A couple of months back my 14 year old son, Conor, came home from Scouts with information about a bus trip to the WWI battlefields of The Somme and Flanders. Now those of you who know me know that I am a highly social animal. However, on this occasion, I didn’t fancy a four day trip with a group of adults (and children) who I didn’t know. Nothing against them , I just didn’t fancy it.
So my wife suggested Conor and I go on our own in Sheldon (our 28 year old VW campervan). The main reasons for us going were threefold: 1. Conor was studying WWI in his history lessons, 2. I felt a need to explore this history further, and 3. my eldest son was busy revising for A-levels, so it would be good to give him a week’s “clear water” with no distractions in the house.
And so the die was cast.
Not knowing anything about the geography of WWI I turned to that fount of all knowledge, Facebook, to ask my friends if any of them had any advice/experience. Turns out rather a lot of them had! I received useful input from a number of friends who suggested areas to camp and places to visit. Some even lent me books and tour guides to help with my planning. It became evident that there was too much to do/see in the time we had, so I focussed on four things I felt we absolutely must visit. Mametz Wood, Lochnagar Crater, Menin Gate and Hedd Wyn’s grave.
The first and last of these have a particular Welsh resonance which I will come to later. Lochnagar Crater, in La Boiselle, is one of the largest man-made craters in existence and was created by the detonation of explosives packed into tunnels beneath the German frontline. Having read “Birdsong” I felt we had to witness the aftermath of mine warfare. The Menin Gate is in the ancient walls of the Belgian city of Ieper (better known by its French name of Ypres) and is a monument to thousands of men for whom there is no grave.
As Conor attends a Welsh-medium high school, where all lessons are conducted through the medium of Welsh, I wanted him to view WWI through the lens of Welsh regiments and individuals. Mametz Wood was the scene of bitter fighting and heavy loss by 38th Welsh Division and Hedd Wyn was the bardic name of Ellis Evans, a farmer’s son from Trawsfynydd who was a celebrated poet.
So, with Sheldon set for camping (and having had a new handbrake cable and brake cylinders fitted), we hit the road on the Tuesday after the half term Bank Holiday. Bound for Dover.
An uneventful drive and a flat-calm Channel crossing put us in Calais with another two hour trip to reach The Somme. Conor proved to be an effective navigator as I concentrated on not hitting oncoming traffic head-on.
I was a little nervous as I didn’t know what the Camping Bellevue campsite was like (it was the only one anywhere near Albert, which is where we wanted to be) but it turned out to be set in beautiful countryside in a protected natural environment. As we approached the village of Authuille (where the camp site was situated) the roads became narrower and the number of vehicles for me to hit became fewer. We began to see enormous monuments through the trees and across the rolling farmland. The kind of monuments one would expect to see in inner city London, not in a national park. The closest village to Authuille was Thiepval, a name I remember from reading about WWI battles. But we pushed on and arrived at Camping Bellevue with enough time to set up camp and cook a pasta supper.
The owner was a jolly farmer who spoke not a word of English but seemed not to mind our appallingly bad knowledge of French. We communicated effectively enough for him to tell us that we were in a special environment for wildlife and that we would see many sites the next day. The camp site lived up to its name as we had clear views across the river Ancre to the woodland beyond and the only sound we could hear was that of birdsong, including a cuckoo in the distance (funny how cuckoos are always in the distance and never close up).
So ended day one of our adventure.
We were right in the middle of The Somme.
Next morning we packed up, bade the farmer a sincere “merci” and drove out of the campsite. As soon as we turned onto the road we saw a sign for “Authuille Military Cemetery” so we turned off the road again and parked up. The cemetery was on a hillside that dropped down to the river Ancre.
One of the comments in the visitor book (which every cemetery has in an alcove at the entrance, together with a map showing all the names of those interred within), said that it was the most beautiful cemetery they had visited. And so it turned out for us. The regimented ranks of white headstones, neatly mown grass, perennial plants and overhanging trees made it feel more like a park than a place where lay the broken bodies of three hundred men. Men who faced unimaginable horror.
As we were to find throughout our trip, this juxtaposition of peace and violence permeates everything here. It is at the same time unsettling and reassuring, sad yet uplifting.
It wasn’t just British Nationals who died here
We jumped back into Sheldon and headed off for the Thiepval Memorial which was about a mile away. It was huge. It would not have been out of place in the heart of a major city.
So here, in a clearing in a small wood, with gently rolling arable farmland all around, it had great presence. The base, upon which stood a tall tower, was approximately 30 feet high and, as we walked towards it, seemed clad in plain white limestone. As we got closer we began to see that every square inch of this seemingly blank canvas was incised with the names of 78,000 men who died in Somme battles but for whom there is no grave.
