Return to hell
Soon the August sun will beat down upon sea beaches, and from inland fields the corn will be harvested. Spare a thought for a different Britain now far away in time, but to a few of us still imminent in memory.
I see myself as a very young Territorial soldier marching with thousands of others through shimmering road-heats, our khaki tunics glistening dew-like with sweat until white dust arose to hang upon our cap-peaks, webbing equipment, and even moustaches which adorned some faces like a third eyebrow.
We had marched out of the City, holding up heavy horse-drawn drays and red Tilling-Stevens omnibuses with solid tyres. The battalion was ordered to break step over London Bridge lest a thousand foot-blows upon successive foot-blows loosened the masonry of the arches.
It was a bright morning. Soon our tender foot-soles were blistered, but not a man fell out as hour after hour on that scorching August day of 1914 we marched south into Surrey.
Each man carried 60 pounds of kit and ammunition. As the day burned on we passed hundreds of men in sister battalions lying prostrate upon grassy verges, or sitting in the shade of wayside hedges.
They had come from the poorer parts of London – lads with loose voices and distressed eyes. Upon some dead-white faces boils and impetigo were to be seen.
As we marched on we came upon women in sunbonnets standing by the gates of cottage gardens holding out jugs of water and baskets of green apples. Our faces were by now brick-red. Our heads were filled with vague hope-fears of being sent to help the British Expeditionary Force.
The Regulars desperately needed help after the long retreat from Mons and Le Cateau. Almost to a man on hearing the sombre news the previous Sunday the battalion had volunteered for foreign service.
Day after day the dust arose as we marched south. And when the corn harvest was gathered in we reached camp. Bare slopes of heather. No tents. We slept under the stars.
Within a week our boot-caps were worn during many manoeuvres across brown areas of ling and bell-heather. In the beer marquees (now put up) we read in newspapers of the race for the Channel ports. If only we could get there before it was all over!
And suddenly one morning my heart stood still. The order had come to proceed overseas. We were inspected by officers of the General Staff just before entering a troop train. A slow journey into dusk, and Southampton.
We sat by piled rifles for hours under the pallor of arc-lamps. At midnight we embarked and sailed down the Solent cheering as searchlights played upon our shadowy forms.
The scene changes. It is the end of October. The battalion has been allocated to the First Corps under Lt.-General Sir Douglas Haig.
There follows a long night's journey in London motorbuses painted grey. Boards have replaced glass windows. We enter a walled city and form up in the Grand Place.
So this is Ypres, called E-priss by the few regulars standing about calmly as though nothing in particular is happening. Yet tremendous, heart-quaking explosions of hitherto unimaginable brutality are rending the sky.
There are black spoutings among the trees bordering the slightly-rising Menin road ahead. Jack Johnsons, the regulars call them. One says: 'Don't get the wind-up matey.'
The battalion is ordered to halt and lie down on the grassy verges. Rumours are passed down. It is said that Field-Marshal Sir John French, the Commander-in-Chief, has left his motor on account of the refugees blocking the road ahead and gone on foot to the White Chateau, headquarters of the First Corps.
More brutal dronings. Black spoutings – colossal reverberations . . . Old peasants wearing wooden sabots and black clothes. They walk impassively beside long-tailed carts loaded with bedding, hens, and ancient relatives. Sometimes a gaunt cow is tethered behind.
Among them trundles a great howitzer. Wounded men with desperate faces straggle down. What is going to happen now the big guns are leaving the battle? Are we going to attack?
Rumours. The 'Alleyman' broken through. The Guards have left their trenches. It's true they have! Look! That straggle of men with staring eyes, no rifles or equipment. Letters C G on their shoulder straps. The Lilywhites have broken . . .
'Bloody thousands of Alleymans up there! Cor millions on'm, matey.'
'Line after line, no end to'm!'
'Look at me right hand, matey, see that blister? That's from boilin' grease what runned from under the wooden cover of me rifle.'
