Remembrance: Revisiting the 'silent gardens' of WW2

British Legion pilgrims from the north-west of England

British Legion pilgrims from the north-west of England pose with an assortment of helmets and weapons in one of the trenches on Vimy Ridge during the grand tour of 1928 - Credit: Contributed

It was, by any standards, a puzzling encounter with a past strangely at odds with the present. As Alex Potter retraced his journey across the old Somme battlefield it was almost as though his memory was playing tricks with him. 

Barely five years had passed since the end of a war that had scarred a generation and seven years since he and thousands more like him had spent an uneasy night waiting for the whistles that would herald a day of slaughter like no other. 

Standing there, on the outskirts of Carnoy, not far from where a shell had cut short his involvement in an assault destined to claim the lives of so many of his comrades, the 32-year-old Norfolk veteran couldn’t help but reflect that the landscape hadn’t so much altered as been totally transformed. 

It was as if nature was doing its level best to erase any sign of the horrors inflicted by humankind. “The silent fields,” he observed, “seem to close tightly down on what they once saw.” 

Cycling out from Albert, the “gaunt remains” of its once-distinctive cathedral shadowing a township of shanties and shabby half-repaired ruins, the former sergeant in the 8th Norfolks found little that was familiar. 

Here and there he detected the “scar” of an “old redoubt” and a ditch that was once a trench he’d “helped to dig”, but in most places he could hardly get his “bearings” at all. Travelling beyond the “cluster of comfortless huts and workshops” that marked La Boisselle, he found no trace whatsoever of either the chateau at Becourt where his unit “used to have its cooker” or “the little wood through which we reached it”.  

Not far from Carnoy, he spotted a line of trees bordering the road to Peronne. Their trunks were festooned with leafy twigs but the tops of the trees and few remaining branches were dead. It was a grim picture repeated in “the ruined woodlands” freckling the chalk downs which led him to muse that the craters and the wilted trees would be the “last scars of these fields”. 

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And yet for all the desolation and dislocation there was in the patchwork of cemeteries a beguiling beauty to be discovered that transcended everything. He called them “silent gardens” and, like many other veterans before or since, he found spiritual communion in their ghostly company. As he sadly recorded: “I saw the graves of many friends.” 

Alex Potter was just one among a growing army of ex-soldiers, many of them haunted by their experiences during the Great War, who were drawn back to the killing fields of France and Flanders by a strange compulsion born of a mixture of grief, remembrance and enduring camaraderie. 

As historian Robert Sackville-West has written, such peacetime journeys “offered consolation to those whose lives continued to be dominated by the war”. 

In The Searchers, a deeply-affecting study of the efforts made to discover the whereabouts of the half a million British soldiers listed as ‘missing - presumed dead’, he explores also the search for meaning in a conflict that often seemed beyond comprehension.  

For veterans those journeys could be cathartic, offering up opportunities, as he puts it, for “renewing old friendships, reminiscing about wartime experiences, and even recapturing and confronting the past”. 

But it wasn’t only the survivors who felt the need to return. “Bereaved relatives, too,” writes Sackville-West, “felt that by visiting the battlefields and the cemeteries, where their loved ones lay, they came closer to the spirits of the dead.” 

What started as a trickle of individuals and small groups would grow, over the course of a decade, into a torrent of visitors as an increasingly memorialised Western Front became an unlikely tourist attraction annually drawing thousands of people on what came to be regarded as pilgrimages to battlefields re-imagined as hallowed ground. 

One of the first to go back was Ralph Mottram, an ex-subaltern from Norwich who went on to write a best-selling novel based on his experiences as an officer with the British army’s Claims Commission. Like Alex Potter, he was unprepared for the emotional impact of the rapid pace of change. 

Alex Potter

Alex Potter cycled across the former Somme battlefield in the summer of 1923 and visited the cemeteries he likened to ‘silent gardens’ in search of his ‘many friends’ - Credit: Contributed

The lacerated Belgian city of Ypres, though only “sketchily rebuilt”, was full of “new places of entertainment”, including, to his evident distaste, shops filled with dubious ‘souvenirs’, “elaborately rusted and bent bayonets, helmets and water bottles ‘from the trenches’ (or more probably from factories of antiques at Lille)”. 

