In Ypres Blind Veterans UK members walk in the footsteps of the First World War men

15 October 2013 16:05

Wendy Kane, who Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, said: “As we walked to place the wreaths I thought I would cry. It was incredibly emotional."

We have seen the haunting images of soldiers blinded in the First World War. Exhausted, they walk in single file, their eyes bandaged, their heads lowered, their outstretched arm placed on the shoulder of the blinded man in front. It is believed that those men, immortalised by the artist John Singer Sergeant in Gassed, were walking to the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) in the Ypres Salient of the Western Front in Belgium. Some of them never recovered their sight and they of course became the early members of Blind Veterans UK.

For four days I was fortunate to tour the former Ypres Salient with 20 members of Blind Veterans UK's Younger Group, to visit what have been described as the most terrible and glorious of the great battlefields of the First World War. It was the setting for a loss of life on a scale never before known.

The weekend was organised by Colin Williamson, Cadet & Youth Challenge Project Officer, and our guide of the famous Salient was Chris Cuff of Anglia Tours. Our visit took us to the Commonwealth War Graves where we walked among the headstones of the thousands of men - and the women - who made the ultimate sacrifice. We took part in the Last Post Ceremony at The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. It was a weekend when past met present, as we visited Hill 60 and Hellfire Corner, once the scenes of bitter fighting, and the Essex Farm ADS, as today's members walked where early members of Blind Veterans UK had so bravely fought and perhaps been treated for their injuries.

For Paul 'Fin' Findlay (42), who Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, the weekend was particularly poignant as his grandfather, PTE F Brotherton 2-DNS, Royal Scots Greys, fought in WWI. Fin said: "My grandfather was a remarkable man. He fought on the battlefields of WWI in France where he was shot in the knee and spent some time in the Dressing Station. I have a tapestry he made while in recovery that includes his cap badge and I brought with me a half penny he passed on to my family. Dated 1917, it had been hit with the impact of a round. The sense of peace I found on the former battlefields in Ypres was profound and it was hard to imagine that it was once the site of such bloodshed. I was lucky my Grandfather came back, as so many never did."

The group paused at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. The final resting place of 10,755 casualties, it is the second largest British and Commonwealth cemetery in Belgium.

We visited Poperinghe, affectionately referred to as Pop, the town that gave its name to 'On the Pop,' as troops would spend their precious R&R in the town's cafes and bars. It was there we encountered the dark side of Pop as we saw the Poperinghe Court Martial Executions firing post, where 301 men were killed. Many of them as we know today had post traumatic stress disorder.

Again, treading in the footsteps of those who went before them members of Blind Veterans UK attended the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. Blind Veterans UK members Wendy Kane, Maria Pikulski, Private Ken Facal of the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment and Kingsman Anthony (Coops) Cooper of the 1 Lancashire Regiment placed two wreaths in memory of the fallen.

Wendy Kane, who Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, said: "As we walked to place the wreaths I thought I would cry. It was incredibly emotional, as I thought of the significance of the Memorial to the Missing and the loss of so many lives. It's a fitting tribute that The Last Post Association want to maintain this daily act of homage for perpetuity and that it has taken place every night since 1927, apart from during hostilities in World War Two. By 9th July 2015 the buglers will have sounded the Last Post 30,000 times."

Kingsman Anthony (Coops) Cooper, 25, of the 1 Lancashire Regiment, said: "The last time I heard The Last Post was in Afghan after two of my friends were killed. It was poignant to take part in tonight's ceremony with my fellow members and to place the wreath on behalf of Blind Veterans UK. I know we all took time to remember those who had made the ultimate sacrifice and I thought of my friends."

Private Ken Facal, 26, 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment, said: "It's incredible to think so many soldiers were killed, at one time 50,000 soldiers in one day. Earlier at Poperinghe Court Martial Executions firing post I was shocked that 301 soldiers were shot. I thought of them, along with all those who fought, and, like Coops, I thought of those I Served with in Afghan who made the ultimate sacrifice."

Maria Pikulski, an Eye Clinic Liaison Officer at St Helen's Hospital, said: "It was a moving weekend as we visited the graves of those who had died and saw the scale of the memorials to those who have never been identified. To take part in the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing was an incredible experience and a once in a lifetime honour. I thought of the 300,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient. I hope it was of some small comfort to their families to know they are remembered at the Last Post Ceremony. I also thought of Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler, who was killed on 21st August 1917. She is buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery."

