On this day when the first ANZACs came ashore at Gallipoli in 1915, remembering the sacrifice of Australian and New Zealanders on many battlefields from Gallipoli to the Western Front and beyond.
It is apt to recall that sacrifice in the words of one of those original ANZACs who served at Gallipoli, Leon Gellert.
The Last to Leave
The guns were silent, and the silent hills
had bowed their grasses to a gentle breeze
I gazed upon the vales and on the rills,
And whispered, “What of these?’ and “What of these?
These long forgotten dead with sunken graves,
Some crossless, with unwritten memories
Their only mourners are the moaning waves,
Their only minstrels are the singing trees
And thus I mused and sorrowed wistfully
I watched the place where they had scaled the height,
The height whereon they bled so bitterly
Throughout each day and through each blistered night
I sat there long, and listened – all things listened too
I heard the epics of a thousand trees,
A thousand waves I heard; and then I knew
The waves were very old, the trees were wise:
The dead would be remembered evermore-
The valiant dead that gazed upon the skies,
And slept in great battalions by the shore.
Leon Gellert, Australian Gallipoli veteran, 1924
In early 1919 the British forces began the period of demobilisation and millions of men under arms exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes and went home. Before them thousands of men wounded, gassed and made sick by war service had been discharged. While the loss of three quarters of million men from Great Britain created the feeling of a ‘Lost Generation‘ the truth was most of that generation came home. Home to a decade of economic collapse and tough times for those with a family, trying to survive in the depression. Others with wounds struggled on in the aftermath of the war, lungs corrupted by gas and mind and body never quite the same. Even those physically untouched by the trenches still had the mental scars of the war and while they were a tough generation with no counselling the memories of their war lingered and all too often surfaced; one veteran I knew, for example, had been gassed in 1916 and the smell of the gas was like pineapples. He could not stand that smell for the rest of his life; it sent him into a blind panic. From a wealthy family, they lost everything in the Wall Street Crash and he found himself working in Joe Lyons tea shop, opening tins of pineapple chunks. But it kept his family from poverty so he stuck it, like he stuck three years on the Western Front.
We end this series of posts on Remembrance with an image of an unknown soldier. He wears no uniform, just typical clothes of a young man of the 1920s. But on his lapel is a badge which gives us a clue to what he once had been – the Silver War Badge. Issued to all those discharged due to wounds and sickness caused by active service it was worn as a badge of pride among Great War veterans. In some ways men like this are part of a huge anonymous Great War army – those who survived, the forgotten wounded, the majority. A hundred years after the Great War it is easy to remember the dead, and on Remembrance Sunday we should do that – but we should also recall the survivors: men who saw the best and the worst of the war, achieved it’s ultimate now forgotten victory and came home to a life that must have seemed unreal compared to the experience of World War One. The debt we owe that generation is not to see them as victims, but to recognise what they did, what they saw and suffered and how it changed Britain forever. We Will Remember Them… Them All.
On this special day, his words still resonate.
This rather unusual image was taken on the steps looking down into the main archway of the Menin Gate and dates from the early 1930s. The Menin Gate had been unveiled in July 1927 and within a year was the focus of Remembrance in the area with the nightly playing of the Last Post – something that continues to this day and was only interrupted by the Second World War. A small group of battlefield pilgrims can be seen looking around at the names; same no doubt veterans, perhaps others with a special name to see? A private, personal pilgrimage frozen in time.
The Great War poets need little introduction here; the work of Graves, Owen and Sassoon among others has come – rightly or wrongly – to symbolise the war. But there are many lesser known poetical voices often highlighting areas not covered in the mainstream work. A fine piece of poetry by two such poets – Bernard Newman and Harold Arpthorp – is just one example.
The Road To La Bassée was written in 1934 following a visit by these two Great War veterans to the battlefields where they were amazed to find the fields they had once known, touched then by the cruel hand of war, had returned to normality – and life continued. It is a poem with hope – that the war had been fought to return the world back to normality and that long may that normality continue – and then the sacrifice had not been in vain.
The image above shows the shattered La Bassée in 1920, looking as it did when the war ended. Few buildings are left standing and the tower seen in the background was a concrete German observation tower built into a former grain tower. By then it was part of the Zone Rouge – the devastated area of France where the fighting had taken place.
Newman and Arpthorp’s work deserves to be better known.
I went across to France again, and walked about the line,
The trenches have been all filled in – the country’s looking fine.
