Postcard from the battlefields

4th February 2012

For a project about the First World War to be released later in the year (when I’ll blog it), I have been filming in Belgium and France. The weather was bitterly cold and our car got caught in a scary blizzard, but we had a fascinating time. On the Menin Gate in Ypres I discovered a trace of a Wyver (above) who was entirely unknown to me, and I was pleased to visit Edwin Lutyens’ vast memorial at Thiepval. From the generous and gracious historian Piet Chielens I learned a lot about the way in which cemeteries write histories across the landscape, and I developed a deep respect for the work of Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). So having not done a ‘postcard’ for many a month, here is one from the battlefields.

On the Menin Gate

At 8 o’clock under Ypres’ Menin Gate buglers play the Last Post, ‘the traditional final salute to the fallen’. The ceremony started in 1928 and, with only a break enforced by the German occupation of the town during the Second World War, it has been performed each evening ever since. On Thursday there were several hundred British schoolchildren there who were visiting the area and learning about the war. The simplicity and clarity of the occasion makes for a moving tribute.

Earlier we filmed the architecture of the imposing gate, which was completed in 1927 to designs by Reginald Blomfield. (Blomfield was also responsible for Lambeth Bridge and much of the bottom end of Regent Street by Piccadilly Circus.) The walls of the memorial carry the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the fierce battles around Ypres and who had no known burial place. Yet even the many, many panels here were not enough for all of the missing, and another 34,984 are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial.

Inevitably, as you look at the endless lists, arranged by regiment and rank, you wonder if there are family members recorded here. You search for your surname, but if you have one as eccentric as mine you really don’t expect to find it. Except that’s exactly what happened, just as I was thinking about such an unlikely event. There, beneath the heading of The Rifle Brigade, between “Wright J.” and Young F. J.”, is “Wyver B. W.”. Seeing this was entirely unexpected, and the moment was oddly unsettling.

My brother-in-law David has a deep interest in the First World War, and from him and my sister Sheila I learned the next day that Bertrand William Wyver was killed either on Messin Ridge or at Passchendaele in 1917. He was the son of William and Ellen Wyver from Rochester in Kent. Our family lived in Kent for many years (Sheila and I were born in Whitstable), and my Aunt Jean knew of the Rochester Wyvers. What none of us is sure about is how – or indeed whether – Bertrand William was related to us.

David’s research has discovered that only two Wyvers were killed in the Army in World War One. The other was George Wyver who we believe was related to our branch of the family. He was killed in the Battle of the Somme and is remembered on the war memorial outside the library in Whitstable. Apparently the brother of my grandmother on my mother’s side, Leonard Solomon, was also in the Rifle Brigade and was also killed. He is listed on Thiepval Memorial, of which more below.

Only since the visit to Ypres have I read Siegfried Sassoon’s bitter poem written in 1927-28, On passing the new Menin Gate. This concludes

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

Outside Ypres

Piet Chielens is the director of the In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres. Partly because the museum is undergoing a major revamp, we were able to spend the whole day filming with him – and learning from him. Should he ever need a day job he would make a wonderful tour guide. For me, the most fascinating place he took us to was Croonaert Chapel Cemetery, a corner of a foreign field that houses seventy-five Commonwealth graves.

Croonaert Chapel Cemetery

The walled cemetery sits incongruously in the middle of a large expanse of ploughed land. But as you drive around Ypres – and this is also the case on the Somme – you quickly realise that the incongruous is the norm. For as Piet explained, the cemeteries are where the dead were buried beneath wooden crosses during the war. Only in the 1920s were these resting places (or those of them with forty or more bodies) transformed, with as little disturbance as possible, by the energies of the CWGC into the permanent sites of today. As a consequence they mark where troops fell or where there was a field station or temporary hospital. Once you start to look for them, you realise that they are everywhere around Ypres, constant reminders of the history of the land which in many important ways is largely unchanged nearly a century on.

Graves at Connaert Chapel Cemetery

The cemeteries of the Somme

The next day, after the snowstorm, we filmed in a number of cemeteries on the Somme battlefields. Again, once you begin to look for them, you realise that the cemeteries are everywhere, small and large, sometimes hidden away and sometimes strikingly prominent within a sweep of land.

Those under the care of the CWGC have standard size headstones for all and officers and men are buried alongside each other. They all seem immaculately cared for and while each one is permanently open to all visitors with no wardens keeping guard, there appear to be no problems with litter or with vandalism.

Arras memorial

We went first to Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery in the suburbs of Arras, where there is also another major memorial commemorating close to 35,000 Commonwealth servicemen, as well as many Commonwealth burials and a small number of German soldiers. In one corner my colleague Louise found a short row of headstones for Hindu Indians soldiers, then some Muslims, and – on his own – a Sikh cavalryman. The morning was nippily cold (we were working in -8 degrees C at one point) but after the previous night’s snow the sky was a clear and brilliant blue, which made for perfect filming conditions.

