Since it’s Remembrance Sunday, I thought I’d publish this piece today, written by David Evans – as many readers will know, David has a particular and enduring interest in the Great War, and has worked hard to record the effects of it locally – from the stories of men who fought, like Cecil Arthur Burton and David’s Great Uncle, Levi Cooper, to more esoteric aspects like the Messiness model at Brocton on Cannock Chase.
David visits Messiness every year, and last year he wrote this piece for readers in order that I publish it on this Remembrance Sunday. Sadly, due to a couple of unexpected events, I’m a bit late – however, I’m sure readers will appreciate it just the same.
My thanks to David who does so much work for the blog – not just writing great articles like this, but doing lots of unseen legwork, but unseen stuff like scanning and being an ace newshound. The man is a dynamo, I’m sure of it.
Comments welcome – either on the article or to BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.
The names of Ypres and Messines in Belgium will be well known to many people. During the summer months of 2013 a wonderful archeological dig unearthed the First World War model of Messines that was made in the New Zealand Army camp at Brocton, in Cannock Chase.
My visit to this part of Flanders in November 2013, as most years, included a morning of quiet contemplation at and around the battlefield at Messines. This Western Front saw devastating artillery barrage after barrage over most of the four years of this dreadful conflict.
Now, nearly a century on since those times of carnage, the landscape has recovered, by and large. A casual traveller would probably not cast a second glance over the busy and productive farmlands.
At this time of the year such a traveller is bound to meet the huge, track-laying sugar-beet harvesters or the tractors and trailers laden with the harvest of potatoes, on their way to the potato chip processing plant at Warneton. He may notice the thousands upon thousands of Brussels sprouts, growing in perfect line formation in the fields to the West of Messines and covering the land which received some 200-300 shells per square metre during the First World war barrages.
The neat stone walls, set in no particular order in the fields, their white stone cross peering proud and high over the low walls, may not even be noticed.
But inside these innumerable mute, still, and beautifully tended sites rest the dead. The lines of headstones therein, are still touching and bear lasting witness to the dreadful cost and waste of humanity.
The front line trenches were fought over, won, lost, repaired, fought over and lost or won again and again. This was the scene of mind-numbing nerve-shattering noise, the blinding flash of exploding shells, mortars, mines and body-vaporising violence.
Pure hell here, on this earth.
Yet the early part of the war along the trenches witnessed an unordered, unofficial and astonishing glimpse of humanity among the increasingly disheartened and demoralised troops on both sides of the front line. ‘Live and let Live’ as it became known, was when mules or wagons carrying soldiers’ food rations and drinking water were deliberately NOT fired upon; troops brewing up something to drink, or cooking their meagre rations were not targeted.
This unofficial ‘brief dose of humanity’ as one soldier called it, during the months that led up to the first Christmas in the Trenches, has only been briefly recorded or investigated. But it happened along most of this Ypres Salient front line, and has become apparent over the years since 1918 as returning soldiers’ relatives discovered, or read in the notes written in pencil in their little notebook penny diaries.
To approach Messines from the East you are suddenly brought back to 2013, for, as you approach the outskirts of the town you pass a huge meat processing factory with its large number of juggernauts parked up, waiting to offload animals for slaughter, or to take on the joints and produce.
It brings a shudder and sharp intake of breath for the unwary traveller.
The Irish Peace Park, just to the South of the main line of citadel defences is by contrast, a beautifully serene, open and tranquil place. Its slim tower and the cenotaphs with their
inscriptions speak in deafening silence of the terror and human costs as no other monument does.
A few miles away the line of trees that edged a heavily-used lane and which marked a horizon for the defending German troops in and around Messines, is still there, close to the Plus Douve farm, and is seemingly just as impassable at this season of lashing, driving rain and hail, leaving a sticky morass of deep Flanders mud.
The Christmas truce Football field has a new plaque and fresh footballs by the cross beside the narrow lane near Prowse Point.
The few nearby cottages that had been utterly destroyed during the conflict were rebuilt in the 1920s and the ongoing task of returning a devastated land to working farms had begun then.
Some craters, one from an initial attack in 1916, lie hidden behind villages.
But for me the image that I brought back with me from this year’s visit is one I did not expect. In a large, beautifully-maintained German military cemetery further to the South along the Western front and near Lambersart, a northern suburb of Lille, lies this view, and an abiding and disturbing memory.
David Evans, December 2013