The Mud of Passchendaele

On 31 July 1917 the third battle of Ypres started. but it is more commonly remembered as the Battle of Passchendaele. A name synonymous with mud, wasted lives and no gains for the high cost in human lives. The battle took place on the Western Front, from July to November 1917, for control of the ridges south and east of the city of Ypres in West Flanders, and was part of strategy decided by the Allies at conferences in November 1916 and May 1917.

An estimated 245,000 allied casualties (dead, wounded or missing) fell in 103 days of heavy fighting. many of those killed were buried in the mud, never to be seen again. 

South Africans generally recognise the Battle of Delville Wood as our “definitive battle”, and as such we do not commemorate it the way Delville Wood is commemorated, and a quick search for 31/07/1917 at the South African War Graves Project website will only bring up three pages of names, of which at least one page may be discounted as not occurring in the battle. However, from 31 July 1917 many families in the United Kingdom would be discovering that they had lost a father, or a son, or a husband. My current project is called “Lives of the First World War” and there I am encountering many of the casualties from that battle. I was particularly struck by a private memorial that I photographed in Reading Cemetery in 2015.

Serjeant Charles Stewart MM. lost his life on 31 July 1917, probably in this very campaign. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate like so many of his countrymen and comrades who would loose their lives tomorrow, 100 years ago.  He is also remembered on this overgrown gravestone that I found by chance. 

The sad reality is that  little, if any, strategic gain was made during the offensive, which was in fact a total of eight battles.  It increased the soldiers distrust of their leaders, especially Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, and left many soldiers utterly demoralised, shell shocked or badly wounded. The often atrocious weather just made things that much worse for Tommy on the ground, whereas the Generals, far behind the lines could condemn the lack of progress safely in the dry map rooms of their headquarters.    

The French lost 8,500 soldiers. while estimates for German casualties range from 217,000 to around 260,000. Bearing in mind that each one of these casualties had parents, possibly wives, occasionally children. A single death would have repercussions that would affect many more people.

World War One is really a series of disasters, The Somme battlefields, the icey sea of Jutland, the slaughter of Gallipoli, the mud of Passchendaele, the horrors of chemical warfare, the rattle of machine guns and the cries of the wounded and the dieing.

There were many heroes in these battles, and many wore the uniforms of nurses who had to drag extra strength from within to deal with the flood of blood in the casualty clearing stations as the wounded were brought in. Their story is often overlooked amongst the khaki uniforms, but their sacrifice was equally important. A light of sanity in a world of blood soaked madness.

We commemorate the battle from the 30th of July, but for those caught up in the trenches the hell would continue right through until November.  The only light on the horizon was that it would all stop a year later on the 11th of November 1918. 

Unfortunately, we never seemed to learn those lessons from the First World War, because a second war was looming in the future, and that war would define our world from then onwards.  

Remember the Dead.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”

© DRW 2017-2018. Created 30/07/2017. The “Ode of Remembrance” is from Laurence Binyon‘s poem, “For the Fallen“, which was first published in The Times in September 1914. 

Remembrance Day 13/11/2016

Following Armistice Day we commemorate Remembrance Day  and this year I spent it in Tewkesbury. Last year I had not been able to be at the War Memorial in person, but this year I did.

The service is held at the Abbey, and then everybody moves to the War Memorial at the major crossroads in town. I did not attend the Abbey service, but waited till it ended,  taking photographs in and around the graveyard while I waited. There is a very  poignant memorial to Major James Cartland who was killed on 27 May 1918 and it has been the focus of the Somme 100 commemorations.

While I was taking these images the service ended and the people started to leave the Abbey

I changed position to where the parade would be marching out from, and it was a long parade too.

Apart from the military there are a number of civilian groups in the parade, including military veterans, emergency service, scouts, school groups, and all shapes and sizes and colours and creeds. The problem is that by the time the front of the parade has reached the memorial the rear hasn’t left yet.

The area around the memorial is in the shape of a Y standing slightly skew, with the memorial in the centre on a small island. The through roads had been blocked off and just as well as the small area around the memorial was packed. 

I ended up close to the memorial, but nowhere close enough to see the base of it. I am sure that most of the town was there, and it is not a large town. The one thing I have seen in the UK is that people take the period around Remembrance Day seriously. 

