The Ypres Salient War Poets: ‘A Bitter Truth’

Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, Vladso German Cemetery

Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, Vladso German Cemetery

A Battlefield Tour with The Cultural Experience, 1st – 4th October 2020

I have designed a new, four-day tour with The Cultural Experience combining history, literature and art to give an insight into the infamous Ypres battlefield. Through the words of more than twenty British and German writers, we examine the experience of the war from the trenches to the dressing stations, rest areas and cemeteries. At locations which directly relate to the works, with accurate historical context, we gain a powerful understanding of both literature and history.

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.

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The 2019 War Poets Tour on the Somme

Historical Background

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)

Barraud The Great Square, Ypres 29th October 1917 NGC__40728

C H Barraud, The Great Square, Ypres 29th October 1917 (NGC40728)

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 12th – 15th June 2020

Walking the Somme 29th May – 1st June 2020

Medics & Padres 30th July – 2nd August 2020

Walking Ypres Autumn 2021


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’


Where and how did Edward Brittain die?

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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.

Edward Brittain applied for a temporary commission in September 1914, when he was not yet nineteen years of age.

His parents gave their consent to Edward's application, signing this statement written by him. (National Archives WO339/27827)

His parents gave their consent to Edward’s application, signing this statement written by him. (National Archives WO339/27827)

He was posted to the 11th Sherwood Foresters in February 1916 and badly wounded during the Battle of the Somme on 1st July when was also awarded the Military Cross for bravery.

Edward Brittain's wounds recorded in his service record. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Edward Brittain’s wounds recorded in his service record. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Edward Brittain after the award of the Military Cross (Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library)

Edward Brittain after the award of the Military Cross (Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library)

He was eventually found fit for further overseas duty in March 1917 and returned to his battalion in France. In November his battalion was sent to Italy.

On 15th June 1918, the Austro-Hungarian army launched a major offensive in Italy, part of which fell against British forces on the Asiago plateau. The 11th Sherwood Foresters held San Sisto Ridge, a small, steep, wooded hill, rising 60 metres above the plain. Two companies of the Sherwood Foresters held the front line forward of the ridge, which ran just within the tree line. Captain Brittain commanded ‘A’ Company which held the right hand section of the front line.

Part of the British front line held by Edward Brittain's company in June 1918, known as Alhambra Trench, in 2015 military barbed wire now keeps cattle out of the woods.

Part of the British front line held by Edward Brittain’s company in June 1918, known as Alhambra Trench, in 2015 military barbed wire now keeps cattle out of the woods.

Alhambra Trench with wartime barbed wire. The positions were blasted and drilled from the rock.

Alhambra Trench with wartime barbed wire. The positions were blasted and drilled from the rock.

In front were picquets of about ten men from each company with four machine guns.  At 3am the Austrians began a bombardment of the British positions which lasted for four hours and included gas shells on the front lines. The volume of gas was so great that it rolled down the rear slope of San Sisto Ridge into the valley behind.  At 6.45am the picquets saw troops led by small groups of stormtroops with flame throwers emerging through gaps in the Austrian wire.

The direction from which the Austrian attack came. The rocky outcrop to the right was the location of two British machine guns; the ten-man picquet from Brittain's A Company was just beyond. The town of Asiago is in the valley behind.

The direction from which the Austrian attack came. The rocky outcrop to the right was the location of two British machine guns; the ten-man picquet from Brittain’s A Company was just beyond. The town of Asiago is in the valley behind.

At the time of the attack, Brittain was liaising with French troops immediately to the right. His Company had about 50 men after the bombardment, to hold about 800m of front line and he was probably the only unwounded officer in the company.  One of the machine guns in front of Brittain’s company was destroyed but the picquet opened fire as did the remaining machine gun which fired 1,000 rounds and inflicted heavy losses on the attackers.  However the attackers managed to outflank the picquet and machine gun forcing them to withdraw, which in turn caused the left hand machine guns to pull back. The Austrian attackers began to crawl towards the British wire and found a route through at the junction of the two companies of the Sherwoods. Entering the British trenches, the Stormtroopers were followed by trench clearing parties which worked left and right with grenades and flamethrowers, capturing 200m of the front line.