'The new-issue bandoliers was too thin, the cart'iges bust in the rifle breech.'
'You 'ave to kick yer bolt to get'm aht, while bloody thousands of Alleymans come at you, matey.'
A Guardsman asks for a fag. Blood drips down his trousers from a shattered elbow. His boots are worn to the uppers. The wild red-rimmed eyes seem driven back into his skull.
It was learned later that all the officers of that battalion of the Coldstream had either been killed or wounded.
Only 70 other ranks left. Under bombardment for two days and nights. No food. No water. Faulty ammunition.
There were other fears gnawing at the minds of some reservists of the Regular Army in those days. Their families at home were starving.
The East End factories had closed on the outbreak of war. A family's single room cost 5s 6d a week for rent. There was no more let-out piece-work. Mothers boiled a loaf of white bread, all they could afford to feed their babies on the luke-warm water. They had no milk. In several families the babies died.
Some mothers, unable to bear with piteous cries all day and night had put a damp cloth over their babies' faces. Their fathers were absent from home. They were at Ypres.
Queen Mary, on hearing the dreadful news, appealed for help. Scores of traps, dog-carts, motorcars and carriages were soon driving in from the country with food and drink.
No one was to blame: the war was 'the unimaginable confronting the unprepared'. And not only among the British.
German Main Headquarters first learned of the British Expeditionary Force's arrival in France 10 days afterwards, when they read of it in a Dutch newspaper.
Now after nearly 50 years, I find myself upon those ancient battlefields, to report on – what? In me there lives the ghost of my young self, compassionate, estranged, accepting all things with clarity.
Before I returned there the other day I felt it next to impossible to write a word about the battlefields of Artois. I had spent part of my early youth in that area famous among military historians and other old sweats as 'Arras'.
And when I had gone back there in the 'twenties, and again after the last war, I always had a feeling that I must not confuse the past with the present.
The reason was that I wanted to write of 1914–18 in a series of novels; and time had gone on and nothing done: decade followed decade, and one day, one day, I told myself, I must begin.
At last, in the early '50s, I started tremulously. And wrote continuously for 10 years. And now they were done in print for good or ill, I was free to return.
The battlefields – the Hindenburg Line – mile upon mile of beautifully farmed land. Sweep after sweep of green and gentle slopes – corn, clover, wheat, sugar beet. In spring one can see the thoroughness of the cultivation, when the brown earth is everywhere being worked by master peasants.
And to think that out of that immense featureless desolation, hundreds of thousands of acres cratered and re-cratered by millions of high explosive shells – has come this neatness and splendour.
And the British cemeteries are beautiful too. They are places where one may rest. These enclosed parks are cared for. The headstones of the graves are so clean among the lawns, the flowers, the shrubs.
There is a grand design upon all this country of Northern France, now a region of simplicity and love. One feels that the dead are helping the living.
Yet one place I confess, was approached with dread as I walked down the road from Arras to Bethune. For east of the road as one descends a gentle slope is the German Concentration Graveyard. It lies above Le Labyrinthe, the scene of some of the most terrible fighting during the first two years of the war.
The Labyrinthe was a German redoubt of great strength overlooking the French positions for a long way. Beginning near the village of La Targette, it extended across rising ground. Here, during a French attack, the enemy reserves could assemble without being seen.
The Labyrinthe was an underground fortress with access to scores of ferro-concrete blockhouses lying no higher that the chalk parapets of the trenches. Each blockhouse held machine-guns under steel cupolas which resisted destruction by all but the heaviest shells.
Here a maze of trenches were protected by belts of unpenetrable barbed wire. The Labyrinthe spread over thirty acres of chalk in all directions, like the web of an immense spider.
In 1915, following almost continuous fighting for the Vimy Ridge, thousands of shredded French and colonial uniforms lay on the barbed wire above heaps of bones and skulls.
After the Ridge was taken on April 9, 1917, by the Canadians, I rode over from Achiet-le-Grand to have my first look at the Labyrinthe.
