In Flanders Fields …

Finally, I undertook a journey that has been a long time in the waiting.  For longer than I care to remember I have intended making a pilgrimage to the last resting place of two great uncles, both casualties of the Great calamity which we are about to commemorate.  In a week’s time the centenary of the 1st World War will be upon us, August 4th will pass-by un-heeded  in most folks mind but it marks a four year period of national remembrance.  Circumstances colluded to make it possible for me to visit the battlefields of that colossal event.

The Menin Gate in Ypres

The most well known of the 1st WW sites, the Menin Gate at Ypres (Ieper), is worthy of its status.

An invitation to attend a wedding in the small German town of St. Goar on the Rhine was the impetus I needed to finally get my plans together to make the trip.  In fact it became a triple-decker as I not only built in the 1st World War battlefields  but also a long desired visit to the 1944 site of the Battle of the Bulge and the famous town of Bastogne in southern Belgium as well as a chance to see the wonderful World Heritage Site of the Upper Middle Rhine.  Imagine, a three-in-one holiday to areas I had hitherto never visited, now that doesn’t happen often in my life !

The planning had been ongoing since about March when the wedding invitation and the travel plans of my American migrator, here to avoid the stifling heat of South Carolina (and constantly reminding me, as I swelter and wilt, that this is NOT hot !), were confirmed.  Living in the middle of Wales has its disadvantages when it comes to foreign travel; a day is needed to reach the channel ferries.  Having lived for some years in the seaside resort of Brighton I knew of a little used crossing out of Newhaven to Dieppe.  It is a four hour crossing but avoids the terror of the M25 and the awful route to the main channel ports of Dover and Folkestone.  Also it is BY FAR the cheapest crossing – by booking the late night (11pm) ferry on the outward journey and the very early (4am) boat on the return, I got the whole package for £78 !!  Yes, a car and two passengers for less than a single train trip to London !!  The other advantage is that Dieppe is an ideal entry point for visiting the Western Front with the Somme area less than an hour away and the Ypres salient just over two hours.  It is also a good port for a fast trip to Paris which is only a couple of hours down the fast autoroute.

Dieppe has its memorials too, as does Newhaven, for in 1942 a large raid was mounted on the port by a force of Canadian and British troops who set out from Newhaven to attempt to capture the port in an experimental assault to test both the efficacy of a seaborne attempt to take a port and the defences of the garrison.  It was an unmitigated disaster and left hundreds dead and hundreds more captured.  Mountbatten always referred to it as a success in so much as valuable lessons were learned which influenced the D Day landings two years later but the families of the troops, especially those in Canada, thought otherwise.

Brighton shingle

The classic beach holiday or day trip destination, Brighton beach and big wheel. I spent many summers on that shingle.

I had decided to travel in my old trusty steed, my little Ford Fiesta van which had the advantage of plenty of room for all the camping gear – and a suit or two for the wedding – but more importantly is super fuel efficient (the average mpg for the 1500 mile round trip came out at 74).  It is a little aged now but has recently had a lot of mechanical parts replaced and, despite a worrying noise from the rear wheel which had prevailed for two years despite numerous assurances from my fitter that it was fine, seemed good to go.  Alas that wheel which just the week before was passed ‘ok’, finally decided to collapse on us.  In deepest rural Sussex, at 9 pm on a sunny Sunday evening, just an hour from the port, the wheel bearing finally collapsed.  Luckily we had pulled onto a garage forecourt in the small town of Midhurst and luckily too – unlike most of rural mid-Wales – there was a mobile phone signal.  Funnily enough I had only just recently had my renewal notice for my annual AA fee, and as usual, not having used them during the past twelve months, I had thought that maybe I wouldn’t renew … I had in fact taken out foreign travel break-down rescue and recovery too.  A short call to the control desk assured me that a happy smiling AA man would arrive within the hour and so it was that at ten minutes to ten the yellow transit pulled onto the forecourt.  He immediately agreed with my diagnosis and pronounced nowt could be done.  I have the Relay service which promises to take you and your car on to wherever you want, but where did I want to go ?  It had taken six hours to get that far and the thought of sitting in the back of a relay truck all the way home to Wales to get the bearing fixed and maybe set out again the next day or so was not appealing.  I thought about getting taken to a Ford garage in nearby Chichester and sleeping in the car in the hope that the service manager might fit me in the next day, thus allowing the possibility of catching the next night’s crossing (as that night had clearly gone awry).  The AA man said he knew a small garage in Fareham who would most likely do it for me the next morning.  He tried to get the owner on the phone but it was a Sunday night and it was World Cup Final on TV !!  We decided to go for it and take him at his word and an hour later we were wrapped under a duvet in the front seats parked outside the small garage.  At 7 am the owner arrived and had already learned of our problem.  He apologised for the fact that he couldn’t get the parts until 8 o’clock but told us the nearby Sainsbury store was open for breakfast.  Off we set to walk the fifteen minutes to a hot coffee and rather good English breakfast, yes, even Miss Carolina ate one too !

