REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT TO COMMEMORATE 5TH BATTERY RFA AT BOIS DES BUTTES
Dear Friends of 5 Battery,
Ageing Lancastrians are prone to begin boring their younger companions with the preface: “When I were nobut a lad ....”; so here am I, having spent more than three days in your company, remembering a time over sixty years ago when, as a young national serviceman, I came as close as I could to following in my grandfather’s footsteps as a proud member of the Royal Regiment. I hope I didn’t bore you all too much though, for I’m sure the camaraderie which you exhibited the moment you all came together on the Thursday night in the barrack room at Folkestone opened a can of memories for me which must surely have loosened my tongue. Had I not but a few weeks earlier been put in touch with Andy Mac, I would have made my visit La Ville-aux- Bois/Bois des Buttes privately – as did one or two people who stood by at the Sunday morning ceremony. In such circumstances, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing. However I must temper my sense of pleasure and comradeship with you, for of course, my army experience was as absolutely nothing compared to yours as professional long serving soldiers, let alone with my grandfather’s a hundred years ago.
Any reservation that I might have had in accepting Andy Mac’s “orders” for my grandson Cameron and me to be your “honoured guests” was progressively dispelled from the moment we met up with Andy Loader and Nigel Flannigan, who insisted on coming across the Pennines to pick us up in Cumbria. Geordie charm might well have left my wife Sue feeling she would equally have enjoyed their company, but for the battery parade colours respectfully occupying the middle fifth passenger back seat. Our journey on to the first rendevouz point at Andy Mac’s golf club near Droitwich passed quickly enough despite a detour to avoid M6/M5 congestion and then with the contrasting but equally attentive care of Ed Wicks and Photographer Steve, we made the pub round the corner from the Folkestone barracks just before closing time.
An 0800 hr Friday morning breakfast sailing to Dunkerque saw us well on our way for a midday pilgrimage to two northern war cemeteries, at the first of which Andy Loader paid his respects to his great uncle who had gone through almost all of the war as a gunner only to lose his life in the latter months of 1918. To share with Andy laying down his uncle’s medals upon his gravestone and then reciting from memory The Exhortation “They shall not grow old ....” was a most poignant and moving start for our pilgrimage south to the Ainse.
Our convoy arrived at Hotel Aux Sacres in Reims in the late afternoon, in time for sprucing up, prior to a beer or two before continuing to enjoy balmy summer weather at an excellent pavement restaurant on Place Drouet d’Erlon. Some of our party – perhaps preferring “un autre bier .. ou deux” - missed this venue, but not BC. Major James Spelling and five others from today’s 5th Battery, who came post-haste from Paris after their flight directly from Estonia.
Perhaps inevitably the earlier scheduled start for a Saturday morning visit to a champagne house in Sacy was postponed until around 1100hr, but this seemed no hardship to anyone. By early afternoon we were all suitably relaxed sampling three of the five varieties of Champagne Wafflart Briet, hospitably served by Rachel, who had come out to Reims some years earlier as a University French language student and persuaded the son of the Tremblay family-owned vineyard to marry her. It was whilst thus relaxing that our premier guest arrived, John Massey Stewart, accompanied by his daughter Julia and her husband Carl. It was John’s uncle, Captain John Hamon Massey MC, who had been acting battery commander exactly one hundred year’s earlier on 26th May when the notice of an impending German attack was declared (at 1545hr I think), though he had already taken steps to strengthen the battery gun positions as best he could in the absence of permission from the French 6th Army Commander to relocate the already targeted positions.
It must have been a touching moment for John to be suddenly introduced to past and present 5th Battery soldiers, all of whom were proud bearers of the Croix de Guerre insignia which was awarded for the gallantry exhibited in the Bois des Buttes battle by his uncle personally on the 27th May 1918 (along with Lt Large) as well as by all his fellow officers, NCOs and men. I’m sure we all felt the poignancy of the moment, sitting as we were in similarly warm relaxing late May sunshine overlooked by fields which had also been fought over as the Aisne battle unfolded.
The afternoon concluded, following a convenient if untypical French luncheon repas at “un MacDonalds”, with a visit to Caverne du Dragon, a huge underground fortification cut out of the limestone ridge, Chemin des Dames, which was itself a vital feature on the defensive western end of the British IX Corps front line. Though it was not actually a part of the story we were sharing in our visit to 5th Battery’s positions south of La Ville-aux- Bois, it was similar to the underground Bois des Buttes fortress just to the north of the gun pits. It was however at this latter fortress that one of the 5th Battery OPs was located and where, presumably Captain Massey met with the CO of 2 Devonshires, after the gun positions had been overrun. (An extract of this meeting was to be John Massey Stewart’s reading at the Sunday Commemoration Ceremony.)
