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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman


It is impossible to pass this centenary of the bloodiest British military engagement in World War One (The Great War) without personal recognition. The Somme Salient Offensive that was fought over successive weeks and months just to the east of the Belgian town of Ypres took more lives than any other 'battle' on the Western Front - and all for an advance of approximately five miles upwards to a ridge on which sat the battered Flemish village of Passchendaele.

Those lives ended in rain soaked mud filled fields sloping upwards from the forward British trenches facing German strong points and carefully installed defences. Sikhs, Kiwis, Australians, Irish and Scots Irish, Welsh, Scotsmen, Africans of many countries, and of course Englishmen; mostly young, drawn from small communities and towns up and down the land - all gave their ultimate sacrifice in these Flanders fields. The defending Germans too were slaughtered in the sustained attacks carried out with dogged persistence following orders 'from high' - also in equally large numbers with over a quarter million casualties recorded.

Today, well ordered military cemeteries mark out in serried rows those whose individual sacrifice is identifiable; whilst those less easily giving up their names remain equally recognised as 'Unknown'. On the Menin Gate erected in the 1920s by the British War Graves Commission or its predecessor organisation, are almost 54,000 names of soldiers and officers of all ranks by their regiment or unit - who have no known grave whatsoever - their mortal remains forever embedded in the ground now calm and tended that surrounds this part of the frontline in 1917. This gives scale to the enormity of the loss of life in such a small but evocative part of Flanders Fields. It isnow the centre of commemorative attention one hundred years on, as Passchendaele claims its distinctive place of recognition in a long roll call of bloodletting we only distantly recall each November.

It is worth remembering for whom and for what all these lives were sacrificed. With this nation and Empire going to war against the 'Central Powers'; namely Germany and Austria, whose blunt invasion of Belgium and France thrust Britain into a five year war on the continent of Europe. This huge sacrifice in lost generations made on the soil of Europe is now immortalised in rows of Portland stone, each engraved with the name of one man in their thousands upon thousands, in tended cemeteries large and very small. Britain has twice rendered itself into conflicts not of its making - in defence of the freedom of other nations; when it might have blithely stood aside and allowed the aggressors their way. The sacrifices were made both on land, at sea and in the air.

As Britain now disentangles itself from the encumbrances of a European web of alliances and conditional constraints - this sacrifice of generations before represent values that can never be measured in euros, trade, or contrived legalisms by any european body. Had it not been for this country's readiness to face up to armed aggression and barbarism in the previous century - lights in the Chancellories of Europe would have been permanently dimmed. Just a moment of recognition would be the decent thing by those now governing in corridors of power in Brussels - so far it seems unlikely. Therefore all the more reason for this country to most fully unburden itself of the hegemony of alien and unelected institutions asserting pre-eminence on the sacrifice of those who now lie entombed in Flanders soil and clay.

Remembering Passchendaele this week is recognition of how much Europe owes Britain and its Commonwealth of countries and territories far distant from Flanders.

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