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A Duty Nobly Done — Anselm and Margriet in Flanders and Picardy

A Duty Nobly Done — Anselm and Margriet in Flanders and Picardy

Old Jan 4th, 2009, 01:00 PM
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A Duty Nobly Done — Anselm and Margriet in Flanders and Picardy

May 10, 1915

My Dearest Mamma

Here’s my letter block so why shan’t I write to you. This is a rummy place up here where I am waiting with nothing particular to do for the time – desolation – a street with a few farm cottages old bricks strewn everywhere and tiles and a few odds and ends of equipment a scratch cradle tangle of old telephone lines repaired in every direction hung up against odd poles & festooned against houses – a great pile of trench work, some pollards cut about by shrapnel a group of soldiers graves. Behind my chair an estaminet (pub.) and behind them orchards, trenches, noman’s land – and the Germans. A lovely day for it all & I swear the only vile thing is the Bosch – I have been down here since 3 A.M. My nicest subaltern will be here to join me or relieve me shortly – If he doesn’t come soon I shall be asleep. What a glorious time of the year you must have been having at home & how much I wish I were back with [you]. I cant believe that I was there 10 days ago or a fortnight. Do send me news of John when next you write. I am looking forward to hearing of him. He must have had some experience lately. We had a most unpleasant day yesterday. I hope it won’t be repeated. Gs dont seem to have much artillery opposite however. I hope you are having a pleasant time at Littlehampton.
J. L.
H.B.C. Arthur

Henry Bartle Compton Arthur—my wife’s Great Uncle Harry—was an artillery major during the Great War. We have fifty of the letters he sent to his mother and sister while serving on the Western Front. This one was written from his observation post in the ruins of a village, probably Neuve Chapelle, the day after the Battle of Aubers Ridge. About 12,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing; it had been, as he said, “a most unpleasant day.”

In November we followed Harry through Flanders and Picardy. We’ll write about that, and then add a few notes on hotels and restaurants in Belgium and northern France. For those uninterested in war history, come back in a while and we’ll post about a new apartment we rented in Paris, plus a couple more restaurants reviews. Somewhere along the way we’ll put in a link to our pictures and finish with a bit of advice on maps, guides, and research.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 01:10 PM
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Interesting, Anselm. Had you considered posting this as a blog (see:

http://wwar1.blogspot.com/)

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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 01:18 PM
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A great start!
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 01:22 PM
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Anselm

A truly wonderful journey for you to undertake. We all look forward to your reflections.

tC
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 01:25 PM
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I have been waiting for this! The start is wonderful and we await your impressions of this area. This is wonderful to have these letters as a guide and purpose for your trip. Type on!
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 01:50 PM
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Thanks for the encouragement. Harry's letters have been a beacon, if not an inspiration.

PatrickLondon, I hadn't thought of a blog, but we have plans—embryonic at the moment—to put all of the letters up on a website.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 01:54 PM
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Oh, this will be wonderful - looking forward to reading the trip report and more of the letters.

My Dad was in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII and I've always wanted to go there and re-trace his steps.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 02:02 PM
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Anselm - Looking foward to the rest.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 02:28 PM
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“Nobody could wish to see a finer lot of men …”

At the outbreak of the war, Harry was a 34-year-old captain with the 5th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery in India. He landed in Marseilles on November 7, 1914. Two weeks later his artillery brigade was supporting the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps in French Flanders, southwest of Lille. Harry spent most of the next year in this part of France, fighting in the battles of Givenchy, Neuve-Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos.

We spent a day driving around the area. Was it war myth that made it feel so melancholic? Flat land stretched off into grey mist, clods of grey clay lay in freshly turned fields, and grey water pooled in ditches.

We stopped first at Fromelles. In July 1916, British and Australians forces fought an action here whose sole purpose was to prevent the Germans from moving reinforcements south to the Somme. In less than 24 hours, the Australians took more than 5,500 casualties, the British 1,300. It was a devastating blow to the Australian 5th Division, which had only just arrived on the Western Front. The “Sugar Loaf”—a German strongpoint that was the source of murderous machine-gun fire—is today the site of the Australian Memorial Park. The centerpiece, a poignant statue portraying Lieutenant Simon Fraser carrying a wounded comrade off the battlefield, is called simply “Cobbers.”

