My interest in World War One was most significantly ignited by having to read at University the outstanding poetry by men such as the famous Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. I was compelled by stories referring to the ‘monstrous anger of the guns’(1), and the men ‘drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots of gas-shells dropping softly behind.(2)’
The interest soon turned into a passion and I filled my bookcase with various World War One literatures.
Once I had learned what my father had experienced on his tour of the Western Front with Matt Limb (Read Mike Stokes Original Story I decided that I too needed to further my understanding of what our men had gone through over ninety years ago.
And so I ‘enlisted’ with Dad in hope that it would perhaps explain to me why the young men endured the horrors that I so often read about in my studies. I also wanted to see with my own eyes where these men fought to pay my respects and to learn more about the war.
Following on from my father’s first tour, Matt Limb therefore had the job of combining a general history of World War One, the poets and their stories and the findings that would hopefully lead us to close to where my great-grandfather was taken prisoner of war.
There have been numerous occasions where I have ranted at people about the horrors of World War One and to some; it may even have seemed like I knew what I was talking about. But it wasn’t until I stood on the battlefield that I realised just how little I did know.
I remember back to when I studied History at GCSE and a school trip led us around a cemetery in Ypres and took us to see the Last Post at the Menin Gate. This is a great way of introducing you to World War One, but Matt goes further by taking you off the tourist trail and teaching you about individuals’ stories while literally standing you on the ground they fought on, a true War Walk!
I learnt things that neither text book nor lecture can teach you and I spent the majority of the first day of our tour simply absorbing all the brutal facts and really learning what it was like on the first day of The Somme.
I think perhaps the real turning point for me was standing in the spot where Siegfried Sassoon famously and heroically brought in wounded men while under enemy fire. I had learnt many harrowing stories of young men throughout the day which had astonished and saddened me, but seeing the spot with my own eyes – now an overgrown and quiet area hidden away from the road – left me quite literally speechless.
However, it didn’t stop there and the tour never ceased to amaze me. Later in the tour, I found myself struggling my way through the wood that my great-great uncle fought (to his death) to capture, and I was able to pay my respects to Wilfred Owen while reading his poetry at his grave.
After imagining these moments in history many times, the reality struck me quite hard and I struggle even now – as an English graduate – to describe my experience.
However, nothing could have prepared us for what was to come. On our third day, my father and I set out with Matt to try and find the area my great-grandfather was taken prisoner in 1918. We were hoping to simply get as close as we could to the area that is referred to in the War Diaries of the 2nd Battalion of the South Wales Borderers. Though to our absolute disbelief, we were taken to the very doorstep of the farmhouse where my great-grandfather was stationed before he was captured and taken to Germany by the enemy.
We stood, quite overwhelmed and taking photographs of the building to take back home with us to show our family, when the owner of the farm crept out to us clearly confused as to what we were doing. We expected to be asked politely and firmly (in French) to leave, though after a few attempts at explaining ourselves, we were then asked to share our story with them in their kitchen along with a whisky and an invitation to lunch.
Quite astonishingly, where we thought the last chapter of our book had come to an end, it seemed it had only just begun, and it dawned on me the real poignancy of our uninvited visit.
I had spent a lot of time studying War literature and questioning why our men fought World War One and indeed, every other war, and at this moment, something clicked. Though I can’t say now whether my great-grandfather fought for his country and sweetheart at home, or indeed the picturesque fields of France; I think perhaps there is some solace in knowing that generations and nations together can keep the stories alive of the amazingly heroic men that fought so hard.
Siegfried Sassoon asked in 1918, ‘Have you forgotten yet?’ (see the poem below), but now that we are nearly a century on from this war, it is absolutely vital that these men and their stories are kept alive by us. Matt does just this, by taking you through an edifying, educational and emotional experience that will change and broaden your perspective completely – no matter your age, gender or family history.
Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Siegfried Sassoon, Aftermath, 1918.
(1) Wilfred Own, Anthem for Doomed Youth 1917
(2) Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est, 1917