Sometimes it’s good to spend time re-examining your roots and why it is you do such a thing. I have lost track of the number of people I have spent time with over the years on the battlefields of the Western Front. The overwhelming majority have been inspired by what they have seen, learnt and heard me share with them. But, working for a living as a Battlefield Guide is that something that some find hard to accept, in that it takes away an element of the purity of the battlefields, and certainly, in recent years, the increased number of visitors to some of the key locations has ensured that the original peace and tranquillity that a small number enjoyed in times past is no longer there; or perhaps, more often, rarely there. As a contributor to this, I accept all accusations levelled in my direction on that score and also feel an element of guilt in being part of the ‘tourist trail’, which many trips, out of pure necessity, have become. It’s as if you are destroying what makes you…..
When my brother suggested that he and I take my father to the battlefields for a birthday gift, it was and ideal opportunity to reflect on how the experiences of an individual who I never met, my grandfather, has helped shape my life.
Many of my guests ask the inevitable question as to how I found myself in the job I do, and it always seems polite to tell them.
I’m not sure exactly when it all started, but when I was very young, I distinctly remember my dad telling me on more than one occasion that his father had fought in the trenches, that he’d been gassed, that he’d been taken as a prisoner of war and that, despite being born in Wiltshire, he had fought with the Canadians. This was quite sufficient information for a young mind to accept, and sometimes his medals would be shown, occasionally stories passed down would be shared and the reason for the Canadian side of our family was all wrapped up in this story of times past.
In 1983, my father found a copy of Before Endeavours Fade. How he found it discarded on the quiet Hampshire lane where he lives is something we have never understood. We looked at it, and places that are now very familiar appeared for the first time. On one page there was a small black and white photo of the 1st Canadian Division Memorial at Vancouver Corner. It was probably taken, as were most of the photos, by Rose Coombes, the now sadly deceased author of what is still accredited as being the best guide book to the whole of the Western Front. This was the spark that ignited the interest. My dad and I decided that we would go over to Ypres for a few days the following April.
We went by ferry; there was no tunnel back then, in his Renault 5. I managed to persuade him to let me drive some of the way, the first time I had driven in Europe. I recall arriving in Ypres in the Spring sunshine. We sat in the Groote Markt, had a beer, marvelled at the architecture and the re-built Cloth Hall. Later, we booked into a room at Old Tom. It probably looks exactly the same today. We paid in Belgian Francs….you got a lot of those to the pound. It was all a bit strange and new.
Using Before Endeavours Fade, we found Vancouver Corner and the Memorial. We took a few photos, as it cost to have them developed back then. We drove around the local area…we might have been looking in the right direction at times, but, I suspect, often, we weren’t. It didn’t matter, we were near where this deeply personal event had happened and at the time, that was good enough for me….and it was good enough for my dad too. It was quite an emotional time for him, as he recalled his father who, as a result of his wartime experiences, suffered with a terrible cough, never had the strength to kick a ball around with his sons or to take them swimming, but, who had, through hard work and a touch of luck, lived a good life, as he had taken the doctors words at face value on his return to Montreal in 1919 and had gone to live somewhere warm to help his damaged lungs. My father grew up in the West Indies, living his early years in Trinidad.
Whilst on this first trip we did other things too….we visited Hill 60 and the French Ossuary at Kemmel. We walked in Plugstreet Wood and found the location of John McCrae’s ADS when it was no more than a concrete structure in a field by the side of the road. We rocked up to the Last Post Ceremony at 7.55 pm and had no problem seeing anything…hardly anyone else was there.
So, in the autumn of 2015, with the passing of over thirty years, what has remained constant is the sense of desperation that these young men must have felt at the time. Unable to respond to a series of enemy attacks due to jammed rifles, unable to breathe properly due to chlorine gas, the Canadians in the front line held on. No battalion was more in the open than the 13th (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion, who were forced to dig in along the St Julian/ Poelcappelle Road and protect the left flank of the whole of the BEF. Fighting was confused, the sister kilted battalion, the 15th (48th Highlanders of Canada), raised in Toronto, fought alongside them. The first award of a Victoria Cross to a Canadian in the Great War was posthumously awarded to a colleague of my grandfather, Lance Corporal Fred Fisher, who has no known grave.
Bravely led by two officers, Major Norsworthy and Lt Guy Melfort Drummond, both of whom were lost on 22nd April 1915, the battalion hung on for two days, until relieved by more Canadian units from the shell shattered city of Ypres. The retiring battalions were but a shadow of their former selves; casualty figures were horrendous and the whereabouts of many men unknown. Some were out on the battlefields, dying a lingering death as their lungs filled with fluid, others were already dead and buried in hastily dug and marked field graves, and may suffered the ignominy of capture.
I’ve always felt that my grandfather was fortunate in being captured at this stage. His period of captivity was long and increasingly harsh, but he survived, and from that, a family was able to move on after the war. Like every battle, as with every death, one can only wonder what might have been had that man survived. My brother and I are proof, as are many others alive today all over the world, of what becomes of those who survive.
What I also now know is so much more than on that first trip. Canadian books on the subject are understandably detailed, and Daniel Dancock’s account provides a wealth of detail. The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, especially in their revised online format allow for the precise location of the battlefield graves of Major Norsworthy and Lt Drummond to be identified, as indeed are a whole host of other 13th Battalion men who were buried close to their original place of death by the Germans, but who now lie in peace in many of the cemeteries around the Salient. War Diaries and hastily written notes between the company and battalion commanders back to Brigade give a tenor of the desperation at times of men not only fighting for their country, their King and their Empire, but predominately for their very essence of being.
A recently harvested potato field may not look very exciting, but with some knowledge and sympathetic appreciation, you can, if you so desire, attempt in your 21st Century head, to gain a small understanding of your past. And if, through doing so, you can also help others to do the same for their relatives, through much appreciated and skillful gathering of the facts from sources by those who able to provide this, sometimes while you are out in the field, then perhaps for some, the power of the battlefields is still there.