One way ticket on the Necropolis Line

It’s been four months since I got home from Belgium. Work buried me. Weekends have swept past like vague notions of spare time. And so here I am again tapping away into a keyboard and wondering what to write about first. I have a whole load to write about. I suspect the best thing to do would be to continue from where I left off back in February. I will begin with what happened next after my last post on the 11th February.

Duval beer in Ypres
Better the Duval you know

It took me a couple of hours to write that day’s two posts. After a Facetime chat with Jessica and Kitty, I shut the lid of my laptop and left my room. Two minutes later I was sitting the in the hotel bar, drinking a very fine glass of Duvel. Fortified by the beer, and the flu relief tablets I had been grazing on throughout the day, I headed out into the Ypres City Centre. I was heading to the Menin Gate for the last post ceremony so I could say hello and goodbye to Frank.

The Menin Gate was built at the eastern edge of Ypres at the top of the Kasteelgracht, part of an ancient moat that loops around the city of Ypres. During the First World War thousands of troops passed this way to the front. Many never returned. 54,400 names are remembered in long lists chiselled onto stone panels. These panels cover every vertical space on this monument to the dead.

Every night at 8pm Ypres remembers those Allies who lie forever lost in the earth around the city. That this event happens at all on foreign soil for foreign troops is incredible enough. But the fact that it has happened happened every night since 1927* makes it truly remarkable.

The Menin Gate in Ypres 2010
The Menin Gate in Ypres (taken on my birthday in 2010, the day I proposed to my wife)

I have been to the ceremony once before in February 2005. It had been a very quiet affair and so I was expecting a similar turnout; just me and a couple of Flemish pigeons. When I arrived at the gate just before 8pm I was struck by a swell of crowd noise. The Menin Gate was packed to the gunnels (if gates can have gunnels) with people waiting for the ceremony. People from all over the world stood shoulder to shoulder, camera phone to camera phone. A man read out snippets from war diaries for that day 100 years ago. School children laid down wreaths. I can’t tell you who they were for. I wouldn’t really hear the above the noise of the people around me. To be honest I wasn’t feeling great and should have been in bed.

I wandered away from the crowds and headed into a nearby bar, The Times on Korte Torhoutstraat. I sat down to a beer (a Kapittel blond if you’re interested) and a plate of salami and cheese. A plate? It was more like the deli counter at Waitrose. I  struck up a conversation with the British man sitting next to me. He turned out to be an ex-army Postman. He was here with his son riding around the area on hired bikes. There are many cycling trails you can follow. By this time strong beer, flu drugs and baby-related sleep deprivation took their toll and I’m afraid I cannot remember his name. I stumbled, semi-delerious, back to my hotel room to a long dreamless sleep.

Great Seal of The London Necropolis Company

* I say every night, but the Germans occupied Ypres during the Second World War and they weren’t too keen on the ceremony. In fact the ceremony continued to be held but was performed in Surrey at the Brookwood Military Cemetery, just up the road from where I live. If you would like to disappear up an internet rabbit hole then I tempt you with this carrot-flavoured link to the London Necropolis Railway. Brookwood was the terminal for this always-late line out of Waterloo. The logo is so amazing I’ve included it here.

“Return ticket, you say? There are only one way tickets on the Necropolis Line, Sir.”

Next up: I take a stroll around Wulverghem.

What a bastard

Envelope – to Mrs Webster, 29 Strathleven Rd, franked 12 Ja 15  – censored by A Griffith
dated 11-1-15

Dear Aunt

Just a few lines hoping this finds you in the best of health. Well Aunt I am getting on as well as can be expected and still in the pink. We are getting on as well as can be expected and still dodging Jack Johnsons. The weather out here is terrible don’t talk about rain the country is absolutely flooded so you can guess what it is like.

I expect you have got over Xmas by now I see you had a full house, I wish I had been at home. Tom is getting plenty of leave, I wish I could get away for a few days, but I believe I am getting seven days before long, but it will be some time yet, but still lets hope it will be soon, and then we will have a good time together all of us, that’s providing all goes well out here.

