Back to the beginning, again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irish House Cemetery, Wytschaete.

Atmosphere Of The Spirits

Pozieres Cemetery and Memorial, March 19th 2019


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

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

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

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

The Cross of Sacrifice at Pozieres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And The Earth abideth Forever

M

Thiepval Ridge 17th March 2019

Lingering Spirits Of The Past

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

Guillemont Cemetery, Trones Wood is in the Background

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

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

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

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

The Ulster Tower, Thiepval

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

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

Weighing Issues

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

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

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

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

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

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

Power and Penitence

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

The Attic at Talbot House Poperinge June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

St Martin’s Cathedral Ypres

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

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

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

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

My Darling,Au Revoir

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

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

His final resting place in Dantzig Alley Cemetery,

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

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

Cliff’s grave at Toronto Cemetery, Ploegsteert Wood


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

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

And the Earth Abideth Forever.

M

Thoughts on the trip ahead

Its nearly a month to go before I return back to the Somme and already I’m thinking about it already, it is almost like being stuck on a platform waiting endlessly for a train to arrive, and yet you wait because you know the Train will come. Im looking forward to returning to a piece of countryside in a foreign country that I have a incredible affection for. It has a place in my heart. Alongside the Ypres Salient which has also left an incredible and life changing impression on me, this place has given me nothing but happy and incredible blessings. It was here that my Father started to get well again after his anxiety. This area was once an area of Incredible violence and unprecedented savagery, yet now it has become a place of peace and in many ways a place to reconnect yourself to a time which seemed so innocent and hopeful.

Sir Edwin Lutyens Masterpiece, The Memorial of the Missing of The Somme

Alongside my Friends Sarah, Lucy and Shaun we will be stopping at La Boisselle, alongside the Infamous Roman Road from Albert to Bapaume, which was the axis of the main Allied Offensive from July to November 1916, the list of Villages along that road has notable infamy, Pozieres for the Australians, Courcelette for the People of Canada, and finally the Butte de Warlencourt.

Mash Valley near Ovillers,

But this will be mostly a walking trip which im really looking forward to, I have been looking at possible routes of interest all week. Im looking forward to walking on the Picardy fields once again. Im looking forward to share my knowledge too, it is one of the reasons why I see it as a Moral Obligation to make sure that the Sacrifice that my fellow Countrymen made be not in vain. Im hoping to expand my knowledge too on certain areas that i still do not fully understand yet, im hoping that as a collective we can understand the area a lot better from each other and share each others understanding of what happened. Im going to keep studying and try and pile as much in as i can.

Fricourt New Military Cemetery