Monday, 12 March 2012

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.

THE BATTLE, KNOWN TO MILITARY HISTORIANS AS 'SECOND YPRES' was basically a German assault on several points of The Salient, and began with an gas attack on the French lines at Gravenstafel on April 22nd, 1915. While this gas attack was unprecedented and unexpected, it had been clear for some time to the British and French forces that some kind of assault was imminent. Therefore, there was intense activity right along the front line: trenches and breastworks were being repaired, ammunition and supplies were being carried up to the front with great urgency, and rest periods and leave for individual units was drastically reduced. It is obvious from Eric Gardiner's diary that he was having to write retrospectively, several days at a time, as he was enjoying less and less free time.

On the evening of April 20th, Eric, with a small carrying party from his Company, were moving through a communication trench south west of St Eloi. A letter from his best friend, Billy Cooke, tells what happened next.
"Eric and I were together when it happened. We were bringing up the rear of a small party on the way to an isolated little trench when he was hit in the thigh by a piece of shell. I dressed his wound as best I know how and did what I could to stop the bleeding, but it was a dark night and we were under heavy fire from the Germans. His leg was too badly shattered for me to carry him on my way back to a place of shelter, so I just waited with him for the stretcher bearers, but they never turned up…..Then, with the help of some Tommies from another regiment we carried him to the shelter of a little wood. The other regiment kindly lent me their own stretcher to carry poor old Eric on, but before he could be got to our dressing station, the poor chap died."

THIS LETTER WAS WRITTEN BY COOKE TO ANOTHER SOLDIER. He did write to Eric's parents, but spared them the harrowing details of Eric's death. He concluded,

"Eric and I were very much attached to one another, and I miss him very much indeed. When I came out of the trenches yesterday I visited his grave, but as it was in view of the German lines I was admonished for going there when I got back."

Eric was buried in the grounds of Elzenwalle Chateau, where a makeshift military cemetery had been established. The first permanent markers of British and Commonwealth war graves were sturdy wooden crosses, but long after the war ended, these were systematically replaced with the marble headstones more familiar to modern battlefield visitors. Incidentally, there is one of these to be seen inside the church of St Peter and St Paul in Wisbech. It was the grave marker of 1st Lt Anthony Crookham, the son of the Vicar of Wisbech.

The effect of Eric's death on his family was devastating. It was made worse by the fact that many of Eric's letters home had been published in 'The Advertiser' on a regular basis. Over the previous months, Frederick Gardiner, like all other editors across the land, had written a series of editorials in support of the war effort. Now, he had to find the words for the most difficult piece he would ever be called upon to write.
"Our sympathy, all the keener because tempered by experience, goes out to those families whose losses are reported in the casualty lists. The poignancy of such a loss brings the reality of the war to the very home portal, and shatters hopes long nursed..
The tendency is to lose sight of the main theme in the personally jarring note, but gradually one learns to sing the new song, realising that herein lies the important duty.
Also, while we mourn our losses, we can turn to the results achieved and find consolation in the fact that the sacrifice nobly given is not for naught. The fighting in the neighbourhood of Ypres (is) specially interesting in this district because of the presence of the Cambs Regiment, and others in whom we are interested…"

After the war had ended, the French and Belgian authorities realised that there were just too many tiny cemeteries scattered about the Old Front Line, and so the War Graves Commission set about the melancholy task of disinterring many of the bodies from these small cemeteries, and putting them all together in what were called 'Collection Cemeteries' Eric's remains were re-interred in Voormezeele Enclosure No. 3. The inscription on his headstone is echoed, in plural form, on the town memorial in The Crescent.


This account was sourced from a collection of Gardiner documents and memorabilia in Wisbech Museum. It seems that Eric's death made the relationship between Frederick and the older son, Grahame, somewhat strained. Later in the war, Grahame was conscripted to fight, but successfully appealed to the Wisbech Tribunal ( a panel set up to review appeals against conscription) on the grounds that he was running the local paper, and thus his work was too valuable at home.

There is a memorial to the Gardiners in Leverington Road Cemetery. The main column bears the names of Frederick, and his wife Amelia. On one of its kerbstones is a reference to Eric - " INTERRED IN A CHATEAU GARDEN"