The Ypres Salient War Poets: ‘A Bitter Truth’

Ramparts Cemetery Ypres

Ramparts Cemetery (Corinne P/TripAdvisor)

A Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 30th September – 3rd October 2021

I have designed this new, four-day tour for The Cultural Experience combining history, literature and art to experience the infamous Ypres battlefield. Through the words of more than twenty British and German writers, we explore the war in the trenches, the dressing stations, the rest areas, and the cemeteries. This is an opportunity to study works of literature and art in the precise locations which inspired them and where they were created. Combined with a rich historical context, travellers can gain a powerful understanding of these works both artistically and as historical testimony.

Full details are on The Cultural Experience website.

We walk ‘Plug Street Wood’, where Roland Leighton picked the violets growing around a corpse to send to his fiancée Vera Brittain, visit the battlefield graves of poets such as Francis Ledwidge and Hedd Wynn, both killed on the first day of the Passchendaele offensive, and look across no man’s land where Henry Williamson took part in the 1914 Christmas Truce. At Vladslo German Cemetery we will see Käthe Kollwitz’s sculptures of grieving parents which kneel before graves including that of her own son. The tour is the result of many years of experience reading, researching and visiting the battlefields as well as teaching literature and art of the Great War at Liverpool and Lancaster Universities.

Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, Vladso German Cemetery

Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, Vladso German Cemetery

What was ‘The Salient’? 

Devastated by four years of shellfire and fighting, for the British the Ypres battlefield, guarding the Channel ports, was the key to the Western Front. The Germans held a natural amphitheatre of high ground, curved like the blade of a sickle with the handle formed by the Messines ridge to the south. This was the ‘Salient’ in which the British were surrounded on three sides, always observed and subjected to lethal shelling.

Paul Nash, The Ypres Salient at Night-Art.IWM ART 1145

Paul Nash, The Ypres Salient at Night (IWM ART 1145)

Sanctuary Wood Trenches Ypres

Sanctuary Wood Trenches

In time when there was less public display of emotion, poetry was a means for soldiers to express and try to come to terms with and express experiences of grief, trauma and intense comradeship. Poetry also became a means whereby soldiers at the front tried to educate those at home about the realities of the war: ‘I died in hell—(They called it Passchendaele)’, says a soldier in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem. Artists such as Paul Nash also saw this as a duty. Angered by the devastation of the Ypres Salient, he wanted his pictures to tell ‘a bitter truth’.

Highlights

  • Powerful war literature and art in a historic Flanders landscape.
  • Little-known cemeteries and sites and the famous Menin Gate, Tyne Cot Cemetery and Talbot House.
  • See where The Wipers Times was printed in Ypres Ramparts.
  • Women writers such as May Wedderburn Cannan and Katherine Mansfield.
May Wedderburn Cannan

VAD nurse May Wedderburn Cannan, third from right (maywedderburncannan.wordpress.com)

Full details are on The Cultural Experience website.

Itinerary

Day 1 – The German experience, Medics and Padres.

Depart London St Pancras by Eurostar to Lille. Drive to Vladslo German Cemetery, Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, works by Ernst Stadler, August Stramm, Gerrit Engelke and Erich Maria Remarque. Essex Farm Cemetery and Canal Bank, where John McCrae wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’, Zillebeke Lake and Railway Dugouts Cemetery, works by Studdert Kennedy, ‘Tubby’ Clayton, Robert Service, and artists Wyndham Lewis and Paul Nash.

Essex Farm bunkers

Essex Farm Dressing Station bunkers

Zillebeke Lake

Zillebeke Lake

Paul Nash, Rain Zillebeke-Art.IWM ART 1603

Paul Nash, Rain Zillebeke (IWM ART 1603)

Day 2 – The Salient and ‘Third Ypres’

In the morning Hell Fire Corner, Menin Road, Sanctuary Wood trenches, works by Edmund Blunden, Herbert Asquith and The Wipers Times. After lunch, the Third Battle of Ypres: Pilckem Ridge, Artillery Wood Cemetery, graves of Hedd Wynn and Frances Ledwidge, works by David Jones, Blunden, John Collinson Hobson, Edmund Campion Vaughan and Ivor Gurney. Tyne Cot Cemetery where the poets J E Stewart, E F Wilkinson and W R Hamilton are commemorated. Evening Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony.

