The farm is quiet, a dog barks in the dis­tance. The three of us stand be­side the grave of a man we never knew, a man killed here or very near, in the mud and car­nage 100 years ago. And we re­mem­ber him

Bom­bardier Joe Black­stock died on a for­eign field 100 years ago. Here, our writer trav­els there to pay re­spects to a fallen sol­dier, his great-great-un­cle

The Sunday Post (Inverness) - - News - By Gor­don Black­stock

We lost two farm­ers re­cently to un­ex­ploded bombs and shells but we are glad the Al­lies fought here. We will not for­get them

– Dirk Car­doen

Is­tand by a white- as- bone head­stone won­der­ing what he would have been like.

What he would think about be­ing buried here, so far from home?

It is not like I knew my great-grea­tun­cle, Joseph Black­stock, or even those who mourned his death.

So why have I come – with my dad Iain and Un­cle Tom – 600 miles to re­mem­ber a man killed ex­actly 100 years be­fore, on Oc­to­ber 24, 1917, in the Third Bat­tle of Ypres?

I have been tr ying to piece to­gether Joe’s life since dis­cov­er­ing he was buried here last year.

And it has led to this small grave­yard, next to a farm, near the town of Ypres in Bel­gium.

Ruis­seau Farm Ceme­tery isn’t what you’d ex­pect from a grave­yard built to hon­our those who fell in the car­nage of the First World War.

There are not the row upon row of graves you find at the larger Com­mon­wealth ceme­ter­ies.

In nearby Tyne Cot Ceme­tery – the largest Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion ceme­tery in the world – nearly 12,000 sol­diers who fought in the fields of Flan­ders are buried.

There, the scale of the lives lost is both ob­vi­ous but still unimag­in­able.

C r owd s , in­clud­ing school chil­dren from across Europe who visit in the run up to Re­mem­brance Day each year, move through the ceme­tery.

The grave­yard of Ruis­seau Farm is a qui­eter place. From a dis­tance, a dog bark­ing in a barn is the only sound.

Just 82 sol­diers are buried here. Six re­main uniden­ti­fied, a cen­tury af­ter their death.

There are no crowds, no school trips to this place. The regis­ter shows the last vis­i­tors came a few weeks be­fore us.

One hun­dred years ago, there was no quiet, no peace, here or for miles around.

The farm was barely in the hands of Al­lied forces for two weeks when my great-great-un­cle lost his life.

The fields around the town of Ypres had be­come the front­line within months of war be­ing de­clared in 1914.

For three- and- a- half years, op­pos­ing forces fought and died to gain just a few yards of mud in the bloody trenches around the town.

By the end of the war, Ypres was all but flat­tened. At one point, Win­ston Churchill de­manded it re­main un­touched, as a last­ing memo­rial of the fu­til­ity of war.

Places such as Ruis­seau Farm were seized – and de­fended – in pro­longed, at­tri­tional bat­tles as thou­sands of men fought and died in the mud.

My great-great-un­cle Joe, 29, was j ust one of them. Joe, from Motherwell, had just been pro­moted to act­ing Bom­bardier with B Bat­tery in the Royal Field Ar­tillery be­fore the Third Bat­tle of Ypres.

In his role, he would have been work­ing to de­stroy Ger­man pill­boxes and ma­chine- gun nests with heavy shelling be­fore an at­tack.

Dis­patches from the bat­tle – which raged from July to Novem­ber 1917 - show a di­rect hit from en­emy shelling killed Joe and four of his com­rades on Oc­to­ber 24, 1917.

If the ex­act site of his death wasn’t on the farm, it would have been nearby.

By that stage Ruis­seau Farm – a tem­po­rary stag­ing point to at­tack the Ger­mans – was be­ing used as a per­ma­nent base for those killed.

He and his four mates lie side by side in im­mac­u­late graves, re­spect­fully tended by the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion for the past 100 years.

Roses sep­a­rate each lair. The grass is pris­tine.

Only Cor­po­ral Barr’s head­stone is dis­tinct from the oth­ers.

The Ren­frew sol­dier’s stone in­cludes a touch­ing trib­ute from his dad John and mum Agnes to their “much loved only son”. He was just 21 when he was killed. That is not to say Joe’s death wasn’t mourned at home.

Named af­ter his rail­way clerk dad Joseph, Joe Jnr was one of six broth­ers and one sis­ter raised in the thriv­ing in­dus­trial La­nark­shire town of Motherwell at the turn of the 20th Cen­tury.

