Monday’s Long Song

Top- the field at Serre, the Somme, where 585 men out of the 700 Accrington Pals who went over the top on 1st July 1916 were killed or wounded in the first twenty minutes of the battle.

Bottom- the view towards the British lines at Beaumont Hamel, as seen from the German front line. The Newfoundland Regiment lost 700 men on the same day as they tried to cross the ground in the centre of the picture.

I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the way in the last few years the poppy has been politicised but remembrance is important. I also think as a nation we need to find a way to move forward from the world wars of the Twentieth century. There is an unhealthy obsession with aspects of them in some areas of British and English life.

This is new from an ambient/drone outfit called Private Mountain. Just A Strange World is seven minutes of immersive, melancholic noise and beautiful swirling soundscapes. The track Private Mountain that follows it is similar but twice as  long and with water and birds.


Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Siegfried Sassoon, 1918


Some photos I took at the Somme and around Ypres this summer, one hundred years on from the Battle of the Somme. Ninety eight years ago from now the First World War came to an end. We still remember them.

Eleven Eleven Eleven

Remembrance Day was Sunday but today is the actual anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, eleven o’clock, the eleventh of November. I was at The Somme and Ypres at the start of October. The cemeteries are full of gravestones like this one- the body of a man who was not identified.

This is a picture I took at Ljissenhoek cemetery, near Ypres. There are 10, 775 graves here. The cemetery was next to a field hospital, so unusually almost all the graves here have names, as the wounded were tagged or identified. It is also an incredibly diverse cemetery containing the graves of British, French, American and German soldiers, men from the Chinese Labour Corps, one of only two women buried in the military cemeteries (nurse Nellie Spindler) and the highest ranking casualty, a Canadian General, within it.

The numbers of the dead, wounded and missing can become too big to fully comprehend. It becomes much closer to home when you dig a little into the records and find the name of a man who has a local interest, your street or town or workplace. Many of these men were either volunteers or conscripts (willing or unwilling) who found themselves caught up in something much bigger than themselves and way outside what they knew. We found the grave of a nineteen year old, Joseph Smithies Entwistle of Darwen, a gunner in the Tank Corps. He died of wounds in 1917, aged just 19. His home address is a three minute walk from the school where I work. Students from the school are his near neighbours, a hundred years apart.

96 Tears


I should have posted this yesterday I suppose, with it being Remembrance Sunday but I thought I’d wait for the 11th, it being the day the armistice was signed that ended the First World War. In the summer of 2009 I took a trip to Ypres, Belgium- the scene of some of the worst fighting of the war. These are just a handful of some of the pictures I took. It was a profoundly moving experience, the row upon row of grave, many of unknown soldiers. Around Ypres were names I have been familiar with for years- Hellfire Corner, Passchendale, Essex Farm, Tyne Cot. The picture above shows Langemarck, a German cemetery, last resting place of 18, 000 German soldiers and two British. The plaque below records the names the names of four German young men and twenty unknown Germans.

Tyne Cot is the largest British and Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world. When we visited an Australian male voice choir were there. As we walked past the ANZAC part of the cemetery the choir was singing Abide With Me. An ‘excuse me, I’ve got something in my eye’ moment.

On the western edge of Ypres is the Menin Gate, a memorial to 37, 000 British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found. As well as the list-upon-list of typically British names were short lists of names of men from Jamaica and India, Singhs in amongst the Taylors and the Walkers.

Tyne Cot looks down towards Ypres from the higher ground around the village of Passchendaele. In 1917 the British army attacked up the hill, through the worst rain in memory and the resulting mud. In the middle of the cemetery are three concrete machine gun posts, permanent reminders of why the cemetery is full. On a nice Flanders day it was still fairly easy to picture the struggle the men had- while also being beyond comprehension.

Everyone should go at least once- the cemeteries, the landscape, the surviving trench systems, the remains of bunkers and first aid stations, the museum in Ypres town centre, the war memorabilia still churned up by Belgian farmers and sold in Ypres’ shops, are all unforgettable.

And the row upon row of the graves of men, sent abroad to fight ‘the war to end all wars’, should remind us why we should never forget.


Eleven Eleven Eleven Eleven


Today is Remembrance Day. I think it’s important. If you’ve ever been to Tyne Cot, Passchendale, Ypres or the Somme you can’t help but be moved by the horror and unnecessary carnage of the First World War, and the selflessness of the millions of ordinary men who did their bit. At Victoria Station in Manchester there’s a door which doesn’t go anywhere now, but used to lead to a southbound platform. Above the door is a plaque which reads ‘Dedicated to the thousands of men who passed through this door 1914-1918 and who did not return’, which never fails to catch my eye,and tug a little. Remembrance Day and the selling of poppies started in 1919, as a way to mark the lives of the fallen, help the families left behind and to work for peace, to ensure such a conflict wouldn’t happen again. Not that that last bit worked. I’m not comfortable with the way recently poppies and Remembrance Day seem to be an attempt to justify current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is the traditional 19th century song The Bold Fusilier, a recruitment song, sung by Billy Childish acapella at a radio session a few years ago.