In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave way to an infantry raid. In the gunfire and desperate hand-to-hand combat that followed the daring dozen and their 19-year-old commanding officer were slaughtered – shot, bayoneted, blown to pieces. The violence of the deaths of these men – Privates Stretton, Painter, Cottom, Barrow, Cavley, Haynes, Sergent and Matthews. Lance Corporals Keeping, Eaton, Wells and Greenway and 2nd Lieutenant Vere Talbot Bayley, the teenage subaltern who led them, was appalling. It is particularly sobering to think that Bayly was barely a year out of Sherborne School.
At the Authuile Military Cemetery they have found peace. With the dappled summer sunshine playing on their headstones, a gentle breeze gusting through the trees and the gentle sound of the River Ancre flowing nearby. A distant cuckoo called as I stood silently by their graves and reflected on the brutality of battle, the bravery and sacrifice of these young men and the hopeless optimism of those who really believed that this was the war to end all wars. I wondered what these Dorset boys had been like. Many had come from familiar towns and villages around the county. Obeying their country’s call to duty, they had willingly signed up and headed for the front.The carnage they faced was beyond belief. The Dorsetshire Regiment (it became the Devon and Dorsets in the 1950s) lost 4,500 men in the 1914-18 war. They had been carpenters, bricklayers, farm-workers, shop assistants, mechanics. Many were little more than boys.
Travelling with an expert guide as guests of travel company Saga, photographer Hattie Miles and I joined the Road of Remembrance Tour which follows in the footsteps of the British troops from the Channel Port of Folkestone to the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme – the final journey of a generation lost to a war that many regard as sheer folly on the part of the politicians and military leaders.
More than million men died on the battlefields of Belgium and Northern France as allied troops struggled to push back the advancing German line. There are literally hundreds of military cemeteries and monuments to the dead and missing on the Western Front. In a single day you can see thousands of carefully regimented rows of Portland Stone headstones standing proud amid clipped lawns. Meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, some carry neat floral tributes, perhaps a wooden cross and a poppy, even a photograph and message from a descendant. The atmosphere at each cemetery is unfailingly quiet and reverential. There is absolutely no vandalism or graffiti.
Our journey took us to museums and memorial sites across the region. To the vast Tyne Cot cemetery with the graves of nearly 12,000 men and a memorial to 35,000 missing. To Essex Farm where the fallen lie near the bunkers of an old front line dressing station. Fascinating towns and villages like Ypres and Passchendaele that were rebuilt and reclaimed from the rubble. The Menin Gate where crowds gather daily for the Last Post. Trenches that once bore names like Park Lane, Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue – little reminders of home. The huge monuments at Vimy Ridge and Thiepval, the latter designed by Edwin Lutyens in memory of the 72,194 officers and men whose bodies were never recovered from the battlefields of the Somme.
Of all the battles of the First World War The Somme offensive was the bloodiest and, in terms of loss of human life, the costliest. On 1st July 1916, the first day of the battle, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed. Yet under orders from Commander Douglas Haig they fought on for three months before finally be able to declare a victory of sorts. They had gained five miles…and lost a quarter of million men. The Dorsets finally got their own memorial near the Somme battlefields in 2011 when an eight foot high Portland stone obelisk was sited outside Authuille. Bearing both regimental and county crests, it was carved by Dorset sculptors Alex Evans and Zoe Cull at their workshop in Bockhampton, near Dorchester. Appropriately it carries a quotation from Thomas Hardy: “Victory crowns the just.”
The Dorsetshire Regiment’s most intense loss came more than a year before the Somme, in May 1915, as they fought at the infamous Hill 60. A vital observation point above the flat Flanders’ landscape, a man-made ridge created out of spoil from a mid 19th century railway cutting. Before the war it had been known as Lovers Knoll, a beauty spot frequented by courting couples. By the time the Dorsetshire Regiment fought there it was desolate, broken and battle-scarred, an oozing morass of mud and bodies, strafed by machine gun fire and infested with rats reputedly the size of rabbits.
