By Professor John Ashton
Granny Ashton’s half brother, my great uncle Arthur Anderton, died on the Somme in 1918.
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ‘Private Arthur John Anderton 283444, serving with the 2nd/ 4th Battalion, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), died on 25 April. Sadly he has no known grave and therefore he is commemorated by name … on Panel 86 on the Pozieres Memorial, France. Pozieres is a village about 6 kilometres north-east of Albert.’
Great uncle Arthur was from Liverpool but unlike many of his fellow Liverpudlian victims of the First World War his name does not appear with the thousands of others on the walls of the memorial room in Liverpool Town Hall. Rather, at the time of his death resisting the last German attempted push to Paris in the dying months of the war, he found himself in a London regiment.
Reading the daily log of his commanding officer, as we retraced his final weeks’ footsteps some years ago, the reason becomes clear. A typical morning entry would record that two or three hundred men had joined the regiment and an evening entry would record that at least a similar number were missing presumed dead, with no body to be found.
The result was a constant forming and reforming of battalions.
Spending several days immersed in the tragedy of such inhumanity, I was struck by the relatively small size of the battle area of the river Somme; space which saw so much death and maiming.
I was also reminded that this tragedy affected so many nations and people. Arriving at the cemetery at Poitiers we were surprised by the arrival of two young Germans on a motorbike whose relative was remembered in a British cemetery. Tears were never far from my eyes.
That trip made a lasting impression on me and the fragility of the peace of 1918 and that of 1945 has become ever more apparent as our 21st century world fragments, instability and ancient hatreds return and battle lines are drawn up. On average, in recent years around 200,000 people have been killed in conflict each year.
In the First World War 90% of those killed were soldiers and 10% civilians. Today that ratio is nearer 25%:75%. Never has it been more important to learn the lessons of history.
So this year when political biographer Sir Anthony Seldon decided to do something about establishing the Western Front as a cultural reference point for peacemaking, I was up for the challenge.
While writing a book about the First World War, Sir Anthony came across the story of Douglas Gillespie who was killed in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Shortly before his death, Douglas had suggested in a letter home the creation of a ‘Via Sacra’ when the war was over. He wanted it to run from Switzerland to the English Channel, a secular pilgrim route to help future generations understand the need for peace.
And so, on 22 June this year, a varied group of us met on the steps of the Mairie in Pfetterhouse, close by the Swiss-German-French border, and set off to walk north to the Channel. It was a remarkable experience. It was bitter-sweet; poignant and sad; a significant challenge; great fun; and a unique opportunity to share in an adventure with some remarkable people.
In some ways it felt like a contemporary re-run of Chaucer’s Pilgrims Tales; everyone had stories to tell, including Gillespie’s descendants and others who had lost family or had family members taken prisoner of war.
But it was also a three dimensional education.
On the second day we got lost in the Vosges mountains in temperatures well into the 30s and discovered the price the French paid to hold the Germans in the south, dug in for the freezing winter of 1914 at 3000 feet.
On the last day of June we reached the Somme itself, ready for the centenary ceremonies near Albert the next day and I felt the spirit of Great Uncle Arthur once again. We moved on to Vimy, Armentieres, Ypres and Passchendale; past the spot where a British soldier spared Adolf Hitler’s life and where Winston Churchill served his country.
We passed by the ever so poignant field of the Christmas truce and the football match, now part of folklore (the statue commemorating the truce is in the photograph above). We walked on past the Menin Gate with English schoolchildren laying wreaths at the sound of the Last Post; and finally to the coast at Diksmuide, where a local farmer had the presence of mind to open the sluice gates, flood the marshes and cut off the German troops.
Sir Anthony’s vision is of a long distance path which will be trodden for hundreds of years to come; perhaps long after the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has ceased to exist.
It is a necklace-like path punctuated by educational oases – like the remarkable little museum created out of a German medical field station in Cernay, where we were shown such hospitality by the local mayor. A path which will engage with future generations and steer them away from the path of intolerance, hatred, war and death. A path which will mean no more great uncle Arthurs cut down in the prime of life.
It is Sir Anthony’s intention to repeat this year’s walk in 2017 and 2018. You can find details on the Via Sacra website (http://www.viasacrawalk2016.org.uk/).
John Ashton 7 November 2016