Shell craters, Sanctuary Wood

Shell craters, Sanctuary Wood

Edmund Blunden

Edmund Blunden

Edmund Campion Vaughan's bunker, St Julien

Edmund Campion Vaughan’s bunker, St Julien

Day 3 – Behind the Lines

To Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery and chateau, the grave of Harold Parry and works by Robert Nichols and Blunden. Poperinge, the prison cells and Talbot House soldiers’ hostel, Blunden, Vaughan, R H Mottram and Ford Madox Ford. After lunch, drive south to Ploegsteert Wood and walk to the cemeteries, works by Roland Leighton, Vera Brittain, Katherine Mansfield, Henry Williamson and Alfred Ollivant.

Talbot House Poperinge

Talbot House, Poperinge

PloegsteertWoodCemetery(CWGC)

Ploegsteert Wood Cemetery (CWGC)

Roland Leighton

Roland Leighton

Day 4 – Walking Ypres Town

A day spent on foot. Rudyard Kipling and the War Graves Commission at Ypres Reservoir Cemetery including family inscriptions, Ypres Cathedral and Cloth Hall, William G Shakespeare, Blunden and Edith Wharton. Visit to In Flanders Fields Museum. Menin Gate, works by Charles Sorley, Robert Graves, E W Hornung, Anna Gordon Keown, C E A Philipps, J C Hobson, W S S Lyon, Siegfried Sassoon and Eric Haydon. Walk the Ramparts, The Wipers Times, Gilbert Frankau, Ramparts Cemetery, R W Sterling. Aftermath and loss, May Wedderburn Cannan, Margaret Sackville, Carola Oman and Marian Allen. Return to Lille for Eurostar.

Peter Kollwitz grave marker, In Flanders Fields Museum

Peter Kollwitz grave marker, In Flanders Fields Museum

Ramparts Cemetery (CWGC)

Ramparts Cemetery (CWGC)

Menin Gate

The Menin Gate (CWGC)

Full details are on The Cultural Experience website.


Join me on other battlefield tours with The Cultural Experience:

Tunnellers 4th – 7th June 2021

The War Poets: Words, Music and Landscapes Summer 2021

First & Last Shots Summer 2021

Medics & Padres 29th July – 1st August 2021

Walking Ypres Autumn 2021

Walking the Somme Spring 2022


EB-Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library-CropBWenh

Where and how was Edward Brittain killed? The death in action of her brother Edward, in Italy in June 1918, forms the final tragedy of Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth.


Vincent Faupier19698175Res

Who was Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’? The night attack by the 2/5th Glosters on 6-7 April 1917


John Nash Over the Top SimonJonesHistorian

‘It was in fact pure murder’: John Nash’s ‘Over the Top’


‘Anon.’ no longer: the author of ‘Man at Arms’ revealed.

Over the past fifteen years, an anonymous poem has grown in popularity, especially with battlefield visitors who find that its sentiments strike a chord with them as they attend the evening sounding of the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.  The memorial, unveiled in 1927, bears the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient who have no known grave.

Menin Gate at midnight (1927) by Will Longstaff (Australian War Memorial/ Wikipedia commons)

Menin Gate at midnight (1927) by Will Longstaff (Australian War Memorial/ Wikimedia commons)

The poem appears to have been inspired by the Australian artist Will Longstaff’s painting  of 1927 ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ which shows the ghosts of the dead filling the battlefield around the newly built memorial. Entitled ‘Man at Arms’, the poem is always described as by an anonymous author. The writer addresses a soldier who tells how, just as in the painting, the dead will rise at midnight and march to the Menin Gate.

            Man at Arms
What are you guarding, Man-at-Arms?
Why do you watch and wait?
‘I guard the graves, said the Man-at-Arms,
I guard the graves by Flanders farms
Where the dead will rise at my call to arms,
And march to the Menin gate’.

‘When do they march then, Man-at-Arms?
Cold is the hour – and late’
‘They march tonight’ said the Man-at-Arms,
With the moon on the Menin gate.
They march when the midnight bids them go.
With their rifles slung and their pipes aglow,
Along the roads, the roads they know,
The roads to the Menin gate.

‘What are they singing, Man-at-Arms,
As they march to the Menin gate?’
‘The Marching songs’, said the Man-at-Arms,
That let them laugh at fate.
No more will the night be cold for them,
For the last tattoo has rolled for them,
And their souls will sing as of old for them,
As they march to the Menin gate.

Popular as it has become, I have never included it in my literature and art battlefield tours because I had no evidence that it was the authentic testimony of someone who had experienced the war. Curiosity as to its origins however led to research its authorship.  Jeffrey Richards in  Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953 (2001) quotes the opening lines as being from a song The Menin Gate by Bowen.  This proves to have been by Lauri or Lori Bowen, published in 1930 by Boosey & Hawkes, with words by Eric Haydon.  A recording performed by Peter Dawson was released by His Master’s Voice in 1930.

