizon again, it is hard to believe that during the last couple of weeks, that so many things can change so quickly and so very rapidly also. In a short space of time, my own attitude and overall direction towards my own future has changed, and I feel that it is time finally to go back to basics. A couple of weeks ago at Flat Iron Copse Cemetery on the Somme, I was asked a question by a very good friend that personally I had the inability to answer. “What do you want to get out of this yourself and what do you want to do for yourself in the future?”

In that question alone and in the presence of the greatest generation that our nation had ever produced, it was a moment. It was in the great author Roald Dahl’s words “a monumental bash on the head”. I realised albeit painfully that I had to make two choices, and it would be a very painful decision to make. I must admit that I have been in my comfort zone for far too long. It was finally time to be brave and to try to step into the right direction. I am scared to fail, evenmore so now. My friends have grown up around me and moved on with their lives, I in all fairness havent yet done that. Im still watching Tom and Jerry when I feel miserable. I’m 34 in October for heavens sake!!!

One, to keep my passion of the Great War as a hobby, and keep to visiting as a tourist whilst keeping my books, knowledge and notes safely locked up in the cupboard in my room. It is something that I really enjoy, and it has given me great comfort over the years in knowing that everytime I come back home from France and Belgium, I will be returning back because they never leave you in some strange way, that is very difficult to describe. The fields of France and Flanders are truly my source of inspiration. When I have been lonely and felt isolated I go back to the photos and it keeps me going.

Two, to do something completely different and completely out of my comfort zone and depth, to go back to night and weekend classes and actually try to properly challenge and academically take on the historical significance of the Great War in a new way, and to come back with something to properly cherish, not for my family but for myself more importantly. I never passed my History GCSE, according to one teacher who once said in a school report sent to my mother “He is so laid back that he is in danger of falling over”. Its time to prove to him wrong and to prove to myself that I am truly worth something. To have that chance to progress and change my life is an offer that I can no longer refuse. I today applied to go to University to try and change my ordinary circumstances hopefully for the better. I have nothing left here at home other than my family and friends, its time for the bird to fly away properly. Its also time to share what I have kept locked up in the cabinet to other people and to absorb more and more information.

But that comes with serious difficulties, the last time I wrote an essay I was seventeen years old, filled with Absinthe, Vodka Kick and Ultrabeat. That was well over a decade ago. I havent ever really stepped into the breech of revising, studying, concentrating. More than likely because I didnt really know what I was really doing. But this time I feel that I need to be on the road of a true direction and purpose, I have nothing left to lose now. Im still determined to look for a solution and its important to find one quickly. But maybe no one ever truly does in life.

Irish House Cemetery, Wytschaete.

Atmosphere Of The Spirits

Pozieres Cemetery and Memorial, March 19th 2019


I have taken many photos of the Cemeteries and memorials of the Great War, notably the memorials of Tyne Cot, Ploegsteert Wood, Faubourg de Amiens, Thiepval and the Imperial Archway of the Menin Gate. However this one is my favourite of all time, it is a combination of Symmetry, Nature and above all light coming through the darkness to create a spectacle of sheer grief, pain and the end of an age. Of which we as a country will never see the likes of again.

After a weekend abroad on the Somme and Artois, I was lucky enough to visit new cemeteries as well as old. Most notably the beautiful Chateau Cemetery at Contalmaison and the new and old Cemeteries at Point 110. Tackling sunshine and showers, and Hail Storms i walked in total 32 miles along the Somme Battleground. I exceeded my own expectations. On Sunday and Monday, I alongside my Friend Shaun took Dawn walks to sacred areas of the 1st July 1916 Battlefield, on Sunday we walked across Mash Valley to the Nab, a short distance from Thiepval. On Monday we walked across Sausage Valley and observed the mighty Lochnagar mine crater as the sun rose, before walking across the old front lines of the Valley to Gordon Dump Cemetery, on the road between La Boisselle and Contalmaison.

But it was Tuesday morning in the early morning mist of the Somme alongside Lucy that i took, for me personally the photo of all photos. It to me signalled that it will be a long while before I return again back to this place, where my passion and devotion began in Primary School almost 23 years ago.

I had packed my bag ready to go for the trip home back to Yorkshire. It was 6.30am. Outside the sky was foggy and dull, when i recieved a knock on my door. It was Lucy asking if i fancied a short walk up to Pozieres Cemetery. I didnt even hesitate in my answer, it was a last chance to pay my respects to Them.

