Thursday, 22 December 2016

Ypres & the Somme July 2016 - to be completed later but I wanted to share this with my Christmas letter.

Three weeks and a day after seeing blue cornflowers and red poppies at Theipval on my bedroom television, I stood in the cool of its great arches and saw them for myself. David foraged in the longer grass beside the manicured lawns and found blue and red paper petals, released during the televised ceremony and scattered by the wind
Wreathes of poppies with cornflowers and small wooden crosses were laid under the dome, in corners and on the sides of stairs, in remembrance of the horrors of war or as tokens to the memory of individual forebears. I'd seen that Theipval looked like the  Hampstead Garden Suburb Free Church, with touches of St Judes, but I'd no idea of its scale. Television reduces everything to the size of a screen. Being at Theipval it appears vast. You would need to stick St Judes (minus it's spire)  and the Free Church  on top of one another to give the height of Theipval, to say nothing of the great bulk of its massive pillars.
"In the New York Times, Roger Cohen slots Brexit into an apocalyptic pattern that includes Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and, Cohen reckons, may spell the end of that “a interlude that began in 1945” that saw “the construction of a rules-based world order, undergirded by visceral knowledge of destruction and acute awareness of potential Armageddon”.

Brexit, Cohen says, was fuelled by lies. The referendum result illustrated a thirst for disruption at any cost. It was the supporting act for a possible American leap in the dark, that would place Trump’s portrait in United States embassies around the world."
Guardian Newspapers 2/8/16.

Our journey to the Somme really began in 2013 when David achieved notoriety by winning an important organ music composition prize. Shortly afterwards he was singing with North London Chorus and there was an article about him in the programme. Unbeknown to my son there was another David in the audience. David Leighton, nephew and literary trustee of the late Roland Leighton. David Leighton and his daughter Sophie asked to meet David Loxley-Blount and offered him the opportunity to set to music the collection of poems which Roland sent to Vera.

Part of this was heard in 2014 as 'Blood of Sunset' and was well received.
The complete cycle will be known as 'Does Aught Come After' but for a variety of medical and other reasons is still incomplete. However, knowing about his work on the Leighton poems, the Eric Thompson Trust has commissioned David to write four duets, inspired by four poems by Peter Philips, on the subject of war and terrorism, these will be heard in the City of London in October 2016.

 The Cathedral of Rochester also commissioned David to set the Australian poem by Vance Palmer 'A Farmer Remembers the Somme' for a service of Remembrance on the 10th July 2016 as part of the Nation's commemoration of the Tragedy of the Somme. His music was entitled ''The Dark Somme Flowing'.  The congregation were awed by the emotion of this piece and I'm sure the girl choristers who learned it will grow up with a heightened sense of the dangers and effects of war.

A couple of days later I spoke to my daughter on the phone..
'The Somme piece at Rochester was his best ever, The clergy and congregation loved it. I was close to tears. There were only two orders of service left on the seats afterwards.
'Mum, he's got to finish the Leighton before it's too late.'
'I know, but I think after all that's happened to him in the last couple of years he's lost the plot, maybe we need to get him to the Somme.'
'He needs to go NOW whilst it's all happening.'
'How soon can you get insurance to drive in France?'
(She only passed her test last summer)
'Not soon enough, I'd love to go, but Mum, you take him, go now! I'll come home and look after the rabbit and everything here.'
'Are you sure?'
'Yes, but only if you go NOW'
I looked online and discovered that the Australian ceremonies and surrounding events were the weekend of 23/24 July. This was our moment.

We ordered maps and guide books, booked ferries, 2 nights in Ypres, two nights near Thiepval, one night near St Valery sur Somme and the Son et Lumière at Pozieres. Then David discovered that his EHIC card was AWOL and his passport expired. There was nothing we could do about the EHIC card except hope he'd be well or the insurance would be kind, but we couldn't go without a passport. He had to travel all the way to Peterborough and pay extra to get one in time.

