wfa-poets-tour-2013Having enjoyed last year's 'Poet's on the Somme' tour so much and suspecting that this trip might be oversubscribed, I was determined to submit my application as soon as possible for the 2013 tour to Arras. Once again the visit was arranged by Viv Whelpton of the WFA, who provided us with the literary focus, whilst Clive Harris of Battle Honours set the poets we were to study - principally Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg - in their military context.

The weather during last year's visit to the Somme had been mixed but hadn't curtailed any of our activities. I thought it prudent however, in the week preceding this year's visit, to look closely at the weather forecast for the area and was pleased to see that full sun was predicted for all three days. Shorts and sun tan lotion were clearly going to be de rigeur!

The party met this year at Ebbsfleet International Railway Station, which was more convenient but Clive was slightly disappointed because, as he reminded us, troops leaving for France in the Great War would have first assembled at Victoria!

It was good to see amongst the 31 attendees this year, returnees from last July and to meet for the first time some dignitaries from the WFA, including John Richardson and Graham Clark, Membership Trustee and Treasurer respectively. John kept us on our toes throughout the trip with quizzes, good naturedly reassuring us that we would have no problem answering the questions if we had been listening and we had read our handbooks! (As a former teacher, I began to have worrying flashbacks at this point!) I hasten to add that these quizzes weren't compulsory – there was no naming and shaming – and John had kindly provided books by way of prizes, all related to the First World War, for the winners.)

Once again Viv had prepared an itinerary which traced the journeys of the poets we were to be examining and had prepared anthologies, which included extracts, both of poetry and prose, from their works. Clearly this is a monumental undertaking but provided a real focus to each day's activities. Thank you, Viv.

I am sure we each have our own special memories of the trip and rather than give a complete minute by minute account of the weekend, perhaps I can be permitted to share here those experiences that were particularly significant for me. At each stop, Clive would give a short account of the military significance of where we were, and then those who had elected to read extracts, did so. This formula had been tried and tested last year and was a great success this year too.

In order to maximise our time in France there were a couple of scheduled stops en route to our hotel. The first was at the Cabaret Rouge Cemetery. Here we were introduced to the work of Second Lt Bernard Pitt (whose name we were later to see on the Arras Memorial to the Missing) and Second Lt Robert Harold Beckh who is commemorated here, but whose grave was lost during the war. The focus on the first day was to show the interface between war and nature. A letter written by Pitt, and his poem, 'Urbs Beata' together with Beckh's 'Billets', written the day before he was killed on the 14 August 1916, illustrated this theme.

I have always been moved by E A Mackintosh's poem , 'In Memoriam' – which is a tribute to Private David Sutherland of the Seaforth Highlanders, who was killed on a bombing raid on a German trench led by Mackintosh, but I had never known the circumstances surrounding the raid. At our second stop, the Arras Road Cemetery, Clive asked us to look across the cornfield in the direction of the town of Ecurie, which is where the German trench would have been and he then described in detail the events of the raid itself.

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Image: Harold Beckh's grave at Cabaret Rouge Cemetery

By all accounts the raid's objectives had been achieved, but three of the party had been injured, including Private Sutherland. They had managed to carry two of the wounded to a nearby shell hole, but had been unable to lift Sutherland over the parapet wall. The decision was made to leave him behind but he was never seen again. Sadly, the two men they had been able to rescue died of their wounds, and another soldier was killed when a bomb he was carrying exploded as he reached the British trench.

After a hearty breakfast on the Saturday, we set off for the Aubigny Communal Cemetery, where we were to visit the graves of Alexander de Candole and Hamish Mann. The focus today was to look at the work of those poets who were deeply troubled by the attitude of the Church towards the war.

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Image: Arras Road Cemetery, looking towards Ecurie

Most of us are familiar with Sassoon's biting satire directed at the Church, but I knew little of de Candole, who wrote a book entitled 'The Faith of a Subaltern: Essays on Religion and Life'. It was clear from the readings that had been selected for our anthologies that here was a highly intelligent and sensitive young man for whom the crusading spirit and systematic demonising of the enemy, promulgated by the Church, were totally abhorrent. One can only speculate what a young man of his intellectual calibre might have become, had he not been killed, at the age of 21, in a bombing raid towards the end of the war.