Everywhere lay skeletons amidst a scatter of red – the fez of Algerian troops, and the scarlet trousers of the French infantry of those days – and of the blue greatcoats and képis, or caps.
I did not, on this April day of 1917, get very far into the Labyrinthe. I was forced to turn back by the magnitude of chaos.
I passed that way again seven years later, in 1924, after a walking tour with friends in the Pyrenees. The Labyrinthe remained as before, except that now the upheaved ground was covered by long rank grasses and wild willow bushes. And continuing along the rising road to Arras seven years after the Armistice I came suddenly upon a startling change.
Before me was a wide expanse of chalk. It lay strangely dark under the shine of the sun. It took a moment or two for me to realise that the darkness of a May morning was caused by the slanting shadows of tens of thousands of tall black crosses.
Standing close together and in pairs back to back, acres and acres of black crosses, nearly one hundred thousand symbols of crucifixion, each with a name and number and regiment stencilled on it in small ragged letters of white paint.
I was appalled by the sight.
While I stood there a motorcar stopped in the road, and a woman got out and walked steadily through the gate with expressionless face. She too stopped as though hit by a bullet, to remain standing hopelessly before begining a search in that immense silence of charred human bones.
No flower, no stray weed was able to grow on that barren chalk in 1924. Black, black, vast and terrible, the charred forest swept over the horizon.
Besides a machine-gun shelter, burst open and its iron rods clawing heaven, I heard larks singing in the sky as I had heard them seven years before, during the dawn bombardment – a great bubbling upon the ear, a sea of light upon the eye, a trembling through the ground – the barrage before the successful assault upon the Vimy Ridge.
My younger self, returned to the singing of nightingales in that May month of 1924, the old agonies dimmed the noon-day sun.
Leaving the German Concentration Graveyard, I walked on to La Folie farm. There I saw, by the headland of one field sown to wheat, a single cross of poplar made of a living stick pushed into the soil. The sere cross-piece was bound by a withy. Below lay a legbone, a rib, a skull. A ploughman had done this act for some unknown German soldier left in the final retreat in the autumn of 1918.
The stick had become a little tree with many grey-green rustling leaves. The wilderness had blossomed.
I remember sitting by that little poplar and wishing that all had been as wide-minded as the ploughman in his field. Then the German people might have been given the ground where their dead lay, as a perpetual gift equal with that ground given for the British dead.
It might have cost as much as one submarine: and the hearts of all people of good will would have been touched.
Such an act towards a defeated enemy, I thought, would be within the experience of all ex-soldiers to feel and to understand; and it might give another direction to the history of Europe.
Such were my thoughts in May 1924, while nightingales sang among the wild willows and nettles of the forsaken battlefield.
Now re-visiting the same place in this year of 1964, I realise that it took a second world war to bring the healing of magnanimity to an enemy. For today I am walking down rows of smaller brown crosses of this German Concentration Graveyard. This grass grows on the chalk fretted by wind and rain and frost.
A notice stands at the entrance, with the words
PAX AUX HOMMES DE BONNE VOLONTE
The place has been cared for, thank God. The chalk is still a little unfruitful, but a scatter of compost had helped the grass to grow – poor grass with moss in it – poor graves – poor men lying far from home – but someone cares.
Pinks grow by the graves on that punishing chalk of the post-war twenties when the generation that just missed action got all the reaction and became the wild and bright young things who must escape, escape the darkness they had grown up in.
Now wild and bright young dandelions grow out of the thin young grass covering the chalk, and goldfinches twitter about those blazing little suns, eager for their seeds.
For the dead who died upon these battlefields, in such agony as no one who was not there can ever know, lie in the French cemeteries, German cemeteries, British and Commonwealth cemeteries, at peace.
Which means that we the living who visit them find peace there: and wholeness, which may be the same thing as holiness.
And now above all shines the sun upon the fertile land, restored to health by men and women who work with their bodies and know from such work satisfaction which perhaps the town and factory cannot always give to the living soul.