We left early on Wednesday morning , 20th July, the day after my 66th birthday, ten days after David's triumph at Rochester and despite David's usual difficulty with getting himself out of bed. Progress was surprisingly good through London and along the A2, but we came to a halt just outside Dover. All hope of catching the 10.00 am ferry and having time in the Flanders Museum in Ypres disappeared. When we eventually reached the port we discovered that there was a problem with French border security and wondered if this was more closely related to the French reaction to the Brexit vote and the immanent meeting between President Hollande and our new Prime Minister May, than to the increased security following the terrorist attack in Nice a few days earlier?

After a long hot wait we caught the noon boat, but with the time adjustment docked in Dunkerque at 3.00pm and arrived in Ypres at about 5 minutes to 4, just as a school party from Towcester were finishing their brass band performance in the shadow of the rebuilt Grote Market. Everything looked so old, it was disconcerting to realise that all the buildings were reconstructions. Nothing at all had remained standing after the First World War, Churchill had suggested that the ruins should remain as a monument to war, but the people of Ypres had wanted their town back, so with German money and labour from around the world, including China, it was all rebuilt to look as if nothing untoward had happened at all.

We wandered around the cobbled Grote Market Square and enjoyed the cool of the fountains. I bought guide books and postcards in the museum bookshop, postage stamps to the UK were extortionate. Then we found our apartment which belonged to Stefan's small pottery studio, about six or seven minutes walk from the square. It was attractive, compact and functional, although  smelling very slightly damp. Parking was excellent and we had a dishwasher and a fridge with a generous freezer compartment! There were beds for two and a sofa could have accommodated a third, but if we'd been three we might have struggled with the limited hot water. I transferred the contents of our cold box to the fridge and freezer, we had a snack and another wander round the Grote Market. I was tired, so I went back to the apartment and lay on the bed, where I fell fast asleep, fully clothed. David summoned up the energy to walk around the ancient town walls and stumbled on the ceremony of the Last Post at Sir Reginald Bloomfield's Menin Bridge to the 54.896 soldiers from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and the West Indies who died in Belgium and have no known graves.

Next morning I was up early, it was Belgian National Day so all the shops and offices were closed, except for the nearby Spar shop which opened for a few hours. Long enough to sell us water, salad, apricots and salt. After breakfast we used my guide book (intended for school parties) and on its recommendation headed for Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, which was quite small and tranquil and a good introduction to the devastating effects of the First World War. Roses and other flowers grow between the headstones as if this is an English cottage garden.

The Sanctuary Wood Monument, like those in many other Commonwealth War Cemeteries from both World Wars, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose two great churches in Central Square, Hampstead Garden Suburb are  part of our family's lives. This one at Sanctuary Wood was much more modest than Thiepval, which I'd seen on television and Etaples (primarily WW2) which we'd visited on a previous trip.  As the cemetery has over 1,000 burials it also has a Stone of Remembrance designed by Lutyens and inscribed with words from Ecclesiasticus 44:14:
"Their Name Liveth For Evermore"
We learned that these Lutyens stones, looking much like church altars, are in all the French and Belgian Cemeteries with 1000 graves or more. Smaller cemeteries with over 40 graves have a Cross of Sacrifice, designed by Sir Reginald Bloomfield, showing the sword of St George pointing downwards in mourning. It was Bloomfield's idea to plant the roses around the graves.
We lingered too long in the Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, because we got interested in the inscriptions below the names,
"A loving son so good and kind, a beautiful memory, left behind."
"He died that we might live."
"Forever with the Lord." "
Their glory shall not be blotted out."
"Peace perfect peace."
"Known unto God."

Two minutes further up the road we found the Sanctuary Wood Museum and the trenches of Hill 62. This was beyond our expectation, these are not the preserved sanitised trenches, of which we'd seen photographs in tourist brochures, these are largely untouched in 100 years. They are damp and muddy, their walls held up by crumbling corrugated metal sheets and in places covered over by rusting metal arches. They smell of rotting plant matter, but 100 years of rain has washed away the stench of blood and decomposing flesh. Such a contrast to the perfumed roses between the well ordered graves of the nearby cemetery . Stacked here and there in corners and in a shed were piles of shell cases and bits and pieces of weaponry and other debris of war. There were hollows apparently used as sleeping holes. There was a cart and a stretcher and a folding bed. Two small buildings contained an eclectic collection of wartime memorabilia including endless photographs, many uniforms and a room lined with recruitment posters.
 "For particulars and conditions of enlistment apply any recruiting office."
"Your arms uniform and accoutrements are ready and waiting for you." "It's our flag, fight for it, work for it."
"Women of Britain say go."
"Remember Belgium, enlist today."
"Join your country's army."
"Forward to victory."