Gary Tomlinson, who Served in the RAF, said: "I found the whole weekend filled with humour and sadness. At The Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate I found the ceremony to the dead and the missing very moving. Ypres will stay with me for the rest of my life. With over 200 war cemeteries and over 90,000 men still missing, this part of Belgium has touched my very soul. I thought about Harry Patch, the last man to die who witnessed the First World War. He said that war is futile and I will let you make up your own minds."

It was at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing that we were joined by David Ross, who was one of our drivers for the weekend. David, who Served with the Parachute Regiment, regularly raises funds for Blind Veterans UK through The Nottingham Branch of the Parachute Regimental Association. It was a great coincidence that he was our driver and we thank him and his fellow members for all they do for us through their fundraising. We also met with old friends Chris and Milena Locke, of Lest We Forget Battlefields Tours of Ypres.

After the Ceremony we stopped to admire the beauty of the famous Cloth Hall. Destroyed during the war it has been rebuilt to its former glory. Those of you who have visited the Chapel at the Brighton centre will know that one of its stained glass windows is from the Cloth Hall. The window was presented to Lord Ian Fraser, who was Chairman of Blind Veterans UK for 52 years.

The June edition of the Talking Review includes a number of poems which were written by our members who were blinded in Ypres in the First World War. It also includes an account from the August 1927 edition of the Review by HG Gransby and FG Richardson, who were both blinded in Ypres. They attended the opening ceremony of the Menin Gate Memorial on 27th July 1927, when they were introduced to the King, and they write of their return to Ypres.

Henry George Gransby was a Post Office Telephone Linesman before the war. He joined the 1/17th London on 20th March 1915, rising to Lance Corporal. He was blinded in Ypres on 16th September 1917 at the age of 20. He came to Blind Veterans UK on 7th November 1917; he trained as a bootmaker and mat maker and became a successful businessman. Frederick G Richardson, a Corporal in the 1st Norfolk, went on to become a public speaker for Blind Veterans UK. Their account of the opening ceremony and their return to Ypres is read by Alexandra Lloyd-March from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

On Sunday we visited Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing on the outskirts of Passchendale where we walked between a sea of white gravestones, across rich green grass in a cemetery filled with trees laden with green leaves. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we all found it hard to imagine that an area of such peace could once have been the scene of so much death and destruction. The grass we walked upon was once the poisoned ground of Flanders, where thousands drowned in its pools of mud, their bodies never found. Those who fought there would not have seen grass, only the blackened stumps of trees in a ground littered with the debris of war.

The resting place of 11,954 soldiers of the Commonwealth Forces, of which 8,367 are unnamed, it is the site of the largest number of burials contained in any Commonwealth cemetery of either the First or Second World War. It is the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world. Its surrounding walls are inscribed with the names of 40,000 missing men.

This month's Talking Review also includes an article from the January 1926 edition of the Review by Mrs Athol Capper, who returned to Ypres with her husband, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Buffs, who was wounded in 1915 at St Jean by a bullet through the back of his head. At Regent's Park he trained as a poultry farmer and specialised in breeding white Bresse chickens, for which he won many awards. Mrs Capper was Assistant Editor of the League of Nations Union, Geneva. Her account is read by Gabrielle Nellis-Pain from RADA.

Such activities as these were made possible by BAE Systems who funded the pilot of the Younger Group project in 2009 and have been sole funders of the Younger Group ever since. Thanks to the funding from BAE Systems, members have enjoyed trips together that have helped them grow in confidence, as they realised they were not alone and they could share their experiences of dealing with their sight loss with their fellow members. I know from my own time away on younger events how I have seen people blossom and find the confidence they thought they had forever lost.

