The Flanders Trip

First of all, many thanks to Mark of Soverign Battlefield Tours. The trip was organised brilliantly. Once the party was in his care, everything was sorted. There was nothing more to worry about – just relax and let Mark take the strain.

Most impressive was the real-time research that was done on the ground to try to locate the people and places that Harry would have known. We needed a lot of careful work, some inspiration and not a little luck, to enjoy the success we had.

I needed to visit the battlefields. The work on the blog for the last two years had left an enormous gap that could only be filled by a visit to the place where the terrible events took place.

What was the aim? I wanted to see the places where Harry fought. I wanted to visit the locations where the battles took place and to try to picture something of what he experienced 90 years ago.

Please refer to the folders of pictures to illustrate the account. Click to access the albums.

We visited the cemeteries. The row upon row of young men’s graves gave off a powerful message. Many times in the three days I felt the tears welling up as I thought of the sorrow that was there. Each stone marked one man’s death but signaled the grief, the tragedy for his wife, children, mother, lover, brothers, sisters and friends (delete where not applicable.)

We started to focus on Harry’s letters, the War Diaries and the maps, to try to extract details.

We tried to find the grave of the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bowes-Wilson, who was reported killed on the morning of June 7th 1917 – the Battle of Messines Ridge. The Commonweath War Graves Commission provide a computer database at the Tyne Cot Cemetery Visitor Centre that was easy to search.

Lieutenant-Colonel J.H.Bowes-Wilson was buried at the Railway Dugouts Cemetery.

Once we located the small cemetery, it was quite simple to follow the date sequences on the stones to find him. See photo Our first success, a very nice feeling.

Careful work with the “Operation Order” for the Messines attack (Actually written by Colonel Bowes-Wilson) led us to “Mount Sorrel” and “Hill 60.” Working from the old trench maps, it would appear that Harry was three or four hundred yards to the North of Hill 60, near the Battalion’s objective, Mount Sorrel. We had to relate the old trench maps to the modern topography to get the correct locations. I think we got pretty close. Photo 1 It was a strange feeling to think that Harry would have walked there some 90 years or so ago. Photo 2

The defensive action on the 30th September was a little harder to sort out. We started looking a few hundred yards adrift until “Bedford House” – from the war diaries - was spotted. Bedford House was named as the location Harry’s Company was to move from to relieve the troops in the front line trench. The house was destroyed but “Bedford House” was now the name of a war cemetery. If we found it on the ground, maybe that would help us with the location of the front line trenches for that day.

“the Captain got killed” writes Harry of the defensive action on September 30th 1917.

We went to the Bedford House Cemetery to try to find “the Captain’s” grave. We knew that we were looking for a Captain from the York & Lancaster Regiment killed on 30th September 1917.

There were over a thousand graves in the beautiful Cemetery, but luck was on our side. As soon as we located the date area for September 1917, there he was, Captain A. W. Sykes Age 42. “The dearly loved husband of Mary Sykes Netherleigh Huddersfield” Photo

“A jolly good fellow too” adds Harry in his letter.

This was powerful. Here was someone that Harry knew. Captain Sykes was in charge of C Company. He would have known each of the 100 or so men under his command personally. He would have known Harry.

We couldn’t really go much further with this one. It was only possible to guess the rough route that Harry would have taken from the assembly point to the front line trench.

We did many of the popular tourist sites. We experienced the Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ieper (Ypres) on two evenings. It was extremely moving. The horror of that war comes a little closer when it’s realised that the 50,000+ names inscribed on the Menin Gate are those of men who were not found and buried. There was some comfort in the manner of the youngsters who came to pay their respect. Groups of tearful teenagers somehow gave hope for the future.

We visited Poperinge, a sensible distance behind the lines, for Talbot House - a haven for off-duty solders - and the "Shot at Dawn" site.

The whole experience was rewarding and emotional for me. Tears flowed. I felt such sorrow that men could cause this horror and carnage. A purely personal view – I realise that I am no different from the men responsible, yet cannot conceive circumstances where, given the responsibility, I could allow it to happen.

