I have recently returned from holiday, spent staying with my in-laws in the south of Belgium and whilst I was there I fulfilled a promise I made to myself to visit the grave of 2nd Lt Robert Hickes, an RAF pilot from Market Weighton shot down and killed on 30 August 1918.
You may recall that I wrote about him and the circumstances of his death last November. He is buried in an out of the way place, Latour-en-Woevre, in a communal cemetery, alongside the airman shot down with him, 2nd Lt. Thomas Alfred Jones. Jones was from Rainhill (Merseyside) and last year in May the local civic society organised a joint wreath-laying ceremony in Latour-en-Woevre, commemorating both airmen’s deaths.
The landscape of that part of the Woevre is very much like the top of the Yorkshire Wolds and may have reminded Robert Hickes of his home county as he flew over it in his tragically brief posting to 55 Squadron. The village has changed little over the years and I took photos of the graves and the place that they were shot down.
On my way back to Belgium I passed through Verdun and was reminded of the huge price that the French nation paid in the Great War, with well over one million killed. Of those, 27,000 fell on one day, the 22 August 1914, the bloodiest day in the history of the French Army and most of those deaths occurred in the southern Belgian Ardennes region, the region that my wife originates from. I attended the ceremonies for the centenary last year and was pleased to participate in them again this year, 101 years later. It is important that we continue to remember the sacrifices made and not just at special anniversaries.
Like me, many of you will have taken the car or journeyed by coach to the continent, in many cases arriving in Calais and taking the A26 to Champagne and beyond. As the so called Autoroute des Anglais heads south it passes through many of the battlefields of the Western Front and you can often identify the distinctive sight of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the surrounding countryside. This year saw and sees the centenaries of the Second and Third Battles of Artois in which the French suffered huge losses as they struggled to capture and hold Vimy Ridge. Vimy Ridge wasn’t taken and held until the Canadian attacks of 1917 but the French did manage to take the high ground further to the west, including the spur of Notre-Dame de Lorette. This hump-backed ridge stands 165 metres high and, with Vimy Ridge, utterly dominates the otherwise flat Douai plain and the town of Arras. The German name for the Second Battle of Artois is Lorettoschlacht. The Battles of Artois were as costly in French lives as the better-known Battle of Verdun and the French National Necropolis at Notre-Dame de Lorrette is the largest French war cemetery, the cemetery and ossuary holding the remains of more than 40,000 soldiers. The A26 cuts between Vimy Ridge to the east and Notre-Dame de Lorrette to the west and it was at the latter that I chose to break my journey on the way home.
I have always wanted to visit and especially so after architect Philippe Prost’s new elliptical ‘Ring of Remembrance’ was installed and officially inaugurated last Armistice Day by President Hollande, accompanied by Chancellor Merkel and David Cameron. The structure includes the names of 579,606 servicemen and women, of all sides, killed in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais departments of northern France in World War One. It is a deeply moving memorial with the names listed not in national order but purely alphabetically. The memorial takes the form of a 328-metre ring of dark, lightweight concrete with the names inscribed on 500 sheets of bronzed stainless steel. Whilst I was there I looked for the name of John Martin, a Market Weighton man who I knew had been killed not too far away and who is buried at Vermelles (I’ll tell you more about his fascinating story in a later article). Just after the Jeans and the Johanns I found his name, although I’m not sure which of the 33 simple John Martin’s listed was his. This is both the great power of this memorial, the sheer magnitude of the human losses it depicts and its great drawback, it’s not personal. If you’re ever driving down the A26 why not stop off and reflect; remember them and that, unlike you, they couldn’t return home.
If you have any information about any of the men listed on the Market Weighton War Memorial I would be delighted to hear from you. I can be contacted at The Mortgage Advice Centre and Yorkshire Building Society agency in Market Weighton or on 01430 871112.