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

The Barnsley Pals Memorial at Sheffield Memorial Park, Serre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest is as they say history,

Memories and the Joy of Success

The German Trenches of Vauquois June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passchendaele, Papa Bear and Me

The Road to Passchendaele from the Canadian Memorial at Crest Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyne Cot.

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

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

‘A light in the unending darkness’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Indeterminable Agony of a Resit

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

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

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

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

And the Earth Abideth Forever

Martin Joseph

1917, The Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 out of 10 for me.

Review of the Year 2019

Pozieres memorial shrouded in the mist March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venite Adoremus Dominum.

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

And The Earth Abideth Forever

Martin Joseph

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