Wednesday, 19 December 2018

“What will survive of us is love...”

Working on a book about Welsh rugby star Charlie Pritchard has brought this line of Philip Larkin’s to mind more than once. 
Charlie was killed after leading a trench raid in August 1916, and now lies in a CWGC Cemetery at Chocques, near Béthune. A famous rugby international in his day, Charlie had been a firm favourite of the fans at Rodney Parade, where he led a ferocious pack of forwards in the famous Black and Amber shirt of Newport RFC. It would have been no surprise to people in his home town that he had shown such selfless leadership on the Western Front. For years after his death, his daughter would be greeted by strangers in the street, all wanting to tell her that her father had been a great man. More than just a rugby player.
Charlie’s family, of course, were well aware of that. His wife Florence was forever unable to face the day of his death, the 14th of August. Her children recalled that she would cut a bloom from Charlie’s rose garden and place it in a vase in the centre of the dining room, then retire to bed for the rest of the day. Her daughter Violet, born a few weeks after the death of Charlie, came to dread the 14th August every year, when the family’s wound would open once more. Violet died in 1985 - on the 14th of August. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

“He Did His Bit”

“He Did His Bit”
The Charlie Pritchard story
The discovery of a set of rugby shirts over a hundred years old turned into my latest writing project. Charlie was a Welsh international rugby player who died in WW1 - so anyone who knows me would know that it was bound to become an obsession!
These historic shirts will be exhibited at the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham. My blog piece from their site is here.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Our Eternal Home

Six years ago I began working on a book that tried to uncover the stories behind the list of 50 names that are etched into the heavy oak commemoration board that is housed in the Library at King Edward VI School, Southampton. The Stormy Blast was published by Natula in 2013, by which time I had set up Single Step Tours. As one of several trial runs at bespoke battlefield tours, I took my colleague Mike Long to the Somme. We were on the trail of his uncle, a young artillery officer who was killed in 1918.
This morning I managed a sneak preview of Mike’s own reflection on the War, a statue finished in bronze that will stand in one of the quads in the school building. Two years in the making, the piece is an eloquent and clever statement on the war. Working with Talos Art Foundry near Andover, Mike is a specialist in working in bronze, and is keen to follow up with more large scale commissions.

Three young men (whose detailed uniforms make it clear are representative of the army, the navy and the airforce) are fused, arm in arm, an embodiment of the enthusiasm of the young recruits. They share a hymn book, and the lines from the school hymn are etched into the base - “Time, like an ever rolling stream/Bears all its sons away...”
The quote is just one detail that the eye is drawn to in this quite startling piece of art. A trench line, a propeller, flare gun, a bullet holed canteen. The detritus of war, the horrific experiences that lie in wait for these smiling young men as they belt out the hymn for the last time at their “eternal home”.
For me, there are some familiar names - O.J. Hobbs, the science teacher killed at the Ancre in November 1916. Arthur Wolfe, the school’s head boy, his prize pupil, who followed him to a Somme grave in February 1917. This statue bears witness to their sacrifice.
Zoom in further - some will pick out the cap badges, cast from original WW1 badges, including Mike’s own uncle’s. Others will see the flies on the horse’s head - astonishingly, cast from real flies that were buzzing all around his studio. This is art that will reward a careful look. Not surprisingly given the artist’s background, this is art that teaches without lecturing, and is designed to make us think about the war and about rememberance.

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Edgar Degas

Play Up and Play the Game!

Heavily involved in the planning of a Compiegne Rugby Festival this November, when we hope to put 7 a side teams together from all over Europe. Hoping they’ll answer the call...
Just as sportsmen from all countries were drawn in to the recruiting campaigns between 1914-1918.

A bit different to piecing together itineraries for bespoke battlefield or cultural tours, but enjoying the challenge.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Walter Martin (Newport RFC and Wales)

