Exploring the Salient part 1

With many thanks to blog reader and artist Rebecca Hearle for this, the first of two posts, about her trip to the Salient and the art it inspired her to create. 

Railway Wood and Tyne Cot

“And where do they find themselves, that autumn, separately but as part of the same beleaguered army?  In a flat, rain-swept, water-logged land.  A land not unlike their own native Fenland… A land where in 1917, there is still much digging, ditching and entrenching and a pressing problem of drainage, not to say problems of other kinds…. The wide world is drowning in mud.  Who will not know of the mud of Flanders?”   Waterland – Graham Swift

As an artist my subject is landscape, particularly that of the Fens where I live, which was brilliantly captured by Graham Swift in his novel Waterland.  I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Swift’s mention of Flanders as a landscape so similar to my own and yet the stage for the terrible events of WWI.  Whilst I was studying at Anglia Ruskin University I was lucky enough to win the Anglia Foundation Trust Scholarship which allowed me to travel to Ypres and then to produce a piece of work about the landscape.

On the 5th of June 2013 I travelled to Ieper with my husband Nick.  We stayed in a B&B on the outskirts of the town and hired bikes to explore the countryside on.  Cycling in Flanders is a joy; it’s the national pastime and all the roads have cycle paths and routes are clearly signposted; car drivers even give way to cyclists!

The first place I wanted to visit was Tyne Cot Cemetery.  After hiring our bikes we cycled off through the green park where the bicycle hire shop was and back up to the Menin Road.  We didn’t realise that we’d already missed our turning as the cycle route out of Ieper runs through a quiet residential area; instead we cycled along the main road almost to Hellfire Corner – now a round-a-bout – before we consulted the map and regained the right path.  I had been confidently cycling in front and over the next few days whenever I was leading we’d inevitably miss our turning. Without Nick’s map reading skills and innate sense of direction I would have been horribly lost many times.

After leaving the town up, what for us Fenland natives was, a steep hill we crossed the main road.  The cycle route then took to quiet, narrow country lanes.  We passed a couple of houses ensconced in a copse on the right.  At one a woman sat on her porch watching us pass and possibly wondering why I was cycling so slowly, unused to it as I was.  Then, ahead of us on the left, we saw a white cross topping a rise backed by another wood.  The soon to be familiar Commonwealth War Grave Commission sign finger pointed the way to the R. E. Grave Railway Wood. This sight, the white Cross of Sacrifice against the verdant green of Railway Wood was to become the hub of our cycle trips; we were to pass this point near to or from a distance each day.

Railway Wood from the track to Bellewaarde Farm

Railway Wood from the track to Bellewaarde Farm

Unplanned, we detoured up the grassy path to take visit the Cemetery.  The base of the Cross is engraved “Beneath this spot lies the bodies of an Officer three NCO’s and eight  men of or attached to the 177th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers who were killed in action underground during the defence of Ypres between November 1915 and August 1917” followed by the names of those twelve men.  Unusually they have no grave markers as their bodies were never retrieved and still lay where they died underground.

Railway Wood Cross of Sacrifice

Railway Wood Cross of Sacrifice

Adjacent to the Cemetery is a large pond, a crater from the War.  There are many more nearby, remnants of the terrible fighting that took place in what is now a peaceful and quite beautiful spot.  These craters and bomb pools are considered war memorials and it’s now illegal to fill them in.  Standing looking at these ponds, verdant with wildlife, you wonder who lies beneath in the benthic layer; they are strange oasis.

Crater near Bellewaarde Farm

Crater near Bellewaarde Farm

Further up the path from the R. E. Grave is a memorial to the Liverpool Scottish a regiment.  It states that they lost over 180 men as they advanced up the slope on 16th June 1915.  That slope is today a potato field, nondescript and commonplace.  I was overwhelmed by the seeming pointlessness of their deaths; they had died for this small field?

Bellewaarde Ridge

Bellewaarde Ridge

We cycled on to Zonnebeke; now a busy town with a cheerful looking school, it was wiped off the map in WWI.  Cycling along a former railway line we passed farmhouses that had been completely destroyed yet rebuilt almost exactly as before.  At the British named Thames Farm are the remains of a bunker Flandern I; just a corner still stands and a doorway.  A small wooden cross with poppy had been placed on the muddy floor.  This bunker had been built by Germans as a dressing station and used, as is the case with many structures, later by the British and Canadians.  For me the poppy was for all who died regardless of nationality.

