Belgium 1917

‘Squadrons of shells howl overhead exploding with blinding fury on Broodseinde Ridge, just forward.’ * ‘General Gough’s offensive up on Gheluvelt Plateau, supposed to be over in seventy-two hours is bogged down, a frightful mess – tens of thousands of casualties!’ * ‘At roll call we grapple with the fiasco that has been Menin Road.’   * ‘All clear in our section, we’re told to surrender felt hats and collect helmets, a return to the front is imminent, the betting, that muddy hell: Passchendaele.’ * “At light you’ll see Zonnebeke on your left and what’s left of Polygon Wood to the rear and right. There’s a dirty big mound up there they call “The Butte”. It’s a hot spot, alright.” * ‘I look across the slag-heap of death and destruction we crossed in the dead of night to reach camp here at Westhoek Ridge and feel a shiver run down my spine.’   * ‘Boarding a column of buses we join an endless parade of overloaded French limbers, troops and artillery convoys jostling through dismal towns back to that city of fear, where you never know what’s going to happen to you or from what direction: Ypres.’ * ‘Filing by sullen Zillebekebund and still miles from the front, the sickly-sour stench of decomposing bodies assails our nostrils.’        * ‘In this grotesque fairyland the ghost town of Zonnebeke hovers like a mirage on silver sheets of water polka-dotted with bodies and I see my comrades heaving forward like yoked beasts of the field, aching for life, fighting back tears or wild with rage.’

‘Squadrons of shells howl overhead exploding with blinding fury on Broodseinde Ridge, just forward.’
*
‘General Gough’s offensive up on Gheluvelt Plateau, supposed to be over in seventy-two hours is bogged down, a frightful mess – tens of thousands of casualties!’
*
‘At roll call we grapple with the fiasco that has been Menin Road.’
*
‘All clear in our section, we’re told to surrender felt hats and collect helmets, a return to the front is imminent, the betting, that muddy hell: Passchendaele.’
*
“At light you’ll see Zonnebeke on your left and what’s left of Polygon Wood to the rear and right. There’s a dirty big mound up there they call “The Butte”. It’s a hot spot, alright.”
*
‘I look across the slag-heap of death and destruction we crossed in the dead of night to reach camp here at Westhoek Ridge and feel a shiver run down my spine.’
*
‘Boarding a column of buses we join an endless parade of overloaded French limbers, troops and artillery convoys jostling through dismal towns back to that city of fear, where you never know what’s going to happen to you or from what direction: Ypres.’
*
‘Filing by sullen Zillebekebund and still miles from the front, the sickly-sour stench of decomposing bodies assails our nostrils.’
*
‘In this grotesque fairyland the ghost town of Zonnebeke hovers like a mirage on silver sheets of water polka-dotted with bodies and I see my comrades heaving forward like yoked beasts of the field, aching for life, fighting back tears or wild with rage.’

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Flanders: Summer 1917

Eight hours into the trip the convoy finally shunts to a halt in a marshalling yard near the town of Cassel, perched bold on its hill. * Sorted, we’re lined up and ordered to march by company independently to nearby Bavinchove, where, we’re told, billets are ‘scattered’. Understanding this to be code for ‘scarce’, we take off like a mob of swamp wallabies.   * The day turns into a sticky boiler but we don’t care, singing like summer crickets marching through tiny Staple, Wally’s band ablaze, bystanders and shopkeepers waving and applauding. * I catch my first glimpse of the village: Grand Sec Bois; not ‘grand’ at all but tiny and quaint, a collection of primitive brick and thatch dwellings crouched around a church spire …  * To the south I can just make out the long green line of the great Forest of Nieppe. * One hot afternoon Cozette, the children and I head over to Vieux Berquin to milk Freyja, Great Aunt Margot’s kitchen cow. * An injured Tommy tells me the Germans had been searching for a long-range gun parked on the railway line near Strazeele …  * A fleet of double-decker London buses waits to transport us south to the Steenvoorde area near the French-Belgian border. * At the foot of the hill we wander into an ivy-covered estaminet in a little village with a big name: Godewaersvelde. * We decide to hike to Mont-des-Cats, a high hill some distance from the camp. * We’re route marched to another camp beyond Dickebusch, deliberately tramping out of step all the way, resenting the flogging we’ve copped after doing our very best. * Disembarking at Abeele Station … we slosh up to the camp and, coming to a Military Policeman on duty at a crossroad … decide to stick it to him for the caning we copped yesterday. * Poperinghe, the ‘Dodge City’ of Ypres Salient and well known to troopers for good times. * Bags wants me to shoot through with him and meet up with a girl he’s met in Merris, France, because, he says, I know the short cut across the border around Mont-des-Cats …