Yet, I am the same.

I must be far from understanding how it really took place.

Several readers have commented that this version is fine. Reading it, I don't think that I can improve it, however much time I spend. This is no longer a draft! BL


Jayfell said...

Please, there is no need to edit and revise, you get across your feelings admirably. If you revise you will (to me) possibly lose the heartfelt feeling that you have conveyed to me!

Thank you

Unknown said...

What a lovely tribute and description. I, too, feel the need to go there someday.

Anonymous said...

My friend and I, both descendants of members of the 21st Btn CEF, had a very similar experience last October. Thank you for voicing so very well, what we felt and experienced. We had the unique privilege of placing a wreath at Menin gate during the ceremony, on behalf of the descendants and I have to say I was never so moved by any thing, save perhaps the birth of my sons and my marriage day, in my entire life.

Anonymous said...

Professional copy editor here: No need to change a word. "... the 50,000+ names inscribed on the Menin Gate are those of men who were not found and buried" -- powerful.

True Newspaper said...

How to stop a war.

In the Vietnam war only 30% of
the American soldiers going to the front line fired their weapons. The remaining soldiers had 100% of the bullets still in their guns.

So the individual soldiers own
conscience kept his finger off
the trigger of his rifle.

Which, with the help of the protests back in America, helped lead to the end of the Vietnam war.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfull pictures, absolutely perfect description - please do not change a thing, so moving.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful, and how powerful to tread the very ground upon which your forebearer, Harry, risked his life in defense of his homeland. I am glad you were able to make this trip and grateful that you are sharing it with us. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

How ironic that I'm reading this on the 64th anniversary of D-Day. My Father fought in WWII through North Africa, Italy and Germany before being wounded and sent home to guard German prisoners. He never spoke much of the war and even though Harry's war letters are from another era, another war, I can deeply relate to what my Father must have gone through. Thank you so much for this wonderful site.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written - Don't change a word.
If my memory serves me correctly, the names on the 'Gate' represent only about half of the men never recovered, the rest are documented nearby.
Paul - NZ

Anonymous said...

I have only just come across your blog,what a wonderful idea, congratulations. I had several family members who fought in WW1 and also have a pile of letters cataloging their stories. Perhaps I will do a similar thing on the 100th anniversary!

Anonymous said...

I've been a faithful reader of this blog for some time. Living in Belgium, close to where all these events took place, I find it very moving to read these personal accounts.
Thank you for sharing. There's no need to change a word!

Anonymous said...

I check this blog every day, as if I were a family member waiting for a letter or other news of Harry. I want to thank you for sharing Harry's letters and the documentation of your trip. You hear the number of people who died in combat during WW 1, but it means nothing until you see all those headstones, and it hits even harder when you realize that you are looking at only a portion. I found your photos very moving, and it makes me even more grateful to those who serve.

Saline, MI USA

Rocco said...

I ENVY you your great experience on your grandfather Harry's Flanders batterfields! And I envy your great way to tell it.
To win my envy I'll be near the Piave River, were Tommies fought, on next 13, 14, 15 june: there will be concerts of the "massed band" of PIPES AND DRUMS OF THE LONDON SCOTTISH together with the SCHIEALLION PIPES & DRUMS, the PIPERS OF THE TRINITY PIPE BAND OF EDINBURGH and the PIPES DRUMS OF THE ROBERTSON ACADEMY, SUSSEX. I'm sure it will be a great event!!
I'm Italian, I don't have any British relatives but, during my frequent visits on the Asiago Plateau British cemeteries, I cannot get out of considering that young British dead 90 years ago helping an unknown country. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Absolutely wonderful blog! Thanks for sharing the story, letters and pictures!

I'm hoping that Harry made it home from the war safe and sound.....

Doctor Pion said...

Thank you for this wonderful article. My grandfather fought in France, but his letters never told what he saw. Only a few of his stories (and then between the lines) convey what really was there.