While most his fam­ily worked on the rail­ways and steel­works, Joe worked as a draper.

Four of the Black­stock broth­ers would be asked to do their duty when war broke out in 1914. Only Joe wouldn’t re­turn. My own great- grand­fa­ther James – 30 at the time war was de­clared – some­how missed the cut. None of the fam­ily knows why.

A fam­ily pic­ture, taken af­ter the Ar­mistice of Novem­ber 11, 1918, show Joseph was still very much in his fam­ily’s thoughts.

The por­trait ap­pears to have used an early ver­sion of Photoshop to lov­ingly in­clud­ing Joe in the fam­ily shot along­side three other broth­ers proudly in uni­form.

It is quite clear that, for them, Joe would never be for­got­ten.

Mys­te­ri­ously, his brother Alexan­der is also cut into the pic­ture for rea­sons that aren’t clear.

He would re­turn to Motherwell af­ter the fight­ing, dy­ing in peace­time at the age of 78 in 1971.

We are the first Black­stocks to make the trip to Joe’s grave­side. Oth­ers have got close. Less than 30 years af­ter his death, his nephew Thomas – my grand­fa­ther – would pass nearby Ruis­seau Farm as Al­lied forces drove the Nazis out of France and Bel­gium.

Ypres would sur­vive the Sec­ond World War rel­a­tively un­scathed.

While Joe’s life is a dis­tant mem­ory, the phys­i­cal – and po­ten­tially lethal – le­gacy of his war is not.

Dirk Car­doen farms just five miles away from Joe’s ar­tillery po­si­tion.

Hav­ing been a dairy farmer for most his life, it was when Dirk be­gan grow­ing crops 20 years ago that his life be­came far more dan­ger­ous.

That’s when he started churn­ing

up un­ex­ploded shells, grenades and bombs at his farm.

“Cows are fine. You just leave them on the field. You don’t dis­turb the ground.

“But with pota­toes you have to dig the ground up well.

“That’s when we started hav­ing prob­lems.”

Dan­ger­ously, the potato and wheat fields around Dirk’s home still con­ceal un­counted tonnes of bombs, guns, pro­jec­tiles and shells hurled dur­ing the First World War.

Some re­main as deadly as the shell that killed Joe.

More than a bil­lion shells were fired dur­ing the First World War and up to a third failed to ex­plode.

“We’ve lost two farm­ers nearby in re­cent years to dis­turbed shells and bombs,” said Dirk.

“I was once plough­ing the field in my trac­tor and got out to head across the field on foot when I heard a bang.

“I looked around and the un­der­side of my trac­tor was de­stroyed by what looked like a shell. “I was lucky.” Around the back of his farm lie 15 mu­ni­tions he’s dis­cov­ered since Au­gust. He points out some Bri­tish shells. Could they have been fired by Joe? “Maybe, but there were a lot of peo­ple fir­ing them at the time,” said Dirk.

He’s wait­ing on the Bel­gian bomb dis­posal unit, known as DOVO to re­move them.

But he doesn’t know when they’ll come.

“They are very busy. I’m not the only one.”

The unit finds be­tween 150 and 200 tonnes of mu­ni­tions each year.

20 mem­bers of the DOVO team have been killed since it was formed in 1919.

Does Dirk hold the peril he faces farm­ing to­day against peo­ple like Joe who fought here a cen­tury ago.

He said: “No, no, no. The peo­ple of Ypres are very glad the Al­lied sol­diers fought here. “It won’t be for­got­ten.” Each night, crowds gather to hear the Last Post at the Menin Gate Memo­rial in Ypres.

The memo­rial is en­graved with the names of 55,000 Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth sol­diers who never came home and whose bod­ies were never re­cov­ered.

From h e re, f rom the lit­tle grave­yard where he lies buried, from 100 years on, my great- great un­cle Joe seems luck­ier than them.

The three of us can stand be­side his grave and re­mem­ber him.

On Su n d a y, Re­mem­brance Sun­day, we will re­mem­ber again.

Joe’s sim­ple grave­stone is in a cor­ner of the im­mac­u­lately tended Ruis­seau Farm Ceme­try

Joseph was one of four Black­stock broth­ers who served. Af­ter the war, the proud fam­ily had a por­trait al­tered to in­clude him, above, far left

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