We returned an hour or so later and the job was nearly done, by 10 am we were on the road.  I was left feeling very humbled by the friendliness and honest helpfulness accorded us.  So, our subsequent amazing trip was down to two fine gentlemen whom I had never before met, John Breeze and Sean Barton at J & S  M.O.T. & Repairs on Wickham Road in Fareham.  Thank you guys !

Having missed the Sunday night ferry we now had a day to kill on the south coast.  A blazing sun tempted us onto Climping beach for a few hours and then on to Brighton.  My travel companion had never been to the resort,  I had lived there back in the 1970s, for both of us it was a visit to a new city !

A lovely sunny day but the sea was too rough to enter.

Climping Beach in Sussex.  A lovely sunny day but the sea was too rough to enter.

Living in a place is a different experience to visiting as a tourist.  In the intervening 30 plus years much had changed but also, much had stayed the same.  I even remembered where certain streets were – my travelling companion wanted to visit a particular cosmetic emporium which was located in a small street running parallel to the main London road and the road from the railway station to the sea.  It was a street that used to hold a regular Saturday morning antique market and memories of roaming the stalls with my dear old mum came flooding back.  She lived and loved Brighton back then, especially she liked the open markets but also the posh shops around Churchill Square and Western Road.  She had the strange habit of indulging her need for retail therapy on a Friday after work, as she wandered home from the hectic office she endured.  By Saturday morning she had usually decided the shoes weren’t what she wanted, the blouse was the wrong colour, the sweater was too big etc. etc. and so the afternoon was spent returning items to the shops.  It was also a way to get cash in the days before ATM.

By Monday evening we were in the small sea-port of Newhaven enjoying some local seafood at a seafront hostelry as we watched and waited for the ferry to arrive.  It is only from the shore, on the side-walk of the narrow river into which the ship has to fit, that you get to see the real size of the thing.  Ferries are huge lumps of steel and to watch the ‘driver’ park the beast accurately and gently onto the link-span is one of my all time jaw-dropping voyeuristic past-times.

Hope Inn, Newhaven

Taken from the deck of the ferry, the Hope Inn looks to be way below.

The crossing meant we landed in France at 5 a.m. which has its advantages but given we had just endured our second night of little or no sleep, it was rather trying.  We headed north up the coast toward the little port of  Le Treport which had been an important site during the 1st World War.  It had a major French and British field hospital from early in the war.  The capacity of the British hospital rose to 10,000 ‘beds and between 28th December 1914, when the first soldier died in the hospital, and the Armistice on November 11th 1918 a total of 2857 soldiers died at what became No. 3 General Hospital.

My particular reason for a quick visit to what is today a busy holiday and fishing port, was to see the building that housed the Royal Flying Corp’s Lady Murray’s Hospital in which resided one Godfrey Jones (later Pendrell) of Garth Farm, Pontardawe, a pilot in 32 Squadron RFC.  He had been wounded whilst flying over enemy territory and whilst being treated in the hospital he received a telegram informing him he had been awarded the Military Cross ‘under the authority of  ‘The King Commander’.

I have mentioned him in these pages before, he lies in the small cemetery at Llangiwg Church above the small Swansea valley town.

From that little town we headed inland toward the city of Amiens and some much needed breakfast and a little shut-eye.  In a small town we spotted an early morning bakery and immediately stopped to buy our first fresh, hot croissants.  The first of many !

Because of the lost day my schedule was already knocked off course but we quickly made up time and headed off to the first of the main targets of my 1st World War sites.  On 12th January 1918 one Private Richard George Cantle of the 3rd Battalion The Tank Corps, the son of Gideon and Charlotte Cantle of Five Locks, Pontnewydd, Gwent, died of injuries received.  He lies in the BucquoyRoad Cemetery, Ficheux in the Pas de Calais region near Albert, east of Amiens.

Grave of Richard George Cantle.

The Military grave in the Somme where lies my Great Uncle. Richard George Cantle.

My mother’s mother was a Cantle, ‘Uncle Dick’, as he was known in the family, was her brother; in other words Richard George Cantle was my Great Uncle.  My poor old ‘Nanny Deakin’ (she married my Grandfather, a Black-country emigre to Wales, during the war) rarely spoke of her lost brother, at least I don’t remember her doing so but he was clearly well ‘remembered’, though clearly never known, by my uncles in particular. They themselves had to endure 2nd World War fighting and wounds.  My Uncle Billy (mentioned here previously and now sadly departed) would tell me each time he visited the grave of ‘Uncle Dick’ and each time he would ask me if and when I would be going.  Well, now I have and a deeply moving experience it was.  It felt strangely ‘out-of-body’ to stand at the standard Commonwealth War Graves Commission head-stone and realise that in that small plot of ground, in an anonymous field in France, lay some of my DNA, lay someone whom my dear grandmother had known and loved and clearly missed.  I laid two wild poppies which I plucked from a roadside verge near the river Somme and then wandered the small cemetery reading the other head-stones.  One small cemetery among hundreds that we drove past over the next two days.