The single most striking thing in the pictures is the spacing, or lack of spacing, between the gravestones. The casualties were so high that they had to pack them into the graveyard.

How could it happen? I think Europe didn't notice the hints that were there in the American Civil War, when rifled guns and automatic weapons like the gatling gun made their appearance and massed attacks were often futile. It was assumed that the next war would be like the previous ones, so the threshold for starting one was low. One can see hints of that in the US plan for Iraq.

The fraction of soldiers who fired a weapon in combat was even lower in WW II and WW I according to the studies I have seen, and the increase since Vietnam has been associated with the increased rate of PTSD among veterans. [Wish I could tell you were to look for the detailed article I read on this.] In additon, many soldiers in Vietnam and previous wars held jobs that are now done by contractors, so a larger fraction see combat today.

Anne-Marie said...

Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I've enjoyed the journey with you and hope that Harry made it home safe. My father was one of five men who came home from his platoon in WW2 and his stories always moved me to tears. He never ceased to love and cherish life after his war experience, though it took him a long time to retell any of them. I suspect those of us lucky enough to have lived in peace time have no idea the hell these young men went through.

Thanks again for sharing all of this with us.


Anonymous said...

I just recently saw a documentary on the Military Channel (here in the US) called "Digging Up The Trenches," about an archaeological dig on both Allied and German trenches in Ypres. Fascinating to anyone who might read this blog; they mention the Battle of Messines, in which they laid the mines that, when they went off, were heard in London. Just wanted to add that information. If you get a chance to see it, do.

Cecilia in Michigan

lonach34 said...

This is a surprisingly emotional trip. Check the blog and think "Dammit, Harry, can't you write more often to let me know how you are getting along!"
My father was a US Naval officer in WWI; I have a picture of him, in training, firing a Lewis gun.
Concerning letters, if you don't mind an off-topic comment, in the US, the Postal Service delivers the mail and in the UK, the Royal Mail delivers the post.
C'mon, Harry, how are you doing?

Bryony-White said...

Hi, i have been reading the blog for a while now (have had to start from the begining!) as a source of background research for my A2 english literature! we are studying WW1 poetry! We intend to visit the battlefields and war graves in october! i really love your blog and i hope that harry is ok at the end of it all! just so i know how well informed i shall be about harry when i visit the war graves; do the letters finish this year?(2008)or cant you tell me? as i havent got any further than november 2007 yet!

Unknown said...

Wonderful pictures! I had the chance to do a short study abroad for my undergraduate history degree in England and France on WWI and WWII. I have to say that the cemeteries I visited in France really put WWI in perspective. WWI is not as intensively studied or discussed in school, but it is so important within history to everyone. To stand there and see the still evident destruction of life and earth leaves a lasting impression.

My several times great uncle died at Thiaucourt, France, 26 Sept 1918 - his body was never found.

Thank you for sharing you grandfather's letters, they are wonderful!

Sam said...

I've been meaning to post a comment on one of the entries for some time now. I studied WW1 literature for A Level and became really fascinated with the war and everything that happened, so I would like to thank you for being kind enough to share these letters and everything for other people to read.

I recently found out that my great-grandfather fought in the war and was gassed. Unfortunately that's about all I know at the moment, but I'm hoping to try and find more information about him and where he fought etc.

I'm glad your trip to Flanders went well. I also went to France around the same sort of time, only I was on a 'Somme Trip' so we visited various places on the Somme. Although I've visted WW1 cemetries and memorials before, it was still a very powerful trip.

handel_vangoh said...

this reminds me of my grandfather...

tears are rolling when I read this...

I am simply thankful for the courage of people ahead of my generation...

Anonymous said...

question for Rocco where exactley did the battle take place on 15 June 1918 Im visiting Asiago and Granezza cemetery on 09 July 2008 to visit GreatGranddad first person from his family in the 90 years he has been there would also if possible visit where he died