One way ticket on the Necropolis Line

It’s been four months since I got home from Belgium. Work buried me. Weekends have swept past like vague notions of spare time. And so here I am again tapping away into a keyboard and wondering what to write about first. I have a whole load to write about. I suspect the best thing to do would be to continue from where I left off back in February. I will begin with what happened next after my last post on the 11th February.

Duval beer in Ypres
Better the Duval you know

It took me a couple of hours to write that day’s two posts. After a Facetime chat with Jessica and Kitty, I shut the lid of my laptop and left my room. Two minutes later I was sitting the in the hotel bar, drinking a very fine glass of Duvel. Fortified by the beer, and the flu relief tablets I had been grazing on throughout the day, I headed out into the Ypres City Centre. I was heading to the Menin Gate for the last post ceremony so I could say hello and goodbye to Frank.

The Menin Gate was built at the eastern edge of Ypres at the top of the Kasteelgracht, part of an ancient moat that loops around the city of Ypres. During the First World War thousands of troops passed this way to the front. Many never returned. 54,400 names are remembered in long lists chiselled onto stone panels. These panels cover every vertical space on this monument to the dead.

Every night at 8pm Ypres remembers those Allies who lie forever lost in the earth around the city. That this event happens at all on foreign soil for foreign troops is incredible enough. But the fact that it has happened happened every night since 1927* makes it truly remarkable.

The Menin Gate in Ypres 2010
The Menin Gate in Ypres (taken on my birthday in 2010, the day I proposed to my wife)

I have been to the ceremony once before in February 2005. It had been a very quiet affair and so I was expecting a similar turnout; just me and a couple of Flemish pigeons. When I arrived at the gate just before 8pm I was struck by a swell of crowd noise. The Menin Gate was packed to the gunnels (if gates can have gunnels) with people waiting for the ceremony. People from all over the world stood shoulder to shoulder, camera phone to camera phone. A man read out snippets from war diaries for that day 100 years ago. School children laid down wreaths. I can’t tell you who they were for. I wouldn’t really hear the above the noise of the people around me. To be honest I wasn’t feeling great and should have been in bed.

I wandered away from the crowds and headed into a nearby bar, The Times on Korte Torhoutstraat. I sat down to a beer (a Kapittel blond if you’re interested) and a plate of salami and cheese. A plate? It was more like the deli counter at Waitrose. I  struck up a conversation with the British man sitting next to me. He turned out to be an ex-army Postman. He was here with his son riding around the area on hired bikes. There are many cycling trails you can follow. By this time strong beer, flu drugs and baby-related sleep deprivation took their toll and I’m afraid I cannot remember his name. I stumbled, semi-delerious, back to my hotel room to a long dreamless sleep.

Logo of the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company
London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company

* I say every night, but the Germans occupied Ypres during the Second World War and they weren’t too keen on the ceremony. In fact the ceremony continued to be held but was performed in Surrey at the Brookwood Military Cemetery, just up the road from where I live. If you would like to disappear up an internet rabbit hole then I tempt you with this carrot-flavoured link to the London Necropolis Railway. Brookwood was the terminal for this always-late line out of Waterloo. The logo is so amazing I’ve included it here.

“Return ticket, you say? There are only one way tickets on the Necropolis Line, Sir.”

Next up: I take a stroll around Wulverghem.

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My act of remembrance


11th February 2015

I wrote today’s post from a hotel room in Ypres. I’ve got a nice little office set up in my hermetically sealed corporate bolt hole (how I like my hotels. i.e. no baths in the middle of the room for me, thank you very much), free wifi and a Lemsip in a branded mug (battling severe man-flu). The iPad has just thrown up the first song in my Spotify collection: Act of Remembrance by the Proclaimers. I promise you that’s true.

My act of remembrance has been the last six months writing over 180 posts for this blog. I’ve written about chickens, cross-dressing aristocrats, psycho engineers, trench warfare, VD, buses, flowers and beer. Every day, mostly nights, I’ve sat writing a post about a time I didn’t know much about, about a man I never knew, about a place I know even less about. I’ve stuck to my initial rules: No made up stories, facts only, all researched and written the same day. Admittedly some posts have taken me over into the early hours of the next day. Some I forgot to post. One I lied about forgetting to post. But I’ve stuck to my original plan and for that I’m proud. Am I a better writer? Certainly not – I haven’t had time to hone any of these posts to a level I’m happy with, but I’m a better researcher than I was, for sure.

