Sunday, 19 October 2014


Let's take a temporary break from the criminal history of Wisbech and district. Tonight's blog has little to do with the town, but is more personal. Years ago, I used to take my sons to France and Belgium on Great War battlefield pilgrimages. Now, they are all grown men, but one son recently decided that he would like to go back and trace our footsteps from years ago, when he was little, and I was able to walk more than a mile without the joints creaking and the lungs working overtime. He had visited Chartwell, the former home of Winston Churchill, and had been fascinated by one of WSC's paintings. - that of a scene near Ploegsteert, in Belgium. How did someone so eminent as Churchill end up near the front line in The Great War?

Following the ill-fated Gallipolli campaign, Churchill resigned from the Government on November the 12th 1915. He had made up his mind to serve overseas, and stated in his resignation letter "I am an officer, and I place myself unreservedly at the disposal of the military authorities, observing that my regiment is in France." Churchill was appointed Commanding Officer of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, and was based at Ploegsteert for some time with this unit around early 1916. 

Churchill was a great wartime leader, and a man whose grasp of the English language was second to none. The celebrated American broadcaster, Ed Murrow, had this to say:

"He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended."

Great man that he was, I think that his paintings brought him more joy than it did those who were to look at them in later years. We found the location of Battalion HQ for the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers - it is near a modest farm, just to the south of Ploegsteert Wood - and tried to match up Churchill's painting with the actual scene. Suffice to say that the great man's imagination was as vivid as his use of language. The painting appears to be from high ground, and there are hills in the distance beyond the ruined church. The landscape around Ploegsteert (which the soldiers renamed 'Plugstreet') is even flatter than our Fens, if that is possible.

In the village of Ploegsteert, Churchill's time in the area is commemorated by a plaque on the wall of the church, the destroyed tower and spire of which he sought to capture in 1916. There is an interesting but effective anachronism in the plaque. Churchill is shown as the man he became in World War II, not the man he was in 1916. His hat is jammed determinedly on his head, his jaw juts out, and between his lips is the obligatory cigar. 

There is much more to see around Ploegsteert than the Churchill memories. It was on this stretch of the Western Front that the celebrated truces of December 1914 first occurred. Thanks to a diagram and a diary entry from Bruce Bairnsfather (the creator of the 'Old Bill' cartoons) we can trace almost exactly where that spot is, and today a wooden cross marks the location. In the distance, across the flat fields, is the village of Messines, with its distinctive 'pepper-pot' dome. It is alleged that a certain Corporal Hitler was treated for wounds in the church crypt during the war. If all the Great War locations for AH are to be believed, however, he would have to have been the most widely traveled German soldier of the war.

In the quiet depths of Ploegsteert Wood today, there is still a sense, within the silence, that this is a special and hallowed place. Tens of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops would have lived - and died - here. Small cemeteries are dotted here and there in gaps in the trees. They are quiet and sad places, but still visitors come and pay tribute to the young men for whom this was their last resting place. Within the wood, the visitor can still find the crumbling remains of bunkers. Most have been swallowed up by the unsentimental power of nature, but here and there, a pile of moss-covered stones reminds us that young men joked, laughed, existed - and suffered - under the vast canopy of the trees.

Geoffrey Winthrop Young, a writer, poet and teacher, wrote a prophetic verse in 1909 which has become linked to these silent graveyards. He wrote:
                          There will be voices whispering down these ways,
                                  The while one wanderer is left to hear;
                                And the young life and laughter of old days
                                          Shall make undying echoes.