Aunt have you received my two PC, well I expect you only got on, for I have [heard] that one lot of mail got burst (?burnt) and I expect your PC was in it. Please to hear that Uncle Matt is still on the knocker let’s hope he as the luck to keep it. Old Till’s Johnnie seems to be a knut tell her I have just received the Chocolate from him, and he said he had a good time at Brixton, said he nearly got (succled ?) on cold tea. Well Aunt I don’t think there is any more news at present, so will conclude hoping to hear for you soon, and also Uncle Matt.

I remain

Your affectionate Nephew

Bid xxx

11th January 1915

Let’s deal with the censor first. We meet a new officer in charge of Frank’s section, and I’m pretty sure this is Lieutenant Allix James William Griffith. He’s joined as a reinforcement from the 3rd Battalion. His father was the Venerable Reverend Henry Wager Griffith, who was an army pastor out in the Punjab, India, where Allix was born. He’s only 19, a pupil of Charterhouse and a typical Public School Boy product of the British Empire. I talk about officers being posh but this chap takes the Bath Oliver. He’s as posh as his almost-namesake, Alexander Armstrong, and comes from the same lineage too. This website lists him as a direct descendant of that old Norman bastard, William the Conqueror.

Griffith, sadly, didn’t survive the war. He was transferred to the 2nd Battalion and sent to the Middle East, after being wounded in St Elois later in 1915. He went missing in Mesopotamia on the 25th March 1917 and is commemorated on the Basra War Memorial in Iraq. He was one of the 1200 Allied men who were casualties in the battle of Jebel Hamlin, as the British tried to push the Turkish out of Iraq. The battle, fought largely unsupported by artillery against a well dug in enemy (surprise, surprise), was disastrous for the newly reconstituted 2nd Battalion Dorsets who lost nearly 220 out of 500 men in the action.

Frank’s letter to his Aunt Caroline is filled with his usual abundance of positivity, but there is one line that expressed his resignation about the situation he finds himself in: “that’s providing all goes well out here”.

He’s very complimentary about my Great Grandfather, Carl Robert Debnam, of whom the beer of Brixton seems to have got the better of. A “knut”, according to the ever-excellent Edwardian Promenade’s glossary, is “an idle upper-class man-about-town”. (My grandfather, Bob, wasn’t a man who could hold his beer and I don’t have hollow legs when it comes to ale either – although we both enjoyed a pint when he was alive). He’s also finally got the chocolate promised back in November.

The Dorsets hunkered down in their soggy trenches while the artillery on both sides played out a deadly game of cat and mouse. The landscape, once liberally dotted with farms and villages in November, was slowly being reduced to piles of rubble and heaps of mud as the two sides pounded any landmark that might offer advantage to the other side.

Dorset’s finest and finings


22nd October 1914

If the wheels had fallen off the Dorsets on the 13th October then the 21st October was when they were consigned to the knacker’s yard.

The Cheshires were out early at digging trenches when the Germans attacked Violaines at 5:50am. For some inexplicable reason the Cheshires had not set ample cover on their digging parties. As a result they, along with a Company (B) of Bedfords, were quickly overwhelmed “at the point of the bayonet”, according to the Cheshire’s war diary. Violaines fell quickly in the mirky dawn. The Cheshires lost 200 out of 600 men, the Bedfords lost about 40 men and 2 officers.

The survivors fell back onto the Rue Du Marais where we find the Dorsets. The Composite Company had been split into two. The first 3 platoons were sent to dig trenches just behind the Cheshires on a slight ridge. The remaining platoon was kept in reserve under C.S.M. Holloway on the Rue Du Marais.

Frank was probably with A Company, further back from Violaines, who had spent much of the night complaining to 13th Brigade about their position. They felt they were very exposed and that their position was untenable by day. Heavy firing from the easterly direction of Lorgnies had played on their nerves. The answer from the 13th Brigade was blunt. Trenches must be occupied.