The deployment of British at the start of the battle. The 11th Sherwoods were holding the front line with D Company on the left and Brittain's A Company on the right; C Company was on the ridge summit behind. Machine guns R1 and R2 were deployed in front of the British wire, as was a picquet of ten men.  The Austrian break-in is shown by the red arrow and the area in which Edward Brittain lost his life is shown by the cross. (23rd Division GS War Diary National Archives WO95/4229)

The deployment of British at the start of the battle. The 11th Sherwoods were holding the front line with D Company on the left and Brittain’s A Company on the right; C Company was on the ridge summit behind. Machine guns R1 and R2 were deployed in front of the British wire, as was a picquet of ten men. The Austrian break-in is shown by the red arrow and the area in which Edward Brittain lost his life is shown by the cross. (23rd Division GS War Diary National Archives WO95/4229)

Soon between 100 and 200 attackers were in the British trench, as the Sherwoods attempted to block the trench at either end of the break-in. Brittain immediately led a counterattack, forcing some of the Austrians back through the wire, and reorganised the defence. It was as he looked out for signs of the Austrians that he was killed, reportedly shot through the head by a sniper.

The area  of Alhambra Trench retaken by Brittain's counterattack and where he was killed shortly afterwards.

The area of Alhambra Trench retaken by Brittain’s counterattack where he was killed shortly afterwards.

Brittain’s Company was now officerless and the Austrians had at least ten machine guns inside the British wire. They resumed pouring through the gap into the British front line and about thirty pushed up a communication trench to the summit of the ridge into an undefended length of trench.

Communication trench where the Austrians broke in and pushed up to the summit of San Sisto Ridge.

Communication trench where the Austrians broke in and pushed up to the summit of San Sisto Ridge.

A dugout near the summit of San Sisto ridge.

A dugout near the summit of San Sisto Ridge.

A counterattack organised by the commanding officer of the 11th Sherwood Foresters, a 26-year-old Lieutenant Colonel, Charles Hudson, forced the Austrians back and retook the ridge but soon afterwards Hudson was seriously wounded by a grenade. A second British counterattack consolidated the hold on the front line.

Ration tins on San Sisto Ridge, 2015.

Ration tins on San Sisto Ridge, 2015.

The top of a British petrol tin, used for transporting water to the front line, San Sisto Ridge, 2015.

The top of a British petrol tin, used for transporting water to the front line, San Sisto Ridge, 2015.

The War Office telegram sent to Edward's father on 22nd June 1918. (National Archives WO339/27827)

The War Office telegram sent to Edward’s father on 22nd June 1918. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Notification of the location of Edward's Grave sent to his father. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Notification of the location of Edward’s Grave sent to his father. (National Archives WO339/27827)

Vera Brittain visited Hudson in 1918 and in Testament of Youth describes how he told her that her brother was “sniped” by an Austrian officer and shot through the head, just after the counterattack which he had led.  She also quotes from a letter received from a Private in her brother’s company: ‘Shortly after the trench was regained Capt. Brittain who was keeping a sharp look out for the enemy was shot through the Head by an enemy sniper, he only lived a few minutes.’

Granezza British Cemetery.

Granezza British Cemetery.

Edward's grave at the end of the row buried with men from his Company.  In September 1921 Vera visited the cemetery and planted rosebuds and a small asparagus fern beside her brother's grave.

Edward’s grave at the end of the row buried with men from his Company. In September 1921 Vera visited the cemetery and planted rosebuds and a small asparagus fern beside her brother’s grave.