The Cross of Sacrifice at Pozieres

The walk to and from Pozieres from La Boisselle to Pozieres took 25 minutes each way, Walking along one of the Via Delorosa’s of British Military history, the Infamous Albert to Bapaume Road. We trudged through the mist and Fog, our boots and Socks wet and cold from the Frost from the overgrown Grass. The visibility was not great, around 50 metres. It was probably a stupid and mad thing to do, especially as the morning traffic was getting busier. But we persevered and slowly out of the mist emerged one of the defining memorials of the Somme. It is one of the must see Cemeteries that must be visited if you ever get the chance to go. As we opened the gates we stepped into an arena of sheer natural beauty and atmosphere, the mist acting as a protective blanket to the men that laid in everlasting peace. It was a moment of pure spiritual elysium. All the elements of nature acting in the only possible outcome. It was simply breathtaking.

Pozieres is a place of significance, for the People of Australia it has a particular infamy, in July 1916 at Fromelles and in front of Pozieres, the Anzacs were bloodied into the Cauldron of the Western Front. In taking Pozieres it cost the Australians 23,000 killed, wounded and missing, not only in taking the village, but also resisting heavy artillery bombardments and counterattacks by the Germans who were determined to keep the Village in their hands. Pozieres was the highest point on the Somme front and gave a unrestricted view to the British positions. As a concequence, In the words of the biographer Charles Bean “Pozieres Ridge is more densely sown with Australian Sacrifice than any other place on Earth.”

As Part of Sir Hubert Gough’s Reserve Fifth Army, the Australians through August and early September crept slowly northwards up to the German Bastion of Mouquet Farm, which was on the approach to Thiepval Ridge, which was still in German hands. It became a living nightmare for the Australians. In 6 weeks of heavy fighting the Australians lost as many men as they had done at Gallipoli from April 1915 to January 1916. They were eventually relieved by the Canadians, who were preparing for the next major attack toward Courcelette, which took place on 14th September 1916.

Pozieres has also a memorial dedicated to the Soldiers of the British Fourth and Fifth Armies who were killed in the Battles of early 1918, the names of over 14,000 men who were killed during the German Spring offensives of 1918, and have no known Grave. One notable mention is that of Lieutenant Colonel Elstob of the Manchester Regiment, his 16th battalion was holding a redoubt near the City of St Quentin. Knowing that his Battalion was going to face the brunt of the first German Attacks. His famous quote has come into Legend. “Here we Fight, here we die.”

On 21st March 1918, Elstob and his Battalion fought valiantly the crack German Stormtroopers who attacked through the spring mist. Knowing the position was hopeless, he alongside his men fought with great courage and tenacity. His Manchester battalion fought to the very end, Elstob was eventually killed, but the hill that he and his battalion had fought on from then on became Manchester Hill. Another Legend had become enshrined in History. For his courage Elstob recieved postumously the Victoria Cross on top of the Distinguished Service Order, he is one of my heroes of the Great War.

As I left Pozieres, I left in great comfort, but sad in knowing that it will be a long while before I return again to the Somme Battlefield of 1916. How I love and adore that area of France, to me it is a part of home that can never be taken away, the spirits of so many thousands still linger in the air. My focus of attention now turns towards another infamous Battlefield of 1916, Verdun.

I have to discover new stories, new areas of knowledge are waiting to be found, and im looking forward to preparing for it, The Somme will never leave my thoughts or my mind, but it is time to discover the Meuse, Mort Homme and the Fortresses of Douaumont, Vaux and Souville. It is time to embrace the epic Battle of Gaul versus Teuton, in Lloyd Georges Words “Unparallelled Human Savagery.”

And The Earth abideth Forever

M

Thiepval Ridge 17th March 2019

Lingering Spirits Of The Past

Dedicated to my Grandparents Michael and Peggy McNiffe of Sligo Eire, and dearest Delia on St Patrick’s Week.

Guillemont Cemetery, Trones Wood is in the Background

There are few places on Earth where I am settled and find an inner peace. Many people choose sitting on a sunbed in a hotel in the Mediterranean, or go to the coast in a caravan or take city breaks in a foreign capital city. I have two such places, the Infamous Ypres Salient in Flanders Belgium, especially in the area around Messines, and the uplands north of the River Somme in Picardy. On Sunday it will be exactly 12 months to the day where I, alongside many other Great War enthusiasts and guides, went to the Somme and recieved training for the GP 90 event. We had our Photo taken in front of Sir Edwin Lutyens monument to the missing at Thiepval.

