Buxton Advertiser photographer Jason Chadwick fulfils an old promise and embarks on an emotional journey to the First World War battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front.
Many years ago my father promised his grandmother that one day he would do what she had never been able to do – visit her husband’s war grave in France.
Now a pensioner himself, fulfilling that promise turned out to be an incredibly moving and rewarding experience.
When Bertha married Harry Chadwick in 1909 little could she have imagined that she was going to spend most of the next 60 years as a war widow. Her husband, an Oldham cotton spinner, died in an army hospital in 1917 and she was left with very little except three boys aged under-five and a bleak future.
This year my father revealed that as a boy he’d promised one day to go on her behalf and visit the grave. Now with the war’s centenary, and in poor health himself, he felt he had to go as soon as possible.
Although Harry’s buried in the Normandy city of Rouen we started in Belgium and drove south on minor roads that roughly followed the battlefields of a century ago. The early morning sun was just burning off the mist when we reached Passchendaele. Tyne Cot may be the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the world but it was eerily beautiful in that golden light. In 1917 up to half a million men from both sides died in an area only a few miles across and the memorial wall lists 35,000 commonwealth troops who simply disappeared without trace.
There is a grisly mathematics about the huge losses of the Great War, and the shocking impact of all those ‘missing’ was to be outdone by two even larger memorials only a few hours later.
The first of these was five miles away at Ypres. The mighty Menin Gate lists 54,000 missing men and is a massive statement of remembrance and thanks.
The great blocks of stone seem to be weighed down under the burden of so many men’s names. Here every evening Belgian firemen still play the Last Post in memory of those who passed through, never to return.
The charming medieval town beyond the gate is in fact largely modern, having been painstakingly rebuilt after being almost completely destroyed in the war.
A drive through the lovely rolling farmland of Northern France took us past infamous battle sites like Loos and Vimy Ridge and countless cemeteries until we reached the Somme.
Here by the River Ancre were the featureless group of potato fields where Harry met his fate. A mile further west the Thiepval Memorial loomed over the battlefields, high above the trees like a tower block of death.
One hundred and forty feet high, it is the most extraordinary war memorial – a great brick tower standing on 16 stone columns that bear the names of an incredible 72,000 missing men. By this time the scale of losses at one site after another had become overwhelming and I was not unhappy to leave the battlefields that evening.
The following morning we set off to complete our quest and find Harry’s grave. During the war Rouen had been the site of over a dozen British hospitals and the scale of suffering is illustrated by the fact that the St Sever Cemetery contains over 11,000 former patients. Thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s excellent website we knew exactly where he was.
The Commission also deserve great praise for the way that every site we visited is maintained in such superb condition. I should also say that at every stop we were struck by how many Belgian and French people were visiting the memorials.
I’d always imagined Harry would lie on a misty hill top surrounded by fields, but in fact over the last century the city has grown to enclose the cemetery and now the football stadium backs onto it. In some ways it was comforting to think of the men surrounded by people. His grave is beside a Welshman and two Australians who died on the same day.
For my father, completing his decades-long promise proved to be a highly emotional experience. All of us found it very moving. For me, it was a tremendously rewarding and life-changing thing to do.