Saturday evening’s activities were outwith any prearranged programming, and probably some, if not many, took the opportunity of an early night. I and Cameron and John Massey Stewart and his family – now joined also by his son Hamon – had earlier (i.e. before being introduced to Andy Mac and invited to be part of the 5th Battery party) booked a hotel located on the Chemin des Dames recommended by David Blanchard (author of the book “Aisne 1918”). It was at dinner on the Saturday evening that we met with David and his wife, when he very kindly gave John and I a book entitled “The Last of the Ebb” written by Sidney Rogerson in 1937. The book was about his time as a staff officer at 23 Brigade HQ in the Battle of the Aisne 1918 and tells his story as the three infantry battalions (2nd West Yorkshires, 2nd Middlesex and 2nd Devonshires) and their artillery support (which was 5th battery of course) were overrun. There is, I think, a very graphic and dreadful account of the earlier stages of the German bombardment, from which the nearby Devons were effectively sheltered as they bunkered down in the caves of the Bois des Buttes:“Up to then the gunners had come off worst. The first surge of the barrage had overwhelmed the 24th Brigade’s (Ballard) emplacements having so accurately registered that after half an hour they had only one gun left in action”.
Sunday morning was bright and sunny as it had been one hundred years earlier and at 10:30 hr the ceremony commenced in front of the little Town Hall with its 5th Battery wall plaque and facing the Devons memorial across the road. The Mayor of La Ville-aux-Bois de Pontavert gave a welcome address, followed by an eloquent introduction from Lt. General A J S Storrie CB CBE. The current 5th Battery of six were on the right of the line with our veterans alongside to their left and the Rifles and Devons alongside them. At the far end and across the road were three soldiers in British WW1 uniform and at the top end the dignitaries and the eight of us who were to read the personal accounts of the Battle. Both John and I were enormously honoured to read words spoken respectively by Captain Massey and Gunner Fay (my grandfather), John’s reading being the last before the Lord‘s Prayer, the Last Post and Reveille (by four Rifles’ buglers) and then The Exhortation, Wreath Laying, Nation Anthems and Regimental Marches. The 5thBattery contingent then stayed for a while in front of the town hall plaque for photos and a glass of rum in specially engraved 5 Battery miniature glasses, which were gifted to John and I ... and hopefully to others.
A buffet lunch was then served for perhaps three hundred attendees in a nearby concrete barn, with a few appropriate speeches and two presentations, one from the Devonshires and one from 5th Battery, both of which were dominated by reproductions of commemorative paintings of the battle – for us, of course, Terence Cuneo’s “Last Stand of 5th Battery, 27th May 1918”. And so to a change of clothes suitable for a trek out to the battle site, accompanied by David Blanchard as our guide. The route out of the town began innocently enough along a tarmac road and then into a fairly smooth dirt lane, both of which were negotiable for John Massey Stewart’s wheelchair, (since John’s walking range is limited). Unfortunately the condition of the track deteriorated as we went into woodland and we didn’t know how far we had to go to reach the conjectured site of the gun pits. John decided not to continue and sadly he and his family missed out on our gathering on the edge of the woodland which David suggested was on or about the 5th Battery’s position. A splendid and worthy oak Commemoration Plaque, which Andy Mac had commissioned and brought out from England, listing all 53 members of the Battery who were there at Bois des Buttes on the day, was sunk (just for the occasion) into the earth and we all gathered round. Who can say what thoughts took hold of those of us present? For myself, I was on ground where my grandfather had been one hundred years earlier – and had been taken prisoner by an old German soldier as he cradled his dead officer – Lt Large probably - or so my mother said; for my grandfather never spoke of it to me. Andy Mac unexpectedly asked me if I would like to say a few words and maybe with more thought I could have found something personal to say, but on the spot as it were, I simply had Wilfred Owen’s poem “Anthem For Doomed Youth” to recite. Poems such as that aren’t easy to hear, either for their imagery or for their language, but I hope the tragic solemnity of the words were not entirely lost: “monstrous anger of guns”, “dying as cattle”, “no voice of mourning save ..... the demented choirs of wailing shells” and “holy glimmers of goodbyes” ... and so on. Images to evoke tears irrespective of their place in a poem.
And so back to the village and on our final gathering together at Captain John Hamon Massey’s grave at the Jonchery War Cemetery. We all arrived ahead of John and his family and immediately he noted three poppies, which someone of our party had so wonderfully picked and placed before the headstone. John then, still wearing his Gunner badged blazer and beret, stood in front of the grave and, unscripted, spoke directly to his uncle words of gratitude – for all of us I think – for the ultimate sacrifice he gave ... for his country ... and the example for his comrades in 5th battery. Is that what you heard John say or were emotions clouding my thoughts?
To say more of our time together is hardly appropriate, except that the experience of being together with old soldiers and their families on such an occasion must be and has been a very, very special privilege. So a thank you to each and every one of you for treating me and my grandson Cameron as if .... we had been with 5th Battery one hundred years ago.