A year later, I will be returning with more knowledge and a far better understanding of the tragedy of the Somme. A Battle that for many Soldiers who fought it, forever changed their thoughts and ideals of the glorification of war. It was a Battle that haunted the Veterans who survived it, and also left deep scars that probably haunted them for the rest of their lives. To me the Somme marks the beginning of the end of the age of British imperialism, the names of so many etched into the Portland Stone of Thiepval as their bodies were smashed to pieces in the cauldron of battle. The unknown promise of what might have been had they lived. The Ghosts of those lost Soldiers surround the area in the early morning mists of Picardy.

On the Somme there are many places where you feel a certain presence, its something that you only understand as you leave the area. It stays with you and makes you want to go back time after time. You have studied the books and watched the endless documentaries dedicated to that campaign. You walk on to those fields and try to visualise things as that Generation did. Knowing that you will probably never ever be able to. You can only use the source material at your disposal. I like to use the old Battlefield Trench Maps, which was used by the British Army in preparation for their attacks. Most people now use Linesman, which is a GPS tracking system which gives you a pin point location of where the Trenches were, exactly at the point where you are standing. It is probably something that I will have to invest in the future. But nothing gives me more peace than to walk in the presence of what happened on the Somme, and to remember a Generation far more honourable and decent than mine.

The Somme in this Country has left a deep horrific legacy on our nation, 103 years later we are still reeling from the effects of that battle, that catastrophic first day in July to the muddy struggles of November 1916. My hometown raised 2 Pals Battalions. They were part of 31st Division that were committed to the Big Push of July 1st 1916. Supporting the Sheffield City Battalion and the Accrington Pals, they met severe losses in the very first minutes of the opening attack, the sinister quote ” 2 years in the making, 10 minutes in the destroying” is quite appropriate in the description of what happened. But this is not the only tragic story, along a 16 mile attacking front many other martyrdoms were created. The actions of the Ulstermen attacking the Schwaben Redoubt at Thiepval is one of incredible heroism, even after being left exposed because attacks to the left and right of them had failed, they kept fighting hard against overwhelming odds, sadly as it was getting dark and due to the heavy losses and fear of encirclement, they had to pull back to their original starting line. Many of the dead laid on the Battlefield, never to be recovered. In Belfast and in many other areas in Ulster, the Murals celebrate and commemorate the agony endured. The Legacy is maintained with honour and great dignity. The Soldiers who attacked on July 1st expected a glorious and quick breakthrough, by November 1916 it was apparant that the Somme had now become a byword for mass industrial slaughter on a human scale, as the Germans heroically held on for dear life, inflicting heavy casualties on their British adversaries. The consequences of giving battle to the British resulted in the Germans tactically withdrawing from the shattered area in February-March 1917. Retreating to the bastion of the newly created Hindenburg Line, creating another British headache that would last for another 2 years.

The Ulster Tower, Thiepval

I am finally returning back to the Western Front, 4 months after the Centenary of the Armistice, it has truly flown by. A lot of things have happened, the nature of the beast and the game of how we remember the Glorious Dead has fundamentally changed already. The task that I have been graciously given and that so many other people my age is the fundamental question of how we keep and maintain the Legacy that was given to us by that Generation that did grew old and slowly with time faded away. I alongside 3 friends will together try and discover areas that we have never properly explored before, mostly on foot and together try to keep learning and absorbing what the Somme has to bring. Its time for my Generation to step up to the plate and come to the fore. I might be wrong in that assumption, but as uncertain times are ahead, it is probably more important now than ever before.

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

Weighing Issues

Frankfurt Trench Cemetery on the Beaucourt Ridge, Thiepval in the distance

I have one more week left before I head off back to the Somme, once a place of unparalled horror and human suffering, now a place of reflection, remembrance and renewal. How could such a place that looks so beautiful now, once resembled the surface on the moon? When I visited the Somme last year, it was on Summer Solstice day, and with the Advantages of having a 4×4 managed to visit some of the smaller cemeteries on the Somme, the picture on the top of the page was a cemetery that contained men who were killed in the final attacks of early November 1916, during the Battle of the Ancre, on the Slopes that the German Army spent 4 months defending. Looking at the topography of the ground, it is easy to see how the Ulstermen attacking the Schwaben Redoubt at Thiepval on July 1st were mown down by German machine guns on the Beaucourt ridge.