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Tyne Cot Cemetery

We approached Tyne Cot Cemetery late in the afternoon, hot and tired from the unaccustomed cycling.  Leaving our bikes we walked half way around the outside of the cemeteries’ grey flint walls to the entrance.  Tyne Cot lies on a slope looking towards Ieper and the cemetery, as you enter it, stretches out before you, colossal in size and gleaming white against the perfect summer blue sky; the remains of 11,960 lie within.  Ahead stands the Cross of Sacrifice which has been built up over a German pill-box; the original British named Tyne Cottage.  Behind the Cross arcs the Tyne Cot Memorial containing the names of almost 35,000 who died after 16th August 1917.

Within the cemetery, amongst the ranks of graves are two more pill-boxes, their rough concrete a contrast to the smooth Portland stone.  Strange to stand in a place so peaceful, with the sky so blue and cloudless, with the sound of Belgian children playing in gardens the other side of the cemetery wall, and be able to reach out and touch the past, a place I would never want to stand in 1917.

Tyne Cot Cross of Sacrifice

Tyne Cot Cross of Sacrifice

Between the Cross and the Stone of Remembrance, engraved Their Name Liveth Forever More, stand a few haphazard graves, the original burials from when the pill-box was used as an ADS.  Among those graves are two German burials.  Their gravestones differ slightly in shape and text but the men buried there, respected and honoured just the same, have more in common with their one time enemies than differences: they all surely “died in Hell”.

When visiting the cemeteries guide-book in hand it will tell you the notable graves to find, those who were exceptionally young (we never found one older than 34) or those who’d been decorated or are famous in some way.  To keep my rucksack light I left the guidebooks at the B&B so we found ourselves wandering among the markers reading here and there the names, rank and regiment of the deceased.  As I wasn’t looking for one single grave I started to feel compelled to read them all.  With so many lying unknown in their graves to read a row becomes a repetitive prose poem, a litany of the dead:

A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God

A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God

A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God

 

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Book review

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of David Snell’s new book Sing To Silent Stones: Violet’s War recently after responding to a request for readers on Twitter. It sounded just up my street being sold as “a stunning historical debut from David Snell, based on his own family’s journey through the wars.

snell

It arrived with quite a thump as the book is over 500 pages long but once I’d started it I found it almost impossible to put down – even the recent successes of TeamGB competitors couldn’t drag my nose from the pages.

The story starts just after the First World War with a little boy playing in the snow, his world is about to be turned upside down as he discovers that the people he’s called mum and dad are just foster parents and that the newly appeared Violet is in fact his mother.

The main book then takes up back in time to just before the war and a sheltered young lady, and only daughter of a wealthy, snobbish business man falls in love with an unsuitable, lower class man.  Their actions on the day before Frank leaves for war reverberate through the rest of the book as Violet falls pregnant…

Whilst a fiction novel the story draws heavily on the family stories from both David and his wife; and I’m glad to know both of these things. The story is so details and well written that it felt real, I was almost convinced I was reading a biography at times but yet, just sometimes the plot becomes just a little too coincidental and I was worried that family stories had been embellished, and taken for real whereas  it was just narrative licence.

If I’m honest I did prefer the part of the book set during the First World War and just after, it felt more real than the bits from the 1930s but once I got to the end I realised that this build up was necessary to create atmosphere for the sequel – Frank’s Story which is published in 2017 and that I can’t wait to read!

 

Many thanks to the publisher for offering the chance to discover a great novel, the book is now published and copies can be reserved from Norfolk’s Libraries.

Bastille Day Despatch from a Small Town in France

Bastille Day 2016 has been overshadowed by the terrible events in Nice, but before that story happened one of our blog readers celebrated in the town where he was holidaying and shared this with us:

 

Bastille Day Despatch from a Small Town in France

Bastille Day is a public holiday in France which commemorates the storming of the Bastille Prison in Paris on 14 July, 1789. This event is usually described as the start of the French Revolution and the beginning of the French Republic. Today, in Pauillac, a small town set among the vineyards of the Medoc north of Bordeaux, Bastille Day was marked in the town square before the memorial to the men of the town who died in the First World War.

The Pauillac Memorial to the Héros de la Grande Guerre, 1914-1918

The Pauillac Memorial to the Héros de la Grande Guerre, 1914-1918

On this day in 1916, while the 8th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment were engaged on the Somme at the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, our French allies were in the ‘mincing machine’ of the battlefield of Verdun. The Germans expected to break the French Army, but France’s Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, was determined to hold Verdun at all costs. It was never captured, but by December 1916 it had cost 540,000 French casualties, many thousands of whom were killed. Wives and sweethearts sent postcards to loved ones at the front, but there was, naturally, some questioning of the cost of the war in human misery as the wounded returned home.

