Magazine article The Spectator

Flanders Fields

Magazine article The Spectator

Flanders Fields

Article excerpt

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. …

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