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Wednesday 27 February 2008

Returning to Ypres: the Holy Ground of British Arms

The Ypres Salient … belongs henceforward to history and will for evermore be a sacred place for pilgrims to the graves of the heroic dead.
Henry Beccles Willson

The Great War saw the death of over a million British and Empire troops. Of these the vast majority were on The Western Front in France & Flanders. Here the focus for grieving would eventually come to be centred on The Somme & the Belgian town of Ypres.

By Christmas 1914 the trenches immediately east of Ypres formed a huge bulge thrusting into the German lines. For the following four years it was fought over relentlessly as the German army tried to clear it. The casualties were horrendous - by 1918 these few square miles held close to quarter of a million British & Imperial dead. In 1920 a Canadian Lieutenant Colonel, Henry Beckles Willson, described it as The Holy Ground of British Arms. However, as I grew up old men who were there spoke with pride and bitterness of The Immortal Salient.

The uniqueness of this place in British & Commonwealth history, and perhaps the inspiration for Willson, was expressed by a sign erected among the shattered ruins of the town in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

This is Holy Ground.
No Stone of This fabric may be taken away.
It is a Heritage for all Civilised
Town Major

Visitors started making their way to Ypres very soon after the armistice to pay respects to lost husbands, fathers or sons or all to often simply to try and trace a body. For the luckier ones there would be a grave, marked initially with a battlefield cross and later with an Imperial War Graves Commission headstone, where wreaths could be left and a connection made with the dead. But vast numbers of the dead were lost - the memorials at Tyne Cot & the Menin Gate bear 89,187 names of the missing of the Ypres salient.

The first visitors to the battlefields, initially an expensive and complicated business, were gentry who had the resources to make the journey. Editha Bigland of Bigland, near Cartmel visited Festubert in a vain search for the grave of her only son, George, killed in 1915. In July 1920 Edith Squarey MacIver of Wanlass How, Ambleside and widow of David MacIver of Birkenhead set out to visit the graves of her two sons and a stepson. She was accompanied by Albert, the chauffeur, her surviving son, Alan McIver M.C., late of the 20th Lancashire Fusiliers, and Hugh ‘Cherry’ Sanderson. Edith kept a journal of the trip.

We went into Ypres by the West entrance and then out by the south to see a farmhouse, called by the Brigade Woodgate House, where Alan's Brigade H.Q. were for a time in 1918. The ruin of Ypres is indescribable, there are no houses left in the town and the place us full of Army huts of all sorts and sizes.

At Pilckem Ridge,

Barbed wire and all sorts of debris, bits of accoutrement, broken trucks, dud shells lay about, and here and there tanks pounded out of all likeness to themselves, and here and there a solitary cross among the grass. Silent and solemn tokens of what the place was like two years ago and since 1914. These remains were even more frequent when we went to Langemarck along the Poelcapelle road. Before getting to Langemarck we turned off along a little road to look for a concrete German pillbox, which was Alan's Brigade H.Q. for about two months in 1918, which they called "Varna Farm". Here the shells etc lay about thickly. It was some time before Alan found it but he did at last. He picked up a rusty English rifle and I an English helmet, but it had a hole in the side and a bullet must have gone through it into the man's
head, so I put it down again and left it.

They made their way to La Clytte and the grave of Captain Andrew Tucker Squarey MacIver, Edith's eldest son,

The cemetery is not so near the church as I expected and is of course full of crosses in neat rows. English soldiers were working in it: one soldier was an inspector of cemeteries. An Englishman married to a French woman is in charge now. We soon found Andrew’s cross in the earlier part. His cross has been touched by shell fire, a bit of the circle broken and the top too. The grass is long but it is the light flowering kind and there were tiny pansies and
pimpernel among it. The soldier got a bit of turf off in front of the cross for me to put in the Manor Hill pansies and Wanlass earth. He stood beside me all the time. I sent one or two wild anspy roots to Wanlass and they have flourished in the rockery.

They went on to visit the graves of Robert & Reg MacIver. Edith acquired Reg's cross and put it in the garden at Wanlass How. I presume it rotted away years ago. All three MacIver brothers have brasses in the small and now redundant church at Wray, above Windermere and are commemorated on various other memorials around the Lakes and in the Wirral.

As the 1920s progressed 'pilgrimages' became accessible to the masses, culminating in the great 1928 British Legion Pilgrimage to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the armistice. At some point during these years these Lakeland veterans, bemedalled, bowler hatted and accompanied by their wives, returned to the scenes of their youth. This photo inscribed on the back - Vimy Ridge - is one of my most treasured possessions. I found it in the early 1980s among a pile of burnt household junk, fly tipped in an old quarry near Coniston.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating article. What must it have been like for those veterans returning to the Western Front so soon after the war, but in very different circumstances?
I love that last photo, with the French bread and wine bottle!

Anonymous said...

I was fascinated to read your blog. I am a MacIver and Alan MacIver was my grandfather. I have read all of my great grandmother's account of her trip to visit her son's graves and found it fascinating. The thing that surprised me most was its lack of sentimentality. It must have been so painful to visit the graves of two of her children but she never betrayed any feelings of sorrow.

Unknown said...

I am writing a book about Wanlas Howe when it was an Orphanage, The McIver family own the house. I also have some correspondence from
the McIver family and I wrote them when they where in Devon but the letter was returned.