In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
In Flanders Fields – John McCrae
On Armistice Day it seems appropriate to file a ‘Last Post’ for my travel blog until my walk to Rome resumes from Bourg St Pierre next August with Olivia.
Over the eight weeks of my walk, I was constantly reminded of the sacrifice of so many young men during the Great War. In St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke, eight men from the parish are commemorated who lost their lives during the Great War. Included amongst them Private Alfred Adlam of the 3rd Wiltshire Regiment who died on the 12 March 1915 at Spanbroek Molen during the First Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
I passed so many reminders of the terrible slaughter of the Great War that it’s difficult to know where to start. At Winchester College I visited the War Cloisters which I used to walk through each day on my way to lessons in Flint Court.
Within two hours of arriving in France I was standing an obelisk on a rocky headland overlooking the Channel called Cap Gris Nez. The monument commemorates the vital role of the Dover Patrol, a discrete fleet of the Royal Navy, in maintaining navigation for Allied shipping across the English Channel and preventing German submarines passing through the Strait of Dover and south of the North Sea during the First World War. It was formed from a wide range of ships, including armed fishing drifters and trawlers, cruisers, submarines, flying boats, aircraft and airships, and suffered high casualties.
As I slogged up a hill outside Licques during my first week in France I passed a stone memorial by the side of the road. The inscription read:
A la memoir de Madame René Lacoche née Christianne Maguin. Tué en ces lieux par un V.1. Le 23 Âout 1944. A l’age de 23 ans.
It was a sobering reminder of the grim reality of war and its seemingly random collateral damage. The V.1 bomb or doodlebugs as they were known, were introduced by the Germans during the final 12 months of WW2 after the Allied D-Day landings in June 1944. I can remember my mother recounting the terrifying experience of the whine of the Doodlebug cutting out and the minute’s silence before the ensuing explosion and the obliteration of her bedroom window.
The Tyne Cot Memorial outside Ypres was the largest and most impressive Allied War cemetery that I visited. The rather curious name ‘Tyne Cot’ is said to have come from the Northumberland Fusiliers who saw a resemblance between the German pill boxes on the site and typical Tyneside workers’ cottages (Tyne Cots).
One of the reasons I embarked on the walk along the Via Francigena was to visit the spot where my great uncle Charles Dutton died during the first week of the Somme offensive. on 7 July 1916, aged just 26. A keen sportsman and motor cyclist he was killed on the 7 July 1916 aged just 26. There were so many times during my walk that I felt as if he was looking down on me, speeding me safely on my way.
It was a moving experience to gaze across the fields near Contalmaison at the spot where he was killed over a hundred years ago, knowing that I was the only family member privileged to have made the journey to that spot.
Like so many others his body was never recovered from the battle field. His medals were anonymously auctioned off a few years. All that remains of his memory is a faded newspaper cutting and an inscription at the Ring of Remembrance War Memorial at Ablain St-Nazaire.
One of the most moving moments came when I visited the German cemetery at Langemark. The cemetery commemorates 44,000 German soldiers, many of whom were students aged as young as 15, who were killed in the war’s first gas attack on 22 April 1915 during the 2nd Battle of Ypres.
As we were leaving my eye was caught by 2 solitary memorial tablets to British soldiers who had died nearby during the last days if the war. One was to a Private L.H.Lockley from the Seaforth Highlanders, killed on 30 October 1918. A touching note had been inscribed on a slate stone from his great great niece and placed on his memorial. Beside it was a memorial to a Private A.Carlill from the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, killed on the 4th November 1918, just a week before the war ended. My grandfather, Harry St John Dutton, who helped General Allenby liberate Jerusalem in December 1917, had been in the same regiment. I wondered if they had perhaps been friends.
Between Peronne and Bapaume, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the Great War, scarcely a mile passed without encountering a military cemetery.
It was a chilling moment when I encountered my namesake in the British Sunken Road Cemetery just south of Arras. As I walked down the rows of headstones I suddenly did a double take and stopped dead in my tracks. Had I just seen my name on a headstone? Yes, I had! J.Dutton of the South Lancashire Regiment – killed on the 5th October 1918, just a month before the end of the war. The headstone didn’t give his age, but the way coincidences were stacking up on the walk I would have put money on his having been born on 7 November!
As I walked between Arras and Péronne I passed signposts for the Via Sacra or Western Front Way, a 725 km long distance footpath that will eventually run from the Channel coast to the Swiss border.
When completed, the Via Sacra will serve as a route for remembrance and provide a permanent lasting memorial to the loss of life in the First World War and all conflicts since.
The route was inspired by the contents of a letter that Old Wykehamist 2nd Lieutenant Douglas Gillespie of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders wrote shortly before his death in September 1915. In it he outlined his vision of a path for peace, writing:
“when peace comes, our government might combine with the French government to make one long avenue between the lines from the Vosges to the sea….I would make a fine broad road in the ‘No-Mans Land’ between the lines, with paths for pilgrims on foot and plant trees for shade and fruit trees, so that the soil should not altogether be waste. Then I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on a pilgrimage along that Via Sacra so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.”
One of the most moving war memorials I visited was a huge stone statue of the Madonna and Child gazing over the urban sprawl of Besançon in the distance. This was the Monument of Liberation, erected shortly after the end of the last war to commemorate the 5,500 civil and military victims of war from the Haute Saone region. It was a strangely moving experience to stand alone and survey the panoramic landscape on the plains below and remember the thousands of locals who had lost their lives during the last war.
10 weeks ago I was one of a couple of hundred gathered on a Saturday evening beneath the Menin Gate to listen to the Last Post being sounded, a daily ritual that has taken place for the last 93 years. Perhaps the last word should be left to The Last Post.
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.