Olivia Smith was fortunate enough to have an internship experience with the WFA in Ypres, Belgium. Below she gives her own account of the experience, showing her thoughts and feelings.
“Just before I reflect upon my fortunate historical experience, I would like to quickly thank the University of Essex History Department for funding my trip; as well as the Western Front Association and Andy Tonge for their generosity in giving me such an experience, as well as ensuring I was well looked after.”
”The journey down from Colchester to Dover was perfect. Not one bit of traffic stopped my first big drive to the continent. Listening to a BBC Radio 4 debate on why people wear a poppy and what the poppy represents, a controversial topic which I had recently covered in my special subject module. Listening to someone say they don’t wear the poppy because it represents the pointless deaths that occurred in wars after the Second World War, just seemed very ignorant. Personally, I feel the poppy is a form of modern respect, to commemorate those who bravely fought for us today. That being a centenary ago on the fields of Passchendale or right now fighting the war on terror.
Currently sat on the ferry going to Dunkirk and reading my book which my dissertation is based on (Testament of Youth by Vera Britain), I can’t help but feel sombre over the memory of many men who made the journey across the channel a centenary ago, to go and fight on the front line, yet here I am making a safe passage to go to the remains of the front line and remember their sacrifice.”
”Arriving in Belgium was beyond a success; for someone who is just about confident driving at home, yet suffers badly with dyslexia and lefts and rights, I counted driving on the opposite side of the road an achievement. I headed straight into Ypres to meet Andy Tonge (WFA) and embarked on a personal tour around the Northern half of the Ypres Salient. This is something I had thought I’d done before, but how wrong was I. Andy taught me how to perceive a battlefield through the eyes of a soldier rather than the eyes of a book. First of all, it was the skyline, the myth that the Ypres Salient is flat is very wrong. High ground gives you the advantage of being able to view the salient, and mark out the churches which act as landmarks for navigation- Ypres Cloth Hall and Cathedral are usually visual, where we were we had a good view of Langenmark and Zonnenbeke churches.
It wasn’t just the view of the churches as navigational landmarks, these acted as a form of context of the soldier’s life; by being able to see that far you are holding the strong point. The battles on the Ypres Salient can’t be perceived as either side on a rollercoaster xxxxxand both reaching the top trying to push one another off, it was a fight for high ground and then defending the high ground. I found this context so significant for developing my knowledge of the First World War. That evening, a trip to the Menin Gate and the chance to witness a beautiful Last Post ceremony and then back to the Ariane Hotel for a briefing before the events on the 11th. It was a great feeling to know I was going to be a part of a great event, with the opportunity to stand under the Menin Gate during the special service”
Early rise, to get ready for Armistice- 99 years. After the briefing the night before, I soon realised how much detail and work went into organising the poppy day parade. The parade started outside Ypres Cathedral, just behind the Cloth Hall and followed the way through the centre of the town before various groups dispersed in and around the Menin Gate. My job as a marshal was to ensure all who would be taking part in the parade were positioned accordingly in the order Andy had set up. Easy? No. Various school groups turned up, military groups etc, yet that did not stop things starting at 10:20 as the bands led their way through the town.
I was positioned in front of the general public, ensuring they lined in groups of four with the wreath laying people standing to the right. Once all was away it was wonderful to feel a part of the occasion rather than a bystander in the crowd. Upon reaching the Menin Gate myself and the other marshal’s stood to the front left hand side, just tucked into the corner of the entrance but a corner that provided a wonderful view of the gate. Oddly, the bands, the orchestra created a light and sweet atmosphere in the gate.
Oddly, the bands, the orchestra created a light and sweet atmosphere. The remembrance ceremony started with the prompt, 2 minute ahead of schedule, arrival of HRH Princess Anne, the representative of Britain and the Commonwealth. I must not forgot to mention that this was not only a remembrance for the British, Commonwealth, French and Belgium forces, yet also a remembrance for the German soldiers who fought during those four years. Representatives of a special First World War German force attended the service too. The service began with the symbolic Last Post performed by the buglers, of which each note echoed throughout the 54,000 names embodied on the walls of the Menin Gate.
Follow by various readings, prayers, and then wreath laying by the Royal and political representatives, then by the members of the public. During this part of the service, through the three openings in the roof of the Menin Gate, thousands of poppies started to fall. This is an image I will cherish in my memory, each poppy represented a soldier who had been lost in the Great War and I found it very symbolic that they were falling into remembrance a century later on. Once the poppies had fallen, the final songs were played by the bands and the service came to an end once Princess Anne made her departure to a service at Tyne Cot.
