23 December 2018

A Journey of Remembrance

Back at the beginning of the month we made our own personal journey of Remembrance to mark the centenary of the end of The Great War. The first part of our journey is recounted HERE.

Following the emotional visit to Sivry, we drove back into France and up to The Guards Cemetery at Windy Corner near Cuinchy, to lay a wreath on the grave of my Great Uncle, William Plant whose life I recounted HERE and who died in a bloody battle on 10 March 1915. It was late in the afternoon and the light was fading fast. It was also pouring with rain and it felt so very bleak at Windy Corner. We laid the wreath and two more of Len's poppies were planted and I thanked William for his sacrifice and reminded him that he is not forgotten either by me or by the people of Aldridge.

We then took a walk around the cemetery and came across this touching tribute to men from another continent who had travelled so far to fight for the Empire and who never made the journey home. The stone reads "To the memory of these six soldiers of the British Empire killed in action in 1915 and buried at the time in Indian Village North Cemetery Festubert whose graves were destroyed in later battles and to the memory of these four Indian Soldiers who fell near Givenchy. Their glory shall not be blotted out".

The wind was howling around us, the rain soaking us and we felt so very cold. My heart went out to these young Indian soldiers who left their warm homes and families for what must have been considered an enormous adventure and have lay for so long now, in the cold hard earth of Northern France, a land that must have seemed so alien to them. I thanked them for their sacrifice and told them that I would not forget them.

Sanctuary Wood
Next morning we arose early and once again crossed the border into Belgium, travelling across Flanders Fields towards Ypres. First stop was Sanctuary Wood just off The Menin Road. Sanctuary Wood was right on the front line of the Western Front and saw fierce fighting throughout The Great War. When the farmer who owned the land returned to it in 1919 he decided to leave part of the trench system exactly how he had found it and although some restoration work has been carried out over the years, you are still left with a complete trench system and relics, more or less how it was a hundred years ago. Of course, trees have grown and when we visited leaves carpeted the ground but it did not require much imagination to see how it would have been.

We visited for several reasons, one of which was that Aiden's Great Grandfather RSM Herbert Goulding of the Lancashire Fusiliers spent his very last Christmas on earth there. Aiden writes very movingly of what the visit meant to him HERE.

We spent a good few hours at Sanctuary Wood both inside the museum and outside in the wood and trenches. Standing in the trenches and looking out over the ground, seeing the craters from bombs and the remnants of barbed wire, it felt desperate, despite the fact that it was so very peaceful and quiet and it would have been anything but just over a hundred years ago. This was the first place that mustard gas was used during the war and inside the museum are 3D photographs that give graphic, amazingly real life vision to the effects that that invisible menace had upon men.

We then followed the Menin Road towards Ypres but taking our time to make a detour to the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in the world; Tyne Cot. There are nearly 12,000 soldiers buried there of which, only a quarter are identified. That is sobering. This is the site of the infamous Battle of Passchendaele and so those buried here had died here.  On the Eastern Boundary stands a memorial wall, gently curving around the boundary. It bears the names of some 35,000 men of the British and New Zealand forces who have no known grave, nearly all of whom died between August 1917 and November 1918. It is relentless.

Name after name. Regiment after regiment. Such sorrow and suffering represented on this memorial.
It is far too much to comprehend.
All you can do is thank them for their sacrifice and say they are not forgotten.

The first sight of the Menin Gate takes your breath away. It is a magnificent memorial.  During the Great War hundreds of thousands of men from Britain and the Commonwealth marched through the old Menin Gate on the outskirts of Ypres, on their way to the battlefields of the Western Front. The Menin Gate or Ypres Memorial, now stands as a reminder of those who died and have no known grave.  It bears the names of 54,000 men, yes 54,000  who died before 16 August 1917. Again, just like the Tyne Cot memorial, it is unrelenting, columns upon columns of names, in regimental order.

One of those name belongs to my Great Uncle, Lance Corporal Charles Mason of the 4th Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps who died on 10 May 1915. Charles is an interesting man whose complete story I have not yet uncovered but I do know that following his brother John Mason's  exploits in the Boer War, Charles left Aldridge where he had spent most of his childhood and he too joined up to fight in South Africa. Unfortunately at barely 16 years old, Charles was unable to cope with military life and twice deserted going absent without leave. Following the second occasion, he was given a dishonourable discharge and returned to Aldridge and civilian life. He moved from Aldridge to Derbyshire between then and the outbreak of the Great War, marrying in 1912 and fathering a son who was born just a few months before the outbreak of war.