I suppose the Somme is blamed on Haig as well as Third Ypres, popularly known as Passchendaele, although that battle did not take place until the end of Third Ypres. Still, from July 31, 1917, until November, when the high ground overlooking Ypres was taken, thus blinding the German gunners, the final British objective was the Passchendaele ridge, so let it remain.
Some young would-be historian not so long ago published a book about the Somme. In it was a map showing the very small gain of ground after 600,000 British casualties and four months of constant fighting. But a battlefield is as a boxing ring. One side wins, the other loses there.
The objective of the Somme battle was to destroy the German positions of defence; to break through them; then fan out of the break and get at their lines of communication and supply and so to cripple all defence.
What went wrong on July 1, 1916, that morning of great heat and cloudless sky and burning sun? Nearly 60,000 casualties in the Fourth Army which made the assault from Gommecourt on the north to the junction with the French army on the south 20 miles away. Who, or what was responsible for the terrible result within a few hours?
Fourth Army plan was based on overwhelming the German positions by a preliminary bombardment of nearly two weeks then a hurricane bombardment an hour before Zero.
All the enemy positions to the Pozières Ridge two or three miles east would be destroyed and their garrisons annihilated. Then an advance of six lines of British infantry, used as carrying parties, with about 60 lbs each of clobber – bombs, ammo, water, wire, shovels, picks, etc.
These troops would dig in, and prepare to meet the German counter-attack in a few days, when the enemy reserve divisions had come up by train. The German counter-attack would be smashed by the newly-formed Machine Gun Corps. Then the cavalry, as mobile infantry, would go through and deal with the soft administrative belly behind.
What went wrong with this plan? One small detail of the German defence system never got back to Fourth Army, or beyond to GHQ.
It was, in the front line, considered to be general knowledge: the simple fact that the German dugouts, from Gommecourt Park to the French 20 miles south, were 30 ft deep in the chalk; that each dugout had 40 boarded steps down into room after room extending for miles along the trenches and back into other systems in support and reserve trench systems. All panelled with wood planking on the ceilings as well.
Now nothing less than a direct hit by a 9.2 howitzer shell would have cracked or stove in one of those many thousands of dugouts.
Why didn't any report get back? There were many raids on the front German line before Z day. We took prisoners, we went over, protected by box barrages, with cork-blacked faces, coshes, entrenching tool handles, knobkerries and daggers, to bring back prisoners for identification purposes.
Sweating out our tunics with fear-swiftness of the unreality of what we were doing. Some wretched youth in feld grau dragged back to be questioned.
And it never occurred that it should be stressed that these dugouts are 30 ft deep, while those at Loos, also in chalk, were a mere 6 to 10 ft down, with head-cover of sandbags reinforced by a wooden beam or two. They were soon smashed up by our 6-inch hows.
Was it due to the congestion at the 'Post Office', as Corps headquarters were called in 1916? In 1914 the Divison was the mobile unit, as it were. Divisional reports went straight back to GHQ.
But by 1916, when the New Armies were out, the war had become land-locked, siege war-fare. A Corps headquarters had over 1,000 desk officers and NCO clerks. A Corps is like a Town Council, with medical, veterinary, food, clothing, hospital, pay, and other departments. For Corps, it was mainly administration, a paper war of forms to be filled in, endlessly.
Now let us look at the German side. They got the wind up in the second week of June 1916. What were the Englanders doing? How could they succeed in an assault? Every British battery was known by aerial photography and ground spotting.
The dumps were real. You don't deposit a few hundred thousand tons of huts, shells, hospitals, make new roads, sink artesian wells for bluff. The war was one of material – who had the last gallon of petrol or tin of meat would win. It was a Wasters' War. So the Germans in their Army-Group HQ under Prince Rupprecht at Bapaume seriously thought of pulling out, of letting the Englanders advance in order to attack at the wings and cut off the Fourth Army in a pocket.
But the Englanders really meant to attack. So the Germans practised running up those 40 steps to the trench and out in No Man's Land the machine gun teams mounted their weapons.