78,000 men blown to pieces and/or buried beneath the cloying mud until farmers or builders uncover them in future years. That is equivalent to the population of the City of Bath just wiped off the face of the earth. It was a powerful symbol and we spent some time quietly walking under and around it.
From here we drove to La Boiselle, again very close by, to visit the Lochnagar Crater. This is an enormous crater which was created when British miners detonated thousands of pounds of explosives directly beneath German lines. It’s difficult to explain the size of it, but imagine watching a news report about a truck bomb in somewhere like Iraq and seeing the crater that makes. Imagine something a hundred times bigger and you might be close to Lochnagar Crater.
I wanted us to see this as I have read “Birdsong” and found it to be the most upsetting, claustrophobic, yet compelling of novels. In front of us was an example of exactly the kind of mine warfare that Sebastian Faulkes so graphically described. The geology here is basically chalk and flint. Everywhere, on the farmland around, are flint nodules set in the crumbly light brown and white soil. I picked up a small nodule to take home as a reminder. Something solid as a stimulus to memory. I guess that’s the purpose of memorials.
On our way to our final destination of the day, Mametz Wood, we happened upon a sign to the Canadian Cemetery at Sunken Road. Intrigued we turned down what was a rutted, unmetalled, farm track. Sheldon’s suspension was sorely tested but, after 300 yards, we came to two separate walled cemeteries which seemed to float above the green wheat fields in which they sat.
This is the way of war cemeteries, we found. I guess the logistics of collecting bodies and bringing them to one huge cemetery are too difficult, so they erect them where the soldiers fell. Even if it means that they are cheek by jowl with productive farmland. The past is never far away from the present in The Somme.
I took one or two photographs to share with my Canadian cousins and we then retraced our bouncy steps to the road. Onwards to Mametz Wood…
Our last stop for the day, before the hour’s drive north to Ieper, Mametz was the largest wood in The Somme. Given its position on a slight ridge, and the cover it provided its German occupiers, it was a key strategic target for the British during the first Battle of The Somme.
Between the 7th and 10th July 1916 the 38th Welsh Division fought to take the wood. Thinking they were up against poorly-trained conscripts the Welsh advanced across the low ground. Unfortunately for them the wood was held by battle-hardened German troops who opened fire from the front and sides. From what I have read it sounded like the archetypal mowing down of troops in a pointless assault. The British Army generals accused the Welsh of cowardice in retreating after early failures to take the objective. By the time the wood was taken 4000 men lay dead or wounded. One battalion (14th Swansea Battalion) entered the wood with 676 men but lost 400 killed or wounded.
The poet Robert Graves fought in the battle and later wrote of the aftermath: “It was full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken”.
The excellent publication “Call Them To Remembrance” by Gwyn Prescott is an account of the Welsh rugby internationals who died in WWI. Some of them met their grisly end in Mametz Wood. It is an imprint of Welsh Academic Press and well worth a read.
We stood at the base of the monument to the fallen and looked across the low ground to the wood and decided to see if we could access it.
Crossing the killing fields, now yet another blanket of dark green wheat, we entered the wood. We could just make out the pockmarked surface of the ground underneath its shroud of bramble and ivy. Strikingly, in amongst the tall trees, we began to see individual wreaths, red dragons and flags placed amongst the vegetation and some even nailed to the trees themselves. This place obviously has strong resonances for family members to this day. It was an inspiring thing to see.
And so on to an hour and a half’s raucous thrum of Sheldon’s diesel engine as we headed northwards to Ieper (Ypres) for our next two nights stay. We were heading to Flanders with only three set targets. Find the poet Hedd Wyn‘s grave, visit the In Flanders Fields museum and witness the Menin Gate ceremony…
We arrived in good time at the Camping Jeugsdtation which is a very well organised (perhaps too well organised…) campsite a 10 minute walk from the Centre of Ieper. I highly recommend it but book ahead!
After a nice meal in a restaurant in the main square of Ieper, within sight of the Menin Gate, we returned to our trusty steed/kitchen/bedroom and settled down for the night, wondering what the next day would bring.
I’d decided that, for the morning of our last full day, we would first visit the In Flanders Fields Museum. I felt that it might better inform our understanding of what happened, where, and when. I was not to be disappointed. At the ticket desk we were each given a white rubber wrist band with a red poppy shape looking like the face of a watch. We had to scan this device across a reader and then use a keyboard and touchscreen to enter our names, ages and home addresses. This subsequently allowed us to unlock personally-specific information in some of the displays. It was a clever bit of tech and it really drew one in to the whole experience.
The museum had a dark feel to it, in lighting and decorative terms. Understandable, given the subject matter. Excellent interactive panels, maps and videos oriented us in the landscape. Superb collections of objects helped explain the pre-war social history of the area and the terrible events that followed.