Interestingly, the story of Fromelles isn’t over. During the battle, more than 400 British and Australian soldiers managed to break through the German lines. They were killed in the fighting and eventually buried by the Germans. There was no record of their graves. Through a remarkable and persistent sleuthing, an Australian teacher named Lambis Englezos last year located signs of a mass burial site. This past spring, excavation confirmed that the missing soldiers were in five burial pits, well behind what had been the German line. The Australian and British governments have since announced plans to exhume the remains, identify as many as possible, and re-inter them with military honours in a new cemetery.

We continued along Aubers Ridge and then a short distance west into Neuve Chapelle. Harry, by now a major commanding an artillery battery (four 18-pound field guns), supported the attack that captured this village in March 1915. Two months later, this is likely where he sat to write the letter that opened this report. Neuve Chapelle was rebuilt, of course, with brick houses, a new church, and wide streets. We parked beside an itinerant butcher whose day-glow sign advertised “Cheval haché.” The new Neuve Chapelle is singularly unattractive.

The Indian Corps spent 13 months in this sector, from just north of Fromelles down to Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée in the south. The war diaries of the 5th Brigade are full of references to the little towns on this flat plain—Richebourg, le Tournet, Mauquissart—and, in a fascinating way, the unique names the British applied to battlefield features, such as Chocolate Menier Corner, Port Arthur, and the Sunken Road.

There is a memorial to the Indian Corps just outside Neuve Chapelle, built on the site where they launched their attack in March 1915. A stone pillar overlooks the battlefield, with “God is One” carved in the many languages of the Indian Corps. The names of the missing—more than 4,700—are engraved on the circular walls of the memorial. They are arranged by battalion and show the distinctive ranks of the Indian Army: sepoy, naik, and havildar. The Royal Field Artillery is well represented, with gunners, drivers, and syces among the missing.

We continued west, finishing our day in Vieille Chapelle. Zelobes Cemetery, no bigger than a handkerchief, is well hidden off the D945. The cross of sacrifice, so prominent in Commonwealth war cemeteries, is absent here. The grave markers show the remarkable diversity of the Indian Corps—Sikhs, Punjabi Mussalmans, Ghurkhas, Jats, Pathans, and Garwhalis, to name a few. “Nobody could wish to see a finer lot of men,” wrote Harry, shortly after arriving in France.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 03:25 PM
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Anselm, I'm so pleased to finally read the start of your latest trip report. Your reports are always wonderful so I look forward to following this one too.

Already it brings back memories of our first road trip across the north of France and Belgium and the Netherlands where we passed cemetery after cemetery full of fallen soldiers. I also recall the warm reception we received in Holland when people discovered we were Canadians. Later I learned that my uncle, now a handsome 91, was in the first group of soldiers to liberate the Dutch at the end of WW2.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 03:28 PM
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thanks again for a fabulous beginning. can't wait to hear the rest.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 05:30 PM
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“I have just had the misfortune to lose a subaltern …”

May 6, 1915

My Dearest Mamma

… Our little trip up to Belgium has been quite an experience for us. It was concentrated essence of the thing & we learnt a lot. We now make ourselves out rather superior & give ourselves airs. I’m afraid I can’t say we were sorry when we came out of action. The Bosch had got us just to a T. & another night’s digging in a new position would have been the alternative. The peace after coming away is a great contrast …

M.L.

HBC Arthur

In April 1915 Harry spent a bit of time at home on leave. Returning to France on April 25, he discovered that the Lahore Division had been sent north to Ypres, where the Germans had launched a ferocious attack on French and British positions around the city. He found a lift to Ypres and arrived in time to support the Lahore Division’s attack on the 26th.

This was the Second Battle of Ypres, infamous for the first widespread use of poison gas on the battlefield. “I saw some asphyx. gasses being used,” Harry wrote, “thick yellow clouds of it & I have seen it turn a whole firing line like one man. It must be deadly stuff.” His battery was on the road out of Brielen, a town just west of Ypres, and from there he could shell the Germans on Mauser Ridge, opposite the Lahore Division infantry. But the enemy located his guns: “I have just had the misfortune to lose a subaltern – an attached fellow whom I hardly knew. It was while the battery was being shelled this morning. My captain was wounded also I’m sorry to say in the head, but I hope not very severely.”