And at 7.30 a.m. on that still summer morning – a day to become of great heat and anguish – when the British guns lifted up came the teams and settled in shell-holes before the German wire. And waited. And slowly the infantry of fourteen British Divisions advanced, in six lines, to the attack – over 200 battalions each of about 800 men.
It took three days before all the wounded were brought in. Many with maggots on broken flesh. (That was good: it kept the flesh from gas gangrene.)
German doctors and Red Cross orderlies came out to help. No firing on the wounded or their helpers. (It also happened at Passchendaele, and elsewhere. We did the same for them.)
It was said, as the bloody battle dragged on during July, August, September and October into November, that this land, this area of roughly a hundred thousand acres would not be cleared up for 100 years.* But after the Armistice Russian labourers came over in thousands, also Italians.
I saw them digging with long-handled shovels, first collecting great dumps of wire and yellow unexploded shells. Rifles still stood on thinning bayonets in places all over the battlefield in 1924, marking where wounded men had fallen. Dug-outs were then beginning to cave in.
And now it is nearly 50 years ago when it all happened. And I didn't recognise Albert this last time. The Golden Virgin is now recovered, as it were, from grief.
Our Lady, as we who were living on the edges of life and death called her then, had been struck by gun-fire, and was hanging down holding the Babe in her arms, as we went by underneath, in the rain and the mud.
When she fell the war would end, we said. Well, she fell in 1918. And now Our Lady and the Boy gleam once more in the harvest sun, and the whole country is one vast farming area as I have said before, a beautified tract of land, with woods and nightingales in spring and friendliness everywhere.
The war was not all evil. We learned something in those days although things went wrong later on. We just hadn't the wider vision then that we have now, I suppose.
[* This surmise was indeed correct, for one hundred years on farmers in the area are still ploughing up an annual 'iron harvest' of unexploded shells and other battlefield debris, and small piles of rusting shells can often be seen at field edges.]
There are 137 cemeteries of the dead of our race on the Western Front of 1914–18. In these are 40,000 unknowns.
Enter this wood with me. Walk softly. It is once again a covert for game. I remember the pheasants and hares here in the autumn of 1914, and the colonel walking up his own birds with a borrowed Belgian double-barrelled shotgun.
I remember the shell-holes filled near to the brim with greenish water, into which we dipped our canteens for boiling tea water over our twig fires under the oaks.
I remember the strange catherine wheel effect at night among those trees of bearded soldiers swinging Maconochie tins filled with charcoal, circles of bright flammets which sank to red as the tin was tied to a branch to warm hands. And the German light balls shot up just beyond the wood. They sank down, slowly, wavering on little parachutes the night long, while we dug a support line trench only to find water 18 inches below the surface.
And when it was our turn to go into the line before the wood we slid down into yellowish clay-water to our lower ribs. The T-trench was enfiladed from both flanks by snipers. The 'Alleyman' was 80 yards away.
Crack! And the man next to you stared at you curiously for a moment. Then you saw a hole in his forehead and when he slid down you saw that the back of his head was open.
Nearly 50 years ago . . . I am lost. Where was the T-trench? Is this the root field where the big black sow lay, near the dead cow? Plugstreet Wood's the same, almost. The oaks not so thick, perhaps. Where was Essex Farm? Bunhill Row? Piccadilly? These rides may be new. This shoot belongs to a Frencg general. M'sieur, you will find the Rifle Brigade cemetery down there.
How peaceful. How quiet is the sunshine. We tread softly. We do not speak. It was fun, in a way in 1914, in that wood. Except for the sub-feeling of having lost your home, perhaps for ever. And thoughts of Mother's grief. And then the November rains came and we stood in water and marn to our waists, until the welcome frosts solidified your boots when in reserve in the wood, and your greatcoat became as stiff as wood under the stars of winter diminished by the everlasting flares, those lilies of the dead, beyond the sniper-cracking edge of the wood.