We thought about Roland Leighton and his friends on the brink of taking up their hard won university places and deciding to delay these and go to fight in the war which was supposed to be over by Christmas.

We drove to Poperinghe but sadly Talbot House (the first house of the Toc H Movement, set up in memory of Gilbert Talbot, buried at Sanctuary Wood) where soldiers of all ranks spent time recuperating, before returning to active service or being sent home, was closed. Maybe we were too late in the day, or it had never opened on the Bank Holiday?’ La Poupée café was still busy in the town square, as it had been when officers had been comforted by Madame and her three young daughters.  Poperinghe was lovely in the afternoon sun with a horse drawn tram on the cobbled streets, we could see why the soldiers had enjoyed being there, but then we found the cells where those who could no longer take the pressure of the war were kept during their court martial and to await their execution. The audiovisual presentation, viewed through a small hole in the cell window was simply heart wrenching, as were the scratched images they had left on the walls of the other cell.

We headed back towards Ypres but stopped off for rather too long at the seemingly enormous cemetery of Lijssenthoek with its 10,785 graves. We were overcome by its scale but as the days went by we were to see many bigger than this, including the French cemetery at Neuville-St-Vast with 11,443 WW1 and 767 WW2 graves.

Back in Ypres we parked near our apartment, grabbed bottles of water and headed off to the Menin Gate. The Bank Holiday had swelled the crowds, it was packed to overflowing. The Last Post was sounded and a Canadian Choir serenaded us with mournful songs as wreaths were laid. Then a minutes silence and the trumpet sounded again before the crowd began to disperse. We looked at some of the engraved names, arranged by regiment. My son is a graduate of Middlesex University and was especially moved by the vast numbers from the Middlesex Regiment, young men like his friends and himself, killed on the brink of their careers and adult lives.  We were starving and bought frites on the way home. My son cooked gnocchi for supper and I fell fast asleep, I wasn't feeling good having acquired many mosquito bites in and around the trenches of Hill 62. This would have been another hazard for the young soldiers, living in its damp, foul smelling trenches.

Next morning, after stopping at the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messen, commemorating their 69,000 casualties from the whole island just before partition, we headed south on the trail of Roland Leighton. We headed for Ploegsteert from where he wrote about the contrast between the blue of the violets he had pressed and was sending to Vera and the red of the pool of blood around the head of the dead soldier he found in Ploegsteert Wood  (usually referred to by the soldiers as Plug Street) .
"It is strange they should be blue.... when his soaked blood was red".

We watched a film in the Plugstreet Experience museum which gave the history of conflict leading to war and then picnicked by the place where it is reported that the troops played football in No Mans Land on Christmas Day. Parts of its famous trenches remain, much preserved but, no longer meeting health and safety requirements, they are fenced off with barbed wire and overgrown with rather spindly poppies.

Heading South, the temperatures were extreme and we were tired, driving was difficult. Soon after crossing into France we stopped at a pharmacy as my bites from the Sanctuary Wood were in urgent need of antihistamine. I also wanted other pharmaceutical products difficult to procure in the UK. I awaited my turn in the queue and was summoned forward by a woman assistant.
"Parlez vous Anglais?"
"Non." She answered.
" Avez vous Onctose avec Hydrocortisone, s'il vous plaît?"
"Pour les piqûres d' insectes?"
" Oui, Merci."
C'est complète?
"Non, aussi, avez vous ....."
With a mixture of my poor French, accompanied by a certain amount of pointing, demonstration and gesticulation, I got the things I wanted and was leaving the store when the tall male pharmacist or manager approached me.
"I'm sorry, I was busy with another customer. I don't quite know what happened there. She speaks better English than I do".
I shrugged my shoulders in puzzlement.
"It's OK, thanks, I got what I needed."
He wished me a safe journey and I got back in the car and we continued southwards, passing cemetery after cemetery, Portuguese, French, Indian... eventually arriving at our accommodation in Mailly Maillet.