‘Eight hours into the trip the convoy finally shunts to a halt in a marshalling yard near the town of Cassel, perched bold on its hill.’
*
‘Sorted, we’re lined up and ordered to march by company independently to nearby Bavinchove, where, we’re told, billets are “scattered”. Understanding this to be code for ‘scarce’, we take off like a mob of swamp wallabies.’
*
‘The day turns into a sticky boiler but we don’t care, singing like summer crickets marching through tiny Staple, Wally’s band ablaze, bystanders and shopkeepers waving and applauding.’
*
‘I catch my first glimpse of the village: Grand Sec Bois; not “grand” at all but tiny and quaint, a collection of primitive brick and thatch dwellings crouched around a church spire ….’
*
‘To the south I can just make out the long green line of the great Forest of Nieppe.’
*
‘One hot afternoon Cozette, the children and I head over to Vieux Berquin to milk Freyja, Great Aunt Margot’s kitchen cow.’
*
‘An injured Tommy tells me the Germans had been searching for a long-range gun parked on the railway line near Strazeele …’
*
‘A fleet of double-decker London buses waits to transport us south to the Steenvoorde area near the French-Belgian border.’
*
‘At the foot of the hill we wander into an ivy-covered estaminet in a little village with a big name: Godewaersvelde.’
*
‘We decide to hike to Mont-des-Cats, a high hill some distance from the camp.’
*
‘We’re route marched to another camp beyond Dickebusch, deliberately tramping out of step all the way, resenting the flogging we’ve copped after doing our very best.’
*
‘Disembarking at Abeele Station … we slosh up to the camp and, coming to a Military Policeman on duty at a crossroad … decide to stick it to him for the caning we copped yesterday.’
*
Poperinghe, the ‘Dodge City’ of Ypres Salient and well known to troopers for good times.’
*
‘Bags wants me to shoot through with him and meet up with a girl he’s met in Merris, France, because, he says, I know the short cut across the border around Mont-des-Cats ….’

 

Bullecourt

 ‘Wild cheering erupts next morning when Corps Commanding Officer ‘Birdy’ Birdwood announces that the Old Bat has been selected to attack and capture the village of Hermies – even louder when he tells us USA has declared war upon Germany.’ * ‘Like apparitions we drift from the snow upon the ruins of Havrincourt and take shelter behind a remnant wall from a pitiless wind slicing across the countryside like a bayonet.’ * ‘An officer is shouting. ‘Men, the Second Division attack on Bullecourt hasn’t gone well. They are in a desperate situation under heavy shelling and have been forced to withdraw.’ * ‘Through swirling smoke I glimpse Riencourt on a ridge and directly behind it, splashed in sunlight, Bullecourt – our objective!’


‘Wild cheering erupts next morning when Corps Commanding Officer ‘Birdy’ Birdwood announces that the Old Bat has been selected to attack and capture the village of Hermies – even louder when he tells us USA has declared war upon Germany.’
*
‘Like apparitions we drift from the snow upon the ruins of Havrincourt and take shelter behind a remnant wall from a pitiless wind slicing across the countryside like a bayonet.’
*
‘An officer is shouting. ‘Men, the Second Division attack on Bullecourt hasn’t gone well. They are in a desperate situation under heavy shelling and have been forced to withdraw.’
*
‘Through swirling smoke I glimpse Riencourt on a ridge and directly behind it, splashed in sunlight, Bullecourt – our objective!’

On Battle and Rest: Albert

‘When Serge pokes his head in the barn to tell us we’ve been ordered to proceed east of Albert we reckon we’re up for a stunt and aren’t the boys keen – itching for it since the Germans began retreating in March.’ * ‘Effervescent as school boys, the Old Bat assembles outside Ribemont church, Wally and the Bangers rumble to life and First Brigade takes the first steps to wherever Colonel Bogey might lead us today.’ *    ‘Rounding a bend I see her, the old widow of Meaulte, always standing outside her cottage whenever we parade through, waving a little French flag and sending every soldier her love and appreciation.’  *    ‘The new boys want to know about Pozières and so John, Collin and a few of the other veterans recount events.’ *    ‘Training at Albury Camp outside Bazentin-le-Petit is deadly boring for us old hands, revisiting elementary basics.’ * ‘I’m roped into an advance party to go over to Buire-sur-L’Ancre to help officers negotiate billet terms with village officials and landlords.’   * ‘In searing heat the Old Bat sets off on the first leg of a nine-mile hike to Mailly-Maillet north of Albert.’ * ‘We again bid the Denoirs farewell and commence a nine-mile hike to Bray-sur-Somme.’ * ‘At Edge Hill Railway Siding near Dernancourt, officers bark at us to line up, collect rations and commence a phased embarkation into a line of waiting wagons.’ * ‘We go rambling through wooded hills tumbling down to the river as far along as the pretty little village of Suzanne, crouched on the bank adoring its own reflection.’

‘When Serge pokes his head in the barn to tell us we’ve been ordered to proceed east of Albert we reckon we’re up for a stunt and aren’t the boys keen – itching for it since the Germans began retreating in March.’
*
‘Effervescent as school boys, the Old Bat assembles outside Ribemont church, Wally and the Bangers rumble to life and First Brigade takes the first steps to wherever Colonel Bogey might lead us today.’
*
‘Rounding a bend I see her, the old widow of Meaulte, always standing outside her cottage whenever we parade through, waving a little French flag and sending every soldier her love and appreciation.’
*
‘The new boys want to know about Pozières and so John, Collin and a few of the other veterans recount events.’
*
‘Training at Albury Camp outside Bazentin-le-Petit is deadly boring for us old hands, revisiting elementary basics.’
*
‘I’m roped into an advance party to go over to Buire-sur-L’Ancre to help officers negotiate billet terms with village officials and landlords.’
*
‘In searing heat the Old Bat sets off on the first leg of a nine-mile hike to Mailly-Maillet north of Albert.’
*
‘We again bid the Denoirs farewell and commence a nine-mile hike to Bray-sur-Somme.’
*
‘At Edge Hill Railway Siding near Dernancourt, officers bark at us to line up, collect rations and commence a phased embarkation into a line of waiting wagons.’
*
‘We go rambling through wooded hills tumbling down to the river as far along as the pretty little village of Suzanne, crouched on the bank adoring its own reflection.’