So it went on. A week before Christmas we were ordered to attack from the edge of the wood. Our objective was the Alleyman's line beyond the T-trench. The attack was supported by a couple of six-inch guns each firing six lyddite shells. We knew, of course, that the battle for Ypres had exhausted all our shell stocks and that, before the war, most of the shells for the British Army had been bought from Germany.
The attack took place on December 19. The lyddite shells crashed beyond the wood, leaving yellow smoke. Men ran into the open, and across the slippery field of roots (swedes) and past the dead cow, the black pig, and a number of three-to-four-week-old Germans in feld grau. The attackers yelled hoarsely, it cannot be called cheering.
No one got anywhere near the German wire. We saw them fall as we lay in support at the verge of the wood, waiting; at moments silently quaking. Cries for help from the root field. Now many khaki figures sprawled all ways among them. One German figure had long fascinated me. He was on his back, one leg bent, as though lying there idly. I stared many times at his large yellow moustache. Could I lie beside him, I thought, as the order was passed down: 'Number Three company will carry on the attack.'
We waited; later to learn that our colonel had protested to the brigadier. I found I could not get up when the word was passed down. 'The attack is not to be resumed.' The first light-balls were going up. I felt tremendous exaltation. Now was my chance to go and have a look at the German. And give a hand to bring in the wounded. No firing. The Alleyman must have seen us. They were the 133rd Saxon Regiment, as we learned during the friendly party in No Man's Land during the Christmas truce of 1914.
And so to this, incredibly, almost 50 years later.
Here is the cemetery, once of wooden crosses made of ration box and purple indelible pencil lettering. Now head-stones of the usual pattern. How quiet it is. A nightingale is singing. 'Summer, summer, summer, the soundless footfall in the grass.' Gossamers drift. Faraway in the depths of the wood a dove is moaning book-boo-roo-roo, over and over again, with pauses. Strange how wild pigeons have changed since I was a boy in the woods of Kent. Now they nest in August; then it was March. Due to the change in farming patterns?
Dappled shadows fall on these quiet head-stones within the mason'd walls. These oaks must be 80 years old at least. How did they survive that frightful bombardment in April 1918, during the Germans' last drive for the Channel ports?
Henri Barbusse, in his classic Le Feu, wrote that when you hear that a comrade has been killed it is like a blow . . . 'only later do you begin to mourn.' These names . . . killed 19th December 1914 . . . again and again . . . This stone roots one to holy ground. Holy? Are you not sentimentalising the past? No: I am remembering my comrades. Look at this one, please.
The Rifle Brigade
19th December 1914 Age 15
Below is carved the Star of David, and that he was of Stoke Newington, London.
The eyes drop their tribute salt.
That evening we went for a preliminary look around the Salient. Particularly did I want to find the Canadian Memorial at St Julien. The first gas-attack took place there in April 1915. Chlorine. Bleaching the grass. You couldn't breathe. 'Piss on your handkerchiefs men, and breathe through them.' Later, red-plum-coloured faces of the liquid-lunged dead.
The battalion was shelled to hell for two days, and decimated. The Canadians had the worst of it and the Salient held. I remember the Canadian Memorial in 1926. It was built while the battlefield was still mortified. Tanks were lying, bellied and shattered, in the deadly swamp of what was once St Julien. Where were the crossroads? Where am I? Could the war ever have been here – those four years? For this country today looks like a great English estate during the Edwardian heyday. We stop. Drive on. I am nervous.
'I swear it was at the muddy cross-roads. Is that it, among those trees?'
'Good God! What a difference . . .'
For this place was once called Vancouver, a featureless waste of dead men, mules, tanks and shell-holes linked together with five feet of water in each. Triangle Farm stood, solid with concrete and steel like a tooth decayed on its root, with other German pill-boxes in line.
The sun of high summer is shining, leaves move to the breeze, all is quiet, a dream of summer. We cross a fine new motor road.