On we drove to several other small Commonwealth sites, including Longueval Road where we found a single German grave surrounded by many British. Then we visited the German cemetery at Fricourt where the graves are marked not with a white headstone but with a metal cross, on each of which up to four soldiers may be remembered. Only, oddly, the Jewish German soldiers have individual stones. Despite the fine low sun raking the grass with shadows, this resting place felt less approachable and somehow a touch disturbing.

Fricourt German cemetery

The monument to the missing

Our last location was the towering memorial at Thiepval which commemorates soldiers from Britain and South Africa who lost their lives on the Somme but who do not have a burial place. Here there is an almost inconceivable total of 72,191 names, many many of whom were killed on the single day of 1 July 1916. Nearly 60,000 British soldiers died on the front on that day alone.

Thiepval is a strange monster sitting alone as if somehow stranded in the Picardy countryside. The intimacy of small cemeteries contrasts oddly with the grandiosity of Lutyens’ overblown design – and on this trip it is the former that felt most appropriate to remembrance. But there is also something immensely intriguing about Thiepval, and in the visitor centre I bought Gavin Stamp’s 2006 book about its construction, The Memorial to the Missing on the Somme. So there may well be another post on all this to come.

The title link is to Geoff Dyer’s review for the Guardian, from which this comes:

The planning and construction of Lutyens’s masterpiece is placed in the context of fiercely contested debate, not only about how but about what was to be commemorated… Those who lobbied for Christian memorials considered his designs offensively pagan but the result might better be termed elemental. Taking the triumphal arch as his starting point, Lutyens turned this into a three-dimensional pyramid of arches. A fusion of classical and modern, the memorial seems both dense – there are enough walls for the names of the dead to be individually inscribed – and airy. What is not there – the tunnels formed by the arches, each framing a view of sky and English-looking foreign fields – plays as important a part as what is.

The Thiepval memorial

 

Comments

  1. Anna says:

    A powerful and moving post, John. Thank you.

  2. Michele says:

    I’ve got a chunk of the Thiepval memorial on top of my bookcase. A friend got it for me and mailed it to me after he made a visit there during which repair and maintenance work was being done on it.

    I often look at it and brush a finger over the incised letters, especially on November 11, just to remind me of the immensity of the First World War.

    WW1 is “my” war – that is, thanks to an interest in Siegfried Sassoon (which developed after I heard his poem The Grandeur of Ghosts on Classic FM about 15 years ago), it’s the war that has most interested me, and I spent the best part of a dozen years studying it (and eventually took a degree in English & History which largely covered WW1).

    • Michele says:

      (Sorry, I ran out of words/space!)

      I’ve always wondered if Sassoon ever regretted the extreme bitterness expressed in his poem ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’, but then Lutyens didn’t really build his memorials for the surviving soldiers, but for the missing and dead, and for their families.

      Lutyens’ work fascinates me a great deal: he designed a number of FWW memorials, including, of course, the Cenotaph in London, and it’s all very intriguing to me.

      I confess I’ve never yet visited the FWW battlefields – in part because of the cost of going on a low income, but there’s also a part of me which worries that I’d be too overwhelmed by it.

    • Hanbosha says:

      I had an uncle who fohgut with the Canadians in the Great War. That generation died out with my dad two years ago, but the Somme and Ypers (apparently pronounced “wipers” by anglophone Canadians) were wtill talked about when I was growing up. Black Adder and all, (which I watched two days ago before I saw this), it was a horrible war, in many ways more dreadful that WWII. Thank you for this thoughtful, reflective piece.

  3. A fine post, John, simply and effectively illustrated. I’ve not yet visited the battlefields and this convinces me that I must do.

    Luke (living in Rochester and brought up in Whitstable)

  4. Helene says:

    John,

    I agree with Anna … a wonderful piece today.

    With the US broadcast of “Downton Abbey” currently running, I, myself, have a renewed interest in World War I, the war in which my grandfather fought. As a fairly new immigrant to the US, he joined up and served in the Navy, ironically, against his native country (must’ve been difficult for him).

    Furthermore, I find it especially moving that, in Europe, officers and enlisted are buried side-by-side. The same policy holds true at Mt. Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem. After all, they died together, so why not inter them together. Bullets don’t distinguish between rank.

    • Michele says:

      Bullets don’t distinguish between rank.

      Average life expectancy of a Second Lieutenant (Siegfried Sassoon’s rank) was less than six weeks on the Somme.

  5. Amanda Wrigley says:

    Thanks, John, for a really fascinating ‘postcard’.

  6. Paul Kerr says:

    My great uncle, William Lott, is buried at Thiepval though the Commonwealth Graves Commission has him confused with another Lott. He was from Canterbury, my grandmother’s brother, and she and her two sisters died without ever knowing what happened to him. He was a Second Lieutenant in the 14th (Reserve) Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, attached to the 6th (Service) Battalion, the Buffs (East Kent Regiment) and was killed on 7th October 1916. My mother has been to the grave though I never have.

    

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