The Anthony Spagnoly Remembrance Tour May 2009

Remembering the Great War 1914-1918

The Tony Spagnoly Memorial Tour

Arras-Somme-Ypres-Aisne

Sunday 17th May – Friday 22nd May 2009

(The Hampstead Pals 52nd Tour to the battlefields 1914-18)

By Christopher Quinton

This was to be the second annual pilgrimage to the Western Front, for Carol and me, to visit the graves and memorials of those who had died so that we might be free.  Organised by the Hampstead Pals, who arrange two tours each year, we knew that we would learn much about the Great War.  There would be talks, at particular graves, of heroic young men and of their many brave actions.  A fair number of them would have earned the highest decoration: the Victoria Cross. Our guides would be Jon Nicholls and Willy Mohan, both of whom are immensely knowledgeable about the battles of the Great War.  Each has a huge reservoir of interesting anecdotes, and we will be hearing many of them, in the coming days.

Who are the Hampstead Pals?  Jon Nicholls writes: In 1977, following a canteen discussion at Hampstead Police Station, it was decided to form a small battlefield group, and eleven police officers subsequently set off in May 1978, for the Somme battlefields.  Most had never been to France before.  They were all hugely moved by the experience and so the Hampstead Pals were formed.  Ours was to be the Pals’ 52nd pilgrimage to the Western Front.

On Sunday 17th May our coach left Bushey Police club, near Watford, at 7.00 a.m. and we managed to catch the 10.00 a.m. ferry across to Calais.  Our destination was Arras, with some stops en route.  The first was at the beautifully-kept Calais Canadian Cemetery.  Although the graves there were mostly of Canadians who had died in the 1939-45 war, there were also others, including British (Land and Air Forces), Czechs and Poles.  As last year, we noticed how young so many of these lads were, tragically killed in their prime.  We were very lucky with the weather: the heavens opened, just as we had boarded our coach to go on to our next stop, and it rained heavily until about a minute before we reached it.

This was at Etaples, the largest of all the British cemeteries in France.  It is in a lovely setting, with memorials designed by Sir Edward Lutyens.  We had a late lunch there, as well as a book raffle.  I was lucky enough to get hold of Rudyard Kipling’s, The Irish Guards in the Great War. My grandfather, Lieut-Col. Hon. Thomas Eustace Vesey, had served in this regiment in the Great War, (he was wounded twice) as did my uncle John, in War War II.  The book is the first of two volumes, so it will be a priority to get hold of the second.

The following stop was at the tiny Wavans Cemetery and the grave of the famous fighter pilot, James McCudden VC, DSO and Bar, MC and Bar and MM.  He was the most decorated British Pilot of the Great War and died at the tragic young age of 23, when his plane crashed in some woods, not far from the cemetery.  The graveyard was in the middle of a large, green wheat-field, with copses at intervals, along the periphery.  It was a lovely setting.

Then we went on to Arras, arriving at about 5.00 p.m. at the family-run Moderne (sic) Hotel.

Monday dawned bright and breezy with a cool wind.  It was to be spent on the battle-fields of the Somme.

Our first stop was at Buquoy Road Cemetery, where we stopped briefly, but remained on the coach.  Here was buried, amongst the Canadian Forces, Joseph Standing Buffalo, the grandson of Chief Sitting Bull of the Souix Tribe.  It was a large cemetery, with some 2,500 graves.

Along stretches of 14 miles of roads on the Somme are 163 cemeteries, some quite small, others with a large number of graves.  They were a sombre reminder of the carnage of those terrible years.

At some spots were unexploded bombs, which are placed at the road-sides by farmers, when they are uncovered, as they plough their fields each year.  It is astonishing that munitions continue to make their way to the surface, some ninety-three years after the battles.  The bombs are sprayed with fluorescent paint.  This is to make them easy to spot, for the bomb disposal units, which traverse the Western Front battlefields to collect them, from time to time.  This languid approach towards munitions stands in stark contrast to the UK, where a square mile is cleared around a bomb, when one is discovered.

At Foncquevillers Military Cemetery were some graves of particular interest, and there were many interred there.

One in particular had special poignancy: the message on the headstone read: Will some kind hand, in a promised land, place a flower on my son’s grave?

We also stopped there to pay tribute to Lieut-Col C F Humphries DSO, MC and Bar and DCM, a much-decorated man, who was of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.  Remarkably, he started off the war as a humble private, and although only 5ft 4ins tall, his many brave exploits saw him rise rapidly through the ranks.  His wartime career saw him transferred to many different regiments, but before his death, aged 31 on 22nd August 1918, he led a battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.

Also at this cemetery were buried members of the Chinese Labour Corps, indentured as support units for behind-the-battlefields tasks. ‘Faithful unto death.’

