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.

The day the Colours came home

100 years ago tomorrow, the colours of the 13th and 14th battalions, York and Lancaster Regiment were placed for all time in St Mary’s Parish Church, in the final act of the story of the Barnsley Pals. It was seen as a moment of triumph, thankgiving and a prayer of remembrance, hopefully that War would never come to Barnsley again.

The parade and ceremony that took place that morning has long faded from memory, only the photos and the order of service that was printed in the local press remain. The Treaty of Versailles was then still a month away, and an occupation force held German territory west of the Rhine as part of the Armistice terms.

The parade was a very symbolic one, touching areas of town that had special links to the Pals as they had departed for Egypt and France in May 1915 and December 1915. The drill hall on Eastgate, where so many men had enlisted with such enthusiasm and hope in 1914, kept the colours overnight in a final farewell, as the Cadre was accomodated in the building.

The order of service for the day,

The Cadre, now reduced to 4 officers and 36 other ranked men had arrived in Southampton just a week before from Dunkirk. A telegram was sent and the authorities made swift preparations for the Civic reception, the schools of Barnsley were padlocked. Allowing Children, many of whom had lost their Fathers and older Brothers a chance to say a final farewell.

The two former commanders of the Battalions, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Hewitt and Honorary Colonel William Emsley Raley would have their say in the days proceedings as well.

Colonel Hewitt who had raised the 13th Battalion, lost his son Captain George at the Battle of Cambrai on November 27th 1917. George, who was part of the 2/5th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, was never found and is commemorated on the Cambrai memorial at Louverval. He is also remembered on the Hewitt family plot in Barnsley Cemetery.

Colonel Raley, who was now Mayor of the town, had lost two of his sons within a space of a month, and also lost a Nephew on the Somme. Walter Hugh, who was his youngest son, was killed at Fleurbaix on the 14th May 1915, he was part of the 5th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment and is buried at Y Farm cemetery. I had the privilege of visiting his grave earlier this year in March.

his older brother William Henry, who was part of the 3rd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, attached to the 2nd Battalion was killed at Givenchy on 15th June 1915, his remains were never found and his name is enscribed on the Le Touret Memorial in Artois, just a few miles from where he lost his life, I visited the memorial last year with my father, sadly I didnt know that his name was there.

The beautiful memorial at Le Touret, one of the first memorials to the missing of the Great War

His Father stepped down from command from the 2nd Barnsley Pals on the news of the death of his second son. Both of his sons are also commemorated on the Raley Family grave plot at St Thomas Church Worsborough.

What emotions must both of those men have felt as the Cadre arrived up Market Hill with the Colours, The cadre had began the parade at the Queens Ground, which is now part of the training facilities at Barnsley Football Club. It was where back in 1914, the men of Barnsley began their training and drill instructions. 900 men, some with no limbs, some men seriously wounded, those fortunate ones who had escaped unscathed followed behind, many of their comrades left behind in France. As they approached Market Hill in the company of massive crowds and buildings adorned with Union Jacks, the 2 battalion groups split in to their respective formations.

The Pals on their final march to St Marys church,

Colonel Hewitt and Mayor Raley inspected the remnants of their respective Battalions on Market Hill, smashed on the Somme and at respective areas of Artois, Arras, Gavrelle and Oppy Wood where the 2 battalions recieved their solitary battle honour in late June 1917.

The two men walked through the ranks, occasionally stopping to speak to their former soldiers, some of whom had won medals for bravery. Then Mayor Raley began the Civic proceedings with this speech.

Colonel Hewitt speaking to the original Pals Battalion on Market Hill.

“Officers and men of the two Barnsley Service Battalions, we welcome you on this occasion when we are going to say “Goodbye to the Colours” which were given to the 1st Barnsley Battalion in France. You know very well on the 13th May, 4 years ago, the two battalions left this Market Hill for the purpose of training with Colonel Hewitt. You went first to Egypt, then to France. You lads went to these countries and did well until the two Battalions were absorbed in France, you then did well at Bullecourt until your ranks had been reduced to 200 and after that the Battalion became composed of men from all over the country.”

He concluded his speech,

“I hope when we deposit these Colours in the Parish Church today we shall say goodbye to War!!!!! We are looking forward to peace, we hope we shall have peace abroad, but let us have peace at home, and after we have deposited these Colours let us make up our minds that after all this War has not been fought in vain, but that it has brought us nearer together.”

The Cadre proudly approched St Marys and the Church was filled to maximum capacity, the service consisted of the National Anthem, the Last Post and the handing over of the Colours on the Altar Rail. The service was concluded and the surviving veterans were treated to a civic reception at Queens Ground, where refreshments were served, mostly Sandwiches and local ale.

Then the crowds and veterans melted away, trying to get away from the past, having to face a very different future. The Colours still remain in St Marys, sadly in a very sorry condition in a glass cabinet underneath the bell tower.

The Colours in the cabinet

St Marys has an area dedicated to the men of the York and Lancaster Regiment who were killed in 4 years of war, their names encribed on a beautiful memorial in one of the Eastern Chapels of the Church.

The York and Lancaster Memorial in St Marys Church.

In a way the journey had turned full circle, Hewitt and Raley within 10 years would be dead, and then the veterans, having survived another World War slowly faded and melted away into the annals of history. A few in later years would recall and document their memories of a very different, almost Innocent time.

Tomorrow I will walk past the Church close to the time where a century ago, a group of men stepped away from the khaki and rifle and began the rebuilding of their own lives and futures. Yet still scarred with the memory of the friends and comrades in arms that they had lost. Yet having walked over their footsteps on the Somme and at Arras myself, I feel a overwhelming debt of gratitude to them, to Major Guest, Captain Normansell, Frank Bakel, Captain De Ville Smith, Harry Scargill and many others, they gave me their lives and futures so that i can share it to future generations, ensuring their sacrifice was not in vain. I will be certainly remembering the final Chapter of the Story, 100 years where they finally said farewell.

And the Earth abideth Forever

M

Il ne passeront pas

(They will not pass)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M

Promotion, and Wilfred,

Wilfrid Bartrop’s Grave in Warcoing Churchyard, Belgium


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

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

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

Wilfred Bartrop, FA Cup Winner 1912

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Earth Abideth Forever

Martin Joseph

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

Easter Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Martins Cathedral Ypres,

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

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

And the Earth Abideth Forever

M