On 7th August 1914 a Royal Proclamation was issued offering a blanket pardon for all those who had previously deserted providing they surrounded themselves prior to 4th September. Charles duly did this and was immediately sent to the Western Front. On the 8th May 1915, his battalion were heavily involved in fighting near St Elois. Their trenches were destroyed and Charles was one of the 493 killed between the 8th and 10th of May 1915. He has no known grave. His name was far too high overhead for me to reach out and touch, so I placed a poppy in a ledge as close as I possibly could to where his name is etched. I thanked him for his sacrifice and told him he was not forgotten.

We walked outside of the memorial onto the ramparts that surround Ypres to be confronted with a heart stopping sight. Thousands of handmade wooden poppies, each with a message from someone in the UK, to say thank you to those named on the memorial and to show they are not forgotten. It was a beautiful memorial to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war.

We then took a stroll around Ypres, a town that was destroyed during the conflict of the Great War but was rebuilt as if it was still the medieval  town it had been and now you cannot tell that actually, the buildings are all less than one hundred years old, such a wonderful job has been done.

Just by the famous cloth hall stands Ypres own war memorial to their own dead from the town. In a place where so many foreign men passed through and then lost their lives, where those foreigners have memorials and cemeteries at virtually every corner, it would be easy to forget that the Belgium people had their own army fighting alongside all the others. They suffered threefold. They were invaded first by one foreign army and then were joined in defence and attack against those first invaders by other foreign armies. They were occupied and they suffered and they lost their own young men. I stood and looked at the memorial to those local men and I acknowledged their sacrifice and remembered them.

21 December 2018

Christmas Past

I sit writing this listening to classical Christmas carols and music, reminding me of how my Christmases of childhood were, full of music and carols.

Music was important to my Mom and to her family. There was piano both at home, at my maternal Grandparents and also my Uncle's homes. Mom could be heard making her preparations singing at the full throttle of her glorious soprano voice, either singing for the sheer joy of it or practicing for choral concerts or carol services, as there was always a choir that she belonged to. A consequence is that there are very few carols and Christmas songs that I do not know all the words to! Mr Bennett, the Head Teacher at Redhouse Junior School can take some credit too. Wednesday mornings at school were hymn practice and Mr Bennett appeared to enjoy banging the keys for all they worth, from one end of the keyboard to the other, singing with gusto the hymns and carols that he was teaching us.

For a few Christmases in succession my siblings and I along with Mom, Dad, my Uncle and Aunt and some of their friends, went around Council run elderly people's homes to sing a few carols. Some were in old Victorian houses and some purpose built homes where we would stand in the stair wells with all the doors open so every resident could hear from ground to top floors. On the whole I think these visits proved popular with the residents apart from the year when our visit coincided with the final episode ever of Upstairs Downstairs and I would leave having had my head flattened from the pats on the head I received.

As Christmas day approached my Grandmother would go into baking overdrive and a frenzy of activity could be joined in her kitchen making cakes and mince pies, she always encouraged us to join in and help, a direct opposite of my Mother who preferred to do these things on her own. Mind Mom had a tiny kitchen, not enough room to swing a cat as she often told us whilst Nan's kitchen had a table and chairs, although on reflection, it too was small. I can still taste Nan's pastry now, such a light touch she had. Her mince pies were to die for and I recall sneaking into her walk in pantry, quietly opening one of the tins and then devouring a mince pie in one.You couldn't do that too often though as she would notice!

I now know that my Mom used to wind the clock forward once I had learned to tell the time, so that there was no argument over bedtimes. The clock said seven and therefore you went to bed. Goodness knows how early we were actually put to bed on Christmas Eve in order to allow her some peace, quiet and valuable adult time!

I never ever found where Mom hid the presents prior to Christmas Day however, I suspect I didn't look because Mom was the most convincing story teller ever. When we saw the odd present that had been purchased she told us that it had to be put out on the roof for Father Christmas to collect prior to Christmas Eve. Apparently he had a special airplane specifically for the purpose and took all the presents to the North Pole where he held them with the other presents and of course if we didn't behave and we ended up on the naughty list, those presents would not be delivered on the special night.

