Review of the Year 2019

Pozieres memorial shrouded in the mist March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venite Adoremus Dominum.

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

And The Earth Abideth Forever

Martin Joseph

Farewell my son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell…………..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Earth Abideth forever

Rest In Peace Uncle Kevin

Martin Joseph

Eternal Remembrance Part II

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

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

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

The Menin Gate, Armistice Centenary Day 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their Name Liveth For Evermore

Martin Joseph

Eternal Remembrance Part I

Poppies at Montsec, June 2019

Another Remembrance season is upon us once again, a century on from the very first Remembrance Sunday back in 1919. This year I will be remembering the fallen at home, I will observe the two minute silence in front of the war memorial in my parish church along with my family. The Church has three memorials. Firstly the Stations of the Cross were erected in memory of the Barnsley Pals who were killed on 1st July 1916, painted by a local artist called William Pippett. The Stations trace Christ’s final journey from Jerusalem to the place of his crucifixion, Calvary.

The Second Memorial is dedicated to those members of the parish who were killed in the Second World War, it is dedicated to the English Martyrs, on one side, Cardinal John Fisher, the other Sir Thomas More, who were both executed for their dedication and devotion to their faith during the days of the Reformation and the rule of Henry VIII. In the middle is a fresco of the Risen Christ with a Soldier, Sailor and Airman. Fortunately the Church has a book of remembrance dedicated to those who were killed during that conflict, many of them were mostly from Bomber Command who were killed in attacks over Germany towards the end of the War, some of them were killed in Normandy in June 1944, one of them was killed whilst serving in the OSS, he was captured whilst on a secret mission in occupied France, and was tortured and executed in October 1944. When I see the book next week I will reveal his identity to you, because I have forgotten his name. Shame on me.

The Third one is a small Incense thurible, it is dedicated to Surgeon Lieutenant Vincent Joseph Redmond Sheridan. His Father, who was a doctor and his mother came to Barnsley in the 1920’s from Scotland and formed a surgery in a large Victorian house across from where the Church still stands. The family were all doctors and provided healthcare to the surrounding area of the town, even right up to the late sixties and early seventies. Coming from a very strong Catholic background, the family attended Mass regularly and were influential in the the Churches maintenance and upkeep. Vincent had been an Altar server just like me, but did well in school and he himself joined into the Medical profession and became a surgeon himself. On the outbreak of War on 3rd September 1939, Vincent joined the Royal Navy and became a Lieutenant Surgeon on one of the Navy’s biggest ships. HMS Kelly.

A K Class destroyer, Kelly had a very eventful entry into the War, used by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in their evacuation from France, she was then mined close to the Tyne Estuary in December 1939, close to where she was originally built. She was tugged back to dry dock for repairs. In the evacuation from Namsos in Norway on 9/10th May 1940, she was torpedoed by a German E-Boat as she was ferrying soldiers home. Managing to be tugged home at two knots, she survived repeated attempts to sink her through torpedoes and bombers. The damage sustained kept her out of service until the following year. Captained by Louis Mountbatten, in April 1941 she sailed towards Malta to assist the British land forces who were operating in the North African theatre. In May 1941 she was sent to Crete to help aid the evacuation of Commonwealth troops who had been overwhelmed by the German Paratroopers who had landed on the Island. On 23rd May 1941 she was attacked by dive bombers and she was sunk, taking half of her crew with her and poor Vincent who was busy in the bowels of the ship looking after the wounded. As Mountbatten quoted afterwards after the loss of his ship and consoling the remaining survivors, “we didn’t leave the Kelly, the Kelly left us!”

Vincent has no grave but the sea, he and so many others lie entombed in the wreck of HMS Kelly, he is remembered at the Naval Memorial at Chatham, alongside 18,600 men who also have no grave but the sea from two world wars. His Parents, who were devastated and disconsolate, bought and dedicated the small incense Thurible to their lost boy. Made of silver, on the bottom is inscribed “In Memory of Lieut Surgeon Vincent JR Sheridan, HMS Kelly, Sunk 23rd May 1941.” It is only ever used twice a year, on 23rd May, the anniversary of his death and on Remembrance Sunday, the Incense used in prayers, reflection and remembrance to those who have been lost from all nationalities. Used only twice a year for the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament, but it is so much more than that. It is to show future generations what the greatest generation did, and to honour that debt, even if it is to signify prayer and thanksgiving to God.

