A trip to remember

As the centenary of the Great War approaches, Simon Bristow visits the battlefields and learns some family history.

Tyne Cot cemetery

Jordan, Pte. George H., 27842, 1st Bn. East Yorkshire Regt.25th September, 1916. Aged 23. Son of Mrs Margaret Jordan, of 12, Horwood Terrace, Stanley Street, Spring Bank, Hull.

It’s not much and it’s not entirely accurate – he actually lived at Norwood Terrace – but this simple inscription on the largest British war memorial in the world is all that is left of Private George Hugh Jordan.

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I know the address is wrong because my step-father Alan, who is 83, lived at that house until he was seven, and remembers the solitary cold water tap in the back yard, and carrying a candle to bed because the gas lights were only fitted downstairs.

The terrace was later flattened as part of the slum clearances, but it was a happy home and it was where Alan’s grandmother Margaret moved with the youngest of her 13 children in 1911, two years after her husband James died, which is why only one of George’s parents was named on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

The Great War must have been awful for Margaret who, already a widow, saw four of her sons go off to fight for King and Country. For along with George went Albert – her youngest son and Alan’s father – Ernest, and another whose name later generations have yet to establish. Piecing it together now is difficult because Albert never spoke about it, although he bore the physical scars for the rest of his life.

He’d lied about his age to join up and was a boy soldier of 16 or 17 when he volunteered. He wanted to join the Royal Engineers, thinking his background as an apprentice bricklayer would be useful, but the Army sent him to a cavalry regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales’s Own).

He knew nothing about horses, but Private 68508 Jordan was left with a permanent reminder of them in France.

“An aeroplane came over, which was very unusual, and dropped a bomb in the middle of them,” said Alan. “It scattered all the horses and killed some. One flew past my dad and kicked out and injured his back. They were severe injuries and he was taken to a field hospital. He was sent home to convalesce in hospital, then he went back.”

We know less about Ernest, but enough to know he suffered greatly, being captured by the Turks during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. He was a big man of 6ft 1ins, but weighed just seven stones when repatriated at the end of the war.

George sailed for France on July 22, 1916, and took part in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Battle of the Somme, which was the first time tanks were used in warfare. But the final objectives of Morval, Gueudecourt and Lesboeufs, held by the German 1st Army, were not taken, which resulted in a further offensive, the Battle of Morval, which began on September 25.

George was killed in action that day, one month and three days after arriving in France. His body was either never found or not identified and his name is one of 73,335 inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial, which honours the British and South African soldiers killed on the Somme who have no known grave.

It’s here visitors can witness one of the most moving tributes to the fallen; the sounding of the Last Post, a daily ritual that begins at 8pm. On a warm Saturday evening last September, it was so full of people that most could only hear the bugler as the notes resounded – mournful but defiant – around the cavernous chamber.

Preparations are under way across these battlefields to welcome the millions of visitors expected to mark the centenary of the Great War. A short walk from the Menin Gate is the In Flanders Fields Museum, which contains some chilling artefacts.

One photograph is of a group of young Germans standing in a trench over the corpse of a British soldier. The German raiding party are each wearing white armbands to identify each other – their purpose was to kill everybody else in the trench – and beneath the picture is a collection of the crude and often improvised weapons used by both sides at close-quarters, including sharpened spades, knives, and cudgels.

Because there was no more room on the Menin Gate for a further 34,888 who were killed between August 16, 1917, and November 11, 1918, their names are inscribed at Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Passchendaele, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world.

It lies on a crest of land overlooking the surrounding countryside, which made it strategically important during the war and gives the legion lying there now eternal command of the land over which they fought, the countless white headstones stretching in columns and rows into the distance.

A rather different monument that provides a more uplifting insight into the lives of these men survives at Poperinge, a town that remained behind Allied lines throughout the war. It was here that Army Chaplain the Reverend Philip “Tubby” Clayton created a social club for soldiers, Talbot House. Its ethos was spelled out in a notice by the door: “All rank abandon, ye who enter here.”

In the attic, up a flight of stairs so steep that the able-bodied proceed with caution, he created a small chapel.

Not long ago three of the last surviving Tommies returned to Talbot House in their wheelchairs. The fire brigade were on hand to carry them to the chapel, but one refused help and completed the climb alone.

Getting there

Prices for a five-day return ticket with P&O Ferries start at £109 each way for a car and two passengers on the overnight Hull-Zeebrugge service, including a two-berth inside cabin.

P&O Ferries also operates the short Dover and Calais crossing with a five day return ticket starting at £30 each way for a car and up to nine passengers.

Rooms at the Novotel in Ypres start from £75 per night on a early bird deal. More details are available at www.visitflanders.co.uk/discover/flanders-fields/.