World War! For the Barnsley Pals
There was a time when the First was just a date from the past. Although my old Dad served like many in the war also like so many he never wanted to be reminded of it. He was wounded in the arm by a German grenade and then in nineteen eighteen he was mustard gassed and spent six months in a French hospital with pneumonia before he was sent back home, a lad measuring six feet three inches and only six weighing six stones. Now I dearly wished that we had have talked because then I might have been prepared for the aftermath of emotions that bombarded me as I went from one location to another. I was horrified, bewildered, appalled, stunned, overwhelmed, all of those things and more, not just by the ages of those young lads who slayne but by the respect and the reverence showed by the French and the Belgian people who took care of these hundreds of cemeteries.
They were immaculate and simple, unadorned except for the white cross of remembrance and the rows and rows of white stones, no litter, just every now and then a small wreath or wooden cross with a poppy attached to show where someone had taken the time for a brief visit to a long lost relative. Here and there you would find a grave on which someone had laid a small stone, these I knew to be the graves of Jews who had fallen, in there religion you laid a stone to say the grave had been visited by a loved one or someone who cared.
Visiting these cemeteries is nothing like you think it is going to be. I ran a gamit of emotions, most of which were new to me, unlike my fellow passengers it was my first time, but even for them their sombre expressions did not need explanations. You were aware of a deep serenity and an almost quiet dignity as we walked along those avenues of white stones
Polygon Wood was silent, even though it is surrounded by trees, I did not hear a bird sing or an animal cry, just the crunch of the dried leaves beneath my feet as I climbed the thirty six steps to the remembrance cross and looked down on the cemetery below, unique in it's simpleness and yet compelling in it's simplicity, yet only yards away was a giant crater which theses lads in the Miners Brigade shovelled thousands of tons of earth tunnelling their way to the enemy. Nothing knew to them it was Barnsley Main but with a lot more sludge and a bit more flack than you used to get from the deputy, as my old Dad once said.
Hill 60, well, you stand on top and you know why it took the British soldiers so long to capture it, it's the only hill for a couple of miles.
Sancuary Wood, the day we came it was raining and muddy, which suited the mood I was in. This was the place that I believed I could walk in the footsteps of my father, No one wanted to go round the trenches, they'd all been there before except for me, but for me this was a special place. This was the place where I knew my Dad had been.
Jack Wardle sensed my trepidation, I had waited so long for this, but he like the true gent that he is said,' Come on Lass, me and thee a'll do it together'.
So, with me holding on tight to old Jacks hand, we plodded through the mud into Sancuary Wood. I felt as if I was standing on an old film set. Everything was there, just like I'd seen it at the pictures and on the T.V. The only thing missing was the soldiers and the gunfire. Eighty years, and it remained the same, I couldn't believe my eyes. Jack showed me all the places where bunked and made their tea in the dugout as and explained to me why the trenches were dug out in a kind of snake fashion, I was just spellbound by it all. The fact that it had been preserved in it's natural state was amazing and that my old Dad had been there all those long years ago. I told Jack@ I want to walk every trench in Sanctuary Wood so that I can tell my Mam when I get back that I had truly walked in my fathers footsteps'.
I leaned against a tree, still holding Jacks hand, he didn't want me to slip in the mud, and I tried to visualise what it must have been like for those teenage lads some not old enough to shave, rising up from these trenches in the early morning mist, going over into no mans land, through the muck and slime in their worn out khaki and tattered boots and probably scared witless but having to behave like a man and paint theirs faces with bravado to hide the fear. These were Yorkshire lads with Yorkshire spirit, doing a mans job and they went over on that first push like the heroes that they undoubtably were and by God they did us proud.
I didn't realise, until I stood that day in Sancuary Wood holding tight on to Jack Wardle's hand in the poring rain just how proud I was of my old Dad and all the rest of those young lads. I came out of that sludgy mire that was forever Sanctuary Wood and felt that for a brief moment I had walked hand in hand with my old Dad until I turned and Jack was apologising to me because it had been raining and he wished I could have seen it in better weather. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I gave him a big bear hug, and said 'Thanks Jack, you don't know just what you've done' He never asked me why, so I guess I underestimated him and he did know!
On the Monday of the commemoration in Sheffield Park when the memorial was officially placed, I pinned on my Dads medals and I wore them proud. I would have loved to have told him personally but I'm sure he knows wherever he's driving his big old diesel truck down a motorway in the sky. And later when I placed the wooden cross in front of the memorial with a poppy and his name on it I wanted to shout aloud' Heh! Dad, this ones for you' But I didn't because like Jack I'm sure he knew!
Menin Gate in Ypres is also a place that I never tired of going. Eight o'clock every night come rain snow or blow, the last post is played for the soldiers lost in the two great wars. To my surprise on the Friday night of our visit, which was the night that Jack Wardle said the 'exhaltation',………I was amazed to see a whole lot of students around the ages of sixteen or seventeen. I thought what would there be at the Menin Gate for these youngsters, but when Jack had finished, they came towards us tears in their eyes and one youngster with tears streaming down her face. My first thought was 'Why would this place upset young lads and lasses, thinking us old 'uns had a monopoly so to speak, and I did ask them. We talked for ages, well after most of our crowd had gone off to the legion, and they told Jack and myself that the First World War is part of the school curriculum.
I told them all about the money we had raised to make Jacks dream come true and when one asked me for my address, I gave it to her, but thought that was the last I would hear. I had told her how we were selling my poems to raise money I didn't know then what a marvellous artist Jack was) and we needed it for the upkeep of the Pals Memorial and Lo and behold a large brown envelope arrived on my doorstep with a lovely letter and a print up of her great uncles war exploits in the first war and in the corner of the plastic envelope was a pound corn to buy one of the poems I wrote for Jack in aid of the memorial. We are still in touch, her name is Anna Forbes and she lives in Edinburgh. She tells me she can't wait to go back to the Somme because unfortunately they were only on a long day trip. She wants to visit the pals memorial so hopefully some time next year we may meet again, the student and the pensioner. Heh!
It was like I lost my Dad for the second time when I went to the Somme, but the grief I felt was for all those memories from his early years that even the national lottery couldn't buy. Not just the horrifying tales which I'm sure there were many but the camaradarie and the foolish things they got up to, after all my Dad was only fifteen when he first joined up. He was sent back to England when they found out how old he really was. Every time he climbed a step in life, he dropped one back, even when he retired and he thought that he could put all the hard times behind him, God called his name
And like he did when Haig called, he went, no argument, no debate, no time off for good behaviour because I bet he knew, he'd had his hell and he was going to a greater place. He'd been to Flanders fields now he rests in elysian fields in paradise.
I shall go back to the Somme it's in my blood. In fact we are going on the first of July 1916 when they made the first push and we are going to be there at seven thirty in the morning when the pals went over the top. After all we'll have to keep that Pals Memorial in tip top condition for our Grandkids to go and see and pray to God that they never have to experience
When I came away from Polygon Wood I picked up some acorns and Tommy spinners and slipped them into my pocket. They are already sprouting and come the spring I shall plant them in my garden. Hopefully they will grow into fine trees and flourish on English soil, unlike those young Barnsley Pals who remain forever on Flanders fields………0