Tuesday 15 November 2016

Remembrances 2016 and the story of the Pegasus Bridge.

My growing understanding of the effects of war.

I grew up in the village of Aston, in the parish of Aston cum Aughton. Aston lies eight miles to the East of Sheffield and five miles from Rotherham, in the heart of the South Yorkshire Coalfield. We didn't have a war memorial until November 2011 and the two world wars were barely spoken of.
The record at the Imperial War Museum indicates that there is a brass plaque commemorating the First World War unveiled somewhere in All Saints church in May 1920. I have no recollection of seeing it. The plaque indicates that 158 members of the parish went to fight in the First World War and that of these exactly half were lost and half remained. of the half which were lost there appear to be no burial records, so their names may be amongst the thousands inscribed on the Menin Gate and the Thiepval Memorial.
Why so few? Our menfolk were underground hewing the coal or sweating in factories producing steel or in forges and grinders workshops making guns and other weaponry. The situation in World War Two was not dissimilar, so few of my school friends had lost anyone in the war and we never really spoke about it. My father, a talented mechanical engineer, with health problems, had been sent to David Brown Tractors in Huddersfield to work on the design of jet engines to power the planes, which delivered the bombs.

I grew up with pacifist tendencies which became stronger in adulthood. Other than watching the televised annual ceremonies of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall and  the Cenotaph in Whitehall, I eschewed all conversation about war and bought a white poppy as my annual protest against the loss of life.

Things changed for me when my children were small. We didn't have a great deal of money, but one of my husband's closest friends had bought a small estate in Normandy, Le Manoir de la Marefontaine at Ver sur Mer, close to the D Day beaches and less than half an hours drive from the ferry port of Ouisterham (Caen). At its heart was a semi derelict Norman Manor House, which we called Creepy Castle, complete with slits for shooting arrows and a staircase suitable for the resident Lord to ride downstairs on his horse with his sword ready in position. The house had survived the ravages of history as a convent. There was a former barn, which our friend called 'The Barracks', converted into dormitories, in which the nuns had taken care of 'needy young women'. It was complete with a swing and an array of posts for many washing lines. One can only imagine from more recent books and films such as Philomena ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philomena_Lee ) what might have been going on there.
On the opposite side, a cow shed with living accommodation above, had been converted into money making gîtes by whoever had owned the Manoir between the nuns and our friend. We stayed many times in the Barracks and once in the cowshed gîtes. It became our heaven on earth with its meadow of wildflowers, surrounded by a diverted defensive (moat) stream populated by fish (poisson), frogs (grenouille) and toads (crapaud). There were occasional visits from Hérisson the hedgehog.
We adored the endless sand of the Gold Beach at Ver sur Mer and the Juno Beach at nearby Courseulles with its summer beach playground, its friteries, fish market and supermarket. We made occasional visits to the more sheltered part of the Gold Beach at Arromanches les Bains, with visible remains of the Mulberry Harbour. There was a smaller beach playground at Asnelles, on the Gold Beach between Ver sur Mer and Arromanches which wasn't fenced off at night time, so we could go and play on the slide until the children's short weary legs could climb it no longer and we headed home to bed. Holidays at Manoir de la Marefontaine made for very happy children (we took friends as well as our own). After our friend sadly died we still visited the area for occasional weekends, short breaks and holidays, staying in a hotel in Courseulles, several gîtes in neighbouring villages and once in the newly refurbished Barracks gîtes. Later we took our tourer caravan to a nearby site.

The new owners of Le Manoir de la Marefontaine have restored Creepy Castle, which they run as a B&B, they've turned the Barracks into new well appointed gîtes and sold the Cowshed gîtes (which are now lived in as a family house). There are lots of photos online
 ( https://www.tripadvisor.com.ph/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g664069-d2167836-i31832062-Le_Manoir_de_la_Marefontaine-Ver_sur_Mer_Calvados_Basse_Normandie_Normand.html )

Inevitably spending time around the D Day beaches aroused the children's curiosity about the restored tank parked next to the carousel at Courseulles and the giant pieces of metal and concrete  (good for playing hide and seek or sheltering from the wind) sticking out of the beach at Arromanches. There was an excellent WW2 museum at Arromanches where I remember taking the nursery class bear, who had accompanied us on a weekend trip along with his diary which had to be completed. I think the school were somewhat taken aback to see him photographed sitting astride a canon. His more usual trips were to birthday parties or Clown Town. He wasn't keen on the sand but enjoyed the view out to sea from the restaurant table where we ate our supper.
The museum at Arromanches persuaded me that I needed know more about war, so one sunny day we packed a picnic and set out for the Pegasus Bridge on the Caen Canal. Bénouville, the village next to the bridge, had a much more extensive WW2 museum and a row of small shops which were amongst the first buildings in France to be liberated by Allied Troops on the morning of D Day. We stayed late to attend the Son et Lumière and got bitten many times by mosquitoes living in the wet land around the canal. It was a cold evening and the children snuggled between us on tiered benches facing the water. To our left, across the canal, half hidden amongst the trees, we could see a convent which had been at the heart of the carefully constructed plan to capture the canal Bridge at Bénouville and the nearby Ranville Bridge over the river Orne, as the essential first step to the D Day landings. If they had failed to secure the means of crossing the Orne and the Caen Canal, there would have been easy access for German troops to be rushed in to quash the Allied Invasion and no way for British, American and Canadian troops, arriving next morning on the Gold, Juno, Sword and other beaches, to move quickly Eastwards into France.

