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For an insight into the life, death and frontline tactics along the Western Front controlled by British and Commonwealth troops you should begin with Lyn Macdonald’s ‘They Called it Paschendaele’. First published in 1978 it draws on interviews with some 600 veterans. I return to it often to expand on the record I got directly from my late grandfather John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson M.M. who was a corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, serving in Neuve Chapelle, Arras, the Somme and then Ypres between April 1916 and December 1917 when he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and trained to be a fighter pilot.
In 1991 he visited the Imperial War Museum where he was able to sit behind a Vicker’s Machine Gun, then the following year he visited Ypres for the 75th Anniversary – a guest of Lyn Macdonald.
More at http://www.machineguncorps.com
Egypt House (Far Right) was a three compartment German Pill Box. In late December 1917 my grandfather was a machine gunner here and on the edge of Houthulst Forest.
I walked between Poperinge and Ypres then out towards Langemark and Passchendaele. I have as my companion the spoken words of my late grandfather, John A Wilson MM who served here in 1917 as a Machine Gun Corporal, securing the line one push after another through the autumn of 1917 until on the 29th December his papers came through to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps.
I have charged around the Western Front in a hire car decades ago, this was very different. On foot I got some sense of the lay of the land and the distances involved from the canal banks of the Ypres where I know my grandfather recovered when out of the line – I guess somewhere near Essex Farm. Then I find, on a map, a couple of places that were etched into his being – Egypt House and Noble’s Farm. This is where several of his friends met horrible deaths and he too got peppered by shrapnel fragments. Otherwise he was that flukey bugger who survived uninjured.
He spoke about it at length to those who would listen. Over many years I took notes, then recorded these interviews, then went back to get more detail – anything to place people.
From the ‘In Flanders Fields’ exhibition in the Old Cloth Hall, Ypres. Here an aerial reconnaissance photograph from 1917 is superimposed over the same area of land in 2012
On this trip I followed his steps – near as dam, in the warmth of early summer. 96 years ago the summer was equally promising until the heaven’s opened as we know they can. Walking the rippled landscape, passing over deep brooks it was easy to understand how the place was turned into a quagmire. Of course I also knew this was a salient and that the escarpment or hills were inconsequential to the eye. On foot these distant hills never look significant or imposing – the best impression is to look at them from a train, then somehow they begin to look like a barrier. Why hundreds of thousands of young men and a few woman too had to die here is staggering – that a mindset, society and technology allowed it, indeed saw this as the solution to the problem, rather than the problem itself.
One of the many simple and effective displays in the Ypres Cloth Hall.
I hope all work on the centenary events to mark the 1914-18 War get it right – the event in the Old Cloth Hall, Ypres, ‘In Flanders Fields’ is a wonderful 21st centenary exploration of the war at this end of the Western Front.
Meanwhile, I have my late grandfather’s interviews to upload – all now digitized and ready to put online. I spoke to him at length between 1989 and 1992. I recorded the interview on broadcast quality tape. I have often wondered about the value of video – but the ancient man talking is not the 20 something of his war years. We forget this every time an old person is interviewed – they are talking about events that took place when they were young.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 9 years to get that many views.
Fig.1. North of Poelcappelle approaching Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917.
(This action takes places around the pill boxes of Egypt House, a three compartment German concrete block house and Courage Post. It was becoming chilly – 13 C, and was overcast with a little rain).
When I arrived at the pill box (Courage Post) there were four of them.
‘Gartenfeld’s head was split right down the middle as if he’d been hit with an axe’.
They’d dragged him out round the side.
(Henry Godliph Gartenfeld died on Monday the 22nd October 1917)
Dick Piper was in the pill box.
‘Dick must have been standing with his head ducked down just outside the pill box’.
A piece of shrapnel had dented his helmet, scraped his face and gone into his guts.
Blair had dragged him into one corner of this pill box and put him on his trench coat. When I found him he had a sandbag tucked up under his legs so that his knees were up over his elbow.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked and took a look.
His guts were hanging out all over the place.
“How are things?” I asked Dick.
“Pull my legs up, Jack.” He said, “Pull my legs up.”
So I packed another sandbag under his legs to stop his guts falling out.
You had a bandage and a tube of iodine fixed into the tunic. Never much use.
He died some time in the afternoon.
I left him a bit ‘til he stiffened up; that’s what you did. They were easier to move like that. I got his pay book and credentials, dragged him out of the pill box and covered him up with some bits of rubble – whatever I could find. That’s all you could do. Imagine – having to bury your friends like that.
Dick Piper was 45 years old. He shouldn’t have been there.
He was from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Another one who died on the 22nd October 1917. His body was never found. I knew the spot though. It broke my heart to stand there 90 years on, dwelling on the lives they had missed, their families and how they had died like that all those years ago.
Such a waste.
Fig.2. August 1992. Mr John A Wilson MM ‘Jack’ – recalling events north of Ypres on the Passchendaele Salient. He marked the spot where Henry Gartenfeld and Dick Piper died. He was a corporal in charge of two guns, one in a pill box constructed against Egypt Farm, known as Egypt House, the second called ‘Courage Post’.
Further north there were the remnants of the Belgium army … there had been this attack to try and get this forest. It was doomed to failure from the start.