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Flanders Fields

Jonathan Ray heads out to Flanders

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

We were a three-man British Expeditionary Force. Tom, Tim and I were in Flanders to pay our respects to Tom’s great-uncle Walter, killed near Ypres on 15 March 1915, and to Tim’s father, Arthur, gassed at Hill 60 a month later. It was gloriously sunny as we drove into Belgium past war cemeteries, green fields and hop gardens to the town of Poperinge and a rendezvous with Nigel Cave, the first world war historian. Nigel had kindly agreed to be our guide in return for board, lodging and good company.

Tom had found Hotel Recour on the internet and it was a splendid place complete with great restaurant and stylish rooms. They happily let us crack open wines we had brought ourselves (1990 Ch. Calon-Ségur, en magnum, and 1963 Fonseca, since you ask), refusing our offers to pay corkage. We repaid them by making a stout-hearted assault on their digestifs.

Over dinner we discovered that Arthur and Walter had been in the same battalion of the same regiment, 1st Battalion, the Dorset Regiment, which somehow made our journey more poignant.

The following morning we pottered around Poperinge, visiting both Talbot House (‘Toc H’), founded in 1915 by ‘Tubby’ Clayton as a refuge from the Front, and the courtyard where deserters were shot. We realised with a frisson that it was 89 years — to the very day — since the last execution took place on 8 May 1919.

We bought a picnic and headed out towards Hill 60. Although covered in lush green grass, hawthorn, chestnut and beech, the trenches and craters of No Man’s Land were plainly visible here. The air was alive with birdsong and it was hard to reconcile the bucolic beauty of today with the horrors of nearly a century ago.

We gawped at the vast Caterpillar Mine crater, and listened as Tim read from Arthur’s diary his account of its detonation: ‘… all day long there was a sort of restlessness amongst us and firing was continuous until about 6 p.m., when everything grew quiet. I looked at my watch — in one minute a few hundred men would be blown to eternity and one could not help praying for their souls — then half a minute — a quarter of a minute — then the earth shook, once, twice, three times. There was a rush in the air of falling trees and stones, a second’s silence and then a terrible roar of rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, rifle grenades, trench mortars, bombs, and cannon…’

When the Germans retook Hill 60, Arthur Stanley-Clarke was gassed and given up for dead. Indeed, his obituary appeared in the Illustrated London News. Amazingly, however, he survived, transferred to the RFC, won an MC and died in 1967.

We opened a bottle of 1998 Pol Roger and raised our glasses in tribute. Tim took a shiny brass box from his pocket — Princess Mary’s 1914 Christmas gift, sent to every soldier. Arthur’s had been kept intact ever since. Tim carefully removed one of its ancient Turkish cigarettes, lit it, took a deep puff and passed it round like a spliff. My eyes suddenly welled with tears, no doubt thanks to the bright summer sun and the ciggie’s curling blue smoke. I noticed, though, that I wasn’t alone.

We headed back towards Ypres via Bedford House, formerly Château Rosendal, where Walter Cave was killed on his 20th birthday. Tom’s theory was that Walter, in Flanders for barely a week, had been called back from the trenches for a birthday cuppa with the CO and had bought it when a shell scored a direct hit on part of Battalion HQ.

Tom had brought some snowdrop bulbs from the garden of Walter’s family home in Devon and we planted them near his grave on the ramparts at Ypres, raising further glasses of Pol as we did so.

Thanks to Nigel’s expert guidance we saw plenty over the next two days too: the Last Post at the Menin Gate; the tunnels of Vimy Ridge; John Kipling’s grave; the site of the Christmas Truce of 1914; Polygon Wood; the Indian Memorial and Portuguese Cemetery at Neuve Chapelle, to name but a few.

We finished our tour of duty with a cracking night’s R and R in Lille. Oysters and fizz at L’Ecume des Mers were followed by a thrilling and sexy performance of Rigoletto at the exquisite Opera de Lille and a late supper at La Chicorée.

And as Tom pointed out, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did if Arthur and Walter hadn’t done what they did.

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