My weight has been a very serious issue, it is something that has had a negative effect on me throughout my life. I have to admit that I do have a problem and I do comfort eat, especially when I am in a bad place or when I felt miserable, it would be commonplace for me to go to the shops and buy big bags of chocolate, biscuits, sweets and crisps. After a heavy night binge drinking I would buy a Large Meat Feast Calzone with Chips covered in cheese and Garlic Mayonnaise. I would then sneak upstairs into my bedroom and wallow in my own self pity. Stuffing the wrappers, cardboard boxes and papers behind my bed so that my parents or sisters wouldnt catch on. 7 years ago after weighing 21 stones 9 pounds, i spent 9 months in the gym and ended up at a weight of 13 stone 6lb. But once again the inner demons set in and it slowly piled back on. I consider it the biggest problem that I have. At Christmas I weighed 20 stones 8lb, 2 months later I have decided to try and combat the problem and after 10 weeks I now weigh 18 stone 2lb, I have even downsized which is very rewarding. How have I done it? you might ask, quite simply I gave my self targets and tried to tackle the problem head on, also speaking out to family and friends.

Knowing that I was going on the Somme and knowing that I would be Walking a great deal, and not to embarrass myself in anyway. I have trained heavily and extremely hard, 4 times a week in the Gym since January 1st, I have set myself a target of a 5 stone loss before I head to Verdun in June. It has been extremely hard, it is really a hard struggle for me at times but im battling away and I have tried to find balance in myself at the same time. I think that having balance in all things is incredibly important, if you do not have balance in yourself you either swing one way or the other on the mental weighing scale. I’m slowly controlling what I am eating and im slowly reaping the rewards. It is my own internal Battle and I’m hoping to pull through.

I am so excited to be returning to a place that gives me inner peace and balance. Alongside my Friends Shaun, Sarah and Lucy I am looking forward to sharing my knowledge and to recieve theirs. You honestly cannot fully understand the Somme until you are there in the area. The Somme is one of the defining battles that our Nation has ever been involved in. Arguably our most defining Battle alongside Waterloo, Blenheim, Salamanca, Passchendaele and El Alamein in October 1942. The Somme has a undeniable power, it draws you, it embraces you, even when you leave the Cemeteries, the Memorials, the very soil stays with you because you have made the Pilgrimage to Them. You have honoured their memory and you have continued to defend their incredible and honourable legacy. I hope when I come home I come back with the same desire to return again, hopefully a bit more lighter too.

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

Power and Penitence

“I gazed across at Albert; its tall trees were blue-grey outlines, and the broken tower of the basilica might have been a gigantic clump of foilage. Only the distant Gunfire disturbed the silence – like someone kicking footballs- a soft bumping, miles away. Low in the west, pale orange beams were streaming on the country that receded with a sort of regretful beauty, like the background of a masterpiece” Siegfried Sassoon

The Attic at Talbot House Poperinge June 2017

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, to Christians all over the world it is the beginning of Lent. The season of penitence and almsgiving in preparation of the celebration of the Holy Season of Eastertide. As a practising Catholic, which some of you know and some of you dont, it is a very important and special time for me, which i probably take too seriously. I usually give something up that i like or try and make a better effort in other areas. The picture above is the small attic Chapel of Talbot House. A very sacred place in the town of Poperinge which was a communications hub used by British soldiers en route to the Calvary of the Ypres Sailient. A place where Christ was worshipped by Officers and Soldiers alike, a place where many Soldiers recieved the Eucharist for the last time, many recieved their Last Rites, and said their Confessions. Many prayed that they would return for another interaction with their individual Faith. If only the Supporting wood beams of the Attic could talk.

I visited Talbot House in May 2017, just before the Centenary of the Battle of Messines and the agony of the Third Battle of Ypres, myself and my Father stepped into the spiritual unknown, we had never been in such a place of such emotion and peaceful tension, one must imagine the Soldiers individual agonies and thoughts. You could even compare them to Christs agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified. What must they have thought in this very room, the thought of Duty, Home, Family, Children.

