I’ve just spent a couple of days poking around some of the World War One battle sites in Flanders with my old mates Adam Donovan and Dave Lombardi from The Jetsonics. Check these guys out if you’re into noisy guitar pop, because they’re actually quite good. I did a similar trip with Dave a while back, when we visited several places associated with the Battle of the Somme. This time we headed further north, to the Belgian town of Ypres near the Belgian-French border.
The so-called Ypres Salient was a bulge in the Western Front, a small area that was fought over for pretty much the entire four-and-a-bit years of the war. It was the scene of some of the bloodiest and most intense trench warfare of the conflict, as the front line shifted back and forth across the same ground over and over again, and it was here that the first gas attacks took place. There are more than 130 military cemeteries in the Salient – you can’t stand in one without seeing another close by – including Tyne Cot, the biggest British Commonwealth military cemetery in the world.
An astonishing 90,000 of the British and Commonwealth soldiers buried in the Ypres Salient have never been identified, their gravestones inscribed with the simple words “A soldier of the Great War”, and the names of many of these men are etched into the Menin Gate, a majestic memorial arch on the Menin Road east out of Ypres. A commemorative ceremony takes place at the Menin Gate every evening, at which buglers from the local fire brigade play “The Last Post” and someone reads “The Ode of Remembrance” (“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old”). There was a crowd of at least 500 people on each of the two nights I attended with the Jetsonics boys.
This trip had a special meaning for me because my great-grandfather, Herbert William Ellis, usually called William Ellis, served in the Ypres Salient as a private in the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. His army records show that he enlisted in late August 1914, three weeks after the war started, and joined his battalion at Ypres in the November. Like thousands of other men, William would have marched eastwards out of the town in a khaki column, snaking past the continually shelled junction known as Hellfire Corner and into the apocalyptic landscape depicted in The Menin Road by war artist Paul Nash. That’s the painting at the top of this post.
The 4th Middlesex took part in several actions along the Menin Road in 1915, most notably leading a successful assault on the German front line at Hooge in mid-July. The battalion sustained 300 casualties in a single day – almost a third of its total number. The fighting at Hooge went on deep into August, and it was up close and personal, with the British and German trenches in this sector just 15 yards apart in some places. In late September, the 4th Middlesex was also involved in an attack on the nearby Bellewaarde Ridge, where one of the battalion’s officers, Second Lieutenant Rupert Price Hallowes, won the Victoria Cross. He was killed on 30 September. Four days later, on 4 October, my great-grandfather William Ellis was wounded. I don’t know the circumstances, but the Casualty Report says he was shot in both legs and his left arm. He was also gassed.
After a brief spell in a field hospital in Flanders, William was evacuated back to England and sent to Bagthorpe Military Hospital in Nottingham. The doctors were especially concerned about his badly fractured right leg – “The bone is exposed for a length of four inches” says the Treatment Form – and at the end of November the leg was amputated “at the middle of the thigh”. As a result of the surgery, however, William developed septicemia (blood poisoning). The Treatment Form ends with the words, “Became worse & was treated by vaccines. Still became worse & died on Dec 19”.
William Ellis is buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in his home village of Somersham in Huntingdonshire. His name appears on the large stained glass window – the Memorial Window – above the altar in the church. William has a military headstone provided by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission and I can’t help thinking it seems out of place in the context of an English churchyard. But I guess it’s good that, in the final reckoning, he made it back to his home village.
The Menin Road by Paul Nash, oil on canvas, IWM ART 2242, Imperial War Museum