Although I was aware that the 100th anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres (better known as Passchendaele) fell at the end of July/beginning of August this year, when I was preparing the article about the battle that appears in our autumn issue it didn’t strike me just how closely the publication date of the magazine would coincide with all the commemorative events and remembrance services that have been taking place. In fact, if it hasn’t already been delivered to their doors, subscribers to This England will be receiving their copies during the next few days. I hope that they, and any readers who purchase the magazine from a newsagent, find the account by Tonie and Valmai Holt - renowned military historians and long-time battlefield tour guides - informative and thought-provoking.
So terrible were the experiences of those who took part in the battle, with an estimated 300,000 casualties from Britain and her Empire (many of whom have no known grave), it will never be possible to convey the full horror: from my study of events and reading the first-hand accounts of the men themselves, I don’t think the words exist in the English language. However, the magnitude of the losses, the appalling conditions the soldiers faced on the shattered, mud-clogged ground, and the dreadful loss of so many young men and the inconsolable heartbreak it created for their loved ones, were brought home in stark, unflinching detail during the BBC coverage of last Sunday’s poignant commemoration at Ypres.
Among all the readings, musical performances and dramatic reconstructions, the sections that had the most profound effect on me, and which I am unable to forget, were the accounts by surviving veterans of Passchendaele. Their talking heads, taken from television interviews they gave in the Sixties and Seventies, were superimposed on the side of the cathedral-like Cloth Hall. Slightly distorted by the nooks and crannies of the building, their voices sometimes faint and faltering but describing the most harrowing sights and sounds in the most matter-of-fact way, it was as if they were ghosts who had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, high above the ranks of those standing on the stage, the spectators watching in their seats, and the rows upon rows of white headstones.
Their testimonies brought home to me once again how, 100 years ago, these ordinary men from factories and coal mines, from offices, shops and farms, were taken from all that was comfortable and familiar to them and forced by circumstances to do and see the most terrible things. During those four years of war, strange names such as Mametz, Messines, Ploegsteert and Pilkem became as familiar to them as those of the lanes, streets, woods, farms and fields they had known near their homes in England.
One of the men whose black-and-white face materialised from the darkness was Harry Patch, who, when he died in 2009 at the astonishing age of 111, had become the last surviving combat soldier from the First World War. It was as if he had been allowed to live that long so that he could bear witness about the savagery of war to younger generations.
I remember his account of how he came across a soldier who had been horribly injured by shrapnel:
"And when that fellah died, he just said one word: “Mother.” It wasn’t a cry of despair. It was a cry of surprise and joy. I think - although I wasn’t allowed to see her - I am sure his mother was in the next world to welcome him. And he knew it. I was just allowed to see that much and no more. And from that day until today I shall always remember that cry and I shall always remember that death is not the end."
Over the course of the commemorations, John McCrae’s famous remembrance poem “In Flanders Fields” was recited and sung. It was this poem that in 1918 led American academic Moina Michael to pen a verse of her own in response and to promote, for the first time, the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance. This lady’s remarkable story is told in our new 2018 This England Annual (click here for further details).
One of my own favourite poems from the First World War was written by Lieutenant John Stanley Purves of the 5th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment. It captures the yearning many serving soldiers had for England and the way in which, as I mentioned earlier, war forced them to act in ways from which their peacetime selves would have recoiled in horror:
I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring
In summertime, and on the downs, how larks and linnets sing
High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and oh, the air!
I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.
But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,
When every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which,
And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair -
My God! I never knew till now that those days were so fair.
And we assault in half an hour, and - it’s a silly thing -
I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.