It has significance to me this year, probably more so than ever before, the legacy of the Great War still remains in our hearts. But we also this year have to remember the surviving veterans of D Day, Arnhem, Monte Cassino, Kohima and Imphal, on the 75th Anniversary of those epic struggles in the pursuit of the freedom of the world. That generation who took on the the evil of Nazi Tyranny and oppression of Europe and won. In the words of JRR Tolkien, “the defining battle of our time.”

I hope and wish that many of the veterans get to see the 80th Anniversary in 2024, but time is slowly catching up on those brave men and women. I hope we can keep fresh in our collective memory the sacrifices of these brave souls. It is the torch that they gave us, it is the torch that we by their legacy must pass on.

So next Sunday as the country falls silent, please remember Vincent, remember the stories we cherish and keep close to our hearts. By honouring his sacrifice, I remember them all. They stay with me and they will remain with me. It is my duty to share that devotion to everyone else. Rest in Peace Eternal Vincent, requiscat en pace. Amen.

And the earth abideth forever

Martin Joseph

33 going on 34

The Flanders Sunset, May 2017

Dedicated to my parents on their 35th Wedding Anniversary, their love and devotion to each other has been the foundation stone of my life. In good times and bad.

The photo was taken two years ago at Tyne Cot Cemetery on a beautiful early summer’s evening, it was a balance of light against darkness, the living amongst the dead. This year in particular has brought me closer to my own mortality, visiting the sites of the Western Front has taken on a near spiritual meaning. Having visited the Verdun, Meuse-Argonne, St Mihiel and the Chemin de Dames sectors this year, I like to look back on this particular photo with a certain amount of reflection. It is hard to believe now that those things happened, and that they still continue to happen everyday in parts of the world. My sadness is that these cemeteries, a lesson to us all on how we should treat our fellow man, are slowly being ignored as many countries are being consumed with the horror and carnage of war.

Having started my Masters degree at Wolverhampton University a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t really realised the challenge of it all. But having involved myself in some of the online seminars, it is very interesting to see how people’s opinion vary and their own interpretation to how and why these things happened the way they did. I must admit I found it incredibly interesting, especially in comparing peoples arguments and interpretations of how and why things happened. It has been so far an absolute revelation and it has already opened a lot of doors. That can only be a good thing, I hope so anyway.

This Sunday is my birthday, 33 going on 34. I am going up to the beautiful North Yorkshire coast to Whitby to have a evening of reflection and quiet celebration on Saturday, it is something that I am really looking forward to. I haven’t been to the seaside this year, and i’m looking forward to my Fish and Chips, Ice Cream and doughnut concoction. To see the sunrise on another year can only be a blessing, it is has been a incredible year.

It is hard to believe that Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday is just around the corner. Last November I was in Ypres as a guide for the Centenary for the Armistice, seeing a lone piper piping a lament in Ramparts Cemetery, as St Martin’s Cathedral rang out the victory bells was a moment of reflection unparallelled in my life. Ramparts Cemetery is by far one of the most beautiful cemeteries on the Ypres Salient, it is a cemetery where all of nature’s elements come together. It is a place of reflection and is one of the Jewels in the Salient’s crown, the men who are buried here are so blessed to rest perpetually in a place of such beauty, whilst some of their fellow countrymen still lie unknown in the fields beyond. It is has to be stressed however that there are also unknown Soldiers buried in this special place.

Ramparts Cemetery May 2017

Situated next to the Lille Gate, incorporated into Vauban’s Ramparts which surround the town of Ypres and a few hundred yards away from the place that was once called Shrapnel Corner, it is next to the road where many Allied soldiers marched towards the southern end of the dreaded Salient, places such as St Eloi, the Bluff, Messines. There are only 197 soldiers buried there in comparison to the thousands at Tyne Cot, but it’s significance is just the same and it is still extremely important. I personally said in prayer to these brave warriors, these individuals, some with names, some forever lost in time, Laurence Binyon’s epitaph to the fallen, repeated every evening with reverence underneath the Menin Gate.

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

“We will remember them”

We should remember them, it is absolute ignorance to forget them.