‘My heart is always close to You’

‘My heart is always close to You’

14 July, 1916 : A day in Paris : Outside City Hall, the Spoils of War

14 July, 1916 : A day in Paris : Outside City Hall, the Spoils of War

The Bastille Day review in Paris in 1916 was one of military parades in the face of continuing war. In Pauillac, in 2016, the review comprised men and women of the fire service and the municipal police. Two military standards were lowered in salute to the war memorial, and the Mayor, M. Florent Fatin, young and stylish, wearing the mayoral sash and carrying the dignity of the town, led the singing of Le Marseillaise.

Bastille Day, Paris, 1916 With thanks to markspostcards.wordpress.com/tag/bastille-day/

Bastille Day, Paris, 1916
With thanks to markspostcards.wordpress.com/tag/bastille-day/

Bastille Day, Pauillac, 2016

Bastille Day, Pauillac, 2016

Vive la France!

The War Letters of a Light Infantryman

When thinking of First World War writers of poetry and prose we often think of people such as Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Charles Blunden. However, Norfolk has a man who wrote letters home full of warmth, courage and humour to rival the finest of his generation.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James Edmund Henderson Neville (1897-1982), of the Neville family of Sloley, served in France and Russia during the Great War with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He wrote and received regular letters to and from his family at their home at Sloley Hall, not far from Worstead in north Norfolk.

In a book entitled The War Letters of a Light Infantryman, published in 1931, Neville recalls:

We are under fire. The only time I felt funny was at 6.30am on 17th…. The strafe lasted three quarters of an hour, we got no sleep all night, and I had a terrible shivery feeling and could not control the shaking.

This was in January 1916 in Bouzincourt, France. He and his friend Harry agreed they were shaking because of the cold.  Neither wanted to admit to feeling scared.

There were funnier moments:

The Hun always relieves the front line by day and saunters along with his hands in his pockets from post to post.  On the 18th (January, 1916) a party of them waved to us and invited us over for a beer.  They are never armed.  I simply longed to have a shot at some of them to pay off a few scores.

It was of course very cold.  Their accommodation was just a piece of canvas nailed to upright posts, not waterproof, with nails for hooks.  Mud was his constant companion.  Nevertheless, he says he enjoyed some of the marches through the woods at Fontaine-sur-Mer.  But at night:

The sky and inky trees were lit up every other second by yellow flashes coming from far away, yet not a single sound to disturb the stillness of the night.  And I realised that probably each one of those flashes might mean that some poor man, friend or foe, was being blown to bits.

The book is available at Norwich Heritage Centre at the Millennium Library in Norwich.  The Norfolk Record Office also has a short story written by Neville entitled ‘Boots and Shoes’ (Catalogue Reference: NEV 7/74, 589×9), accompanied by a rejection letter from a publisher in Edinburgh.

NEV_7-74_2

First page of the short story: ‘Boots and Shoes’. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: NEV 7/74, 589×9

Told in the first person, the story tells of a murder, where the guilty party is identified by the gumboots he was wearing, rather than the brown canvas shoes of the author.

Rejection letter from Edinburgh publishers. Includes: '' Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry:

Rejection letter from Edinburgh publishers. The letter writer says the story is ‘well written’ but ‘too artificial’. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: NEV 7/74, 589×9

Neville finally made it home on 4 October 1919 by ship to Liverpool in the middle of a strike.  He says:

A good many hoots and jeers from the strikers though some people seemed pleased to see us. And we have eaten abnormally, making up for the bully beef and sardines we ate with a rusty penknife. The next thing is leave, aye, LEAVE!

Commonwealth War Grave Site

Etaples Military Cemetery, Etaples, France

Etaples 1

 

Recently I was lucky enough to take a trip to France and one of the points of interest we wanted to visit was the Etaples Military Cemetery.

Military cem 2

This is the largest War Graves cemetery in France and is the final resting place of over 10000 soldiers, nurses and doctors from all over the Commonwealth. There are also about 600 German graves to be found in the cemetery.
Etaples was the site of many of the Allied hospitals during World War One and many of those buried here were casualties from the hospitals and so as a result only 35 of the graves mark unknown people.

Military cem 1

As with all of the CWGC sites that I have visited the Etaples Cemetery was beautifully well tended with no dead flowers or plants to be seen.  For those actually searching for a lost relative there are easy to use books at the entrance listing all of those buried in the cemetery and exactly how to find them.

Royal Norfolk stone

We couldn’t stay too long but it was a peaceful place to walk around in the autumn sunshine and we did locate the final resting place of a soldier from the Norfolk Regiment as well one for  a nurse from one of the hospitals.

military cem 3

Etaples-sur-Mer just a few miles down the road has a fascinating museum with a large area set aside to explain the role of the town in World War One, and if you are interested in learning more about life in the hospitals then I really recommend the book Dorothea’s War by Dorothea Crewdson – a nurse in the area right through until 1919.

 

Sarah (all photos my own and taken Sept 2014)