My great grandfather, Frederick Allen Downing, survived the Battle of Passchendaele. Half a million soldiers, mostly from Great Britain, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, did not. I joined Guided Battlefield Tours for their Passchendale Centenary Tour and went to pay my respects to his fallen comrades. If Frederick had never returned home, my grandfather would never have been born, and neither would I.
I was also lucky enough to get tickets in the ballot for the centenary commemoration service at Tyne Cot cemetery and the accompanying exhibition. Unfortunately, this did mean that I missed a few key points of the tour, so I may have to make a return next year.
The thing that struck me most as I visited Ypres and the surrounding area was the sheer scale of what happened. I mean, I could have parroted off some statistics before I visited, but you only really know what it means when it is before your eyes.
The cemeteries. Row upon row of young men in a cemetery, all with the same date of death. A cemetery every time you turn a corner. “A soldier of the great war, known unto God”. There are so many of these anonymous graves – some where the rank or regiment of the inhabitant is known, others where they are not, others where five or six men have been bundled into a grave. You try not to wonder what state in which these bodies were found. There are many poignant messages on the beautifully kept stones, mostly from grieving relatives, and one in Tyne Cot with a bitter anti-war sentiment: “Arthur Conway Young, sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war”. And then there are the bodies that were never found, sucked up by the mud that plagued the battlefields. The shellfire had destroyed the drainage system and there had been six weeks of heavy rain. Apparently they are still finding remains now. There are regular funerals for “unknown soldiers”. The names of those with no known grave were recorded on the huge Menin Gate, but then they ran out of space, so they continued on a wall at Tyne Cot.
The hills. I will never thinks of hills in the same way again. Flanders is remarkably flat, none of the “hills” or “ridges” that you may have heard of are particularly high. Even Passchendaele is only just poking above the skyline, yet when we went up I realised the importance of being able to see for miles around, and imagined the lines of soldiers in the distance. I do a lot of running, and next time I puff up a hill I don’t think I’ll be able to think of anything other than the fact that I am in a very good strategic position should I be attacked by Germans.
The towns. The towns of Flanders are very still, as if they are yet to shake the shroud of what happened there. You don’t see people about, the shutters are down, there is no sound in the streets. Other than the odd bunker or mine crater and the aforementioned cemeteries there is little physical evidence of the war, though, and it was only when I visited the fascinating In Flanders Field Museum and the local museum of Messines that I realised why. When we talk about a place being “destroyed” by the war, we think of somewhere like Coventry, which lost many important buildings and was totally reshaped. But these towns were not just badly damaged – they were completely obliterated. They ceased to exist. An aerial photo of Passchendaele in 1918 shows nothing recognisable except the foundations of the church. The population of Messines was reduced to zero and even now, less people live there than in 1914. The large city of Ypres fared little better, with some ruins of the six hundred year old cathedral and Cloth Hall just recognisable. In a remarkable act of defiance, the people of Ypres rebuilt both to their original specifications in the 1930s, and to look at them, you’d never guess how new they are. The Cloth Hall now houses the In Flanders Fields museum.
I realise I have no idea what it was like to be alive at that time, but I was struck by the senseless ridiculousness of it all. I thought back to recent incidents where numbers of people were killed – Grenfell Tower, the Manchester bomb – the sense of outrage and “this must not happen again” that followed was immense but those incident pale in comparison. This wasn’t twenty or a hundred people dying, it was half a million people dying, flinging themselves into mud and trying to blow each other up and good grief, I know I’m oversimplifying this but did no one at any point just stand up and ask what on earth they were doing? What did anyone ever think the outcome would be other than mass death? A hundred years on, no one ever seems to mention what started the war and for all the detailed histories I’ve read, it never comes across as anything more than “Some prince got shot, Austria-Hungary had a big fall out with Serbia, then loads of other countries used it as an excuse start wars with countries they didn’t like, and soon everyone forgot about the prince or Serbia or anything and just got stuck in with as much destruction as possible”.
It’s senseless and it’s sick, and I still can’t get my head around the fact it was allowed to happen.
A nightly tribute to the dead, the Last Post, takes place at the Menin Gate and on Sunday night this was extended and wreaths were laid by representatives from all round the world. On Monday, another service took place at Tyne Cot, with tickets available by ballot only to descendents of those who served at Passchendaele, and I was amongst these. There were also VIP guests including Prince Charles, Prince William and Kate, and a magnificent fly-past. The VIP guests laid wreaths at graves of the dead, and a speaker told us a little about each soldier. William and Kate laid theirs at “an unknown soldier, known unto God”.
Before and after the ceremony, there was an exhibition in a local park which was a much less sombre affair, packed with stalls that are any military genealogists’ dream and displays of artefacts and research, such as a real war “ambulance”, war poems by children and Joey the puppet horse from War Horse. The highlight for me was the re-enactment group who had taken over much of the landscaped part of the park and set a realistic army camp, kitchen, medical tent, etc., and were acting out scenes of daily army life. There was also a mock-up of a trench, highly realistic except, thankfully, a lack of mud. I felt like I had walked right into 1917 and had difficulty distinguishing role play from reality. (“Ooh look it’s a mock shop selling… books about the war? Oh wait, it’s actually a shop!”)
The final stop before I returned home was Talbot House, a place of relaxation for off-duty soldiers with garden and concert hall that must have been a very welcome contrast to the grimness of the battlefields. It was nice to end the tour on a positive note – thinking of my great grandfather having a laugh with his comrades, some escape from the unrelenting grimness. Obviously, I never thought the war was a good experience for Frederick, but the things he must have seen, the conditions he must have endured… He must have been a very strong person to come back and achieve the things he did – a family, a good job, a book published, a long life and an unremarkable death. My mother says he was cheerful and popular and that he never once spoke of the war. I can’t say I blame him – how can you live a normal life if you carry that with you?