Each military group and the bands began to follow their way back to the centre of Ypres by the Cloth Hall, and we followed just behind them – and what a wonderful atmosphere that was, to really be a part of something special in our history- we ended up outside the Cloth Hall and watched the masses of the general public disappear as the main event of the day was over. Later that afternoon, Andy and Carol were very kind to take me to the main concert in the Cathedral, and what a lovely tribute they paid to ‘Brothers in Arms’, really focussing in on the camarderie and special bond, which I guess you can say is one of the special outcomes of war.
The concert was followed by a wonderful meal at the Ariane, at which I had the pleasure of sitting next to a gentleman who had been at Ypres commemorating the First World War for the past twenty years plus. I realised then how lucky he was for coming for all of those years, as I heard the most wonderful stories, for he was fortunate enough to have such a strong relationship with veterans. This included the famous Harry Patch and his close circle. I too realised that we were keeping them more alive by telling their tales, passing on their experiences and how those first hand accounts of the war really should not be forgotten. From Alix Green’s module focussing on Unquiet Histories, it is those micro unquiet histories that teach a true history.
In Belgium they focus on the day of Armistice itself, rather than in the UK where we have our main day on Remembrance Sunday. So yesterday was another early rise to make the most of the day, and Andy was taking me on another battlefield tour. This time the Hunters were put on after a day of rain, and I got to fully experience the famous muddy fields of the Ypres Salient. Andy first took me along the Menin Road to get some context of where the BEF first encountered the German forces in 1914. From there we went to visit a -very intact- German bunker.
From the bunker you definitely got the impression that the Germans intended to stay in their advancing positions, with the bunker being fortified with concrete and the main part of the bunker underground (with what could be described as an upper floor of concrete simply to take the full brunt of shells). From here Andy took me to Shrewsbury Forest where the Northamptonshire Regiment fought on the Third Battle of Ypres. On the face of it, the forest was stunning, perfectly autumnal and you could not imagine that a century ago the horror that fell here. We left the trail and followed an unofficial path which led us to the German Front line and here, intact, you could see the three German bunkers.
Looking out into what would have been ‘No Mans Land’ above us was Hill 60 where the British held the high ground. I was shown where the entrances to the underground tunnels would have begun, due to the water build up in a square localised area. To my surprise, and interestingly to Andy’s, we found on the back of the final bunker the initials and engravings that had been left by the German soldiers. Coming out of the trenches we followed the IPad which showed us the original trench matches and exactly where we were in correlation to the wood a century ago.
We were mainly following the German Trenches and you could see from the high ground how the Northampton boys obtained success on obtaining the wood to then hit an obstacle with the Germans sitting and dug in (another bunker found, this time a machine gun box). We proceeded to go and explore a wood which held a lock hospital, embedded in an unfinished canal.
Clear details of where the hospital had been shelled were evident by gaping holes in the bricks. As the winds picked up the temperature on the Salient dropped and we headed back to the Hooge Crater where we had coffee and explored the museum. To my amazement, I discovered how the exhibitions that had been created there were all using original artefacts. So the mannequins were wearing real uniforms as worn by the soldiers on the front, and it amazed me that such items of clothing have lasted all these years.
After the wonderful morning truly exploring the Ypres Salient, I went off on my own to Plugstreet Wood where one of the main protagonists for my dissertation wrote a beautiful poem whilst he was stationed there during 1915;
VILANELLE by ROLAND LEIGHTON
Violets from Plug Street Wood—
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue when his soaked blood was red;
For they grew around his head.
It is strange they should be blue.)
Violets from Plug Street Wood—
Think what they have meant to me!
Life and Hope and Love and You.
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay,
Hiding horror from the day.
Sweetest, it was better so.)
Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land:
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.
Here I found a violet, and explored the area in which Roland lived and provided me with a first-hand account of life on the Salient. In such a peaceful and beautiful place I truly felt connected with my dissertation. Plug Street Wood was close to my wonderful B&B (as was the place where the famous Christmas Truce occurred, that I also visited) and I checked out then making the journey back home. I had never experienced a rough crossing before, but that evening crossing was horrific. The boat was rattling, and felt like it was hurdling across the waves towards Dover.
I was glad to be home, yet sad at the same time. Ypres is truly a wonderful place, it is amazing how one place can hold so much history and keep it alive a century later. If all goes well with an internship I will return there next summer, but for now as Vera Brittain and Edward her brother would write to each other before an attack during his time on the Salient, it was never goodbye it was only ‘Au Revouir’. ”
By Olivia Smith