A tour of the nearby battlefields was no less dispiriting. “Could that heap of rubble ever have been Battalion HQ, those few hundred yards of broken cobbles, the fatal road upon which we lost so many men, bringing up the rations, that malodorous ditch the celebrated Canal, the last obstacle between the Channel Ports and Fate?” he mused. 

But that was not the worst of it. Passing by Admiral’s Road, near Hill 60, where he remembered once being compelled to crawl to safety, and ‘Plugstreet Wood’, where trees were being replanted, he wrote of the “overmastering disillusionment” that was the silence. 

“There, where English-speaking boys by the thousand had lived precariously, and many of them died, was to be seen now an occasional peasant, surveying ill-humouredly the fields he had to bring back into cultivation,” he observed.  

“Instead of the incessant mechanical din of battle, the silly songs, sung to keep the teeth from chattering, the foolish or macabre jokes, there was only the explosion of ‘dud’ shells that the Reconstruction Engineers were tracking down and making safe.” 

Such matters, however, were of little consequence to the first wave of battlefield tourists, a majority of whom wanted little more than an opportunity to visit the last resting places of their husband or son. 

Theirs was a mission of remembrance catered for by legions of tour companies established on both sides of the Channel of which the most notable was Thomas Cook & Son. 

Fulfilling a promise made as early as 1915 when the war was at its height, Cook’s organised their first excursion to the battlefields just months after the Armistice with the aim of appealing “to everyone who is desirous of paying due homage to the memory of the Glorious Dead”. 

Two classes of travel were offered - Select Escorted Tours which promised the “maximum of luxury” and Popular Tours which assured travellers “comfort at the lowest fare”. According to Cook’s own promotional literature such arrangements offered its clients “a good opportunity to see, under the most comfortable conditions possible, all that is to be seen of the historic relics and battlegrounds of France and Flanders”.  

The tours proved an instant hit. But mindful of the fragile sensibilities involved, the tone of the trips remained respectful. The mood was summed up by Rudyard Kipling in the preface to one of the early brochures. “It rests with the individual tourist,” he wrote, “to have respect for the spirit that lies upon all that land of desolation and to walk through it with reverence.”  

Among those who preferred to travel independently was veteran, writer and future Norfolk farmer Henry Williamson. His was a journey of exorcism to “tear the Truth out of the past”. 

He was drawn back “to the brown, the treeless, the flat and grave-set plain of Flanders - to the rolling, heat-miraged downlands of the Somme” by the memory of his “old comrades” - “for I am dead with them, and they live in me again”. 

Travelling mostly on foot, with occasional lifts on charabancs, he took in many of the most memorable battlefield sites connected with his wartime service, from an “unrecognisable” ‘Plugstreet’ Wood in the Ypres Salient whose “spirit lives only in memory” to the high ground above Thiepval Wood where the Ulster Memorial Tower stood, “like a giant hand severed at the wrist and upheld as a warning”. 

Battlefield tourists search for loved ones and old comrades in a war cemetery on the Somme

Battlefield tourists search for loved ones and old comrades in a war cemetery on the Somme during the British Legion’s 1928 pilgrimage - Credit: Contributed

All that was left of the trenches from where the northern Irishmen had been driven on that bloody first morning of the Somme offensive were shallow scrapings that reminded Williamson of “old mole-runs, half hidden by the long wild grasses of the years - Wretched Way, Lucky Way, Tea Trench, Coffee Trench, Rum Trench”. 

The sight of those vanishing “seams in the hillside” was almost too much to bear. Turning away, he was filled with “indescribable emotion”, what he called “the haunting of ancient sunlight”.  

Ten years after the war such excursions were the exception as more and more veterans chose to take part in organised pilgrimages arranged by a growing number of ex-service organisations. 