Christmas morning was a wonder and a delight. Despite the fact that I was one of the naughtiest children ever, Father Christmas always came up trumps and made the journey to my bedroom. I think that he knew that in my heart I wanted to be good but just found being good extremely difficult. Our presents were delivered in sacks (pillow cases) and left at the end of our beds, with larger presents being placed downstairs. Despite my exuberance and innate mischievousness I would never under any circumstances start opening my presents from the sacks until I had been told that I could. The consequences were to severe to risk! I still think it may have been a 6am start for Mom and Dad though! I would lie in my bed, shuffling down towards the bottom and feeling with my toes for that sack of delights, unable to return to sleep, whilst the smell of the turkey roasting over a very low heat overnight drifted upstairs from the kitchen, making my stomach ache for the delights of the feast to come.

My Grandfather would have been busy in the weeks before Christmas renovating and painting larger presents such as prams, pushchairs, miniature wheelie shopping trolleys and one year a bicycle, that were all purchased second hand and making them look brand new. The discovery that this was done came many years later. I had no idea that some of my presents were not brand new. It didn't matter, I was always so delighted with everything that I had.

Presents that still stick in my mind 50 years later. The poncho that Auntie Edna had crotched at the time when ponchos were the height of fashion. Sindy doll and accessories and in later years the clothes that my Auntie Val made and knitted for them. Fuzzy felt, I loved those. My first bicycle - freedom! The Tiny Tears my sister got one year, I was so jealous! Felt tip pens, the height of sophistication. Spirograph, oh my, I spent months trying to reproduce the patterns and never really succeeded.

Once the sacks of presents had been opened it was downstairs to open the 'big stuff' but we waited whilst Mom made up the coal fire in the living room. All morning we would be playing with our new toys whilst Mom got on with Christmas dinner. Dad would drive over to my Grandparents mid morning to pick them up and then he and Grandad would disappear to the pub/club at noon for a pint or two. Mom and Nan would put the finishing touches to the dinner and then the feast would be on. Like everyone my Mom made the best Christmas dinner ever!

Everyone would be dressed in their 'best clothes'. Me and my sister would have a brand new dress to put on and my brother I recall would have new trousers, a shirt and dicky bow tie. Mom would be totally glamorous, nails and hair done, make up supreme and of course, a new dress, whilst Nan who never wore make up would have had her hair done the night before by Mom. The men would all be in suits, wearing ties which, as the day progressed, gradually loosened.

We would have to be quiet whilst the Queen did her speech at 3pm, then time for the Christmas Day film and then before you know it, Mom and Nan would be loading the table with yet more food for our Christmas tea.

Boxing Day we would go to my Grandparents house or one of my Uncle's homes. I enjoyed Boxing Day almost as much as Christmas Day, cold turkey, pickles, chocolate, cakes, pies, songs around the piano, board games. No doubt there were upsets, squabbles and arguments but fortunately I don't remember them.

Every time I listen to carols, I hear my Mom singing. She loved Christmas and as a Christian it meant a lot to her, the celebration of the birth of her Saviour. I hear her singing and I remember. I miss her so very much at this time of the year and I also miss all those who are no longer here; my Grandparents, a huge swathe of Great Aunties and Uncles who were always there on the fringes, well except Auntie Doris who could never be sidelined! As long as I live all these wonderful people will be remembered and not just at Christmas.
Me and Mom, Christmas c.2003

6 December 2018

Aldridge to Sivry; the long road

The Grave of James Frost from Aldridge, in Sivry, Belgium
There are days in your life when you make memories that you know will last for the rest of your life. Such a day for me and for Aiden, happened on Sunday 2 December 2018.

The story of that day starts over a hundred and twenty years before when James Frost was born in Aldridge. I wrote about him here. His life ended when he was mortally wounded on the outskirts of a tiny village in Belgium called Sivry. I now know that James wasn't the last casualty of the carnage of WW1. Although he was mortally wounded just a few minutes before the Armistice on 11th November 1918 he didn't die until a few hours later, having been taken into Sivry and cared for by the villagers there until he breathed his last.

Sivry was the most eastern point on the Western Front that the Commonwealth and Allied armies reached by the Armistice. On the edge of the village are Martinsart Woods. Here, after WW1 stood a gun, a memorial, that was a gift from British Brigadier General Guy Charles Williams to the village. The gun had been captured by 'C' Company, 9th Battalion Manchester Regiment at dawn on 18th December 1918. Unfortunately when the Germans once again invaded during WW2 they took the gun, so it was replaced after the war by a military museum in Belgium, where it stood until it was stolen in 2009! 