Another grave we visited was that of Capt. J L Green, VC MD of the Royal Army Medical Corps.  His VC was the result of his efforts to bring back severely wounded soldiers, under heavy fire.  He was killed by a sniper’s bullet, while doing so; this was on 1st July 1916, and he was only 26.

At Foncquevillers Cemetery were three graves where the headstones, which, while inscribed with the names of the soldiers, also said: Known to be buried in this cemetery.

Our next call was at Couin New British Cemetery.  There we paid our respects at the grave of Sgt. R. Travis VC DCM MM of the New Zealand Otago Regiment.  A very brave man, he was known as the greatest raiding sergeant on the Western Front.

Also buried here was a J R Quinton of the Oxfordshire & Bucks Light Infantry, but we do not know if he was a relation. Some gravestones were simply and movingly marked: A Soldier of the Great War and underneath that: Known unto God. I was told that these words were inspired by Rudyard Kipling.

From there we made our way to the Thiepval Memorial, commemorating the 72,000 missing British soldiers of the Battle of the Somme.  This was a huge edifice, inscribed with the names of those whose bodies were never found.  Inaugurated in 1932, it was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, as were so many other memorials on the Western Front.   Such a massive number of missing; it was hard to get one’s head round such a huge figure.  Where were they all?  Many were simply blown to smithereens, one assumes.

On the edge of the site was a visitor centre, with illuminated displays of scenes from the many battles.  On one panel it said that Germany had lost 2,037,000, France 1,798,000 and Britain and the Commonwealth 913,000 soldiers in the Great War.   What huge numbers!  What tragic losses!

Our next port of call was Ovillers Military Cemetery and from there we went on to the massive Lochnagar Crater.  Here, underneath the German lines, had been dug a large 40’ by 40’ chamber into which 24 tons of high explosive and gun-cotton had been packed.  It was said that 600 German soldiers were blown up, when it was detonated and the cloud from the explosion reached 10,000 feet into the air.  The blast could be heard in London and pebbles continued to rain down for four hours after the explosion.

Our final stop on the Monday was at a memorial in the centre of Fleurs.  It was here that tanks had been first used in the Great War.

A bright and cool Tuesday morning, with high cloud, saw us heading for the Ypres Salient.  En route we stopped at Laventie Military Cemetery to commemorate some Gurkha soldiers who had died.   There were also a number of German graves there.   One grave, marked, A British Airman of the Great War is claimed by some to be that of Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock VC DSO and two bars, MC and bar.  There is considerable and spirited debate about where he is truly buried, but suffice it to say that he was the highest scoring British Ace in the Great War.

Then we went on to Plugstreet Wood – Hyde Park Corner Royal Berks Cemetery.  Here is buried Rifleman A French of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, aged only 16, and also the famous Rugby Football International, Ronnie Poulton-Palmer.

Opposite was the much larger Berks Cemetery Extension.   The memorial there held the names 11,447 missing soldiers, including 4 VCs.

Here, was given a moving tribute by David Isaacs to one of the Hampstead Pals, Tony Spagnoly, who had died in October 2008.  He had been one of the most knowledgeable of the Pals on matters relating to the Great War.

We had lunch at the 1916 Canadian Memorial at Hill 62, a rather uninspiring location, but peaceful.  In the woods nearby had lurked some German soldiers, who had refused to surrender at the end of the war.  Some were said to have remained hidden there for years.  We managed to capture one!

Our next call was at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery where very many graves were simply marked, A Soldier of the Great War – so many unidentified soldiers, where we paid a tribute to Bill Hay an old soldier whose ashes had been scattered there by the Hampstead Pals in 1985.

Before going on to Ypres we stopped at Zonnebeke & Tyne Cot British Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.  The new Tyne Cot museum was a hideous, modern structure, quite the ugliest building we had come across on this tour, but it was very interesting inside.  In the cemetery were buried 11,957 British and Commonwealth soldiers and four Germans.  Most of the dead had not been identified.  The Tyne Cot Memorial, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Major John Reginald Truelove, held the names of nearly 35,000 missing soldiers; this was a continuation of the 54,896 names on the Menin Gate, in Ypres.

We had an early supper at the ‘Den Anker’ in Ypres, before making our way to the Menin Gate for the sounding of the Last Post, a very moving ceremony.  There were at least 2,000 people there.

On this memorial were the names of two soldiers from Woodcote: Percival ‘Percy’  Claude Duncan and William Hutton.  I took photos of the panels on which their names were inscribed.

We then made our way back to Arras; it had been a long day.

Wednesday saw clear skies for our visits to the battlefields of Arras and the Somme (south).