The village was festooned in fabric, plastic and cardboard poppies of various sizes, peeping out of trees and affixed to key  buildings. The walls of the church had visible bullet holes. Our accommodation was a pretty farmhouse with a delightful garden. The host was a tour guide from the museum in Albert, friendly and full of information but not really geared up for doing bed and breakfast. This wasn't somewhere we'd recommend except for its position so close to Thiepval. However we were allowed to use the freezer and were given a large home grown bulb of garlic.
We unloaded our belongings and made for the Son et Lumière at Pozières. We'd deliberately chosen to come to the Somme during the Australian Centenary Celebrations, as we knew there would be added extras which we could participate in and learn from.

To get there we had to drive past Thiepval which like the spire of St Judes can be seen for miles. Thiepval dominates the entire landscape, I'd no idea it was so big. The queue for admission to the Son et Lumière was just about as slow and badly organised as could be imagined, with ticket checking, security bag searches and the supplying of English language headsets to Australian, American, Canadian and British guests all taking place in the same two square metres. We sat for a very long time waiting for the seats to fill up, oh so slowly. Just as the performance was about to start, using a mixture of French and English, I politely asked a press photographer, who had at the last minute noisily plonked himself on the chair next to me and was intent on obstructing our appreciation of the proceedings with his loudly clicking, giant phallus of a lens, to go elsewhere. We had travelled a long way and paid a lot of money for our seats. He answered in perfect English,
"I don't talk English, you will have to speak French."
That's when I understood what had happened in the pharmacy, there must be a movement, by some of those annoyed by our Brexit vote, to refuse to use our language. He refused to move until someone two seats along swapped with him, but we were still conscious of his intrusive activities. There were many other photographers recording the proceedings without causing his level of audience disruption.

The show started at least 45 minutes late but the wait was worthwhile. The spectacle was at points absolutely brilliant but lasted a very long time and could have been improved by faster scene changes and at times the use of an editors pencil. We saw everything, real horses, a schoolroom, an English village with Morris Dancing, a French salon and the open plains of Australia. There was terrifyingly realistic gunfire and trench warfare, an ambulance, a tank and an aeroplane. There were live singers, bagpipes and recorded music before the inevitable firework finale. It was one in the morning when we passed the lights of Thiepval on our way to bed.

Next day was Saturday, after a somewhat disappointing breakfast we set out to find Roland Leighton's grave at Louvencourt. Roland's grave is the first on the right just inside the cemetery. It's a small cemetery but has a Lutyens stone. There are several French graves, a British Brigadier General

When we signed the visitors book we discovered that Roland's nephew David, was there three days before us, on the day we left London. I thought how much I'd learned already and how much better a conversation I could have if and when I meet him again.

Then long white roads

Afternoon Thiepval
"Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme battlefields July 1915 February 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death."
On the 16 Portland stone piers are engraved the names of over 72,000 men who were lost in the Somme battles between July 1915 and March 1918 but who have no known resting place. 90% of these lives were lost in the five months of the First Battle of the Somme, in the summer and autumn of 1916. There are gaps where names have been removed when some soldiers remains were later found, identified and buried with military honours in the Cemeteries closest to the places where they fell.

The memorial is 140 feet (43 m) high, above the level of its podium, which to the west is 20 feet (6.1 m) above the level of the adjoining cemetery.[5][6] It has foundations 19 feet (5.8 m) thick, which were required because of extensive wartime tunnelling beneath the structure.[

St Jude Externally it is 200 feet long and the spire rises 178 feet above the ground.

Then museums at Thiepval and albert and then the crater

Evening concert

Next morning the Newfoundland site at Beaumont hamel and following the Somme to the sea and the Chinese Cemetries


Seeing the vast cemeteries of all nationalities and the lists of names on the Menin Gate and the Thiepval Memorial of those without graves, seeing the trenches at Sanctuary Wood (Hill 62), the place near Plougsteert where the Christmas Day football truce took place and the extensive Newfoundland preserved battlefield site at Beaumont Hamel, was far far far more powerful than seeing the poppies at the Tower of London or any number of movies and TV documentaries. I think we experienced some of the 'visceral knowledge of destruction' of which the NYT columnist speaks.

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