I found it a strangely 'heavy' experience to stand at the grave of one of my family.

I found it a strangely ‘heavy’ experience to stand at the grave of one of my family.

I have a copy of the war diary of ‘Uncle Dick’ which begins with his arrival in France in January 1915.  It is a sombre read, often light hearted and understated, often shocking and bewildering.  It is a harrowing tale of deprivation, death (of friends and colleagues), boredom and fatigue but is interspersed with glimpses of humanity and pleasure.  A diary of a family member, albeit a person I never knew, had the effect of narrowing the focus of the magnitude of what I was seeing, of what I had read and  what was to come.  To think he endured three years of that hell before being killed is somewhat galling.

The Cantles were my mother’s maternal line, they came to Pontnewydd in the early 1800s to be the Lock Keepers on the five locks that gave their name to the area of the old village through which the Brecon/Monmouthshire canal flowed.  They hailed originally from the Cotswolds and way back in the line, at the end of the 1700s, there were two Dry Stone Wallers in the family …

From Ficheux our journey took us northward towards Baupame and Arras, the latter town chosen as our lunch stop where we enjoyed THE most amazing ‘canard‘ and salad.  Arras was another of the main battlefield towns heavily destroyed and fought over for the four awful years of the war.  It seemed that every couple of miles we encountered yet another small cemetery, sometimes a regimental plot, sometimes a mixed international plot and occasionally set apart within a large local civilian cemetery but always immaculately kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  I have oft made the point that I have no problem with my taxes being spent on that !

My next visit was but a few miles north in the small town of  Noeux-les-Mines where, in the town’s communal cemetery, there lies a large CWGC plot.  In a small corner at the back of the large cemetery there stands another white tablet which bears the name of another of my Great Uncles, this time from my father’s side.

CWGC Ivor Guest Davies

The grave of L/Cpl Ivor Guest Davies, South Wales Borderers, who lived at Great St. Dials Farm, Old Cwmbran.

Lance Corporal Ivor Guest Davies was the son of  Henry and Elizabeth Davies who farmed at Great St. Dials Farm in the old village of Cwmbran.  His sister Irene was my paternal Grandmother.  He had enlisted in the army as a boy soldier in 1907 and joined the South Wales Borderers – a famous and much admired Regiment with the distinguished Zulu war defence of Rorkes Drift amongst its Battle Honours – and probably served in India prior to the start of the Great War.  In mid May – probably the 20th – his company was heavily decimated in an attack on the German trenches near Baupame – he received wounds from which he died on the 29th May 1916.  He endured two years in the front line never managing to get back home to see his family.  He too must have been sorely missed by his sisters and parents.  It was an aunt, an elder sister of my father, who told me of him, though she could not have known him either.  I have the plaque that the family received and his medals which were presumably received posthumously.

That first day was a very tiring and emotional one and involved quite a lot of driving.  As the afternoon wore on we headed north toward the Belgium border and our first camp site in the infamous city of Ypres (Ieper to give it its correct modern name).  As the sun set over Flanders Fields I found myself feeling pleased that I had at last made the journey and in my head I kept repeating the old words

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We Will Remember them”

Part two of my Flanders Fields pilgrimage follows.

Everywhere the monuments, everywhere the headstones, every where the words 'Their Name Liveth for Evermore.

Everywhere the monuments, everywhere the headstones, everywhere the words
‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “In Flanders Fields …”

  1. Ann Stimpson Says:

    Enjoyed reading your Blog. My daughter found it on the web and shared it with me as her daughter is to visit the French and Belgian war area with the school and might be able to visit Richard Cantle’s grave. I have visited it twice now. My son had the plaque made with his photo on to take with us. By what you say about your Cantle connections I assume that your Mum was Pearl and your grandmother Ada. My grandfather William Cantle was Richard Cantle’s brother and William’s daughter was Betty Cantle (my mother),
    William’s son Ted (my uncle) has made an extensive family tree of the Cantles wich he used to share with me as I have been very interested in genealogy.
    I am so pleased that Richard Cantle has had so many visitors to his grave. It has kept his memory alive.
    Best wishes
    Ann

    • welshwaller Says:

      Thank you Ann – I wondered who had placed the plaque on the grave ! I actually have a copy of the family tree which I think came via the Cleverly family – Charlotte Cantle (Auntie Lotty) married a Cleverly and had two sons, one of which I see quite regularly. Your analysis is correct, that was my mum and ‘Nanny Deakin’. I don’t know if you have seen that I am currently serialising Uncle Dick’s diary ?

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