There were 174 cemeteries built in the years after the Battle of Arras, in which 158,000 died.  Of these 35,946 were lost without trace and their names are on the beautiful memorial at the cemetery in Arras.

Our first stop was at Saint Martin Calvaire British Cemetery where we paid a tribute to several of our Pals who had passed on. There were 228 Commonwealth graves, 5 unidentified and 3 were Germans.

We went on to Louverval Military Cemetery at Doignes next, to see the Cambrai battle memorial.   The battle itself only lasted from 20th November until 3rd December 1917 and, in this short time 7,048 officers and men were lost, without trace.  Here was buried Capt A M C McReady-Diarmid VC, one heck of a name, and he had changed it to this from his previous name: Arthur Drew.  He was immensely brave – single handed, he killed 67 Germans and wounded a further 27.

The third visit of the day was to Moeuvres Communal Cemetery.  He was a German mass grave and nearly 100 single ones.  At this cemetery is buried Lieutenant Charlie Pope VC, who died on 15th April 1917.  He had served in the Metropolitan police for some years, so this was a special remembrance for a good number of the PALS.  He had led a final bayonet charge against the enemy when the ammunition ran out.

At the next stop, High Wood Cemetery, in Longueval, were buried 3,338 British, 62 Canadian, 300 Australian, 35 Kiwis, 33 South Africans, 2 Indian, 2 French and 2 German soldiers – a large number.  Included in this number were 165 graves of solders who had died in the Second World War.

Under a cloudless sky and on a beautifully warm day we walked from there to Delville Wood, the scene of a ferocious battle, where many South African lives were lost.  Here, there was a seating area where we had our picnic lunch before visiting a large cross, erected adjoining a field, near Leuze Wood.  (‘Lousy’ to the troops.)  The cross is to commemorate the rough whereabouts of the grave of Major Cedric Charles Dickens, grandson of Charles Dickens.

From there we went to the Devonshire Cemetery near Mametz, the site of a ferocious battle on 1st July 1916.  All the gravestones bore this date, bar two. Inscribed on a headstone outside the cemetery were the words, “The Devonshires held this trench.  The Devonshires hold it still.”

We continued on to Dartmoor Cemetery, where lay 632 British, 4 Canadians, 71 Australians, 59 Kiwis and 2 Indians.  A father and his son were buried here, side by side:  Sergeant G L Lee, aged 44 and Corporal R F Lee, aged 19; both were killed on 5th September 1916.  Also, there was the grave of Lieutenant Henry Webber, aged 67, who died on 21st July 1916.  He was the second oldest soldier to die in the Great War.  The oldest, aged 68, is buried somewhere in the Calais area.

Thursday dawned with high white cloud, which, by mid-morning, burnt off to reveal a deep blue sky and a lovely warm day.  We went to the site of the Battle of the Aisne, some two hours drive from Arras.

At Chemin des Dames we saw tanks and armoured cars from WWII.  There had been a tank from the Great War there, but it had been removed, presumably for restoration.

En route were heard many interesting anecdotes from Jon and Willy – some were very tragic.

At La Ville aux Bois British Cemetery there were 151 named graves and 413 of unknown soldiers.  Here was buried Lt-Col C G ‘Gary’  Buckle  DSO MC, and we heard the sad story of his mother’s dogged determination to visit his grave, just after the war had ended.  It has been verified that her intuition told her about her son being wounded, and an hour later, that he had died of his wounds.   His position had been over-run in a German assault and he had charged them with his pistol.  At the back of the cemetery lay an 18-pounder live shell.

On we went to Bois des Buttes, where the second Devonshire Regiment had fought to the last man.  Here was the ruined village of Craonne, which had had 800 inhabitants.  It had been razed to the ground in 1917 and in its place was a large and peaceful arboretum in which we saw many craters.  The village had been rebuilt, from scratch, further down the valley.

We then visited Chemin des Dames Ridge, the site of ferocious battles, in which 30,000 were killed, 54,000 wounded and 4,000 taken prisoner – in just two days of fighting in 1917 – so much carnage and so many young lives lost.

We had a latish picnic lunch by the ruins of Abbaye d’ Vauclair, once a Cistercian monastery; it had been founded in 1135 and had been destroyed in an artillery bombardment in 1917.  It was a lovely, serene site, with a large man-made lake. Unfortunately, there were loads of mosquitos – consequently, some wag called it ‘Malaria Valley!’

Before returning to Calais on Friday morning, under another cloudless sky, we visited the large cemetery in Arras and the beautiful memorial there, designed by Sir Edwards Lutyens.  On it were inscribed the names of 35,946 soldiers, whose bodies were never found.

What epitomised the Great War, compared to any other, was the mind-numbing numbers of those killed, or missing.  Imagine that happening in Iraq, or Afghanistan, today.

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