For many of our party the highlight of the day was our visit to Edward Thomas' grave at the Agny Cemetery. Here was another troubled soul, prone to black moods of melancholia, who even though at 36 was over the statutory age for enlistment, chose to join the Artists' Rifles in 1915. Although a former member of the Dymock group of Georgian poets, which included Robert Frost and Rupert Brooke, Thomas wrote no poetry before December 1914, and all 144 of his poems were produced in a burst of creativity, prior to leaving for France in 1916. Having laid a wreath of poppies at his grave, we set out to locate the spot where Thomas died. As a member of the Royal Garrison Artillery he was killed by the blast of a shell whilst manning a forward observation post, on 9 April 1917. One of our group, Simon Fielding, had done some careful research prior to the visit and armed with information he provided, Clive was able to identify the precise spot where the Forward Observation Post would have been situated. However, its view of the battlefield is now masked by an industrial building.

Viv had thoughtfully provided a reading list for those who were interested in researching any of the poets we would be studying, or indeed finding out more about the Battle of Arras itself. My prior knowledge of the battle was limited to the successful campaign of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, between 9-12 April, but having read Jonathan Nicholls' book entitled 'Cheerful Sacrifice - The Battle of Arras 1917' , I came to realise that the battle was much more extensive, and that even though it was of shorter duration than other major campaigns - just 39 days compared with the Somme (141 days) and the Third Battle of Ypres (105 days) – in terms of casualties per day, it was the bloodiest of the battles by some margin.

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Image: Simon Fielding lays a wreath of poppies at the grave of Edward Thomas on behalf of the WFA.

The daily rate of losses on the Somme was 2,943; at Ypres it was 2,323; whilst, at Arras, it was an appalling 4,076. I had read about the heavily fortified Chemical Works at Roeux and how wave after wave of attacking troops had been cut down by withering rifle and machine gun fire on 11 April, contingents of the Seaforth Highlanders and the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers suffering horrendous losses. Now, as we stood by a memorial to the Seaforth Highlanders, looking down towards Roeux in the warm afternoon sunshine, it was hard to visualise the carnage. However, Clive reminded us of what a formidable weapon the machine gun was and his grim assertion that, armed with a machine gun 'if you could see your target, you could kill it', provided a chilling thought!

I had also read about Monchy-le-Preux, again the scene of some bitter fighting, and a futile and costly cavalry attack in the battle. Clive pointed out the spire of the village church atop a hill, and it seemed that wherever we went for the remainder of the day, that spire, like some malevolent presence, was always in view,. It must have seemed particularly so to the soldiers who were trying to take the village in 1917.

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Image:Looking towards Roeux. The remains of the notorious chemical works were finally removed in the late 1980s

For some of our number this was a journey of particular significance. At the military cemetery at Monchy- le –Preux, one of our party, Rebecca Anderson, was re-united with her great grandfather, a member of the 5th Northants (Pioneers) who was killed by shellfire after the battle, whilst working in a front line trench, defending Monchy, in July 1917. Rebecca read a poem that she had composed whilst on the bus, as a tribute to her great grandfather. As I discovered during last year's visit to the Somme, it is always a moving experience to visit the last resting place of a relative, and sobering when one considers that each headstone tells its own sad story of grief and loss.

Having made a brief visit to the Wancourt Military Cemetery to visit the grave of another poet, CSM William Littlejohn, who had fought in the Gallipoli campaign and who was killed close to Neuville Vitasse, the coach headed back to the hotel. Although it wasn't on our itinerary, through the good offices of David Hedges (WFA 's tunnelling and mining expert) and our ever willing coach driver, Robert, an evening trip was arranged to visit Vimy Ridge. I return each year to Vimy with the school at which I used to teach, so I know the site quite well. (I was last there in March in a blizzard - the sort of conditions in which the Canadians would have mounted their assault on 9 April 1917!)

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Image: Rebecca Anderson reads a tribute to her great grandfather at Monchy Cemetery.

After a long, hot day in the field, the prospect of a soak in the shower and a cool drink seemed very appealing, but the stunning carving of Mother Canada weeping for her sons that forms part of the Vimy Memorial once again proved an irresistible attraction. About 20 of us made the journey, and I am sure we all felt it was very worthwhile. David explained the different kinds of mines that would have been laid at Vimy and told us about the tunnelling and trench systems at the site. We then boarded the coach for the short journey to the ridge itself. As I had anticipated, the views from the summit across the Lens and Douai plains in the soft evening sunshine were incredible and it certainly wasn't difficult to appreciate the strategic importance of Vimy Ridge during the war.

