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”.

A Year on from GP90

August 8th 2018, Ypres Town Cemetery


It has nearly been a year since those glorious few days in France and Belgium, a week that will be forever etched in my mind as one of the definitive moments of my life. The happiness and joy of my first presentation as a guide in Delville Wood on the Somme battlefield is a memory I will forever treasure. To show people your true passion, your vocation as to why you should be on earth is something not many people have the chance to share with others. One moment that is the definition of your whole being, your reason for existence.

I was in a foreign country, representing my town, my county, my home, talking to my fellow countrymen from all different walks of life. Telling them a story that with time will slowly fade into the annals of British military folklore alongside Waterloo and Salamanca. The objective being to give a group of people you have never met before a greater and more better understanding of the events that occurred there, and to also give them the best possible perspective of what happened on both sides of no mans land. Being at Delville wood, although forever intertwined with the heroic men of South Africa, brought me far closer to my identity as a Briton than ever before. I was for one brief moment complete. My reason, my vocation completed.

It was an incredible and immersive experience, to watch the masses of British Legion Standards congregate on the Grote Markt in Ypres on that Wednesday morning was a memory that I will never forget. There was not a single moment in that trip where I felt nothing but joy and quiet accomplishment.

Binyon’s Epitaph of remembrance spoken during the Service of Remembrance in Delville Wood, 6th August 2018

And yet it might not have happened at all, I had considered about giving it all up, and considered making pilgrimages as a tourist for the rest of my life. Luckily I have great people around me, my family and my family from the Great War Battlefield guide community, who gave me great support and encouraged me to put the experience to good use. I also had a very strange source of Inspiration as well to keep the journey going. It was on the rolling fields of Picardy on a Summer Solstice evening at the Butte de Warlencourt in June 2018 alongside Papa that beckoned me back to my vocation. I gazed back down the Albert-Bapaume Road as the Sun set. Then towards the positions of the men of the Durham Light Infantry, who attacked repeatedly towards this ancient Roman burial mound in late October 1916 in horrific conditions. With the newly formed German Stormtroopers as their main adversaries, the Durhams only achieved very limited success, and a very heavy loss of life.

The scene was as Siegfried Sassoon, a talented and somewhat tortured individual who had fought on the Somme once quoted, “Like the background of a painted masterpiece”. The coolness of the breeze running through the cornfields of what was once a torn and destroyed landscape beckoned me back. The Somme had brought me home spiritually and mentally once again. I couldn’t give it up, the tragic majesty of it all wouldnt let me do so, it refused to die within me.

Caterpillar Cemetery on the Somme, 6th August 2018

A year on and there has been a great deal of change in my life. After the magical and powerful Armistice tour which I hold dearly in my heart, there was also the trip to the Somme in March. The trip in late June that has affected me most in my whole entire Great War journey. The trip to the battleground of Verdun, Meuse Argonne and the St Mihiel Sailient. The experience of those places has certainly defined my whole perspective of the Western Front, it opened my eyes that it wasn’t just Britain and her Empire against Germany. France in turn cut one of its main arteries merely to survive, in defiance to the invader. The United States also gave their brave young soldiers in the persuit of freedom and democracy, fresh logs on a fire that had been slowly been burning itself out after 3 years of being lit.

University is slowly emerging on the horizon, and I am slowly gearing myself up for this incredible blessing and undertaking. It is going to be extremely hard. I have no illusions about that, I am however determined to test myself and my overall capability. It is time to show my true potential. I will need as much support as I possibly can in the days and years ahead.

The Menin Gate 10th November 2018

Wednesday was the 102nd Anniversary of the beginning of the third battle of Ypres, commonly known as Passchendaele, arguably one of the most tragic episodes of the Great War. The British Army, full of optimism and confidence after the success at the battle of Messines 7 weeks earlier, attacked towards the Passchendaele Ridge. The overall main objective being to secure and clear the strategic ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge, which were being used by the Germans as main bases for their U boats, which was giving the Royal Navy a considerable headache, in the North Sea and the English Channel.