The Son et Lumière was utterly gripping. The convent was lit in muted camouflage colours and we could hear the terrified voices of the nuns and other members of the French Résistance with their Morse code and their radio. We could hear the conversations of the troops preparing to parachute down close to the bridge. It felt as if we could see and hear the real gliders coming into land, not on a smooth runway but in the rough field behind and to our right. The frightened British Airmen of the Ox & Bucks Division, advanced stealthily on the bridge, but found very few German soldiers at their posts, most were relaxing with French wine, completely oblivious to the arrival of their unexpected visitors. The Allies captured both the Bénouville and Ranville bridges.
In the convent, members of the Résistance radioed 'Ham & Jam' to England in Morse Code, meaning that it was safe for the troops, landing along the beaches to the East of Ouisterham, to progress towards Paris. Next day Lord Lovat and his troops, complete with a Scottish piper, liberated the village of Bénouville. The bridge was later renamed Pegasus (the winged stallion of mythology) in honour of the embroidered emblems on the épaulettes of the uniforms of the airmen who captured the bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne.

I changed that night. The fear in the voices of the nuns and the members of the French Résistance finally convinced me that the Allied Invasion had been necessary. I'd never previously believed that to be so.

Since then we've seen other museums, monuments and gun emplacements along the north Normandy coast and visited the manicured American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer behind the Omaha Beach. Later on a holiday nearer to the Chanel ports of Boulogne and Calais we visited the British Cemetery at Étaples. This was the first time we'd seen one of Sir Edwin Lutyens monuments in France, which all look so much like the buildings and design of Central Square in Hampstead Garden Suburb, close to our home in Finchley.

In 2016 I visited the Menin Gate in Ypres and the pinnacle of all of Lutyens monument building, the towering edifice of Thiepval in the Somme, another experience which affected me much more than I'd ever expected it to do so. I've written about that elsewhere.

In this time of posturing and political uncertainty I fear for the future and hope that we can learn the lessons of the past.
(C) Jan Loxley Blount
Remembrance Sunday 13 November 2016
Revised Tuesday 15/11/16 with military information from Malcolm blount.

Poppies at the Tower written in 2014

888,246 Red Poppies and a few Blue Violets

On Thursday 30th October, squeezed between a hospital appointment and a meeting, I stole half an hour to look at the moat of ceramic poppies which surround the Tower of London, marking the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak on the First World War. We parked in St Katherine's Dock and approached via Tower Bridge. At one point we were less than 6 feet above the sea of red flowers. Much better than joining the vast queues on the Northern and Western sides, to look over high walls by the entrance to the Tower.

The poppies stretched into the distance and under a wooden bridge, seeming to go on for ever. Some darker, some lighter, some on taller wires, some on shorter wires, all red and all the same size, everyone is equal in death. They will number 888,246 by Remembrance Day 2014, the 11th day of the 11th month, marking 96 years after the end of the war which was supposed to end all wars. They represent all those British and Commonwealth troops, auxiliary and medical staff, killed in the trenches or on the battlefields, in the war which wasn't over by Christmas as volunteers had been led to expect. War raged for a further three years, ending with treaties which precipitated a second round of unfettered destruction a mere 21 years later.

Every poppy in the moat represents someone's son or daughter, brother or sister,  husband or wife, father, mother, lover or friend. I'd heard reports, good and bad, so was glad to see it for myself. Yes it's tourism, yes it's to some extent sanitised, but the real impact is the sheer number of poppies. It's like in school or college, when you are told something numerical, which you learn but don't understand until somebody turns it into a graph or other form of visual representation, at which point it suddenly begins to mean so much more. Until Thursday I didn't have a clue what 800,000 looked like, now I've got more of an idea. The sheer number of poppies is what will hopefully bring focus to the massed tourist throngs currently visiting the installation.