 "A War Poem, by William Robinson, who was blinded in Ypres in 1916

Published in Blind Veterans UK Review in December 1916

Dark is the outlook this winter,
For all, at home and abroad,
But there's a purpose for all that is happening,
Though it seems to us just a big fraud.
The sleepless nights, and anxious days,
On many a face leave traces,
Each thinking of loved ones far away,
And longing to see their faces.
In France, and Serbia and the other fronts,
Those brave khaki lads are fighting,
Immeasurable gratitude we give,
To them in their duty delighting.
Oh! Where is the 11th Division,
Amongst us a short time ago,
To face the odds, to pay the price,
Proudly we saw them go.
They laid down their lives for their country,
Just a few left to tell the tale,
How they fought, how they fell, to protect us,
As they meant to do, when they set sail.
Strong brave men of Britain, fill their places,
As brave men only would,
March fearlessly, patriotism showing,
Go and fight, as an Englishman should.
Save us from the fate of Belgium,
From the horrors of German hands,
Make England still a free country;
Our good old native land.
The 30th Division, God bless them,
In France they are doing their share;
For England, home and justice;
The perils and hardships they bear.
So we must leave them bravely fighting;
Fighting for you and me;
For when they come homeward marching;
We shall all be safe and free.
One day they will come, we are hoping;
They will freedom and victory bring,
Back to the strain of the Marseillaise,
And God Save the King.

Carl Adamson, 39, from Hereford said: "One day last year when I was just plodding on through my daily life I received a letter from Blind Veterans UK's younger group inviting me to Ypres to visit the Battlefields of World War One. I thought to myself what a great chance it would be to see what the soldiers of the Great War had been through. We visited the cemeteries, battlefields and the trenches where some of the heaviest fighting of the war had taken place. It was very moving and I felt how hard it must have been to actually fight and live in those conditions. I must say it was a fascinating and moving trip and I would like to thank everyone who made this trip possible. We are very fortunate to have a Younger Group."

The poem below, How I Won My Lizzie, was written by an unnamed First World War member of Blind Veterans UK who was blinded in Ypres. It featured in the Blind Veterans UK Review in November 1916. It was read by Charlie Collicutt of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for the Talking Review.

How I Won My Lizzie, by a WWI member of Blind Veterans UK

I used to go courtin' my Lizzie
In the days when there wasn't no war;
When people were happy and busy
With things that they don't do no more.
We used to walk out, then, together
My Lizzie and me, arm in arm,
We didn't care much 'bout the weather -
I bet I could keep her quite warm!
We fell out one day, she and I did,
The reason would cause you surprise.
"I can't marry you," she confided,
"Cause you 'avent' a pair of blue eyes."
"My 'usband," she sez, "must have blue eyes."
Sez I with a norrible frown,
"Since I can't get myself any new eyes,
You'll 'ave to put up with the brown."
But she wouldn't - the obstinate 'ussy!
"Very well, miss," I sez, "Then we part."
And because I don't like bein' fussy
I wont' tell you the state of me 'eart.
When the war came I took the King's shillin',
And soon I was dressed in khaki.
I'm sure I was ready and willin',
Didn't care much what 'appened to me.
Well, I got to the Front - fought at Wipers,
It really was rather a lark,
But it landed me, thanks to the snipers,
At Blind Veterans in Regent's Park.
"What colour," they sez, "were your eyes then?
"We'll get you the same as you've lost."
"A beautiful blue," I replies then -
You bet that my fingers were crossed.
Then I get them to write to my Lizzie,
"Would you come and visit me still?"
That is, if you ain't much too busy -
Your always devoted friend, Bill."
God bless 'er she wasn't too busy,
"What 'ave you done, William?" she cries.
"I've been to the Front, " I sez,
"Lizzie, to get you a pair of blue eyes."

I would like to thank the students of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and make a very public thank you to Andrew Tidmarsh of RADA. Andrew is Director of the Foundation Course, and without him it would not have been possible to bring to life the words of these long dead men and their wives who were the earliest members of Blind Veterans UK. They were ordinary men who showed extraordinary courage, as they left the comfort of their families, and all that was safe to go to war.

In 2015 we will celebrate our centenary. Blind Veterans UK was established by Sir Arthur Pearson, founder of the Daily Express and Pearson's Weekly, who lost his eyesight as a result of glaucoma. His was charity based on training, not pity. In 'A Land Fit for Heroes' those brave men who had been blinded by shot, shell and mustard gas on the bloody battlefields of WWI could so easily have become matchstick sellers or beggars, found on street corners in every town. At Blind Veterans UK in Regent's Park they found hope as they learnt a trade and built friendships. They left with the means to rebuild their shattered lives, they also left with pride and the knowledge that they still counted in society.

Lest We Forget.