This, rising above lawns and flowers, is the Canadian Memorial, surely the memorial for all the soldiers of all the wars? For the bowed head and shoulders with reversed arms emerging from the top of the tall stone column has the gravity and strength of grief coming from the full knowledge of old wrongs done to men by men.
It mourns; but it mourns for all mankind. We are silent before it, as we are before the stone figures of the ancient Greeks. The thoughtless one-sided babble about national rightness or wrongness, the clichés of jingo patriotism fade before the colossal figure of the common soldier by the wayside.
The genius of Man rises out of the stone, and once again our tears fell upon the battlefield.
As has been told, I re-entered the Salient by the Menin Gate. To pass that way during any moment of those four years nearly half a century ago would have caused a certain watery feeling: for it was one of the main exits of the rubble waste of Ypres.
The Menin Gate was usually plastered all night with shells, machine-gun barrages, and gas. It was a costly job, holding on to the Salient. Our lines were below the Germans, with their all-seeing eyes and telephones to hundreds of gun batteries on the Gheluvelt plateau.
The Second Army, under Plumer, held Ypres, which was the key to the Channel Ports. If we lost Ypres, we lost a road-system by which the Army was supplied. We would have been like the Afrika Korps before it had to surrender, a mere herd of soldiers unable to manoeuvre. So the Salient was to be held at all costs! It was one long hell of filth and death.
When we marched through the Menin Gate in 1914 it consisted of two small pillars each the height of a man's shoulder and set with a stone head of the lion of Flanders.
Today the Menin Gate is a vast pantheon, an extended Arc de Triomphe. Cut into its stones are the names of over 60,000 British and colonial soldiers who went into the Salient and whose bodies were never found. Not a bone, not a skull.
At night, from Cassel Hill (headquarters of the Second Army), the Salient looked like a great horseshoe, ever being reforged. Red bursts of shells, hovering parachute flares. An endless, endless livid wound. And beyond the far curve of the horseshoe, five miles east of the stony rubble and grey ruin called Ypres, was the Passchendaele Ridge. The brown terrain of the battlefield, cratered, re-cratered, a great pox of sky-reflecting water (not a worm left after Third Ypres in the wet summer and autumn of 1917) sloped up imperceptibly to the ridge. The whole desolate swamp looked by day to be flat. Passchendaele village, which lay along the crest, was only 58 metres above sea-level. But from up there the German observers watched our every movement.
From the autumn and winter of 1914 to November 1917 in that blasted, stinking, fly-torturing, rat-scuttling Salient we were overlooked. German artillery observers with telephones sat inside what they called mebus, and we called pill-boxes – massive forts of steel and concrete with names like Vampir, Green House, Wolf Farm, Kronprinz, Bellevue, Tyne Cot, all smelling after capture of rotten eggs (phosgene), stale cigars, sweat, and putredinous scatter of blood and brains and hair on bomb-pocked floors and walls. The old Hun sat up there and instructed his gunner cadets in the art and mystery of ranging and bracketing, of firing salvoes of high-explosive, shrapnel, and gas (mustard, phosgene, arsenical) at all or any movement within the great horseshoe lying below them.
At night the heavy timber-tracks of beechwood for wagon and pack-mule, and the smaller wandering corduroy paths of deal for the infantry were swept by fire.
By day one saw, piled on either side of these wooden tracks like broken serpents and snake skeletons, nothing but dead horses and mules, broken limbers and G.S. wagons, shattered field guns and caissons, and the corpses of men.
In the summer of 1917 a great battle was joined for the taking of the Passchendaele Ridge. The battle continued throughout August, September, October and the first two weeks of November 1917. By night and by day shells swooped and droned, bursting with crack and roar and stupendous sky-splitting shocks. Upon low clouds dragging over from the south-west by night the light-play of thousands of guns made the battlefield shimmer with a deadly phosphorescence. We were in a clash beyond anything imagined by Samuel Beckett.