After the publication of Testament of Youth Hudson wrote to Vera stating that shortly before the attack a letter from her brother had been opened by the censor and found to contain references to homosexual activity with men under his command. Hudson said that he warned Brittain obliquely that his letters were read the day before and believed that as a result Brittain had deliberately sacrificed himself during the attack. Edward Brittain’s army service record contains no reference to this.  Edward’s death is thought to have contributed to their father’s suicide in the Thames in 1935.


The account of the action on San Sisto Ridge is based on Francis MacKay, Asiago (2001) with reference to War Diaries of 11th Battalion Sherwood  Foresters (WO95/4240) and General Staff 23rd Division (WO95/4229), and Percy Fryer, The Men from the Greenwood (1920).  Reference to the revelations by Charles Hudson is made by Mark Bostridge, Vera Brittain and the First World War (2014).


Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, Vladso German Cemetery

Battlefield tour The Ypres Salient War Poets: A Bitter Truth, 1st – 4th October 2020


Join me on a battlefield tour with The Cultural Experience:

Tunnellers 12th – 15th June 2020

Walking the Somme 29th May – 1st June 2020

Medics & Padres 30th July – 2nd August 2020

Walking Ypres Autumn 2021

War Poets Summer 2021


 

VB

Where did Vera Brittain serve in France during the First World War?


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The most effective chemical attack ever staged: the gas attack at Caporetto, 24th October 1917


Austrian positions Monte Sief view to Setas

Col di Lana: the First World War in the Dolomite mountains


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Who dug the Lochnagar Mine?


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Where did Vera Brittain serve in France during the First World War?

Vera Brittain when a VAD nurse.

Vera Brittain when a VAD nurse. (Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 &The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library)

From early August 1917 until the end of April 1918 Vera Brittain served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at No 24 General Hospital, Étaples. She wrote about this experience in her acclaimed and powerful memoir Testament of Youth in the chapter entitled ‘Between the Sandhills and the Sea’.  Étaples is a fishing port fifteen miles from Boulogne, and just to the north the British established a large infantry training camp and a complex of nine major hospitals, almost entirely comprised of huts and tents.

A plan of the Étaples Base Bamp and hospital complex with No 24 General Hospital marked.

A plan of the Étaples Base Camp and hospital complex with No 24 General Hospital marked.

The area of the Étaples Base Camp and hospital complex today. The area occupied by No 24 General Hospital is now covered by housing.

The area of the Étaples Base Camp and hospital complex today. The area occupied by No 24 General Hospital is now covered by housing.

She was first assigned to the ward for acute German cases and then treated mustard gas cases suffering severe skin blistering and temporary or sometimes permanent blindness.

A Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

A Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

No 24 General Hospital was not in the ‘front line’, as the fighting was never less than fifty miles from Étaples, nor was it a Casualty Clearing Station but it was bombed several times in 1918. The hospitals were hit by bombs because they were built alongside the Boulogne to Paris railway and were adjacent to the major complex of training camps, both of which were targeted. Vera experienced over a month of night-time air raids which left her exhausted and ‘more frightened than I had ever been in my life’. She left Étaples before the worst bombing raids of May, June and August 1918 when patients and nurses were killed in No 24 General and neighbouring hospitals.

A First Aid Nursing Yeomanry driver with an unexploded German aerial bomb at a British hospital in Calais, 1918.

A First Aid Nursing Yeomanry driver with an unexploded German aerial bomb at a British hospital in Calais, 1917.


Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, Vladso German Cemetery

Battlefield tour The Ypres Salient War Poets: A Bitter Truth, 1st – 4th October 2020


Join me on a battlefield tour with The Cultural Experience:

Ypres Salient War Poets 1st-4th October 2020

Tunnellers 12th – 15th June 2020

Walking the Somme 29th May – 1st June 2020

Medics & Padres 30th July – 2nd August 2020

Walking Ypres Autumn 2021

War Poets Summer 2021


p1110007cropenh

Where and how did Edward Brittain die?


Protection against Mustard Gas


The advent of Mustard Gas


‘Anon.’ no longer: the author of the ‘Menin Gate’ poem revealled


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