On 31st July 1917 after another week long preliminary bombardment, the British Army attacked on the north eastern side of the Ypres Sailient, towards Pilckem Ridge and Langemarck. After making a considerably decent start they ran into the Steenbeek, a innocent looking stream, and then it started to rain, and rain and rain and rain. The stream started to flood and the shell cratered landscape, with the natural drains destroyed by years of continual artillery fire began to fill with water. The wounded soldiers, who hadn’t been evacuated to safety slowly drowned helplessly in the shell craters as the rain water engulfed them, never to see the light again.

The dead too became immersed in the muddy water filled pools, never to be seen again or given a decent burial. It was the wettest August for years, the battlefield became a water filled shell hole death trap and a logistical nightmare for both sides. Many soldiers drowned as they fell off the duckboards leading them to the forward positions, in other cases as they were walking wounded back to the dressing stations. The weight of their packs sending them needlessly to their deaths, their comrades trying desperately to save them from their plight. The rain continued unabated into September. In October the rain stopped for a time. the ravaged battlefield began to dry and limited progress was slowly made north of the Menin Road, before the weather turned for the worst again. Yet more men and material were expended in an attempt to break the deadlock, even today historians debate about third Ypres and the futility of it all.

The new German tactic of defence in depth, which had been used on the Somme in 1916 worked incredibly well. A year later it had now been perfected, it had become elastic defence in depth. Germany had turned to the concrete pillbox and bunkers as a means of defence, which caused havoc and carnage amongst the attacking British and Commonwealth troops. The nightmare and martyrdom of Passchendaele commenced. It alongside the Somme would emerge as a word of futility and hopelessness on a scale no one could have possibly imagined possible. It would haunt the British national psyche as the Somme did for generations to come.

It was to become one continual nightmare on top of another. It was for both sides a test of endurance, to see who would give in first. Men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and finally Canada were used in large scale attacks designed to break the new German pillbox lines of defence, and the losses were on a comparison on both sides to the year before on the Somme. Finally in November 1917, the Canadians, through a battlefield of man made hell, finally achieved the objective of seizing Passchendaele village, 3 months and a week after the offensive had begun. The Battlefield by now resembled a mud churned lunar landscape, villages and farms wiped of the face of the earth, littered with the dead of both sides. After the months of toil the British Army hadn’t even achieved their main objective. It was at Passchendaele for the very first time that the seed of doubt crept into the British Soldiers, who wondered how this slaughter could possibly continue without a outcome. It was to come a year later, under very different circumstances.

Passchendaele Village May 2017

And the earth abideth forever,

M

Nobody sleeps here except the dead,

Douaumont Ossuary and Memorial,

Verdun.

I started coming home extremely early on Friday morning from the great bastion on the Meuse, but I have come back to Britain in a very different and surprising way. Verdun is a place where you are questioned time after time, you are questioned spiritually, you are questioned mentally. Sometimes if you dare to tread under the bowels of the earth as I did for example; Fort Souville and Froideterre you are physically challenged with one overwhelming question,

“How far are you prepared to go within yourself to find the answer?”

Verdun has become a very quiet, peaceful city, a city trying to remember and acknowledge but finding a easier, more suitable solution of coping by trying to forget the past. I personally think the catastrophic defeat of France in 1940 has an overwhelming factor on the mentality of the area. The failure of defeat, in a place where France won her greatest military victory since Napoleon triumphed at Austerlitz. But it feels very very different to places such as Picardy and Flanders in that it is prepared to give you a much closer insight into the realities that these men faced than ever before, it beckons you in, and yet it tries in vain to hide it. It is to anyone with a passion of the Great War a place you must visit in order to truly understand how and why things took such a sinister and dark turn in nature and the capacity of mankind to destroy itself and the earth totally. It is still one of the principle reasons why thousands of our countrymen were sent into the cauldron and catastrophe of the Somme in July 1916. It is also a main reason why so many French soldiers mutinied after the failure of the Nivelle offensive on the Chemin De Dames in late April 1917, Verdun had taken France almost to the point of total exhaustion, and she had simply had enough.

