‘Just follow the Old Kent Road’ I said to the driver at Victoria. It seemed pertinent when thinking of the men who marched out of London, from the quartermaster’s store. Equipped as they were with rifle, kitbag, rolled great coat, khaki puttees, and nailed boots. Little did I intend any weight or irony in the words.
Once in that metal cocoon at the channel tunnel, we are conveyed without sensation — not even the popping of ears — yet, presumably, the tunnel’s course must descend a little to allow for the sea bed? What a marvellous testament a smooth transit like this is to the progress of mankind. Until, that is, one perceives the fences topped with rolls of barbed wire at the concentration compound of Coquelles, near Calais. Are the accursed coils a legacy to the Great War?
Our first stop is Telegraph Hill, near Arras. A tufted, full-bodied copse which would have been quite bare in April, 1917. If the world was about to receive a wound, it would be, for us in the WPA, arguably at this spot. Since this is where “the father of all latter-day poets” stood. Our very own Edward Thomas — since as anyone who reads his work involuntarily makes him their own.
Yet he requested of his CO that he be sent into front line action. In his case, a forward observation post, directing the shells of his gunners into those woods, or, as our tour leader, Andy Thompson, explained to where the Germans organised limber.
Five minutes later, we alight from the coach to follow a path along a screen of bosk to one side, and back gardens of the villagers which run to the other. Here we discover the Thomas’s headstone, by a sprig of michaelmas flower. How fitting for our man of Wandsworth Common, of the Icknield Way, and the chalk downs, that he should come to rest in such a setting.
Hearing Edna Longley read I’ve come to the borders of sleep, many of us looking on would have sought to recall the line at bedtime. Our group was blessed with competent academics for each of the major poets we would set out to commemorate.
Through Edna’s introduction to Thomas, we can feel once again that tension over the role of a poet, and one deeply enmeshed in the politics of the day. We know that Edna is right to say how the body of his poetry complements that of the [other] war poets.
Earlier in the day, Andy Thompson warned us never to forget the hardships the troops suffered. As it dropped into dusk within the commercial streets of Arras we resembled a stranded length of heavy artillery trying to round a pile of rubble or a crater. Our coach wrenched back and forth at a narrow turn. Our driver was compelled to complete the manoeuvre as there was a queue of traffic in our wake. Until, with what timing, the Gendarme came to our rescue!
It presaged our first glimpse of the Hotel l’Univers, which alludes to its grand aspect up a side street. Whose shuttered windows could only be of France. And a stately arch opening onto a wide, cobbled courtyard. Dinner is in the Mozart Room, of smoked salmon, and cucumber slices; followed by a succulent joint, and a dessert of tiramisu.
The next morning seemed bright and even amenable as we set out for the salient of Ypres. As we journeyed to the border, which passes unnoticed, Jean Liddiard gave an overview in summary of the whereabouts of individual poets in the period we are studying. A map within the excellent tour anthology helps to understand the various periods of duty they served. Here, she evoked names of obscure poets, such as Lt. Vernede, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Rifles, who was even older than Edward Thomas. Vernede wrote The sun’s a red ball in the oak, an image that brings Telegraph Hill to mind. And Andy Thompson’s point in how the Germans occupied high ground which, unbeknownst, would show the silhouette of their figures against a dawning light [to the Allied troops to the West of them].
Jean’s passion would not become apparent until the following day. Older still than Vernede is Macrae, who was born in 1872. Who is still noticing the ‘sunset glow’, in his famous poem, In Flanders Fields. This is because the horizon is so long. Who, as a surgeon, at his field hospital, would be stationary , and not be drafted to the front line in other sectors. Therefore, he would be more likely to hear ‘The larks, still bravely singing’.
We pull up and pause near St Julien. It was here that the Gloucester son, Ivor Gurney, was gassed. There was a presentation of his compositional scoring, and promise as a musician with the sun still bright. And of how Gurney received news of a schoolfellow of his missing, supposedly killed in action. Then, Bel Mooney read a ballad of his which I, for one, do not recall ever hearing read before.
Gentle as Montjoy, the herald, in Henry V, Ian Mellor went along the aisle of the coach recording what must be a fascinating documentary of attendees on our tour. He must have met with a vast variety of interests.