The German Army in the West never recovered from the decimations – one eingreif division after another; 30, 40, 50, 60 and beyond – the equivalent of the proving ground or killing ground at Caen, a quarter of a century later.
The Salient was a ring where the two white giants of Europe were bleeding themselves to death. And at the time we knew this about our own divisions. We knew too, that 'down south' in the Champagne, after the frightful carnage of the great assault in April of that year had failed, they were in passive mutiny. Had the Germans known this – had 'Yper' (drawn in the shape of a skull by the German war artists) not pulled division after division to this Flanders battlefield – there might not have been even a Dunkirk for the British Expeditionary Force. So let that be chalked up in Oh, What a Lovely War.
Nearly 2,00,000 Europeans, in conflict as disastrous as that of the City States of Ancient Greece, suffered wounds or death in the Salient of the Great Skull.
And here I am still at the white Menin Memorial, through which (to my grief) the Panzers raced in 1940, both ways – after us and then we were after them for a while; until Dunkirk . . . in places one can see the pocks and splinterings of those 1940 shellings. But this old soldier standing here cannot see the names anyway, his face is turned away, his eyes closed. Not perhaps the correct attitude of a reporter after hard news.
God, you 'with-it' lot of writers should have seen our Salient. It is a relief to walk up this road of fast motor traffic and black smoke-echoing diesel trucks: a trade and commerce artery. The trees rise tall again. Here is Sanctuary Wood – a museum. One (hard) franc to enter. See the original German trenches, the helmets, holed and fragile, machine-guns, rifles . . . and this helmet (blackened with preserving paint) through which a young tree apparently is growing. It would make a dramatic photograph is colour, no doubt, but not for us, mate.
Let's go down and find the Pilckem Ridge. It was taken on Z-day, July 31, 1917. Six lines of creeping barrage at 100 yards intervals; six walls of red-glaring flame and you couldn't hear a bloody message bawled in your ear. Pill-boxes – red-brick farms filled almost solid with concrete four and five feet thick (walls and roof), splayed machine-gun slits just above ground level. Some set behind, to catch our chaps in the rear. Mackensen Farm, Gallwitz Farm, Boche House, Villa Gretchen, Jolie Farm, Stray Farm . . . The Welch (not Welsh, if you please) overran the Pomeranian Grenadiers, flower of the Kaiser's Army, on that morning.
That's all very well, but where is the Pilckem Ridge? Fields of barley wave in the wind. New brick houses. Farmhouses? Don't know mate. I've seen enough. I want a beer. Let's go on.
Heavens, this ditch with a trickle must be the Steenbeke. Where is Iron Cross Roads? Can this be Langemarck, where great heaps of Rhine gravel lay, tipped or shovelled out of railway trucks for more mebus? We got there on August 14, the second step in the limited objectives attack, and pinched some gravel to sleep on.
And so to the Frezenberg Ridge, taken on a dry September day when the ground was comparatively hard and some German shells ricochetted.
Somewhat weary, to Tyne Cot cemetery just under Passchendaele Ridge. Peace at last. From here you look down upon Flanders fields well cultivated and cropped. There is the sun and the wind, brother. Walk apart, let the spirit rest. This is an oasis. Arnold Bennett, whom I loved, used to say that the finest line in literature was 'Be still and know that I am God.' And God, on the highest authority, is love.
Fare thee well, my dear comrades in Arras, British, German, French, Belgian – all of you from overseas. We're going back to Ypres now, and will have a beer with you in one of those clean and tidy bars of Ypres under the shadows of the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral. You did not die in vain. The slums died in Flanders, and your grandchildren are part of the finest generation ever raised on this earth, bar none.
And now we are making for Dunkerque, and the night ferry to Dover. I, for one, feel the better – clearer somehow – for all that I experienced in those days of 'my' war, and afterwards. All the best, mates.
(The five pieces comprising 'Return to Hell' were published in the Evening Standard between 29 June and 3 July 1964. 'Return to Hell' was also syndicated in the Leicester Mercury and the South Wales Echo & Evening Express.)