They moved the battery, but were discovered once more. The shelling continued. It was bad enough for the artillery, but for the Lahore Division infantry, Second Ypres was a tragedy. The infantry were relieved on May 1, while the Lahore Divisional Artillery stayed on for another three days. “We have no very definite task” wrote Harry, “& I have attached myself pro tem to a French Colonel, who seems very glad of my help, as I cover of bit of the line he cant quite get. He was very cordial about it.”

We drove out to Brielen. It is a cluster of houses on a country road, surrounded by flat fields and occasional trees. I had hoped to be able to follow Harry’s line of sight, but we were in clinging fog. We turned east and followed the German line over to Langemark. There is a German cemetery here, a darkly somber place. Under a canopy of oak, black flat stones mark the burials, and near the entrance, the Kameraden Grab—a mass grave—contains the bodies of 25,000 soldiers. Off in the distance, a statue of four soldiers watches over the cemetery. Silhouetted against the fog, these figures were deeply unsettling.

We moved on to Saint-Julien. At the crossroads once called Vancouver Corner, the Brooding Soldier—the upper figure of a Canadian soldier, head bowed, leaning on his rifle reversed—“marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks on the 22-24 April 1915. 2,000 fell and are buried nearby.”

We went next to Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth cemetery. Near the cross of sacrifice I watched some workmen refurbishing grave markers. One man used a grinding wheel to polish the face of a stone, while another used a small etching tool to refresh the name carved into the face. There are 12,000 graves in Tyne Cot; the names of 35,000 missing are carved on the rear wall. These workmen will be busy for the rest of their lives.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 06:01 PM
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Ah, there you are. Reading with great interest.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 07:39 PM
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What a fascinating and very personal trip report. I'm very much looking forward to more.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 08:46 PM
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This is lovely; thanks for sharing.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 09:02 PM
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Anselm: this is a great history treasure that you are sharing with all of us.

Perhaps you should make a book of it, or at least, as was suggested, a blog.

I cannot imagine a more evocative reason for a trip around northern France.

Those cemeteries are sad reminders to all who have seen them, from both World Wars.

Please continue. you have a faithful and grateful audience.
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Old Jan 4th, 2009, 09:21 PM
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A melancholy, evocative report especially so when our country is at war again. Thank you for posting.
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Old Jan 5th, 2009, 07:13 AM
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My thanks, again, for the kind words.

Margriet has pointed out that I used the phrase "war diaries" without explaining what they are.

Major fighting units kept a daily record—or diary—of events. We were able to locate most of the war diaries for both Harry's 5th Brigade and for the Lahore Divisional Artillery, so we were able to match the dates of his letters to what was going on around him at that moment.

And, just to clarify the hierarchy of formations: Harry commanded the 64th Battery, which was one of three batteries in the 5th Brigade. The 5th Brigade was one of four brigades in the Lahore Divisional Artillery.

I'll explain at the very end of our trip report how to find war diaries.
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Old Jan 5th, 2009, 07:15 AM
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“Safe back in the trenches …”

Harry returned to Neuve Chapelle, arriving back in time for the Battle of Aubers Ridge. The techniques that had worked at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle ran into a harder and wiser German defence. And then, a few days later, the Indian Corps fought in the 10-day Battle of Festubert; the result was a one kilometre advance at the cost of 16,000 casualties. Harry was one of the injured. He wrote this from a casualty clearing station, one day after the battle ended:

May 26, 1915

My Dearest Mamma

Just a line again today as you will be unreasonably anxious until I am ‘safe back in the trenches’ again … I expect to be right enough to go in two or three days time & already feel perfectly fit & eye not troubling me though it looks a horrid sight & is kept covered up. I was lucky in having no damage whatever to the eye itself. The (other) wound is of course completely healed & was never anything at all … This is rather a quaint place – a plain square room nice and airy, some disinfectants, a couple of deck chairs & some stools made of wine cases with strips of wood nailed on as legs. Rows of stretchers all round the room are our beds – not too uncomfortable. Accommodation of course for people who are just going further or going back like myself. My eye is dressed every two hours & improves every time. It does not trouble me at all …

My best love

H.B.C. Arthur

Harry returned to action and spent a relatively quiet summer before the Battle of Loos. The Indian Corps’ role was peripheral, although no less bloody: they made a diversionary attack northeast of Neuve Chapelle while the main battle took place south of the la Bassée canal.

