I read in the news that Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is to travel to France to lay a wreath on the graves of two young British soldiers who were killed during World War 1. One of them was the first man to die in that ‘war to end all wars’ and the other was the last man to die. It reminded me that I had visited Saint-Symphorien cemetery where they are buried, a couple of years ago and I thought I would re-post my original piece but to my surprise either I hadn’t posted anything about that particular battlefield or I had somehow deleted it.
However, it is still in my mind now so I thought I would just put up a few photographs of the cemetery because it is so different from all the others in France, being in woodland, and having a more peaceful appearance. It is also the only cemetery, I believe, in which both British and German soldiers are buried together. My visit to Ypres last year was very different. There massive cemeteries like Tyne Cot just filled one with a deep, deep sadness as the ranks upon ranks of white gravestones spreading across the fields could not but remind one of the carnage of that war.
First though, the gravestone of the young James Parr of the Middlesex Regiment who was the first man to die, on the 21st August 1914.
And the gravestone of Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers who was killed on the outskirts of Mons at 9.30 a.m. just 90 minutes before the Armistice came into force.
And just to finish on, not far from here is the spot where the first shot was fired in that war.
And the steely grey canal over which many battles were fought in this area.
I thought my first post after my trip to Belgium last week would be about my walks around the battlefields of Ypres, but my mind is so full of the experience of seeing R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, performed in an Ammunition Dump in that Belgium city, that I want to talk about that instead.
This particular run of the play finishes on November 12th, so I urge anyone in that area or anyone who can reach it easily, to book quickly to see the play (details below).
Journey’s End is the only drama about the First World War written by a playwright who actually fought in the war.
Exactly one hundred years ago, Sherriff fought at Passchendaele in the 3rd Battle of Ypres and approximately 90 years since the play was first staged in London (with Laurence Olivier in the lead) it is being staged by the UK based MESH Theatre Co. in an old restored ammunition dump with 3-metre thick walls made to resemble the dugout in which the play is set, in Ypres, the town that was razed to the ground and re-built.
The action takes place over 4 days prior to the disastrous battle of St. Quentin and deals with the physical and mental ordeals of trench warfare experienced by a group of British officers during the run-up to the battle, the changes wrought by the war on one officer in particular (an alcoholic at just 21 years old, a causal effect of the war) and the effects of shell-shock on another. Only a few forward-looking medics took much notice at that time of what we would now call PTSD but which then was often considered cowardice, or if you were lucky, shell shock (after being named such in 1915).
The ‘Theatre’ is accessed through a couple of hessian sacks serving as a doorway to the dug-out, the setting is atmospheric, lighting restricted to a few candles and two or three oil-lamps which barely illuminate the smokey trench. Seating is limited to about 80 seats which surround a centre space on which the action takes place, the acting is powerful and emotional and being immersed in the atmosphere of the trench makes for a very moving experience.
The current run extends to November 12th with tickets at €15. Matinees 3.00 Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays with evening performances at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the performance running just over 2 hours.
If you don’t manage to see it this year, make a note in your diary that the company will be performing it again in 2018, the centenary of the end of the Great War, at Thiepval, France from 18th September – 8th October and at Ypres, Belgium from 10th October to 12th November.
Crete is the largest island in Greece, a place of dramatic mountain ranges and gorges dotted with ancient ruins and architecture from the medieval period onwards. Known as the cradle of civilisation and the birthplace of Zeus, the island provides the backdrop for many of the Greek myths and legends we are familiar with.
Throughout the mountains are scattered hamlets and villages and high in the dramatic White Mountains not far from Chania, lies the village of Therissos, which has not just one, but two museums. One would be unusual in a place of this size (pop. just over 100) but to find two is extraordinary.
I visited the village two years ago when I was staying at Malarme on the coast, mainly to visit the Museum dedicated to the Greek resistance in World War II which I had heard about in the course of my studies in war history.
Sadly, my interest in the wars in which my own country had been involved had led me to neglect local Greek history. I had a lot to learn about the resistance of Therissos over many decades, centuries one might say.
Talking to local people, I soon realized that the important museum for them was the one dedicated to the great Greek patriot and politician, Eleftherios Venizelos who fought for Cretan independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1887, who became the island’s first independent Prime Minister in 1905 and then Prime Minister of Greece in 1910. Of more importance to the locals, however, was the fact that Venizelos was actively involved in the drafting of the Cretan constitution, that he took part in the armed uprising in 1905 which deposed Prince George, and that he negotiated the unification of Crete with Greece.
He lived in Therissos and his house is now a museum dedicated to Venizelos and other local people who were involved in the struggles for freedom from the Ottomans.
The other museum, one dedicated to World War ll, is a purpose built modern space with few artefacts but many pictures and letters. Unfortunately, not many of these are translated but sometimes a volunteer is on hand who can help with this. Entry is so cheap I felt duty bound to leave a large donation as it is purely self-supporting. It is very local to the young men who died fighting the Germans in the mountains, a bloody conflict that is known for the savagery on both sides.
Some of the pictures are harrowing and deal with the war on the mainland as well as the war on Crete, pictures of starving children, scenes from the village of Kandonos which was burned to the ground in retaliation for the killing of 50 Germans, and pictures of the terrible life lived by the villagers during the harsh winters.
The savagery on both sides was legendary, from the locals shooting parachutists out of the sky in cold blood to the occupying forces, shooting whole families and villages on what often seemed a whim.
It is difficult to take all this in, surrounded as one is by a landscape of such beauty.
I journeyed up from the coast on the little ‘Dotto’ train with which most of us are familiar in cities and resorts, but in this case, it traversed the famous Therisso Gorge. It surged up the hill in under an hour, through magnificent scenery, the air heady with the scent of herbs, great swathes of wild thyme, rosemary, pine, marjoram, oregano, and fennel. Many of the olive trees along the side of the road are hundreds of years old and behind the rocky caves can be glimpsed walnut, almond, hazelnut and chestnut trees.
In the village itself, red, white and pink oleander trees bloomed, the scent mingling with the smell of cooking from the little tavernas that were operating, some with open wood fires and all serving delicious Greek salads and fresh fish, alongside local dishes infused with the scent of pine seeds, olive oil and fennel.
The little Dotto train allowed about two or three hours for a visit, long enough to wander around the village, have some lunch and still have to time visit both museums.
I enjoyed the trip so much I went back a second time a few days later and spent more time in the museums, reading the letters with the help of a student and trying to come to grips with what had happened here where the resistance hid out for many years during the second world war, harried and hunted like animals, during bitter winters of extreme cold, and parched summers of extreme heat.
The photographs tell a tragic tale and I am haunted by them still.
Best books on the history of the Battle of Crete:
Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor (John Murray, Paperback – a division of Hodder Headline (1991). Still regarded as the best history of Crete during WW11
The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis (trans. by Patrick Leigh Fermor): John Murray, Paperback (first published 1955). A first-hand account by one of the partisans from the mountains.