[Gen Charsley] EeAHyX_XgAUZi8x-ROT2-cr

The 1930 His Master’s Voice recording of ‘The Menin Gate’ by Peter & Herbert Dawson was credited to the composer Bowen but not the lyricist Haydon (Courtesy of Genevra Charsley).

Following on from the success of Longstaff’s painting, the song achieved particular popularity in Australia. A first clue as to who Eric Haydon was comes from a brief article in an Australian newspaper, the Perth Daily News of  28 January 1936, which describes him as an English novelist and lyric writer, en route for Victoria on the liner Moldavia. Mr Haydon, the article notes, wrote ‘The Menin Gate’ lyrics.

The Daily News (Perth, WA), Tuesday 28 January 1936, page 5

The Perth Daily News, 28th January 1936, announcing the arrival of Eric Haydon.

The passenger list of the Moldavia includes Eric Haydon, age 42, en route for Melbourne, having previously lived at an address in London NW3.  Census returns and a 1939 militia attestation form show that he was born in Kensington, London, on 7 July 1895, the son of a cheesemonger’s assistant.  By 1911, age 16, he worked as a cashier’s clerk for a publisher and lived in Stoke Newington. In the 1930s, Haydon began to have some success as a song lyricist and novelist. In September 1939, when he enlisted in the Australian Militia, he lived at 30 Tivoli Road, South Yarra. Success however brought mixed blessings as the award for the best radio play in Australia of 1947 unfortunately seems to have drawn his financial affairs to the attention of tax officials who the following year fined him £70 for having failed to declare income from the play. He died in Parkville, Victoria, in 1971 at the age of 76.

There remains the question as to whether Eric Haydon’s experiences during the First World War might have inspired the lyrics to ‘The Menin Gate’.  Luckily, a service record survives enabling his military career to be reconstructed.  In February 1915 Haydon enlisted as a Private in the London Scottish, number 4359, and was posted to the 2nd Battalion with which he served for the whole war.

Eric Haydon Attestation form WO363

Eric Haydon’s attestation form showing his enlistment in the London Scottish on 4th February 1915. (National Archives WO363)

This battalion was to have a remarkably varied experience, being posted from Salisbury Plain to Ireland in April 1916 in the wake of the Easter Rising, then to the Western Front where it spent time on Vimy Ridge.  After five months in France, it was sent to Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece, then seven months later, in July 1917, to Egypt.  It was at this point that the one misdemeanour contained on Haydon’s crime sheet occurs, when he was found guilty of disobedience to a lawful command and insubordination resulting in a sentenced of seven days Field Punishment No. 1, the infamous tying of a soldier to a fixed object for several hours each day in place of detention in the guardroom.  The 2nd London Scottish spent ten months in Palestine, where it took part in the capture of Jerusalem in December.

Eric Haydon Crime Sheet WO363

Eric Haydon’s Crime sheet showing the award of 7 Days Field Punishment Number One in July 1917 and his mention for gallantry in October 1918. (National Archives WO363)

The German attacks in the Spring of 1918 led to Haydon’s battalion being sent to the Western Front in June: it is at this time that he would have first seen the future site of the Menin Gate at the eastern exit through the Ypres ramparts on the route taken by troops to the front line.  At the end of September his battalion retook Messines, then participated in a final advance, the forgotten ‘5th battle of Ypres’, to push the Germans back from Ypres and which by mid-October 1918 resulted in the Battle of Courtrai. During this fighting he was mentioned in a Brigade Order for Gallantry in the Field.  This resulted in the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, announced in the London Gazette of March 1919. It wasn’t until December 1919 that the citation was additionally published which reveals an astonishing action which in the earlier years of the war would have gained him the Victoria Cross:

Eric Haydon DCM Citation London Gazette 2Dec1919

Eric Haydon’s citation for the Distinguish Conduct Medal, published in the London Gazette, 2nd December 1919.

Private Eric Haydon was discharged in February 1919 unscathed physically by enemy action with a total of four years and 20 days service.

I can now include his poem in my tours as an authentic testimony by one who saw Ypres in its most devastated state, and who played a remarkable part in the fighting in the last days of the war.

Listen to the Peter Dawson recording of Bowen’s song Menin Gate here (from a web page by Roger Wilmut).


Note: I’ve since discovered that Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to Ypres Salient and Passchendaele (Pen & Sword, 2011 Ed.) credits Eric Haydon as the author and acknowledges Martin Passande as the source.


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Battlefield tour The Ypres Salient War Poets: A Bitter Truth, 30th September – 4th October 2021


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