The education of the young, and other things on the mind of Major Arthur

June 9, 1915

My Dearest Mamma

I write again today to ask if you will please buy me an aneroid barometer—one of those little round ones in a leather case (pocket one). I want to see how far fuzes burn in accordance with pressure of atmosphere. It has clouded over again this afternoon & I suspect we shall have another thunder storm. The French seem to have been pretty successful the last few days & our people out at the Dardanelles too.

We are all very quiet here & I divide my days between going to the obs[servin]g station for a few hours & the education of the young.

Please thank Nora very much (or yourself?!) for the sunshades which will be most useful—I will write her tomorrow to thank her for the chocolates.

J.C.

HBC Arthur

Harry wrote from time to time about the officers joining his battery. They were very young men: “… I have got two new subalterns named Clark(e?) & Thomas. They are nouveautés & I hope will be a success. The former seems a nice boy & the other not too bad except he appears to know more about everything than I do.” And later: “We have just got a new subaltern named Wrigall. He has been 6 mths at Woolwich. He looked rather frightened on arrival. Our last one was overconfident. This one too little. He looks a nice youth however.”

There were problems to be solved: “On arrival at this village we had no less than 3 cases of drunkenness (after being clear of it for about a year!) I went round to all the houses in the main street & was very eloquent in my best French. You know sale of alcohol to Br. soldiers is absolutely forbidden …” He said he received a sympathetic hearing.

Harry’s initial assessment of the war—“The whole thing depends on tidiness. It’s a funny game”—evolved as the cycle of fighting, rest, and refit repeated itself month after month. He grew restive when out of action and was frustrated by the lack of accurate war news: “I think the cheap & fantastic accounts of some of our press absolutely nauseating.” He remarked on the gap between staff and those actually fighting: “Major Barton in the bde [brigade] has got a DSO & richly deserved it. There is great indignation in the infantry at the shower of honours on the staff, whilst the people who have faced the bombs & the machine guns get nothing.”

But his good humour and dry wit were irrepressible. He took care to thank his family for gifts of cake, pudding, and curry powder. He asked them to send him flypapers, toothpowder, torch batteries (Ever Ready, a box of six cells, number 226B.S), razor blades (Gillette), a transparent protractor, and “bandages for wounded telephone wire” (some kind of tape, I assume). He sent his binoculars off to be mended, and then wrote to his mother: “I am asking Ross & Co. to send my field glasses to you when repaired. I was told they kicked a bit as so many men had died between the giving of the order & payment of the bill. Perhaps you would pay their bill also? Ross Opticians, Bond St.”

When in action, the officers’ mess took on a different look: “We have established our mess in a tiny tumbledown house by the wayside and have partitioned off part of it with straw screens & a waterproof sheet. We have a lot of straw down on the ground & a plank suspended from the ceiling with a few bits of wire for a table — a few old chairs & we are very comfortable.” In action, he spent a lot of time in the observation post. He assured his family that he was doing all he could to avoid harm: “We have built up a great sandbag arrangement and nothing but a direct hit would be likely to harm us. And before that I should have made myself scarce in a dugout we have handy.” Yet they must have realized the danger: “They have got a 17 [inch] gun over the way & it makes a hole like the crater of a volcano. I should think Well House [the family home in Banstead] wd about go inside.”

He wrote affectionately about his horses, Joscelyn and Givenchy: “I am lucky in the new mare. She is rather bourgeois, but will do me very well in a quiet way.” He asked frequently for news of his nephew John, who was also an artillery officer on the Western Front. He remarked on insects in the summer (the flies, he said, were as bad as in Poona) and described the house martins that had built a nest in his observation post.

He made light of his wounds.
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Old Jan 5th, 2009, 07:35 AM
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"I was told they kicked a bit as so many men had died between the giving of the order & payment of the bill."

Sounds callous these days. But Mrs F's grandfather was almost bankrupted by the problem: officers were being killed before paying their tailor's bill, and the sheer numbers of dead creditors became impossible for many shopkeepers at home to cope with.
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