On 3 May 1933 friends and family gathered at a graveside in Newport, South Wales. Thousands had lined the streets as the funeral cortège climbed the hill to the church. All were united by a desperate sense of grief and guilt.
Walter Martin had been diagnosed with cancer and had been recovering at Saint Woolos Hospital but mental instability had plagued his recovery. His family had even removed disinfectant from cupboards, so worried were they that Walter would kill himself. Close friends were also aware of the danger and visited him daily.
There was an impressive collection of Welsh sporting celebrities at the funeral. One of these was Tommy Vile, Walter Martin's partner in the Newport rugby side, a man whose leadership and tactical nous turned a clever but sometimes frustratingly inconsistent player like Walter into a man who managed to represent his country, a shredder of opposition defences who accumulated over 300 points for Newport. Elusive and brave, he had played a key part in the famous 1912 defeat of the plegendary Springboks. By 1933, however, Walter was a pale shadow of his former self, a gifted sportsmen fallen from grace.
Like so many men of that era his sporting career was cut short by the declaration of war in 1914. Walter, along with many fellow members of the Newport club, joined the South Wales Borderers. The misfortunes of war led Martin and his pals to Salonica. Not as famous a front as the Somme or Ypres perhaps, but the British Army alone lost over 10,000 men in this often forgotten corner of the Great War.
At the Battle of Doiran Walter Martin's bravery and leadership lead to the award of the DCM ( Distinguished Conduct Medal). The citation described Walter as "totally regardless of danger" as he rescued a wounded man under shellfire and carried him to the safety of the Allied trenches.
The four years lost to war robbed Walter and so many others of precious time when he was at the peak of his athletic powers. It may well be that the war had damaged him for ever, as his mental health deteriorated after he finished playing in 1921. His family and friends had to endure the view from the front seats as the tragedy of Walter Martin's last act unfolded. He was found dead in his room at the hospital having strangled himself with a scarf on 30th April 1933. Although Walter had left the trenches fifteen years back, he was as much a victim of the war as the men who had never returned home.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

"Where are we now..."

"Peace is the chief of all the world's wealth..." John Gower (1330-1408)

Chaucer's mate knew something about war. Gower was only 7 years old when the "war to end all wars" of his generation started, and peace only returned to Europe nearly half a century after his death. 71 of his 78 years on this Earth had been spent in a country at war with its nearest neighbour, France.  The so called Hundred Years War may not be a subject that is often brought into everyday conversation (!), but the dark days leading up to 1939 are, at present, often revisited. The Trump presidency, with its love of autocratic diktats, the rise of right wing parties, the rhetoric of division - all this is offered as proof that we are under threat from a new wave of dictatorships. Alt-Right is just a geekish version of Fascism. With the KKK crooning over Trump, and our own EDL in Brexit Wonderland, there is little doubt that we are in difficult times.

The key thread for us to understand is that this carefully marshalled populist tide is aiming to wash away the bulwarks that have been constructed during the 20th century - bulwarks that keep us in the calm waters of the harbour. Steve Bannon, Trump's muse, is a pirate. Famously, he expressed the desire to "destroy the state". He wants those separate countries out of the safety of the harbour, out on the high seas, where he can bully them at will.
When he says "the state" he means big institutions such as Trade Areas and the EU. Institutions that have the clout to stand up to bullies. Hence the Alt-Right's "populism". It is a means to an end, rather than a misty-eyed belief in Nationhood. But you only have to look at the way the UK is slipping towards some chaotic break up to understand that this is one genie that is extremely unlikely to go back into the bottle quietly. Bannon would look at where the UK is right now and nod approvingly.

Purely on an academic level, my own opinion is that we are in a situation more akin to the build up to WW1 than WW2.The build up of tensions on the road to war in 1914 was all to do with a mad scramble for power between increasingly nationalistic states. The militarisation of the conflict was, to some extent, inevitable. The Kaiser's advisers pushed Europe to the brink of war because they believed that that was the way to get what they wanted. The suspicion is that President Bannon's foreign policy will be no more than a series of set plays, a study in brinksmanship in Iran and the South China Seas. Meanwhile, Putin will make inroads into the Baltic states and Ukraine. Almost as if it's co-ordinated. As if someone's made a deal. A great deal.

As a Tour Guide who spends a lot of time (my family would say way too much...) in the cemeteries that are dotted around Ypres and the Somme, I am perhaps acutely aware of just how dangerous this Alt-Right game could be. One of the key questions I'm asked quite often is a disarmingly simple one - "Could this happen again?" Up till this last summer I've been able to answer with some confidence. "No. Because we're all Europeans now." Now, when that question is posed, I'll look out across the 13,000 graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery and gaze towards the distant spires of Ypres. I'll shrug my shoulders. Because I really don't know anymore. One thing is certain - politicians who talk loosely about going to war are guilty of wilfully ignoring any lessons of history. To go to war is the sign that a foreign policy has failed, not an end in itself.