And the Earth abideth forever

Martin Joseph

Academic Introduction

“And we in faith, keep that peace for which they paid”

The view of Thiepval from the Redan Ridge, June 2018

On Friday afternoon, around 2.40 pm at Barnsley train station I will restart on a journey that failed and finished as a 18 year old. I’m travelling to Wolverhampton University to begin my Masters Degree in Britain and the First World War, in an attempt to change and rewrite my own personal destiny, to achieve and succeed in a subject that I have incredibly passionate about. In a a way I see this as my last shot at the title of my life as a whole. It is rather fitting that 101 years ago this weekend that my Great Uncle Martin Joseph Moffat won his his Victoria Cross in the fields of Flanders, the last Irishman to receive that citation in the conflict. Born in Sligo Eire, Martin first fought alongside my Great Grandfather in the Connaught Rangers at the Somme and in the Battle Of Messines in June 1917, he then was transferred into the Leinster Regiment for the remainder of the war. With unending gratitude to one of my friends I had the particular joy of seeing his VC at the Imperial War Museum in London last year, close to the centenary of his citation.

As previously documented my love of the Great War began as a 10 year old at Primary School, fascinated by the famous picture of victorious Allied soldiers at the bridge of Riqueval. The bridge was crossed in late September 1918 in the Hindenburg Line breakthrough north of the town of St Quentin. But it was further influenced by watching Professor Richard Holmes’s BBC series War Walks back in 1996, a dark time as I lost my beloved Grandfather in June of that year, and he introduced me to the Western Front. As Laurence Olivier introduced the Second World War through the acclaimed documentary series The World At War back in the 1970’s. Professor Holmes through 2 episodes, Mons and the Somme sent me on my journey of discovery, I found it intoxicating and mesmerising. Then in Christmas 1996, my Grandmother bought me a book about the 13th and 14th York and Lancaster Regiment. The Barnsley Pals, written by Jon Cooksey. My Christmas revolved around looking at that book, I had to get another copy many years later as i wore the book out with constant reading. The journey had taken it’s first steps.

I never studied the Great War at Primary or Secondary school, I must also admit that it was a tragedy to discover on the History paper of my GCSE exam a Great War question. I had the misfortune of looking at Medicine through time, a topic that I really didn’t particularly enjoy. But the fundamental issue above all is was that I was lazy, I was more interested in playing football, and much to my regret I took things for granted, I expected things to happen, I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t revise or prepare properly and as one particular teacher once wrote in my report, “He is so laid back he is in danger of falling over”. How those words have tortured me through the years. Then my Journey went dormant, stagnated. I went into work full time and simply breezed through my 20’s without paying much attention to my inner calling. Armistice days and Remembrance Sunday’s kept the flame slowly burning deep in my heart. I lit a candle on the Centenary of the beginning of the Great War in August 2014. It wasn’t until June 2016, just before the Centenary of the Somme battle that I finally saw with my own eyes and walked the hallowed ground of Picardy with my own feet. And by the grace of the Almighty, the flame was re lit, and it started to burn more fierce than ever before.

It is incredible how the littlest things have such a incredible impact on one’s future, and yet some people believe in fate, I hope in two years time that I will have repaid the faith that people have shown in me, there have been times in my young life where I squandered that potential, it is finally time to fly.

Vulnerability and Quiet Solitude

Bedford House Cemetery Ypres

Its finally turning cool again, the days are getting shorter and autumn is on its way, my favourite season of the year. It almost Birthday and Armistice time and that sticks in my mind as it gets closer. I have acquired a new laptop and I’m hopefully going to be able to send a few more blogs more regularly than I have recently. I called the laptop Plumer in honour of one of the few very successful British Generals of the Great War, the first General to achieve a significant breakthrough of the German Lines on the Ypres Salient in June 1917. It was a very hard decision, I also thought of Generals Allenby and Franchet d’Esperay for names but the battlefield of Messines is a very special place to me, it is a place where I can really reconnect and reflect with the events that occurred a century ago. There was no other alternative. It had to be in honour of Field Marshal Plumer of Messines.

The month of September in the Great War was a very significant month for many reasons. One of the principle reasons was that it was the last month where the heat of summer was slowly starting to ebb away. The hot sunshine of summer had kept the ground dry, now it was starting to turn cooler and the days were getting progressively shorter. It was starting to get a lot wetter as the first autumn rains began to shower the troops in the trenches. The long protracted Autumn morning mists created havoc for the heavy guns on both sides as the artillery observers could not see towards enemy positions and dugouts, unable to protect the infantry in the front lines, for which the artillery was designed to do at that time.

