Not the most thrilling set of photographs, but the one above shows how a field with some lumps in it, tells a story or doesn’t. And of course it also tells how history is there, I’m just the princess who knows where that particular pea is under this particular mattress. So if you will imagine for a minute a different landscape, one of holes and dust, the booms and snaps of heavy and light artillery, the chat and moans of men, the rattle and clank of equipment and tanks and the barked orders of officers.
Dammstrasse was a German defensive line, dug deep into the heavy soil of Western Flanders, about 3 miles South East of Ypres, one of many. This is special for me as it’s as close a view of the line as my Grandfather would have seen it as I can get. He came up to the front line as part of the second wave on the hot dusty afternoon of 7th June 1917 just after the huge mine attack along the length of the Ypres Salient, At 3.10 on that morning 19 of 23 mines exploded almost simultaneously along a large section of the German Front line on the Messines Ridge, meticulously planned and tunneled into the wet blue clay from behind the lines for months before, the explosions were so loud they were heard in Dublin and are alleged to have rattled windows in London, there is no proof of either. It turned the front upside down. Thousands of young German men where vapourised or buried alive, pillboxes were thrown in the air or pitched sideways, the survivors wandered around disorientated by the blast and fumes of gun cotton and ammonal. Even the British and Commonwealth lads were told to crawl out of their trenches onto the parapet or parados just in case the trenches collapsed or the blast started an earthquake, nothing on this scale had been done before. Percy and his mates got to wander into the aftermath of it across this field.
The enemy artillery threw up a bit of shrapnel as they approached, they were late, consolidated at Dammstrasse in the hot mid-afternoon sun, they’d walked from Zillebeke to the West where the previous night had been spent sitting about smoking, chatting and catching forty winks in relative safety, just ticking off the minutes. The men come up via St Eloi further back along the road, passing craters from both earlier that day and from previous mine attacks walking with conspicuous ease through what had been no-man’s-land and the German First line of Trenches. Dammestrasse, the now dead German line would have run from the top edge of the farm building on the right behind the pillbox almost parallel with the horizon nearly as far as White Chateau, which doesn’t exist anymore; now just a driveway which was Dammstrasse. The drive itself would have formed a good natural line slightly proud of the field surface; an old Roman road, the German troops had dug through the previous layers of the history, the results of the previous invaders nearly 2000 years as an artery now a deep defensive structure.
The first waves had more or less walked this stretch. The second wave stopped in the vague shade of the shelled to bits German defences and gathered themselves ready for their part in the follow up attacks. They clambered out of the trench and shell holes, throats parched through lack of water, bottles long since emptied, passed five broken British tanks all hunkered down like tortoises in the cratered and pockmarked surface they moved up the slopes to where the trees are now; on to Odyssey Trench behind what is now Huikerbossen on the horizon over behind the Hollebeke Road where the prettily named beck the ‘Rosebeke’ crosses the fields. It had been up to this point relatively speaking a walk in the park, a breeze, compared to a lot of previous engagements. One injury from Shrapnel, no deaths, a few dry throats from dust and nervous smoking, even from these relatively old hands at this game…
The Battalion headed up towards Odyssey, specifically a strongpoint on the junction of Rosebeke and the Trench itself, it is then that the war again started to inflict real casualties on the company, Lieutenant’s Douglas-Crompton and Shoesmith led D company up to the slight crest in front of the stongpoint and ‘attacked ferociously’, both officers were killed almost immediately, 14 OR (‘Ordinary Rank’) followed with 13 injured. One of the dead was my Grandfather, A/Cpl Percy James Parr, 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers, his number G/15743 a professional soldier aged 37, called out of the reserve he was a bricklayer, married with two children aged two and four. He along with his officers and his chums are still up here somewhere all of them form part of the missing of the Salient, all are remembered on the Menin Gate that “sepulchre of crime” part of the 54,896 reservists, regulars and officers remembered on it guarded by lions, serenaded by bugles. All the men and boys that would fit on it before they gave up and started adding them to Tyne Cot near Passchedaele as overspill.
We went to Oosttaverne Wood cemetery, which is just up Risjelweg on the right. I’d like to think in my imaginings maybe they are all in there marked as “Known unto god”, or maybe they still just lie in the fields where they fell. The cemetery is a curious little affair. It has a lot of unknowns and a mix of two wars lying side by side, The product of an attack on the ridge around ‘White Sheet’ (Wyschate) as far as Hill 60. It is also the resting place of some of their nations’ sons, those who retreated across the plains of North Western Europe trying to get to the coast 23 years later on their way to Dunkirk, Le Havre, Cherbourg and Brest escaping the sons of their uncle’s and fathers’ counterparts in 1917. And here they lie “known unto god” “missing” separated only by two decades and by nothing at the same time. The cemetery contains 1,119 First World War burials, 783 unidentified. 117 from the Second World War, five of them unidentified. There is also one French grave hidden away in a corner.
This isn’t quite the end of the long walk for me, as I’ve yet to actually find the physical spot where the Odyssey and Rosebeke cross paths and where a pivotal moment in my family’s history occurred, an event so similar to the one that’s decaying echo still whispers across so many families and is still felt so keenly by some of us to this day. So in the year of the centenary while the politicians and historians argue about the whys and wherefores I’m going to head back and do this one last thing for the little man, I’m going to find it.