I walked to the Lectern, and saw a old copy of the Bible of St James, the Scripture of the Church of England. As a practising Catholic, I did something that in my Faith would be frowned upon, but yet i felt it was an obligation to do so, to remember those Souls, who gave their lives so i could practice my Faith. I read a passage of the Bible with Father sat on one of the pews.

In the words of St John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”

That was enough, it was enough to remember and say my own individual prayer in commendation to the Fallen. That passage is used by all denominations of the Christian Faith, as a Catholic it is used in the Day Mass liturgy on Christmas Day. I imagined the 4 Midnight Mass services said over the Course of 4 years, the distant gunfire of the Sailient as Mass was said and the Host was recieved. Ones imagination runs riot in such a place.

St Martin’s Cathedral Ypres

St Martins Cathedral is to me as a Christian the personification of the Resurrection, a place that alongside the Cloth Hall in Ypres was shelled to a pulp by a vengeful German Army over the course of 4 years. Some remnants of the original Cathedral still remain, after the War the interior of the church was faithfully reconstructed to its original form with a few added extras. The church tower bells ring for Mass at 5.30pm, this Tower which is now bigger than the Original one.

On Armistice Day 2018, I observed the 2 minutes Silence at Ramparts Cemetery, on the outskirts of the City. Amongst the Silence, the Church bells of St Martin’s echoed across the town, celebrating the Victory that came at such a grievous price, at the expense of my fellow countrymen. Their has never been a moment where I have felt such inner peace. It was a moment that i hold dear and sacred.

My preparations for next weeks trip to the Somme are pretty much complete, i will go into detail next week when i start packing my bags for my first trip of 2019. I cannot wait to go, to reset and to refocus with my friends.

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

My Darling,Au Revoir

“My darling Au Revoir, know through all your life that i love you and baby, with all my heart and soul, that you two sweet things were all the world to me”

Captain Charles May of the Manchester Regiment was a man devoted to his wife and baby daughter, this extract was in the very last paragraph of a letter that was sent to his wife on the event of his death, he knew by leading his men over the top that it was probably more than likely that he would be killed or wounded, and yet in this very last sentence his thoughts were of his wife and his baby daughter, his devotion in the face of such conditions are arguably the most moving pieces of literature that i have read in my journey of learning about the Great War. He alongside his soldiers from the Manchester regiment were involved in the attack of Mametz on July 1st 1916. Having broken through the German front line he and his men headed toward a trench known as Dantzig Alley, sadly it was there that he met his fate. He had asked a fellow officer to look after and provide for his wife and baby daughter in the event of his death.

His final resting place in Dantzig Alley Cemetery,

Human emotion is the most complicated thing, I will admit some of the decisions I have made in my life has had a detrimental effect on others, much to my shame. Sometimes your heart tells you to do one thing, and yet your head tells you another. When you go with your head as I have done in my recent past it has taught me a brutal and everlasting lesson, as a result I lost two of the most important people in my life that I will never be truly able to sort out, much to my everlasting shame. It is something that i will never be able to reconcile with myself. It is true that life is still the greatest lesson of all, and that all you can do is try to be better for the next time such an occasion occurs. I promise to do that.

The letters of the Great War show a level of humanity that still prevailed amongst the Carnage and the chaos of Battle, one of the saddest letters i ever saw was from a soldier from the ANZACS, he was killed at Messines and is buried in Toronto Cemetery in Ploegsteert Wood, his name was Corporal Cliff Shepard, aged just 20 years old, in this final letter to his Mother he shows a maturity that put me to shame, he accepts the possibility of his death, but he tells his mother not to worry, ” This may be the last letter that i ever write but dont mourn, this is what i came over here for. Mother do not worry about me, I am alright, should we not meet again in this world, we certainly will in the next,”

Cliff’s grave at Toronto Cemetery, Ploegsteert Wood


Even in those desperate times the love and devotion that Cliff displayed to his Mother in Australia is beyond exceptional, the knowledge that his decendants had come such a long way to remember him a century later and to reflect was a special moment to me, and is a testament to the many hundreds of people who come from all over the world and remember their fallen decendants.

My preparations for France in two weeks time are nearly complete, i still have some bits to do in regards to studies and writing notes, im really genuinely excited to be going back to the Somme, there i can recharge and think ahead to Verdun in June, something im really looking ahead to tackle and absorb.

And the Earth Abideth Forever.

M