Armistice Day: Following in the footsteps of the war poets

Fricourt New Military Cemetery
Fricourt New Military Cemetery

Jeremy Clifford, editor-in-chief at Johnston Press, follows in the footsteps of the war poets in his moving blog post:

“Take a sharp, deep breath - and pause.

Shell holes and bunkers at Bois Francais

Shell holes and bunkers at Bois Francais

That feeling deep inside your chest is the same palpable sense of anticipation that pervades this market town of Ypres on the eve of the 100 years of the Armistice.

People have come to commemorate.

People have come to visit the battlefields.

Somewhat paradoxically people have come to enjoy what in every normal sense is a sombre occasion.

German cemetery Fricourt

German cemetery Fricourt

Beneath the imposing arch of the Menin Gate, a symbol to the world of the desire for peace for the past 100 years, eight buglers, drawn from the Last Post Association, sound out the Last Post.

As they have done every day since 1928 at 8pm - interrupted only by the Second World War.

Cast your eyes up and carved in the bone-white Portland Stone, as a centrepiece to the 55,000 names of the missing etched into every available space, are the words:

“Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”

Devonshire Cemetery

Devonshire Cemetery

My day has been a pilgrimage to those who fell, but whose bodies were never found, disappeared or blown to pieces in the horror of the cloying porridge of mud described by poet Wilfred Owen as “an octopus of sucking clay preventing soldiers from moving”.

Standing in the desolate fields of Fricourt where only the mud and clusters of trees can be seen for miles, the rain incessantly falling against row upon row of headstones, I look out at what must have felt the futility of death. Soldiers, officers and NCOs of the 10th Bn, West Yorkshire Regiment fell in No Man’s Land, trying to capture this heavily defended Somme village. The battalion suffered one of the highest casualty rates on July 1, 1916.

Little more than a throw of a stone away lie the bodies of 17,000 Germans in a mass grave and marked burial site.

There are no survivors to recall the appalling atrocities of The Great War, but they have been eternally recorded through the words of our most renowned poets and it was in their boot steps I followed.

Dantzig Alley

Dantzig Alley

At Point 110 New Cemetery, in sight of Fricourt, Siegfried Sassoon and his fellow poet Robert Graves stood by, looking down at the graves of their young friends, David Thomas, aged just 20, and David Pritchard, 19, killed within a day of each other. They were just a few hundred yards form the German held copse Bois Francais. He wrote:

“In the half clouded moonlight, the parson stood above the graves, and then everything was dim but the striped flag laid across them. Once we could not hear the solemn words for the noise of machine-gun along the line; and when all was finished a canister fell a few hundred yards away to burst with a crash.”

Today you can still feel the proximity of the cemetery to the woods. I stood on the same ground as Sassoon and Graves, contemplating the task these young men died for - the capture of Kiel Trench.

And with the sun glinting through the morose grey clouds, just a few hundred yards away from where the front line was, eerily the sound of single shots pierced the silence as clay pigeon shooters now occupy these woods for recreation.

Fricourt, Mametz, Pozieres, High Wood, names forever marking the roll call of horrors suffered by so many.

The scars of war are still offered up by the countryside as you stumble through woods cratered by shell holes, underground mines and deep impenetrable trenches - those trenches that ensured the bombardment ahead of the Battle of the Somme, was bound to fail.

Bristol's own Cross with High Wood

Bristol's own Cross with High Wood

Staring across the ridge, stretching 7,000 metres from Fricourt, along to Mametz and onto High Wood, Death Valley can still be imagined. Soldiers, so many barely men, ordered to march to their certain deaths from the strafing German machine-gun fire occupying the woods.

Pte Ellis Humphrey Evans, a Welsh bardic poet, stared out at Dantzig Alley before he fell on July, 31, 1917 and wrote:

Distance cannot make you forgotten,

The children of those dear hills,

Heart and heart remain together

Even when separated.

His words, in Welsh, carved into stone at the Dantzig Alley Cemetery.

Captain D L Martin was also convinced German machine-gun fire would wipe out his company. But his message was not heeded. They were sent out and shot down.

Nearby, The Devonshire Cemetery was built, and the bodies brought back to a disused trench in Mansel Copse. A wooden board erected on the site recorded: “The Devonshires Held This Trench, The Devonshires Hold it Still.” A white headstone stands without the cemetery today, bearing the same legend.

Along with Martin, poet William Hodgson, foresaw his death and recorded it in his last poem.

I, that on my familiar hill

saw with uncomprehending eyes

A hundred of Thy sunsets spill

Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,

Ere the sun swings his noonday sword

Must say good-bye to all of this:

By all delights that I shall miss,

Help me to die, O Lord.

The thundering, deafening and bone crunching shelling is now replaced by tranquillity. The birdsong has returned but the memories must remain.

The world has come to Ypres; nationalities from across the Commonwealth - to pause, to reflect and to commemorate. As the buglers sound at 11 o’clock, on the 11th day of the 11th month, 100 years on, the sense of anticipation will finally get its release.”