It is hard to know how children process the events, certainly those in the parade must have known a bit about why they were there, and I am sure that some must have family connected to the armed forces. I do not think I ever attended one when I was young in South Africa, but I am sure my father did. It does not really matter though, what is important is that we were here with a common purpose. I dusted off my beret for the occasion, and was probably the only Bokkop in town. 

Unfortunately the low angle of the sun and the surrounding buildings cast dark shadows over the parade, but at least there was sun, sort of… 

And then the last post was played and there was 2 minutes of  silence.  The two minutes of silence originates in Cape Town; one minute was a time of thanksgiving for those who had returned alive, the second minute was to remember the fallen. Before the period of silence a bugler plays the Last Post and Reveille signals the end of the silence. It is a very moving moment, and the only noise was the occasional small child who may have been puzzled by the cessation of hubbub around them.

And then we reaffirmed our commitment to the fallen and those who survived:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Called the “Ode of Remembrance”,  it is taken from Laurence Binyon‘s poem, “For the Fallen“, which was first published in The Times in September 1914.

And then it was over, the parade marched out from around the memorial to form up once again.

and the memorial was once more visible.

The parade then marched past the memorial, presenting their salutes and under the command “eyes right”. I would hope that those who marched past today will one day stand where I was and watch servicemen and women from the future march past too. 

and while the front of the column was smartly turned out, things became slightly more ragged as we reached the back.

But, if amongst those kids just one takes this parade to heart and becomes a greater part of Remembrance then I acknowledge their salute. 

I took a short walk down the road to check out a building, and when I returned to the area of the memorial things were almost back to normal with traffic restored and families were heading home and people in uniform going wherever they went after a parade like this.

The poppies will slowly disappear from the shops and clothing, although some of us will keep them visible for much longer. The wreaths will fade and and the red dye will run in the rain, frost will cover the memorial and once again clouds of exhaust fumes will envelop it. I always thought it was a stupid place to put a war memorial, but if you really think about it, everybody that drives past here has to see it, and maybe that is a good thing after all.

© DRW 2016-2018. Created 13/11/2016 

Photo Essay: The Sunday Blommie

As Winter changed to Spring and then to Summer I cannot help but watch the transformation of the area around me. The large field I go past on the cycle track is a mass of vegetation. The Brook is running low and the vegetation is becoming more thicker as time passes.

One of the oddities I have been watching are two plant species that I had never seen before. The first is associated with Scotland.

I had not noticed that there were Thistles on my route until they started to flower, and they are really very pretty. The dominant spikey plant I had been seeing is known as a Teasle and I was eager to see what they looked like when they flowered, 

Their bushes are over a metre high, with multiple heads that are huge. I was not sure what they would look like when they flowered though, I suspected it would by similar to the thistle; a head of purple flowers. I was wrong, and they turned out to be very different to what I expected.

I expect during this week all the remaining Teasles will start exploding in colour, and hopefully they will not get knocked down by rampaging children with too much time on their hands. 

On my way to the supermarket the other morning I nearly fell off my bike when I saw this huge member of the thistle family.

Known as a “Cardoon” it is also known as an the artichoke thistle. There were only the two flowers in bloom when I first saw it.

I have been keeping an eye on it each time I was in the area  and it is now in the closing stages of blooming by the looks of it, and last night (12/08) I shot this image

The whole area has become an eruption of colour as the seasons have changed, and while I am generally not a flower lover I have been taking photographs of some of the gardens and displays in the town. Frankly I have been very impressed. 

Flowers by the boat load
Flowers by the boat load

I usually post my “Sunday Blommie” pics to my friend in South Africa for her to admire. and what strikes me is I do not recall seeing such floral displays in South Africa because the houses  all tend to have these giant walls with electrified fences on them. This is however just a small selection of what I see as the seasons have changed. And appropriately I have also seen the flower the epitomises the many World War One posts I have been making lately:

The red of the poppy and the purple of the thistle. It tells us a lot about those many brave men who lost their lives fighting with the South African Scottish Regiments 100 years ago.

Postscript:

It is now almost the end of September, Autumn is raging, and the teasles? their time is over until next year.

© DRW 2016-2018. Created 24/07/2016