So here in Europe, watch out for Bannon's new Breitbart offices in Berlin and Paris pouring  out their bile in the direction of any non right wing candidate. Expect revelations on Macron and Merkel, mostly #fakenews, chipping away at the poll numbers. Make no mistake, the demise of the EU is a major target. Sadly, it might be worth remembering that the symbol of our eventual demise at the end of the Hundred Years War was the loss of Calais. Five centuries later, our retreat from the continent might be the first step towards a different, but no less significant, defeat.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Remembering Sub. Lt. A.F. “Snowball” Wolfe (1897-1917)

Adapted from a chapter in The Stormy Blast (published by Natula)

Head Boy Arthur Wolfe was fresh out of King Edward VI School, Southampton in May 1915, and was on the beaches and cliffs of Gallipoli by the autumn. His Science teacher at the school, Owen Hobbs, had also joined the Royal Naval Division, and their paths would have crossed at Blandford, where the RNVR trained. Wolfe’s experience of war against the Turks was relatively short lived. Like so many others in that disastrous campaign, he was invalided out of the front line with dysentery, and was so ill that he did not return to active duty for a whole year. By the time he was in France at the end of 1916, the Battle of the Somme had accounted for many of the faces he would have been familiar with at Blandford – including Owen Hobbs.

 Wolfe and his colleagues were charged with the task of pushing on towards Miraumont, a village that the “Big Push” had failed to take in the summer campaign. To the north, the village of Serre also remained in German hands despite all the men and high explosives that had been thrown against it, but the fortress village of Beaumont-Hamel had fallen in the late autumn of 1916. Haig hoped that a move towards Miraumont would leave the German flanks on both sides of the valley exposed, so forcing a withdrawal. The Naval Division found the ground still wrecked from November’s actions, and the trenches needed some reconstruction work. The artillery had wiped any distinguishing features from the landscape, so movement at night became doubly difficult. The front line was often just a series of shell holes occupied by a small group of men. Any activity during the day, such as movement between shellholes, or further digging, would draw the inevitable rounds of German artillery. Troops just lay there, frozen and exposed on the side of the hill above Beaucourt. A little way to the north of Wolfe’s position, the Manchester Regiment lay in shell holes above Beaumont Hamel, and 2nd Lt Wilfred Owen used the whole terrible experience for his poem “Exposure”. The Nelson War Diary makes references to two Germans being shot when they appeared to be completely lost, and a German mail bag being recovered, perhaps simply dumped in the wrong place. The Diary states “Enemy observed at distances varying from 200 to 1000 yards.” For Wolfe and the new recruits, this was not the landscape they had expected to find.

At the end of January, 1917 the Nelson Battalion had moved back behind the lines, staying at billets in Forceville. By now, they would have been aware that there was (another) Big Push coming along, and that they would be heavily involved. They were issued with new box respirators, and inspected by the Brigadier on the last day of January. In frosty, bright conditions, they marched back to Beaucourt, taking up their positions to the north of the river on the 1st of February. New recruits and veterans alike knew the score – that no man could expect to come out of two successive Somme battles without an injury of some sort. Would they strike lucky, and get a “Blighty One”?

The initial objective was the German  trench on the ridge above Grandcourt, an attack launched at 11pm on the 1st of February. Wolfe’s unit was in reserve on this occasion, with the first wave made up of men from Hawke and Hood Battalions. The whole attack was to cover a total of less than 500 yards, but it was to take place over difficult terrain in darkness.

Initially, the attack made quick progress, with the German first trench taken. There was, however, a German machine gun strongpoint which caused the first wave some problems. The attackers on the 13th of November had seen such strongpoints cause terrible casualties (Owen Hobbs included) so officers attempted to get their units round them. Unfortunately, there was confusion, and the attacking line lost its direction. The Hood units lost contact with the advancing Hawke Battalion, and the strongpoint made it impossible for the Nelson Battalion, now called into the fray, to put some order into the line by linking up with the Hawke’s left flank. The fighting became bogged down, with the junction between the Hawke and Nelson units pinned down by the German machine gunners.

On the 4th February, 1917, Arthur Wolfe was killed in an attack that finally overpowered the strongpoint. Reports had told HQ that the problem was being caused by a machine gun in a shell hole, but it transpired that they had been facing a concrete dug out with a garrison of thirty two men. Wolfe was one of 24 officers and 647 men killed over the four days in this small corner of the Somme battlefield. From the time he had arrived in France, he had lasted just over the average of 6 weeks as a young officer.

Wolfe’s body was described as having been “buried where he fell”, on the uplands above Grandcourt. His is one of the 73,000 names on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Sir Edwin Lutyens’ massive open air cathedral to the lost souls of the Somme dominates the skyline, and it is the first thing to catch the eye to the south from the fields where Wolfe’s body still lies.

Back home, his old Headmaster James Fewings would have been grief stricken to hear of the loss of his Head Boy. He resigned from his post at the end of the war, having spent four years anxiously scouring casualty lists, and hearing of the news of 50 of his old charges who would never return.  He used his final speech as Headmaster to announce the setting up of a Wolfe Prize. It may well be that for the old man, the loss of “Snowball” Wolfe was of symbolic importance. The Wolfe Prize, perhaps, was set up in memory of all those fresh faced young men who marched away.