Another coach is parked at Tyne Cot! The first we’d encountered. We entered the great walled surround constructed in flint from Hampshire, like an open air cathedral. With the names of 11,000 of the slain commemorated. We gathered at the cross of sacrifice where Andy explained the high water table of the salient. Then, as we gazed toward the towers of Ypres, we were able to gauge the progress of the troops in endeavouring to capture the position. A position which was formidably defended with machine-guns in concrete bunkers. Unnoticed until now, a scything arctic wind, which soughed in tall poplars, and seemed to speak of the desolation and slaughter of the place.
We lunch at Hooge museum. Where there is a fine collection of artefacts and rusted memorabilia: Those twisted pickets; spent shell cases, as well as their noses. A mannequin dressed in the Brunswick green of a Belgian infantryman.
Then, we journey to Passchendaele: A name of shuddering repute even to this day. We learn from Fran Brearton of the Irish poet, Francis Ledwidge. Killed in the height of summer, 1917. In his poem, A Soldier’s Grave, we discover a strange parallel with the works of Wilfred Owen.
We learn of Hedd Wyn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers – the same regiment as Robert Graves [and Siegfried Sassoon]. Hedd Wynn entered poetry for the Eisteddfod [and won in the year he was killed in action, his Bardic Chair left empty in his honour at the ceremony.]
I am grateful to Robyn Marsack for her reading of Blunden’s Third Ypres. Anybody who reads him with concentration will discover the most innocent and amiable of poets.
When, later, we enter the wide square of Ypres, it is via the monument of Menin Gate. We are still on the look out for those worn house numbers which testify where German officers were billeted during World War II.
After a welcome cooked dinner, we make our way to the famous Last Post ceremony. Where we were to meet with a few surprises. The first being the size of the crowd accumulating even with half an hour to go. I counted four or five heads to look over or between in order to view the proceedings. There were many Belgians among the crowd.
The great arch is splendidly lit, revealing those columns of the names of the fallen. Five white-gloved cadets of the local Fire Brigade held the notes on the bugle. There were three more surprises when, firstly, Michael Longley stepped into the space to recite the Binyon verse, For The Fallen, (‘They shall not grow old… etc.), [published in The Times newspaper on 21 September 1914.]
Out of perception from where I was standing came the strains of a male voice choir. We thought again of Hedd Wyn as they sang in Welsh. We also saw our very own Brad and Sally, with Bel, lay a wreath with great dignity.
On returning to Arras, we were treated to some Vaughan Williams. It was relayed so loud that we wondered whether the solo violin was meant to evoke the wailing of shells ere they explode.
Each of our party of 53 bade farewell to our commodious hosts at d’hôtel l’Univers. Some vowed to return in other guises. And then a farewell to dear Arras, the town which Blunden described as a “downstairs” place after the armistice, even though a lot of it was relatively unmolested by shellfire.
And so to Vimy Ridge. That chalkdown of gruesome notoriety. Sixty thousand trees have been planted here, one for each of her sons who were killed in trying to capture the scarp. Here, it is said, Canada became a nation.
We inspect the new museum. staffed by undergraduates. We were given a guided tour of some vast tunnelling constructed by Welsh miners to supply the Front Line. ‘Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped’, I overheard Jean quoting.
We learn that King George founded the [British] Forestry Commission at this time, in order to supply the miners with pit-props. We survey the monument which stands like a pair of clasps at a rocket launch.
We then travel to a new oval-shaped memorial to the half million men killed in the Pas de Calais. Through a relentless rain, we place a wreath of poppies at the foot of the panel where the name of Edward Thomas is engraved. It is an astonishing setting alongside Notre Dame de Lorette, and its enormous cemetery to the French soldiers.
The Chateau Tilques with its long frontage sided with identical wings, is the setting for our concluding lunch. I think anyone who has attended these WPA tours will realise they are both unique and endearing in tribute to the Somme and Flanders. The place that has become one of a profound pilgrimage.
I am grateful to Mike Reynolds, our member from the Welsh Marches, for his reading of Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’ poem. Also to Ron Ewart from Switzerland, for eking out an unknown E. E. Cummings poem.