In the years between the First and Second World Wars thousands travelled to the battlefields in France and Flanders. Many were the families of those who had fallen, but some were also veterans of the war, going back to make sense of their past and perhaps pay their respects to an old comrade who hadn’t come home. Several of the veterans I interviewed had gone back in the 20s/30s and said it was hard even then to find some of the places they had known. Two veterans expressed their feelings in the poem 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.
This photograph from the 1930s shows one such veteran, at New Irish Farm Cemetery, close to Ypres. He looks down on a row of graves of two Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Machine-Gunner and an Irish Rifleman. Which one was the grave he had come to see? Was it a family member or a comrade he had left behind on the battlefield? We will never know, but it was clearly a defining moment for him, and one he wanted to recall by having the visit photographed. This is not a tourist snap; it is an insight into loss, regret and no doubt a little guilt, at having survived when this man did not. What was passing through his mind as he looked down on the white stone? The beauty of a simple image that poses more questions than it answers.
Following on from yesterday we again feature some images from the photo album of ‘D.Lauder’ a young British woman who may have worked as a Nurse attached to the French Army who visited the battlefields between Reims and Verdun 1925.
Navarin Farm was a position on the Champagne Battlefields of 1915 which saw heavy fighting in the fighting of September 1915. French troops assaulted and captured the German positions here at great loss and it soon became a household name throughout France.
After the war it was selected as one of the sites to build a French National Ossuary. The ‘pyramid’ memorial to the Armies of the Champagne was unveiled in 1924 and not only contains numerous memorials to those who fought here but underneath are the bones of more than 10,000 men who fell on the Champagne battlefields.
Today part of the desolated ground around the memorial is still preserved but the view in 1925 (below, taken from the Navarin Farm monument) gives an idea what the war had done to battlefields like the Champagne.
We start this week with images from the album of a battlefield pilgrim who travelled to the French battlefields between Reims and Verdun in 1925. The album belonged to a ‘D.Lauder’ who appears to have been a woman in her late twenties. Whether she had a connection to the family of the famous Sir Harry Lauder is not clear, but it appears she may have worked as a volunteer Nurse attached to the French Army, which explains why she visited locations outside of the usual area for British pilgrims.
Fort Vaux was one of the famous French forts which featured in the fighting during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. It had fallen to the Germans in June and was later recaptured that November. The women in the photo above are standing on an Observation Post which directed some of the forts gun turrets. The smashed nature of the ground is clearly visible.
When visitors came to Fort Vaux in the 1920s they were given a French Army guide, whom Miss Lauder photographed on top of the same bunker. He holds a miner’s lamp in his hand which was presumably used to take his party through the tunnels of the fort.
Unicorn Cemetery close to the village of Vendhuile is on the Hindenburg Line battlefields which saw fighting in 1917/18. It gets its name as some original burials were made by the burial officer of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division whose insignia was the head of a Unicorn. It contains the graves of nearly 600 British and Commonwealth casualties of the Great War who fell here in the last two years of the war.
This photograph shows the family of one of these casualties visiting the cemetery in the early 1920s. The cemetery has not been made permanant and a wooden signboard bears the cemetery name and map reference. The plots have already been laid out and a little fence placed round with a gate; at the time this image was taken, the decisions about how to make these cemeteries permanant were in fact still being made.
Who these early battlefield pilgrims were is sadly not noted on the photograph; it would appear perhaps to be a sister on the left and mother on the right – perhaps father took the photograph? Given the cost and difficulty in getting to these places at that time for many families like this it was a once in a lifetime visit; that this photograph was special to those in it is clear from the fact that it remains mint; well hidden and well stored for decades until I found it in a Sussex junk shop in the 1980s.
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing was unveiled on 1st August 1932; we saw a few weeks ago the Last Post being played as part of the ceremony; here is an image of the assembled crowd who had travelled to the Somme for the inauguration ceremony that day.
Such pilgrimages were not new – visitors had first been seen on the old battlefields in 1919 – and this was not even the first one to the Somme, yet it was the first large scale pilgrimage since the British Legion had organised their own in 1928. But this in many respects was a pilgrimage with a difference; here were not families who had come to see a grave. No wives or mothers or children could walk the rows of headstones to find one with ‘their’ name on. For these were the families of the legions of the missing; men who had ‘no known grave’. What to do with these missing? In previous wars such men had never been commemorated, but as this war had touched almost every family in the land, crossed every class and social barrier, and on some battlefields more than half the dead were missing, it was felt unfair for the loved ones of these men to have nothing to see, nothing to remember but a fading vision. The solution were the huge memorials to the missing, which in many places came to define the battlefields on which they stood.
Future generations would make much of these memorials like Thiepval, and wonder at the long lists of names. But on this day, and in this crowd, all minds were focussed on but a single thought; of that name, that face, that voice which had once been dear to them and was lost. There had always been that feint hope; alive somewhere, lost their memory, perhaps missing no more, but now nearly two decades after the Somme the final reckoning; a name in stone, a final acceptance, and all the grief and heartache that brought.