Sunday was to be a Siegfried Sassoon day, and a number of the party appeared at breakfast, sporting their Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship tee-shirts. We were to trace his journey on 14 April with 2nd Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers (forming part of 33rd Division) from St. Martin-Cojeul up to an outpost of the Hindenburg Line.

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Image: Canada weeping for her sons at the Vimy Ridge Memorial.

Throughout our walk, we would stop for selected readings from Sassoon's work and Clive would regale us with anecdotes about veterans he had met and the different and rather ingenious ploys - such as 'the Chinese Attack' - that had been used to try and hoodwink the enemy. On leaving Cherisy Road East Cemetery, where most of the headstones belonged to men killed on 23 April, a day on which the fighting was particularly severe, we headed up the hill on top of which, we were informed, there would have been bunkers containing machine gun posts. It was very easy to imagine additional posts, secreted in the folds of the slopes the troops were traversing, thus trapping the advancing soldiers in enfilade fire.

Lunch was taken in what shade we could find at the Heninel Croisilles Road Cemetery, after which we headed off to St Venant where we were to meet Didier Rousseau (yes – he is related to the French philosopher!). Didier and his wife run a B&B in their impressive mansion, La Peylouse (which we were told is 'old French' for 'House of Peace'.)

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Image: The view looking towards the brow of the hill and the Hindenburg Line, taken from the Cherisy Road Cemetery

Set in its own ancient woodland with a placid, carp-filled lake, on any other day it might indeed have been a 'house of peace', but unfortunately the occasion of our visit coincided with the bi-annual village fete, held on the banks of the neighbouring River Lys, and it was far from peaceful! However, this did not detract from the beauty of the setting. Didier is himself a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, and is doing much to promote Sassoon and his works to visitors to 'La Peylouse'. The trees in the garden – reputed to be the oldest in northern France - are festooned with copies of his poems translated into different languages. The house itself was used by the Allies at various times during the First Word War. At one time it served as HQ for the Indian Army, and during 1915, Douglas Haig used it as a Staff College.

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Image: La Peylouse at St. Venant.

Although there is no firm evidence to suggest that Sassoon ever stayed at La Peylouse, he might well have visited it, as he was serving in the St. Venant – St. Floris sector as a Company Commander with the 25th Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1918.

Our final visit of the day was to the Faubourg d'Amiens British Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing in the town of Arras itself. We arrived in the early evening just as people from far and wide were pouring into Arras for an international pop concert in the main square. The traffic was heavy and the air was filled with the music of Green Day, and others, but it didn't spoil our visit.

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Image: Didier Rousseau shares his enthusiasm for Sassoon with members of the group.

The focus was to be the Memorial to the Missing on which we found the names of poets, Bernard Pitt and David Sutherland (referred to earlier in this account) and the impressive RFC, RNAS, and RAF Memorial, bearing the names of the 992 aircrew who lost their lives on the Western Front and who have no known grave.

We spent time here reflecting on the life and work of one of these pilots, Frances St.Vincent Morris, whose plane crashed on Vimy Ridge in a blizzard, and who died of his injuries several weeks later.

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Image: Faubourg d'Amiens British Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing. The RAF Memorial is to the right of the picture.

Our final day, the Monday, afforded us some initial respite from the heat, as the first part of the morning was to be spent under the guidance of David Hedges, a member of the Durand Group, exploring the network of tunnels that form the Wellington Quarry under the town of Arras and which were used to shelter Allied troops before the battle. We travelled through the streets of Arras, where almost 100 years later, a painted sign on the wall still invites any passing Tommy to 'stop and have his haircut'. Elsewhere, graffiti on a wall testifies, in bold letters, to the presence the Duke of Cornwall 's Light Infantry in the town. Fascinating!

David had explained that in medieval times many of the inhabitants of Arras had built souterrain caves under their properties in which they could hide whenever danger threatened. In 1917, New Zealand miners constructed a network of subways linking these caves. It was a tremendous feat and provided space for around 24,000 British and Commonwealth troops to shelter in complete safety, and relative comfort, close to the front line, prior to the start of the battle.

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Image: Graffiti on the walls in Arras!