The Site of the legendary Trench of Bayonets

The remnants of trenches, shellholes, fortifications, a world that became underground, a battle of a nation’s immortal soul. The labyrinths of steel, sand and concrete. The battle sites of overwhelming courage and heroism, on which both sides, German and French were totally set on anhilating each other into the abyss. The immortal stories of Colonel Driant, pioneer-Sergeant Kunze, Valiant the carrier pigeon from Fort Vaux, sending the last message from a thirsty and desperate garrison, its commander, Major Raynal desperately needing reinforcements and water for his soldiers, has now become military history folklore. Now nature is fully in control and is allowed to cover and shroud the living wound of the battlefield of Verdun, a living wound that slowly with time will be forgotten and allowed to heal. It is still taught in the French national curriculum, seeing schoolchildren and their history teachers walking underneath the forts was encouraging for the future but now with the centenary of the Great War concluded, it is already seeming to fade into history as Waterloo and Marengo has done before.

The Glorious dead that we are accustomed to here in Britain, remembered, loved and adored in November, become simply the fundamental question of the transformation of the mortal frame to the question of what happens afterwards. The remnants of men under the bowels of Douaumont Ossuary are truly a test of a man’s faith in the belief of life after death. The moral teachings of what I have been taught in love smashed to pieces in the sight of skeletal remains of men who were once French and German soldiers, killing each other with no regrets, believing that God was on their side.

Colonel Driant’s tomb in the Bois de Caures, surrounded by his unknown faithful Chasseurs who died alongside him in the opening days of the Battle Of Verdun

The eastern side of Verdun’s natural ampitheatre, once covered in farmland and peaceful villages such as Fleury, Bezonvaux and Ornes, is now covered in dense forests, the trenches and shellholes slowly being covered over and shrouded after repeated years of Autumn leaves. The remains of the villages heartbreakingly clear to see, the maps of what used to be there over a century ago. These villages that died so that France could survive. with a chapel on the old, destroyed blocks of brick and stone, with one mass said in these small locked chapels annually every year at a certain time. The 2 main centerpieces of the area, is the wonderful memorial museum close to the destroyed village of Fleury, which is absolutely incredible and is worth a visit, and finally the Ossuaire of Douaumont and the cemetery, which dominates the battlefield and shines a light over the forests at night where men once not too long ago were dealt a cruel hand. The windows at the back of the ossuary reveal the dead in their respective chambers of horror and questions ones inner mortal shell in a way that that no other place does. The Ossuary is shaped like a sword hilt driven proudly in defiance to the invader, a beacon and bell tower at the very top of the structure. The best time to visit this place is in the very late evenings of summer, in the midst of such suffering, the birds sing their song, and the dead of France’s Colonies, now lost in the midst of decline after 1945 are appropiately buried toward their place of faith, the Graves of the men from the former Islamic North African colonies are buried facing towards Mecca. The men from Colonies in South East Asia such as Vietnam, buried with honour and dignity, thousands of miles from home.

To the west of the Meuse, the battle sites of the Mort Homme (Dead Man) and Cote 304, are also shrouded in forest and hide the tragedy of the past, but further along the line, you come to the village of Vauquois, a village that was mined into complete oblivion by both sides, the remnants of the front line trenches and mine shafts clear to see and well preserved, and living quietly in peace. Arguably on comparison it is one of the most sacred sites of the living wound that we now know as the Western Front.

Remains of the German Front Line at Vauquois



Verdun has given me a different and more refreshing perspective on what happened on the Western Front in 1916, It was probably because I needed to look at a new and different area, which to me was dominated by Flanders and the Somme, I personally feel better for the change, it was probably one of the best things that I have done on my own personal journey, accompanied once again with Father. We did make fleeting visits to the Somme and to Flanders as we headed towards Zeebrugge.

I leave you this week with a quotation from a letter by a German Soldier killed on the very same day he wrote home to his parents.

“In the midst of the overwhelming, terrifying images that surround me, the thought of going back home is like a golden halo. Don’t worry, I will survive.”

Wherever he is, in the Verdun forests, in the ossuary, in a German cemetery. I hope that golden halo is over his head in heaven, for if it doesnt, well what is the point of having a belief in anything at all. That is the purpose of Verdun. That is why it continues to haunt France, and in a way haunted me too.