September was a month where many of the epic struggles the British Army were involved in during the conflict took place. In 1914 the small British Expeditionary Force after its heroic stand at Mons and Le Cateau in August, after a long retreat southwestwards towards the gates of Paris. The beleaguered British Army stood its ground once again and fought alongside its French counterpart in the titanic clash that was to be called the first Battle of the Marne, and counterattacked the retreating German Army up towards the river Aisne and the Chemin De Dames. The Germans, who now wanted to keep the territory they had seized for the Kaiser, dropped their rifles and subsequently picked up shovels, picks and spades and began to dig defensive trenches on the high banks above the river Aisne. It would be here that they would hold their ground. The Allies would either have to attack them head on or go round the open flank that hadn’t been defended. In late September 1914 both British and German forces fought each other in hastily dug trenches along the Aisne and the Chemin de Dames. Mostly forgotten today these mini engagements would be a fore taste of the horrors to come. Many of the Officers of the Small British Expeditionary Force, many of whom had gone through private education at Eton, and went to universities at Oxford and Cambridge during the Edwardian age. Filled with the stories of Nelson and Wellington, Clive and Wolfe. Potential political leaders and idealists of the future were thrust into a scenario they couldn’t possibly imagine or dream of a few years before. Many of these men and the soldiers they led were killed in futile attacks on the hastily dug German trench lines. Most notably at the village and farm of Soupir on the Aisne. It was on these slopes that the glorious ideals of British Imperialism was now covered in blood.

Soupir Communal Cemetery on the Aisne June 2019

September 1915 saw the British army engage the German army at the tragic battle of Loos. Arguably under significant pressure from the French High Command and the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, the Commander of the BEF Sir John French committed himself to an offensive that possibly in truth, he himself could not see succeeding. He decided to attack the German forces in that area with poison gas, partly in retaliation for the German Gas attack in April on the northern side of the Ypres Salient, which had almost achieved a breakthrough of the Western Front but failed. It was also to test the potential of the new chemical weapon and the fighting capability of the new recruits. The objective was to try and achieve a breakthrough that the Germans had been so close to accomplishing in their offensive at Ypres. It was here for the first time that part time soldiers of the British Army, the Territorial force, along with elements of Kitchener’s new armies which had been recruited in the summer months of 1914, would engage the enemy on the Western Front for the very first time.

On observing the potential battle area from the top of Notre Dame de Lorette, a high position that had been recently taken by French Forces, Sir John was not happy with what he saw. The Mining town of Loos was built on a incline,with the German lines going in and around the outskirts of the town. To the north of Loos was the German defensive position known as the Hohenzollen redoubt. a very strong area which had caused many casualties previously in trench raids. To the south was the double crassiers, the slag heaps from the coal mines that surrounded the town. A perfect observation post, and had a completely unrestricted view of the area and of British intentions. Most importantly an attacking force would literally have no cover or protection from the German machine gun defences, if the Germans were able to recover from the Gas attack and the artillery bombardment of the area, the machine gun would become king of the battlefield, and casualties would be horrendous if the plan failed.

The Battlefield of Loos, the double Crassiers in the distance

The Battle of Loos began on the 25th September 1915 and lasted for three days, the Gas attack had mixed results. To the north of the offensive the gas attack failed. The wind direction changed and the poison gas blew toward the British lines causing havoc in the front line trenches filled with soldiers waiting to go over the top. On attacking the Hohenzollern Redoubt, the advancing troops found the German defences intact and the barbed wire still intact. But the British soldiers took the redoubt.

The Gas attack towards Loos was considerably more successful and the town itself was taken on the opening day. Some of the townspeople had still remained in the town, their eyes streaming with the effects of the gas. They recall seeing kilted soldiers with gas masks entering the town, blood streaming down their bayonets.

By the third day the Germans had managed to retrieve the situation, they had lost Loos but had managed to hold Hill 70 to the rear of the town. The reinforcements which Sir John had delayed deploying to the battle zone proved a costly error, the New Army units were mown down by the newly formed German defensive perimeter. 8,000 men out an attacking force of 10,000 were killed or wounded in under 4 hours, the glory of war shattered in one cruel day. In 3 days Britain and her Empire had lost almost 60,000 men and had gone back to their start line from 3 days before. The Germans continually attacked the Hohenzollern Redoubt until they retook the position in October 1915, they held the redoubt until 1918.

The Battle Of Loos, the main effort of the British Army on the Western Front in 1915 failed horrendously and cost Sir John French his job as commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force in December. He was replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig who was to be nicknamed “the butcher”.