The Dorsets could hear lots of cheering as the Germans overran the Cheshire’s lines but couldn’t see anything as visibility was only about 50 yards. As they prepared to fire on the enemy the sudden appearance of the retreating remnants of the Cheshires masked their fire. Therefore the Germans were able to direct enfilade fire on the Composite Company who quickly became overwhelmed like the Cheshires. A Company, a little further back, clung on for dear life.

Lieutenant C.H. Woodhouse had been sent forward in the early morning with a machine gun to find a position to sweep the road running north out of Violaines. He was also ordered, according to the History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919, to direct the Cheshires back to a new trench dug alongside the Composite Company of the Dorsets. We have here another story that needs clarification. The History claims that he subsequently fired the machine gun but it “fired badly” and he sent it back. At this point, covering the gun’s withdrawal, he was last seen firing his revolver into the approaching enemy before disappearing from view. The Dorsets’ diary makes no reference of this. It says that

Lt Woodhouse was unable to reach position before German attack succeeded and was last seen firing his revolver. The gun and tripod was lost.

Is this another case of apochryphal stories emerging post battle to explain away mistakes? Whatever the truth, confusion reigned in the gloomy morning light. The men of the 5th Division were on their last legs. They had been fighting for 10 days and had suffered huge losses. Many of their senior officers were wounded, captured or dead. Their replacements were greenhorns. Morland, CO of the 5th Division, moved the Manchesters up in support and also ordered a reluctant Gleichen to release his reserves to plug the gaps and counterattack. What the 5th Division desperately needed was experienced leadership. All the recent changes had not helped the chain of command.

Gleichen is incredibly critical of the new CO of the 13th Brigade. Lieutenant-Colonel Arundel Martyn had got himself stuck during the counterattack in the afternoon and the absence of command had caused the counter attack to break down. But it did stop the German advance.

It was, however, sufficient to stop the Germans for the time being. One reason for the difficulty—as I afterwards heard—was that the officer temporarily commanding the 13th Brigade had, by some mischance, got stuck right in the firing line with his staff and signal section, and could not be got at, nor could he move himself or issue orders,—a useful though unhappy warning to Brigadiers.

One platoon of A Company, led by Lieutenant Shannon, remained in position until dusk so that contact was maintained with the KOSB on their left. The rest fell back to a crossroads named La Quinque Rue (and later anglicised to La Kinky Roo) but it is no longer on maps apart from a house name along the Lille Road. By 11am things began to quieten down.

5th Division HQ urged the 13th Brigade to regroup and retake the Rue Du Marais by rushing the enemy in the dark but Martyn saw the task as impossible. He called for a Staff Officer from Divisional HQ to discuss the situation. They came, saw the situation and a new plan was quickly devised.

The Dorsets were withdrawn into reserve along the Rue Béthune. They were now down to a skeleton crew. They had lost 7 men killed, 22 wounded and 101 missing. The CWGC records 24 deaths but two of those were probably from wounds inflicted earlier on.

I am happy to say that Lieutenant Charles Hall Woodhouse survived the war as a prisoner of war and collected an MC for his action on the 19th October 1914. That must have been when he returned to the battlefield of the 13th to collect bodies and wounded men. In 1921 he married Stella Fairlie in Blandford St Mary, spent the rest of his army career in the Dorsets, becoming Colonel of the Dorsetshire Regiment in 1946. He died in 1962. His family was, and remain, an important family in Blandford. They are the Hall Woodhouses, brewers of the rather excellent Badger beers.

Interestingly it appears that many of the Woodhouse boys were Dorsetshire Regiment men. Charles’ son, John “Jock” Woodhouse, also won an MC, this time in the Second World War, and he went onto be a prominent member of the SAS. He also created Panda Pops, which powered my wild childhood self in the Seventies.

The map is a copy of the one in the History but I am not sure the Cheshires were pushed as far south east as they are shown. And Google maps shows Violaines as it is today: much bigger than in 1914. It was all fields back then. I’m not entirely happy with my maps for battle situations and will address this when time is more freely available. Which at the moment it certainly ain’t. And so to bed.