Yesterday I and three family members, one a cousin who has lived in North America for the past forty years, returned to Blighty after a four-day tour of WW1 battlefields and cemeteries for which our guide was fellow Ruster Henry Elkins. The trip served us well on two counts – firstly, the experience of being on tour was inevitably rewarding in itself and became an opportunity not only for re-connecting with our ‘American’ relative but for the special camaraderie and ‘bonding’ it engendered and the greater understanding of our grandfather’s wartime experiences at the Battles of Loos, whose centenary it was, and the Somme.
My cousin was a catalyst for many of these developments. One of those people with a natural capacity for life-enhancement, he was well-read on the subject of WW1 and a constant source of information and opinion.
Completely by chance he had brought with him a copy of an early American edition of Fragments From France, the 1916 book published by Bruce Bairnsfather, originator of the famous ‘Old Bill’ character, who had served as a captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the Ploegsteert sector close to the Belgian/French border in 1914-1916. This he had come across and bought for about a dollar in a Seattle charity bookshop. Not only was it a fascinating volume in itself – full as it was of cartoons of life in the trenches – but it so happened that we were billeted for the duration of our tour in a town just five kilometres or so from Ploegsteert and had intended to spend a proportion of our time in that vicinity.
Since the youngest of our party was fifty-eight and our oldest thirty years his senior, Our Leader immediately indicated that – as a party – we would move at the pace best suited to our slowest member (whomever that happened to be a particular time) and we would ‘do’ as much, or as little, in terms of visits and activities as we collectively felt able.
In summary, we ate well – one recommended establishment in Armentieres proved delightful but we also ate at others discovered by chance and/or on the hoof – and to a large extent fed off the enthusiasm and wonder of our ‘American’ member.
Interestingly, after we had all too briefly – due to time pressures – visited Tyne Cot, the iconic and massive Commonwealth War Graves cemetery commemorating Passchendaele (the epic autumn 1917 battle of attrition slogged through a moon-like landscape of mud, barbed wire and water perhaps stereotypical in modern perceptions of WW1) he was reflective but also upon the verge of anger. “What was the point of it all? What was the bloody point?” he kept repeating in developing his theme that the politicians and generals had a great deal to answer for – and indeed, so perhaps did the ordinary soldiers who submissively allowed themselves to go along with it.
The answer, of course, is that it is almost unfair to look at the history of the past solely through the digitally shiny glare of a modern prism steeped in hindsight. We can sometimes forget that our forebears of the early part of the 20th Century had different attitudes upon many aspect of life. Britain was then still at the height of its Empire and patriotism generally was much more pronounced than it is today. So was poverty and hardship. Yet (as you do) largely they got on with life as it was, rather than as they might have liked it to be. When your nation’s leaders called you to arms, you went – and for the most part did so willingly. After all, the widespread view was that it was all going to be over by Christmas and, if you were young and of the right spirit, who would wish to miss out upon an adventure like that?
Twenty four hours later, returning from our day trip to Death Valley (where our grandfather won his MC), Mametz Wood, High Wood and the eerie and impressive Flatiron Copse cemetery on the Somme, our ‘American’ member had changed his tune.
Getting back into the car after our cemetery visit, during which he had been off to spend time walking through the row upon row of grave slabs on his own, he sat in silence for several minutes before saying “God, those poor guys … most in their early twenties, some even eighteen or nineteen …”. He had ‘got’ the purpose of the WW1 cemeteries and the issues that they raise. All these kids (and indeed those much older than that) had given their lives, however willingly or reluctantly, and as survivors or later human beings it beholds us to revere their memory because … well because in conscience we cannot allow this many people to have died in vain, for no purpose … there has to be something to it all.
In conclusion I have to confess that four days of this sort of trip was more than enough for me. Getting back home last night, I raised the proverbial drawbridge, ‘flopped’ in front of the television and took myself off to bed before 7.30pm.
That said, last Saturday’s commemorative service of the London Irish Rifles at the Loos cemetery – even sitting in a bar later that evening, watching the England v Wales rugby match on a tiny television high on the wall long after closing time – are memories that will remain with me for the rest of my life.