My proofreader, Kitty Anne Elliman
My proofreader, Kitty Anne Elliman

I’m not sure anyone cares, but coming here is something of a milestone for me. I do not travel well. Think of a cross between B.A. Baracus and a barrel of English bitter. I get a nosebleed crossing into Surrey, let alone leaving the country. I do hope that this is the start of an annual pilgrimage to Ypres for my family. And, although Frank actually never came here himself, it’s such a great centre from which to explore the nearby battlefields. The Belgians are extremely hospitable, brew incredible beers and their food is excellent. What’s not to like? It’s also less than an hour from Eurotunnel. A no-brainer for stay-at-homes like me.

I’d like to thank my ever-patient wife, Jessica. She’s my absolute rock and I love her. And Kitty, my daughter, for proofing all my posts (sorry about all those tyopoze – she’s seven months old). I won’t be posting as much on this blog from today but thank you for reading. I hope you had as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

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A Frank farewell

11th February 1915

Frank Crawshaw 1893-1915 RIP
We will remember him

Frank was killed today.

It’s hard to specify a time, but during the day the Germans shelled the British support lines and dugouts. Eight men were hit in separate incidents at 10.30am and 3pm. Two men died. One was Frank, the other was (Acting) Corporal Francis Alfred Jones from Cheshire. The shells were high explosive says the Dorsets’ diary. At least it would have been quick for one of them. The 15th Brigade’s diary lists 7 injured and only one killed so can we assume one died later of wounds? Jones is listed on the Menin Gate. Which usually means that his body was never found.

Frank was originally buried in a cemetery in Frenchman’s Farm. This cemetery was destroyed in later fighting. May we infer that Frank may have died in a dressing station, which Frenchman’s Farm was at some point. Frank now lies in Wulverghem-Lindenhoek Military Cemetery but his grave is only a marker, as far as I can make out, with six other graves that somehow survived the later destruction.

It’s easy to try to find reasons why and how it happened. But frankly, if you’ll excuse the pun, the odds were against him. Frank was one of a dwindling number of original members of the 1st Bn Dorsets that set out from Victoria barracks on August 14th 1914. I haven’t researched the casualties in terms of ordinary soliders but Gleichen makes a note that, of the 127 officers who came out with him to France with the 15th Brigade, all that remained were:

Norfolks—Done and Bruce (both ill in hospital from strenuous overwork), Megaw (killed later), Paterson.

Dorsets—Ransome, Partridge.

Bedfords—Griffith (trustiest of C.O.’s, who had been under heavier fire than almost any one in the Brigade, yet never touched), Allason (thrice wounded), Gledstanes (killed later).

Cheshires—Frost (killed later)

I’ve come to Belgium today to pay my respects to these men as well as Frank, my great great uncle. But I also want to see and walk the landscape he fought in. I’ve been to Ypres a couple of times (in 2005 and 2010) but I didn’t know anything about Frank’s life, or the history of the Dorsetshire Regiment. I think I know a little bit more now.

As you drive inland from the channel ports the pancake-flat landscape suddenly buckles up to the south as you approach the turning for Poperinge on the A25. It was at that moment that I finally understood why the Ypres Salient was so important to the British. Beyond this point there was no cover to the north, which meant no breaks in the landscape, behind which to hide a battery of guns or reserve troops. Jump forward 25-odd years to 1940 and you see what happens when the Germans break through.

And yet the landscape also made the salient incredibly dangerous. A salient is inherently lethal in itself but Ypres was special as it has hills which, in early 1915, the Germans held. They could fire down on the enemy as well as conceal guns behind those hills. Forty nine other men were killed in and around Ypres on the 11th February 1915.  The British had no real cover from which to hide their men and so they suffered casualties like waves pick up and turn over shells on a beach. The attritional damage inflicted on the British during the early part of 1915 took a long time for them to recover from.

Wulvergem, as it’s now known, lies in a depression in gently undulating land dominated by Mont Kemmel in the North and Messines in the South. I see now that the Germans commanded every vantage point, invisible over the crest of a slope, and they were able to pour fire into easily visible targets, including the barns and farms that litter the landscape even today.

It’s pretty hard to discern between a scruffy barn an one that’s had a couple of shells through it. The trees are all pollarded here, raggedy scarecrows in the pale winter light. Frank was fighting in a landscape he’d recognise today. It’s only later, when the villages and towns were destroyed by the bigger siege guns, that the landscape shifted from tattered to torn apart.