We descended by lift, some 70 feet below the surface, and followed the excellent audio visual guide through those parts of the tunnel that are currently open to the public . Of particular interest was an exquisite drawing in pencil of an attractive young lady, beautifully preserved on the chalk wall of the cave. Other examples of graffiti and items of detritus from the war all made for a memorable visit. David had kindly arranged for our tour to begin before the official opening time which meant that, not only did we have the network of tunnels to ourselves, but it also enabled us to leave promptly for our final visit – Isaac Rosenberg's grave at the Bailleul Road East Cemetery, near St. Laurent – Blangy.

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Image: More graffiti in the cave.

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Image Part of the tunnel complex under Arras.

Clive gave us some background information to the German's Spring Offensive in 1918, in which Rosenberg was killed, following which Viv described how, as a young man of small stature, dogged by ill health and with pacifist inclinations, Rosenberg came to be at the front in the first place. He left school at 14 and became an apprentice engraver. However, he was interested in poetry and the visual arts and was spotted one day, sketching at the National Gallery. He was subsequently provided with sponsorship to attend the Slade School of Art and, as a poet, began to enjoy the patronage of Edward Marsh and Laurence Binyon. However, as he suffered from debilitating bouts of chronic bronchitis, he decided to emigrate to South Africa where his sister already lived, in the hope that in the warmer climate his health would improve. By this time hostilities had broken out and, whilst some wrote about the war as a just cause, Rosenberg was critical of it from the outset.

Back in England his mother was struggling 'to make ends meet', and so Rosenberg returned home in March 1915. By October of that year he had enlisted in the army in order to help support the family. It wasn't a happy experience for him; his health was still poor, army life didn't suit him and there are suggestions that he was bullied because of his Jewish background.

He was killed at dawn on the 1 April 1918 at Fampoux, and although the exact circumstances of his death remain unclear, he was first buried in a mass grave and then in 1926 his remains were identified and reinterred in the Bailleul Road East Cemetery.

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Image: Viv provides the group with a 'potted' biography of Isaac Rosenberg.

I found his story particularly poignant and when we arrived at the cemetery and located his headstone, we discovered a solitary flower growing in front of it. There was no sign that anyone else had visited recently. It was as if he had not really been appreciated in life then, or indeed in death, now. The WFA left a suitable tribute, and Rosenberg's poem, 'Through these pale cold days ', read by Pamela Job, provided a fitting conclusion to our visit.

On our arrival, Clive had pointed in the direction of a German cemetery some hundred yards down the road, and had invited anyone who felt so inclined to go and have a look. I am so glad I did, because I found this a most moving and memorable experience. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission does an excellent job in maintaining the cemeteries. They are always well tended, invariably in open plots, and although I have never seen a gardener working in one of these cemeteries, one senses that it would hardly be surprising to see a sign hanging on the gate saying, 'Gone to lunch – back in 20 minutes'! German cemeteries I have visited are altogether different.

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Image: Isaac Rosenberg's grave.

Whereas British and Commonwealth cemeteries are characterised by white headstones midst an array of colourful flowers, often red roses, and neatly arranged in row upon row with close cropped lawns, the German cemeteries are more sombre, - rows of black crosses with simple inscriptions, in shaded, wooded areas with no flowers.

I strolled down the dusty road to the German Cemetery (St. Laurent Blangy.) Here, I learnt, lie the bodies of 31,939 soldiers, 7,069 in individual graves, 24, 870 in one mass grave, and 11,587 with no name. I was quite alone and, as I walked amongst the crosses in the dappled sunshine, with a light breeze rustling in the leaves above, I came across a black headstone bearing the Star of David and a Hebrew inscription, similar to Isaac Rosenberg's. It struck me as a cruel irony that Jew should be fighting Jew and brought home to me what a tragic waste of life war involves.

It was time to move on and re-join the coach. Our trip home was uneventful, except for the fact that we all had to unload our cases for inspection at Calais, a minor irritation in the heat, but it did not delay our onward journey.

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Image: German Cemetery (St. Laurent Blangy)

It is evident from the emails that have been going back and forth since our return, that everyone enjoyed the weekend. The weather was superb, the accommodation at the Holiday Inn in Arras excellent and it was good to be able re-new old acquaintances and make new friends. There is something for everyone on these tours – be they military historian, or a literature buff – the mix is just right, and I for one will be looking forward to the trip to Flanders in 2014. Thanks once again to Viv, Clive and David for a truly memorable visit.

Article and images contributed by David Wilson - WFA Cheltenham and Gloucester Branch

 

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