'We flock in pilgrimage to ensure their memories are never forgotten'

Johnston Press editor-in-chief Jeremy Clifford spent today (November 11) retracing the stilted advances of the allied troops at Ypres. Here he reflects on an emotional day.

Thiepval wreath laying
Thiepval wreath laying

Melancholic, the haunting sound of the Last Post signals the silence of reflection, the unimaginable horrors of the Somme 100 years ago, as we gathered under the archway of the Menin Gate - the imposing symbol at Ypres.

It is the 11th of the 11th of the 100th year since the most bloody conflict of the Great War took place - and there is no survivor to recall the appalling atrocities, although we flock in pilgrimage to ensure their memories are never forgotten.

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I have spent the day retracing the agonisingly stilted advances of the allied troops, sent over the top at zero hour to their slaughter - as 60,000 were cut down, killed or injured, on the first day, July 1, 1916.

The Thiepval memorial

Mametz Wood, Pozieres, High Wood, Thiepval, etched in our ignominious military history as disastrous failures of command, still eschew the scars of war, thousands of tonnes of ordnance rained down, decimating woodland, pummelling the thick clay mud swathes of no man's land, to destroy the German trenches. But to no avail. As boys, not yet men, were ordered to walk towards the enemy lines, the rattle of machine gun fire cut them down from their knees, strafing them multiple times as they faltered into the morass of mud.

100 years ago, Mametz was blasted not to smithereens, but splinters, huge canopies of trees reduced to shattered needles. And yet the Welsh Fusiliers mounted assault after assault in their vain attempt to capture this woodland - a strategic target so important to launch the next offensive.

Today, the wood, with trees decorated with emblems of Welsh nationhood, a flag of a dragon here, a scarf there, a Welsh rosette yonder, pinned to the regrown trunks, resonates not to the thunder of explosion and screams of death, but to birdsong.

The wood has regrown, concealing the horrors that still lie beneath the trodden foot.

A splintered tree at Mametz

Your feet stumble in the shell holes that scar this otherwise idyllic wood where so many Welsh fusiliers lost their lives in futility on the morning of July 7, 1916.

On that day, two British Divisions began a pincer movement to take Mametz.

The casualties were unimaginable as they walked across open ground, naked, exposed to German artillery. By day's end neither division had even reached the wood, let alone captured it.

Three days later they went in again, with battalion after battalion sent in to do battle in the thick undergrowth beneath the splintered trunks. Nearly the entire division committed to the cause and finally mission accomplished

Mametz wood

Today I pause in front of the memorial to Harry Fellows in the small glade whose ashes are buried in this wood. A symbolic headstone to the hundreds who perished for this most insignificant of landmarks:

"Where once there was war

Now peace reigns supreme

And the birds sing again in Mametz"

His lines from one of his own poems.

Thundering, deafening, bone crunching shelling is now replaced by the tranquil sound of the breeze in the leaves and the sound of a crow in the branches.

I emerge from the shadow of the trees into the weak glare of the sun and a view of rolling, cratered fields, forever scarred by the bombardment of 100 years ago.

Earlier I had witnessed a moving ceremony at Thiepval's memorial to the missing soldier, more than 73,000 names etched into the towering monument, scene of the fiercest German resistance.

As the Hampshire Constabulary brass band drew us to silence, a silence that even the Royal British Legion standards seemed to respect, stilled even in the piercing wind, not a flutter. A Poppy petal on the ground trips head over heels across the grass in the wind to come to rest at the boot of the bugler.

One by one, representatives scale the stone steps to the altar of poppies, bearing the famous words: "Their name liveth for evermore"

"When you go home, tell them of us and say, 'For your tomorrow, we gave our today'.

Even as they faced death theses poets of soldiers knew they were writing for future generations to know.

Soldier Max Plowman described the scene: around the village of nearby Fricourt thus: "the country here is a stricken waste...everything needs pointing out, for the general, impression is a wilderness without verdure or growth of any kind"

Today, of course, the village is rebuilt, inhabited, yet never forgetting its history. Fricourt (Bray Road) Cemetery pays testament to the place where 159 of the 10th West Yorkshire Regiment and 38 of the 7th East Yorks perished.

My walking is done, and I repair back to Ypres, more than an hour's drive along the Somme battlefield lines, every mile 100 years ago, the scene of death, destruction, annihilation- so impossible to imagine as your eyes stretch across farmland, fields and villages today.

And so back to Menin Gate where the names of so many young valiant men who paid the ultimate sacrifice are chiselled into the brick memorial, towering over the town of Ypres, or Ieper as the Belgians call it.

A poppy field of 3,000 crosses to the side of this great monument is a place of quiet contemplation. Its own Flanders Field.

I leave it contemplating, reflecting, wondering what those young valiant men would have made of the events taking place in our world 100 years later.

"They shall grow not old

As we that are left grow old

Age shall not weary them

Nor the years condemn

At the going down of the Sun

And in the Morning

We will Remember Them"