Pilgrimage to the Western Front
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.