The folks gave me a welcome, and lots to eat and drink,
Saying, ‘Allo, Tommee, back again? ‘Ow do you do? In ze pink?’
And then I walked about again, and mooched about the line;
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine.
But the one thing that amazed me most shocked me, I should say
– There’s buses running now from Bethune to La Bassée!
I sat at Shrapnel Corner and I tried to take it in,
It all seemed much too quiet, I missed the war-time din.
I felt inclined to bob down quick – Jerry sniper in that trench!
A minnie coming over! God, what a hellish stench!
Then I pulled myself together, and walked on to La Folette –
And the cows were calmly grazing on the front line parapet.
And the kids were playing marbles by the old Estaminet –
Fancy kiddies playing marbles on the road to La Bassée!
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine –
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know,
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
But down by Tunnel Trench I saw a sight that made me start,
For there, at Tourbieres crossroads – a gaudy ice-cream cart!
It was hot, and I was dusty, but somehow I couldn’t stay –
Ices didn’t seem quite decent on the road to La Bassée.
Some of the sights seemed more than strange as I kept marching on.
The Somme’s a blooming garden, and there are roses in Peronne.
The sight of dear old Arras almost made me give three cheers;
And there’s kiddies now in Plugstreet, and mamselles in Armentiers.
But nothing that I saw out there so seemed to beat the band
As those buses running smoothly over what was No Man’s Land.
You’d just as soon expect them from the Bank to Mandalay
As to see those buses running from Bethune to La Bassée.
Then I got into a bus myself, and rode for all the way,
Yes, I rode inside a bus from Bethune to La Bassée.
Through Beuvry and through Annequin, and then by Cambrin Tower –
The journey used to take four years, but now it’s half an hour.
Four years to half an hour – the best speedup I’ve met.
Four years? Aye, longer still for some – they haven’t got there yet.
Then up came the conductor chap, ‘Vos billets s’il vous plait.’
Fancy asking for your tickets on the road to La Bassée.
And I wondered what they‘d think of it – those mates of mine who died –
They never got to La Bassée, though God knows how they tried.
I thought back to the moments when their number came around,
And now those buses rattling over sacred, holy ground,
Yes, I wondered what they’d think of it, those mates of mine who died.
Of those buses rattling over the old pave close beside.
‘Carry on! That’s why we died!’ I could almost hear them say,
To keep those buses always running from Bethune to La Bassée!’
With the Somme anniversary taking place last weekend, the Somme theme continues this week with an unusual post on Great War Photos; an image and an audio clip of a Great War veteran talking about the Somme.
The Liverpool Pals were formed in Liverpool in September 1914 as Lord Derby’s own ‘private army’ until they were taken over by the War Office. They recruited widely across the city reflecting it’s varied social nature in a way that no other formation did between 1914 and 1918. The battalions wore their own special badge, seen in this photo of them in training in 1915, which following the Derby family’s coat of arms – officially they were part of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The Pals crossed to France in 1915 and served with the 30th Division in the quiet months on the Somme front before going into action on 1st July 1916 in the attack on Montauban. One of their battalions was on the extreme right flank of the British Army on the Somme and went over linking arms with their French comrades. The battalions achieved all their objectives on the first – some of the few who did – but a few weeks later lost heavily in the fighting for Guillemont. While the number of original Pals dwindled with each passing month, the battalions continued to serve until the end of the war.
One of the original Liverpool Pals was E.G. Williams. A student interested in art and watercolour painting, Williams joined the Pals in 1914 and fought with them on the Somme, later being taken prisoner in 1918. He was one of several hundred Great War veterans I interviewed in the 1980s and this recording dates from that period, here talking about the 1st July 1916. In the clip he refers to a painting, one for more than 20 he did during the war, which he later donated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Ending a brief look at some portraits this week we finish with this post-war image of a Great War veteran. Taken sometime in the 1920s, most likely in the man’s back garden of his house, he is dressed like any other man of the period – but tucked away on his waistcoat are the ribbons of the British War & Victory medals, the standard campaign medals for the Great War, and on his lapel the badge of Comrades of the Great War. He has a very expressive face and one wonders what his war had been and where; what had he seen and endured? Men like this survived, came home and tried to continue with a normal family life, but the experience of the war was always there somewhere; rarely would it surface with those who had never been there themselves – a sort of conspiracy of silence, which historian Professor Peter Doyle has written about on his blog. A silence today only hinted at with images like this.