Tomorrow I will walk across this landscape but this is the last daily post I’ll be making. Thanks for coming on this journey with me. I’m off for a cold tea.

Lest we forget.

Jonathan Elliman
Ypres 2015

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He seemed to like getting shot at


10th February 1915

Today we finally meet up with Royal Engineer Captain Johnston again. He’s been busying himself, relentlessly working 18 hours a day improving the defences up and down the 15th Brigade’s trenches. I am guessing by the name that his home is R.E. Farm, now a small cemetery on the Wulverghem-Wytschaete Road. Gleichen cannot praise him highly enough. He remembers a moment Johnston was thrown into a fit of berserking rage.

And with it all he was as plucky as the devil—he seemed to like getting shot at. One night he got a ricochet bullet over his heart, but this only put him in a furious rage (if you can use the word about such a seeming mild person), and spent the next twenty-four hours in collecting ammunition and bombs and extra trench-mortars and firing them himself; this seemed to soothe him.

The 15th Brigade’s diary records this happening on the night of the 10th February. Events like this usually ended with German reprisals and little else gained.

Sector E was still a collection of disconnected trenches running down from Hill 75 (Spranbroekmolen). Men were also holed up in barns and farms behind the line, long since lost to enemy shells and woodworm. So men were stuck in the trenches throughout the daylight hours.

It must have been tempting to stick your head over the parapet, whether through fatigue or curiosity or sheer boredom, but it was usually fatal. Ernest Shephard writes:

One man Charlie Nickells killed by sniper at 7.a.m. thro’ showing over the trench.

Poor Charles Nicholls, a Londoner, had been with the battalion since the 23rd October 1914, having joined the 1st Bn from the Special Reserve 3rd Bn. He left a wife, Mary Ann but no other records I can find of his life up to this point. I think he died of wounds later.

Another Dorset man was killed too; Hilton George Miller, this time a regular, originally with the 2nd Bn Dorsets out in India, joining the 1st Bn on the 27th August 1914. This seems a strange date to be joining the Dorsets as they were passing through St Quentin on the retreat to the Marne at this point. Miller hailed from Shirley in Southampton. They are both buried in Dranouter graveyard. The Dorsets’ diary records 1 killed and 3 wounded amid a day-long musketry fight and occasional shelling.

These deaths are an indication of a slow increase in attritional casualties. The Germans now knew the ground they were facing intimately and looking down into the British lines gave them considerable advantage over their enemy. Regular rifle fire kept the casualties mounting for the British, let alone snipers. As the winter began to recede, the shells were also increasing their relentless search for death.

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A Shephard joins the flock


9th February 1915

The most well-known account of life in the Dorsets during the Great War is A Sergeant-Major’s War by Ernest Shephard. It’s also perhaps one of the best accounts of life in the trenches by any regular soldier in the First World War.

Ernest Shephard, born in 1892, was a professional soldier to the core. He was a regular soldier who, like Frank, had joined the service from the Special Reserve. He had been promoted to Sergeant back in August 1914 and was assigned to recruitment duties in the Dorset region. He was a native of Lyme Regis but, interestingly for us, he was also familiar with Brixton. His elder sister, Ethel, something of a mother figure to Ernest, lived there with her husband, Thomas Francis. Each finished diary was posted to Thomas as 113 Elm Park, Brixton Hill.

100 years ago today, Ernest joined the 1st Bn Dorsets as part of a reinforcement draft. Shephard went into B Company. Not that the Dorsets’ diary mentions anyone joining them that day. His arrival, and those with him, was something of a baptism of fire. The 15th Brigade returned to the front, via Dranoutre and Wulverghem, in pouring rain.  His entry describes the difficulty men had getting back to the front in the dark.

On the way the enemy was constantly sending star shells which lit the country brilliantly over a large area. At each shell we halted and stood still. The ground leading to the trenches was very difficult. I only slipped once, quite enough, I was covered in mud.

The movement of so many troops sent the Germans into a frenzy of musketry and sniping. Again, the Dorset war diary doesn’t mention any activity. You can forgive Ernest for being on tenterhooks during his first experience of trench warfare. It must have been a surreal and very frightening experience for him.

The Dorsets took over Sector E at the very top of the 15th Brigade’s area of operations. They relieved the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) in trenches numbered from 14a in the south to 20 in the north. The brigade finished their relief at about 9.20pm. The night was bitterly cold.

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