Battlefields Trip 2017: the Ypres Salient and the ‘Pale Battalions’

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In recent years, those of us who have been coming to places like the western front have taught ourselves a few valuable lessons. One of those is some healthy and robust myth busting. Ask (I suspect, most) people, for example, the percentage of men who served that were killed, and they will give you a wildly over the top figure. I suspect anyone of my generation still carries, deep down, Haig the butcher and the high command as a more sinister collective of General Melchetts somewhere in their mental store cupboard. Or, to stick in another Blackadder reference, all that endless poetry. And yes, we look to bust those myths, broaden the picture.

I suspect many of us also feel we once focussed too much on death, not enough on life. When you tell the story of the ‘mouthless dead’, whether on the western front or, say, Belsen, you are always in danger of denuding the victims of everything that once made them human: their lives, their loves, their opinions and ideas, their faiths, their faults. And so, rightly, we make as much of their lives, more even, than we do of their deaths.

But today, coming back to Tyne Cot for the umpteenth time, with yet another party of RGS Year 11s, what hits you straight up, as every time, is just what hits them: the dead. If, as with all the commonwealth war grave cemeteries, Tyne Cot is an English country garden, this is a garden on a grand scale.

But, it’s a garden of death.

This year, the wind howled, like a cry of despair. The autumn leaves, that always seem to echo the fallen souls honoured around them, were scattered around us. Always, Tyne Cot puts me in mind of Charles Sorley. In one sense, that is all they are: they are the dead.

We try to put names, lives, people upon the spooks. Every year, I stand by the grave of an Old Novo, Henry West, this year as before (see here). I was talking to some of our party. To them, naturally, a young man of 24 is a grown man. Pete Wilson and I both have children in their early twenties. We see it, therefore, rather differently.

As we talked, I was talking about Kipling, who pulled so many strings to get his son, Jack, into the army, despite his eyesight. And, after Jack had fallen with no known grave, it was Kipling’s words that commemorated his own sons, and the thousands of others:

A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR
KNOWN UNTO GOD

Kipling never quite got over Jack’s death, just like so many. One row on from Henry West lies the grave of one of those unknown soldiers beside him. Beside him, there is the grave of an ANZAC. All we saw then was a name, first of all: HG Levin. Then there was the inscription below.

DEARLY LOVED
BY HIS SORROWING PARENTS
AND SISTERS
DUTY WELL DONE

As so often, it is the unexpected that suddenly speaks to us.

Harold Gordon’s Levin, it turns out, was from the army medical corps, an ambulance man, killed on October 4th, 1917. On that day, the ANZACs were part of an attack across the northernmost part of the Ypres salient, in what we know as the battle of Broodseinde. It was actually a pretty successful attack, taking 1,100 prisoners and 55 guns, helped by the fact that the Germans had planned an assault the same morning.

But men still paid with their lives. The battle is well known by any New Zealander, because the former All Black skipper, Dave Gallagher, was killed in it.

So was Harold Levin. I can’t but think of ‘his sorrowing parents, Jacob and Fernanda, back in New South Wales, and the inscription they had engraved on their son’s grave, the grave we can only assume that they never saw.

And they were not alone. At Langemarck, among the black pool of death that is the 44,292 men buried there, someone had visited.

After dark had fallen, we walked the city’s ramparts, stopping off at Ramparts Cemetery, so beloved by the godmother of all battlefields guides, the late Rose Coomb and where her ashes were scattered. It is one of the most beautiful. I’ve been before, but for some reason I had never spotted one grave. The first burials here, adjacent to a field medical station are at the front, from 1915. Those men would have been regulars or territorials, members of what were best known as the Old Contemptibles.

One was a Private T Hopkins: we don’t even know what the T stood for. We know he was in the 4th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, better known as the City of London Regiment. So, Private Hopkins was a regular: the 4th Royal Fusiliers landed at Le Harve on 13th August, 1914.

By April 1st 1915, they were on the Ypres Salient, where they would see action in the Second Ypres. But, on the first day of that month, Pte Hopkins died. I don’t know how. We don’t even know his mother’s name, all we do know is that she was Mrs Hopkins of 174, Church St, Deptford, in South East London. I think it’s fair to assume it was Mrs Hopkins who chose this inscription:

CHRIST WILL LINK
THE BROKEN CHAIN
CLOSER WHEN WE MEET AGAIN
FROM MUM BROTHER AND SISTERS

From Mum.

At the Menin Gate last night I thought, as I always do, of our own fallen Old Novos. There are nine commemorated on the Menin Gate memorial, including Private GV Warrener, like Harold Levin, of the Australian Army Medical Corps, killed while carrying a wounded comrade at the battle of Messines Ridge, on June 7th 1917. We thought of the two sets of brothers who fell, the Pritchards and the Hunters, the Hunters commemorated on the Menin Gate together, as they fell together back in 1915 (see here).

But I also thought of Harold Levin, Herman Ott and Pte Hopkins. And, Mrs Hopkins, Fernanda Levin. Of mothers mourning their fallen sons, Sorley’s pale battalions.

Earlier, we had passed close to Artillery Wood Cemetery, where the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge is buried. After the last post, I took us up to the ramparts once more and, looking upon the memorial, In the dark, and read his words from his great poem, The Lost Ones:

But where are all the loves of long ago?
O little twilight ship blown up the tide,
Where are the faces laughing in the glow
Of morning years, the lost ones scattered wide?
Give me your hand, O brother, let us go
Crying about the dark for those who died.

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