As the allies made plans to defeat the enemy by tunnelling under the hill and laying massive explosive charges, the Germans attacked with a new weapon – chlorine gas. It was only the second time that poisonous gas had been used in battle. The effects were devastating. In a moving diary entry Company Sergeant-Major Ernest Shepherd described the scene as “heartbreaking” saying: “Men were caught by fumes and in dreadful agony, coughing and vomiting and rolling on the ground…”
It was another 19-year-old former Sherborne boy who saved the day. Lieutenant Robin Vaughan Kestell-Cornish grabbed his gun, leapt onto the parapet of his trench and with the remaining four men from his 40 strong platoon delivered such a fierce volley of rifle fire into the oncoming gas cloud that it drove the German infantry back just long enough for the Dorset support units to cut off the enemy advance. Casualties were high with 85 Dorsets killed and another 200 suffering from gas inhalation. Nearly 60 of those would later die, many within hours, from the injuries they had suffered. Kestell-Cornish, struggling for breath, was temporarily invalided out but insisted on returning to the front within days. He won the Military Cross for gallantry but died in 1918.
Today Hill 60 has been largely reclaimed by nature but is still home to bullet-scarred bunkers and the shattered remains of military hardware. It is a place of bizarre contrasts. An old crater has become a beautiful pond alive with dragonflies that flit beneath a weeping willow. Just metres away an old machine-gun emplacement is covered with tributes to the Dorset dead. Never before have war poet Rupert Brooke’s words seemed so apposite: “If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field. That is for ever England.”
As we travelled from the killing fields of Northern France to the once bombed and blasted wastelands of Flanders we came upon a terrible legacy of that war of 100 years ago. At a glance the fields of Varlet Farm, set amidst the flat Belgian countryside, look completely unremarkable. There are potatoes here, a crop of celeriac there. A tractor stood waiting to start its day’s work.
But what a day’s work! Every time he ploughs those fields farmer Dirk Cardoen knows that he might unearth, bombs, shells and grenades. He has a tin tank full of them on the track to the main road, a constant reminder of his deadly additional crop. Dirk showed us his latest finds and, pulling out a couple of rusting shells, he announced “This ones still live,” adding with a wry smile. “Don’t worry. They don’t go off very often.”
It is known as the Iron harvest. A century ago this land was a First World War battlefield. Just a few kilometres from Passchendaele, Varlet Farm was under constant bombardment as the occupying Germans battled to keep it out of allied hands. Dirk told me that so far this year he’s found 13 shells. Last year it was 17 and in 2007 “our best year” they dug up nearly 70. The potentially deadly finds are constant. The bomb disposal squad make regular visits to this and many other farms in the region, stopping off at agreed collection points to pick up the ageing military hardware.
Dirk is philosophical about his lot. When his grandparents took over this ruined farmland rent-free in the 1920’s digging up explosives was all part of the deal.
It could be worse, some farmers still find human remains. For the past 12 years Dirk has run a bed and breakfast at the farm. It’s a favourite with military historians and battlefield tourists. He has even converted an old barn into a museum full of shells, bullets, grenades, machine guns, helmets, water bottles, bits of old uniform and the occasional rifles he finds dangling off the bottom of his tractor.
In his breakfast room as Abba played in the background Dirk showed us a display of shells polished and fashioned from ordnance into ornaments. “People love them,” he said.
We visited Varlet Farm on a quick side trip from the Road of Remembrance tour . It was just one of the experiences that put the war into a graphic geographical context and help explain the horrors of 1914-18.
Jeremy and Hattie Miles were guests on The Road of Remembrance tour – France and Belgium which costs from £699pp for seven nights based on two people. The itinerary starts in Folkestone, home of The Road of Remembrance and embarkation point for millions of First World War troops heading for the Western Front. Across the channel it visits Arras and the Wellington Quarry, The Somme and Amiens, Ypres and Bruges. To book call 0800 056 6099 or visit saga.co.uk/france