To add to our 800,000 war dead we remember those of the Allied troops and support workers who fought with us. Also the countless innocent civilian children, siblings, cousins, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and great grandparents killed in Britain, the Commonwealth, our wartime allies and those countries with which we were at war. We must also remember that, as Albert discovered in Michael Morpugo's acclaimed children's novel 'War Horse', and as Vera Brittain found as a volunteer Nurse in France and recorded in her memoir 'Testament of Youth', the enemy troops who fought, were maimed and died were also made up of sons, husbands, fathers, lovers and friends, conscripted or persuaded to join up by rhetoric which offered them a better future for their families if their leaders could only gain a stronger power base or defend themselves from attack by the forces of Britain, France and their allies. A generation lost in many more countries than ours.

Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth' has been made into a cinema film to be released in January 2015. It was premièred on October 14th, as the Mayor of London's Gala during the BFI 2014 London Film Festival. My son and I were given tickets to attend. We got to walk on the red carpet, once the celebrities were safely inside and the only remaining cameras were phones, taking selfies or pictures of family and friends, whilst the security staff asked everyone to 'move along please'. The cast includes well known stage and screen actors such as Emily Watson and Dominic West as the adult family and friends of the young protagonists. However as its name suggests, the film action is primarily that of Vera, her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland Leighton and their best friends Victor and Geoffrey, until all four young men were cruelly killed in the war. Roland is played by Kit Harrington who was Albert in the original NT production of 'War Horse', but is now better known from his starring role in 'Game of Thrones', (which I've never seen as I don't have subscription TV). The biggest audience cheers were for Colin Morgan as Victor, known because he played the title role in the long running TV series 'Merlin'. It was fitting that the carpet was red, echoing the poppies and the blood spilled in the war, As the fox in Antoine de Saint Exupéry's 'Petit Prince' explains, when speaking of the colour of the Prince's hair and the cornfields, once something acquires significant meaning it will stay that way forever. For me a celebrity red carpet will never again be as it was, but has through the carpet of poppies and the blood of the harrowing story told in the film, become a sign of the pacifism to which Vera was led by her experience of the war.

My feelings about the film were that in order to shorten a long, densely written, memoir to the length expected by present day cinema audiences, some of the plot devices were somewhat conflated and contrived. The 1979 BBC TV serialised adaptation (still available on DVD), seems more true to history and its writer. What I liked best about the cinema film was the portrayal of the abandoned exuberance of privileged youth in the pre-war period; and of how this produced an idealism led them to volunteer for war, hoping to be heroes, intending to be home for Christmas.

We were invited to the film première because my son David J Loxley-Blount has been commissioned, by the literary trustees of Roland Leighton, to set to music the love poetry, written by Roland from the trenches in France, to his beloved Vera. Hopefully the work will be premièred in late 2015, to commemorate Roland's untimely death, just a few days before he was due home for Christmas 1915. Like Edward, Victor and other young volunteer officers, he'd opted to postpone his undergraduate studies (he had won a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford based on outstanding results at Uppingham School) and do what he perceived to be his duty, leading a troop of less well educated young men, also still teenagers or barely out of their teens. He obviously remembered that soldiers move best when their bellies are full, as he sent home for generous supplies of Birds Custard powder and Cadbury's Milk Chocolate. The parcel wouldn't have arrived until after he was killed checking the barbed wire fence in order to protect his men.  

Perhaps the most poignant of Roland's poems, written in April 2015 and read in the film, was his Villanelle:  'Violets from Plug Street Wood', as Ploegsteert was affectionately called by troops who renamed Ypres as Wipers and Etaples as Eat Apples. Roland sent violets to Vera, to convey his distress at finding the body of a British soldier with a sea of blue violets growing around his head. He contrasts the blue of the flowers with the red of the man's spilled blood.  He mourns the life and hope and love of Vera, which violets have previously represented for him and is now replaced by the mangled horror of the body he found amongst them 'oversea'. This vision must have been especially poignant to Roland, as he hung onto the poem (and presumably the pressed flowers) for four months, before sending them to Vera, knowing that she 'will understand'.

Vera's understanding of the horror and waste of war led her into pacifism, her experience of fighting for an education for herself led her into feminism. The need to record it all led to Vera's  friendship with Winifred Holtby and her determination to succeed as a writer. Her influence has impacted on many who's parents heard her speak or who have read her books or seen the BBC adaptation of Testament of Youth. Her daughter Shirley Williams political idealism, especially in the field of education, owes much to her mother's experiences. I hope that many of the crowds who recently flocked to see the ceramic red poppies at the Tower will flock to see the film, when it is released in January, and will, like Vera, understand the significance of the little bunch of blue violets, each representing a single life of the many many more than 888,246 who were killed.

Jan Loxley Blount  02/11/2014


Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head;
It is strange they should be blue.)

Violets from Plug Street Wood-
Think what they have meant to me-
Life and Hope and Love and You
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest it was better so.)

Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.

Roland Aubrey Leighton 1915