Pil­grim­age to the Western Front

Evergreen - - Contents - Stu­art Mill­son

Each year, a group of chaps from the vil­lages of Ley­bourne and the Mallings in Kent en­joy a day trip by coach and ferry, vis­it­ing ei­ther north­ern France or Bel­gium. In their com­fort­able coach, the party ( and I am one of those day- trip­pers) ea­gerly look for­ward to some sight­see­ing, wine tast­ing, a good lunch and cer­tainly those ex­cel­lent Bel­gian beers.

There is a good spirit of ca­ma­raderie on this in­for­mal an­nual gath­er­ing, but the Ley­bourne and Malling lads have a se­ri­ous pur­pose, too. Dur­ing the course of the day they visit a place of in­ter­est, usu­ally con­nected with the two world wars. A re­cent des­ti­na­tion was the peace­ful land­scape of Pass­chen­daele and Ypres. Peace­ful, that is, to our gen­er­a­tion, but a blasted night­mare of death and mud for the men who

vis­ited these places, long ago in the Great War.

Our coach took us first to Poperinge, where we vis­ited the fine town hall and ad­mired the heroic Bel­gian war memo­rial, com­plete with Flem­ish flag flut­ter­ing in the au­tumn breeze. Yet the town hall had a dark se­cret, for in­side, in a lit­tle open- air square, stands a post — quite lit­er­ally, a last post. Here they shot de­sert­ers and cowards, but not be­fore those cow­er­ing souls had spent the night, or day, in a tiny cell. Our party, and the few other vis­i­tors who were there that day be­came silent and thought­ful. At that mo­ment, I won­dered how I might have be­haved when faced with the fear of the grey sky over the trenches;

the knowl­edge that be­yond the line of grass ahead of me stood the Ger­man in­fantry and ar­tillery.

Poperinge acted as a sort of dis­tri­bu­tion or or­gan­i­sa­tional cen­tre for the Bri­tish Army, and from here our coach took us to Tyne Cot ceme­tery, to the Al­lied war graves; to the ranks of white stone, and to the ghosts that no doubt still linger in this peace­ful pastoral district. Here, the Rev. Matthew Buchan of Ley­bourne church led us in a short ser­vice of re­mem­brance, with bu­gler, An­drew White, pro­duc­ing lonely, solemn notes on an an­tique 1914 bu­gle. Group Cap­tain Pa­trick Tootal OBE, a Deputy Lieu­tenant of Kent, laid our wreath.

We said our farewells to our coun­try­men and Com­mon­wealth al­lies, al­most not be­liev­ing that such a calamity ever hap­pened. Could all those men re­ally have died? Tyne Cot shocks the senses.

The next stage on the itin­er­ary was the Pass­chen­daele Mu­seum, which houses fas­ci­nat­ing relics of the Great War, the ev­ery­day things which be­longed to the soldiers, the Bri­tish, the French, the Bel­gians and the Ger­mans: beer mugs and pipes, weaponry and brightly pol­ished shells, and a cu­ri­ous thing — a me­dieval- type ar­mour breast­plate worn by the Kaiser’s soldiers. A mag­nif­i­cent, heraldic coat of arms of Bri­tain and the Em­pire stood not far from the recre­ated trenches — the lat­ter, a claus­trophic labyrinth which we were glad to leave.

Fi­nally, Ypres and the Menin Gate, which has in­scribed upon it the names of over 50,000 men.

In the evening, vis­i­tors and towns­folk gather here to lay wreaths, and on the oc­ca­sion of our visit a Bel­gian choir sang old songs and bal­lads of brave men say­ing farewell to home. Ley­bourne and Malling laid an­other ar­ray of pop­pies ( our party’s leader and or­gan­iser, Stephen Thomas, play­ing a part here).

A group of Sikhs were also present to make their no­ble trib­ute, and we sud­denly re­mem­bered the old pic­tures of the In­dian Em­pire soldiers who found them­selves on the Western Front — some­how out of place in this Euro­pean quar­rel, but es­sen­tial to us be­cause they were and are great war­riors. At the con­clu­sion of the of­fi­cial cer­e­mony, the Sikhs shouted a blood­cur­dling war cry; a pri­mal, ter­ri­fy­ing sound which echoed in the Menin Gate, and which seemed to hon­our all the men who gave their lives.

Soon, it was time to leave; to catch the last ferry, and to watch the Euro­pean con­ti­nent slip away into the dark­ness — the Chan­nel lights of Eng­land wel­com­ing us in the dis­tance. We thought of the chaps who had gone be­fore us; who went to France, not in a lux­ury coach, but in troop trains, car­ry­ing heavy packs upon their backs, and ri­fles which some­times did not work. We seemed quiet on the jour­ney home...

Thou­sands of graves at Tyne Cot.

The Menin Gate.

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