Two members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps

Two members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps delivering family tributes to the graves of their loved ones towards the end of the war. The Armistice opened the way for relatives to make their own pilgrimages - Credit: Contributed

Most memorable of all these grand tours was what became known as the ‘Epic Pilgrimage’ of 1928. Jointly organised by the British Legion and the British Empire Service League, it culminated in a march through the recently unveiled Menin Gate by no fewer than 11,000 veterans led by the Prince of Wales.  

Included among them were more than 400 ex-soldiers from East Anglia whose journey from Harwich took them via Armentieres to Beaucourt and Vimy en route to Ypres and “a tribute of remembrance” that one of their number insisted would “live in our memory as long as life shall last”. 

Watching events from the first-floor window of a nearby estaminet was Ralph Mottram. He recalled how the formalities were interrupted in typically British fashion. Fed-up with the wait of an hour or more one of the veterans suddenly bellowed: “Ab-aide with me!” And, after some uncertainty, the thousands present followed suit. 

“I have never forgotten the expression on the faces of the military and other dignitaries,” wrote Mottram. “They could not make it out.” 

Henry Williamson, pictured during his 1925 tour of the battlefields

Henry Williamson, pictured during his 1925 tour of the battlefields, felt drawn back by his ‘old comrades’ who never came home - Credit: Contributed

As the years passed so the number of visitors returning to the battlefields gradually fell, a decline hastened by the Great Crash of 1929 and the prolonged economic depression that followed. 

Those who did make the journey continued to chronicle a fast-changing landscape and an understandably hasty programme of reconstruction that did not always meet with their approval. 

Venturing back in the autumn of 1935 and winter of 1936 to gather material for his book Journey to the Western Front: Twenty Years After, Ralph Mottram was dismayed by much of what he saw.  

He was scathing about Albert, which he thought “paltry as well as ugly” and possessed of “an awful air of exploitation more beastly than anything since the mid-Victorian undertaker handed you with a faked sniff a black-edged handkerchief”. 

A typical photographic souvenir showing the battered Lille Gate entrance into Ypres

A typical photographic souvenir showing the battered Lille Gate entrance into Ypres picked up by Ralph Mottram during his 1919 pilgrimage - Credit: Contributed

Typical of his criticism was his commentary on the rebuilt village of Merris in the former Ypres Salient. What he remembered as “a charming little place, clustering round its square” had been replaced by a faceless sprawl of “garish… red brick walls”. “There is still, in a corner of one of the lower meadows, a great pile of rusty barbed wire,” he wrote. “Otherwise all semblance is gone, irretrievably gone.” 

Merris was but one example of a litany of places across Belgium and France which, in Mottram’s estimated, had been despoiled twice over. “Had these villages been left desolate,” he opined, “there would be a less mournful feeling about them.” 

Writing to his publisher in the autumn of 1935, he declared: “The Western Front of 1914/18 no longer exists. Ninety per cent of the trenches have been filled up and the people on the spot in many cases never did know anything about them and don’t want to talk about the war.”  

All that remained were the memories and the memorials - so many, in fact, that it seemed to Mottram there were “more British memorials than houses or other buildings belonging to local people”. 

The most striking of them was the “immense arch” of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ monumental Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval. Described by one visitor as “the skyscraper of Picardy”, it dominated the “partially cleaned-up wilderness”.  

Prince of Wales leads the massed standards of the British Legion through the centre of Ypres en route to the Menin Gate

10 years after the Armistice the Prince of Wales leads the massed standards of the British Legion through the centre of Ypres en route to the Menin Gate - Credit: Contributed

Its ceremonial dedication was marked by one of the last mass pilgrimages before the outbreak of a second world war imposed a temporary halt to this novel brand of tourism. 

But through all the hiatus and the changing landscape the cemeteries, with their “great army of the dead”, remained to draw new generations of visitors in acts of remembrance. 

Now as then, the spirit that defined those early pilgrimages endures just as the words greeting visitors to one of the Somme’s most celebrated commemorative parks continue to resonate a century on:  

The Searchers, by Robert Sackville-West, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £25. 

Journey to the Western Front by R H Mottram is due to be republished by Pen & Sword next May.  



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