Sivry laid to waste
Sivry had suffered terribly when it was invaded by the Germans on 25/26 August 1914. The village was set ablaze, virtually destroyed and eleven innocent civilians were executed. You can imagine how the villagers felt when four years later four companies, A, B. C and D of the 9th Battalion Manchester Regiment made their way to, into and eventually away from Sivry. Liberation!

The villagers wanted to build a memorial where the gun had once stood to explain what had happened at the beginning and end of WW1. James Frost, my Father's first cousin was the only British soldier to die in Sivry and so part of the memorial was to commemorate him and his comrades of the 9th Battalion Manchester Regiment. A web of emails was sent out and eventually through a distant relative Martin Gilbert, contact was made with me. This is why we happened to be in Sivry.

In the kitchen
Bernard Counen is a wonderful man. He has carried out all the research that enabled the story to be told and he has been meticulous in that research and in telling the story. So it was on Sunday morning, Aiden and I found ourselves sitting in the kitchen of Bernard's lovely 17th century house right opposite the church in the centre of Sivry, with Bernard, his beautiful wife and the delightful Louise who acted as a translator for us all. She had to work very hard! We were received as old friends and made to feel so very welcome. Coffee, pink champagne and an extremely tasty tarte, hand made by Mme Counan were all consumed as we chatted amiably about Bernard's research, WW1, the village, politics, Brexit and of course James. 

The grave of James Frost
We then went to visit and pay our respects at the grave of James. The cemetery is a municipal one and is kept in a beautiful condition by the local people. There are no weeds, no rubbish. We could learn a lot from the villagers of Sivry. There near the centre lies James. A solitary CWGC grave lying very, many miles from any other such grave and even further from Aldridge. 

I laid our wreath, to lie next to one laid a couple of weeks ago by one of James's nieces, planted a cross sent by  Aldridge local historian Sue Satterthwaite (who has placed many crosses over the years on the graves of men from Aldridge who lie at rest far from home) and also planted two of the red poppies, which so recently had been part of the Field of Remembrance in Poppy Road, so that James had a little bit of home right next to him. It was emotional for me, honouring this young man, my kin, who had died so very far from home in the last minutes of WW1, a sacrifice too far perhaps?  His memory has been kept alive by the villagers of Sivry all these years and I give grateful thanks to them and to Bernard for looking after him and telling his story.

The crossroads were James was mortallly wounded
We then made our way out of the village to a crossroads. It was on this spot  that James had received his fatal injuries. A little way down the road is the Martinsart Memorial and through the middle of the road runs a line. To one side going back towards where James was injured is where the British and Commonwealth forces in the form of the 9th Battalion Manchester Regiment, had reached on their final push. To the other and dipping down before rising on a long climb to a summit, is where the Germans were defending their positions and from where the shells and bullets were fired just minutes before the Armistice.

The Line and The Martinsart Memorial
I stood at that line for a while, looking left and right, imagining what had been happening on 11/11/1918. The noise, the pain and finally for those who survived the blessed relief at the Armistice just a very short while later.

We looked at the memorial, the panels that explain the full story and reflected on events then and since then. I thought about those young men of the 9th Battalion Manchester Regiment in the last throes of the final battle before the Armistice. I thought about the villagers of Sivry who had suffered so much pain and heartache when their village was all but destroyed when invaded in 1914 and of the eleven who were brutally executed for no reason whatsoever and I thought about James. James was a village boy and it gave me some comfort that although his end was violent and so terribly unnecessary in its timing, that he lies so far from home, he is at rest in a small village not unlike the one he came from, cared for and respected by the generations that followed and not forgotten.

And once again I thought of war and its dreadful futility, waste and the suffering it brings to all involved and especially The Great War, a war that started because of quarrels and alliances between families and governments, not unlike the playground squabbles we encounter as children, that got terribly out of hand. 17 million people died in The Great War. James and those eleven villagers were part of that horrifying number.

The day was a good one despite being tinged with the sadness of the past. Good because we experienced such a warm welcome and made new friends. We shall return.

If ever you are in the south of Belgium I urge you to visit the Sivry-Rance area. It is a pretty one, undulating hills, pretty villages, lots of farms. It's not unlike England. The people of the area are friendly and welcoming. And if you do go, stop at the roadside of the Martinsart Memorial, think about the locals and their suffering during WW1 and perhaps pop by the cemetery and lay a poppy next to James.