All in all it was one of the best arranged and interpreted museums I have ever visited (and I have worked in museums for over 20 years). However, halfway through I came across a small display of trench warfare hand-to-hand combat weapons (within a wider display of trench warfare and life). There were clubs and maces better suited to a mediaeval exhibition, daggers and stilettos of every description and, critically for me, a knuckleduster with a 3 inch stiletto blade pointing straight out of it. This case, and this object in particular, pushed me over the edge. I really couldn’t take any more. It was the realisation that someone actually used this fist-held device and simultaneously punched and stabbed other human beings in order to not be killed himself. This brought home to me the close-up brutality of the whole war.
This is not a negative comment on the museum. Far from it. It told the story of the Great War very sensitively and I recommend it to anyone. But the relentless presentation of objects of death and destruction was too much. So I made an excuse to Conor and we left. Illuminated but immeasurably saddened.
Our final target for the day was Hedd Wyn’s grave. Hedd Wyn (Blessed Peace) was the bardic name adopted by Ellis Humphrey Evans, a farmer’s son from Trawsfynydd in North Wales. He was a poet. He went, reluctantly (to avoid his younger brother being conscripted), to war and is now better known as a war poet.
After his basic training he returned home for furlough. It was during this time that he wrote an “awdl” (a long, ornate poem in an ancient tradition) called “Yr Arwr” (The Hero) as his entry for the National Eisteddfod of 1917. He entered it under the nom de plume “Fleur de Lys”.
At the Eisteddfod the Archdruid called out three times for Fleur de Lys to make himself known. He was then told that Hedd Wyn had died six weeks earlier in an attack on Pilckem Ridge, near Langemark just north of Ieper. The bard’s prize Chair was draped in a black sheet and taken, in that state, to his family’s farm. The 1917 Eisteddfod was forever known as “Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu” (The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair). As the Archdruid put it “The festival in tears and the poet in his grave”.
In the late 1990s a Welsh language film “Hedd Wyn” became the first British film ever to be nominated for a foreign language Oscar. Conor and I watched it on Youtube (where it is in four parts) before leaving for our trip. I’m glad we did so as it was a good film and very moving.
Whilst the staff at the museum were helpful and told us where to find his grave, they gave us completely the wrong cemetery name! This threw us off for a while until, at Cement House Cemetery, we asked two local workers who were tending the graves. With their help we discovered that the grave was in Artillery Wood Cemetery, not far away. I asked these guys how many cemeteries their team looked after. “In this area?” they said (approx 16sq mile) “150”.
On finding Artillery Wood Cemetery we quickly identified Hedd Wyn‘s grave, thanks to the cemetery map held within a bronze box at the entrance. It was clear, from the signatures and comments in the book of condolence, that we were not the first Welsh family to make a pilgrimage to the poet’s grave.
As we did not have familial links to the Great War I decided that we would pay special respects at Hedd Wyn‘s grave, so I read out one of his poems “Rhyfel” (“War”) which I reproduce below. I intended writing the last line (which is translated into English below) in the book of condolence but more than one visitor had beaten me to it. So I simply wrote “Bachgen Trawsfynydd. Arwr Gymru”.
Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.
Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae sŵn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.
Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.
The shriek of boys is on the wind,
Their blood is blended in the rain.
Opened in 1927, the Menin Gate sits on the site of an ancient gate into the walled city of Ieper. The Gate is a monument to over 54,000 men who died in the battles of the Ypres Salient and for whom there is no grave. The total figure was 90,000 but there wasn’t enough room on the monument for all the names, so the rest are on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. A total of 300,000 men died in these battles.
Buglers from the local Fire Brigade have played The Last Post at the Gate every evening since 1927 at 8pm. Conor and I joined a large crowd to witness this.
As the buglers played and the crowd observed a minute’s silence, I looked at the thousands of names carved into the limestone above and around me. It was too much to take in so my gaze stopped at the name of one Private Agate of the Australian Artillery. As the silence continued I tried to imagine Private Agate. What did he do before the war? When was he killed? How did he die? Does his family ever visit this place? In thinking about the one, I hope I thought of the many.
The ceremony ended and Conor and I headed back to Sheldon for our final evening in Belgium.
The whole trip was emotionally draining. I do not regret going but I’m glad we only spent a short time there.
As we drove into the port of Calais we had a modern reminder of how conflict can effect ordinary people. To the right of the elevated road that took us through the controlled area there are sand dunes. In those dunes were many tents and makeshift tarpaulin-covered shacks filled with illegal immigrants desperate to cross to the UK. Displaced people wanting to survive and make a new life for themselves. No doubt the four years of WWI created similar tides of the dispossessed. This became a final codicil to our journey and simply added to my melancholy.
I was glad to return home to my safe, stable, peaceful, loving home for which I will never be complacent….