Tag Archives: Armistice day

Threshold of the Empire

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After the armistice of 1918 the little Society of St Barnabas dedicated itself to a simple aim – “No grave on the Western Front, or farther afield still can be regarded as truly consecrated until it has been visited by its rightful warden”. True to its word, as soon as the Imperial War Graves Commission had completed its plans and the War Cemeteries were ready to be visited, for the next seven years St Barnabas set about contacting thousands of the relatives of the fallen and assisting them as they undertook the long pilgrimage until almost every known grave in what had been the Western European theatre of war during the conflict of 1914 to 1918 had been visited.

After that, only one duty remained. The Missing. For those thousands of soldiers lying in France and Belgium who had no known grave the idea was conceived of making the new Menin Gate, spanning the main eastern exit from the old town of Ypres, a memorial to those who had fallen in the Ypres Saleint and whose resting-places were “Known only to God”. The British Missing alone numbered some fifty-five thousand, their names engraved into the walls of the gate, representing almost every regiment and place in the then British Empire.

As a final gesture therefore, St. Barnabas staff and helpers arranged a last pilgrimage enabling seven hundred relatives of the Missing, mostly working women who had lost sons or husbands, to attend the unveiling and dedication of the Menin Gate in 1927. For some this was a severe ordeal, arrangements for travel and accommodation were not always ideal and many were elderly or infirm. But all the Pilgrims endured and returned safely having visited the land in which their men had fallen and seen their names set up in honour above the soil which somewhere contained them.

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The passage above was adapted from the introduction to a 1927 publication entitled “Menin Gate Pilgrimage“. This rare volume (only 300 were produced) is roughly A4 size, bound with blue hardback boards and comprises fifty-two pages. It contains a number of articles giving an account of the final pilgrimage of some seven-hundred bereaved relatives to the unveiling of the shrine to the Missing, the new Menin Gate at Ypres, built by the British on land generously given by the Belgian people, through whose previous incarnation so many thousands of troops had marched to the trenches for the last time during the First World War. The publication was produced for those women unable, mostly because of age or disability, to attend the ceremony in person.

One of the most moving sections is entitled Threshold of the Empire (a title given to the Menin Gate during the war) and was written by HV Morton, originally appearing in the Daily Express on 25th July 1927. The full text is given below.

We will remember
They shall not grow 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.
Laurence Binyon

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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THRESHOLD OF THE EMPIRE

By H.V. Morton

There were 700 of them from the towns and villages of England. Each one of them has a boy whose grave is known only to God. There are rows of such nameless graves in every cemetery on the Salient. And the mothers had taken their first adventure in travel to see the great white gate on which, engraved among 55,000 others, are the names of their own boys.

In the early sunlight they stood at the station at Ypres holding little bunches of flowers from English gardens. They had guarded them carefully through all the hazards of a Channel crossing. Many a rose had fallen, many a snapdragon had wilted; but the mothers held on to them.

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They looked so strange standing there on this foreign platform, with the ghost of an English kitchen behind each one, the ghost of a little street in England, the ghost of a little sitting-room where his picture hangs in a frame.

They were tired and hungry, and a little dazed by the foreign turmoil in which they found themselves. The first thing they noticed as they trooped slowly out in a long line was the old steam tramcar that runs to Kemmel.

“Oh, look!” said one. “That must be the ‘san fairy ann’ Tom used to tell us about!”

And they smiled as the old ‘san fairy ann’ gave its characteristic hiss and meandered casually to some remote objective.

So the mothers entered Ypres.

I shall never forget that sight. I think it was the most touching thing I have seen in Flanders. Their feet moved over the pavé of Ypres, and their eyes, straying from point to point, noticed just the same thing their boys noticed when they walked that same pavé many years ago – the dogs pulling the early morning milkcart.

How the boys hated that!

“Ah, you lazy blighters,” they used to say to the Belgian milkmen.

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The Menin Gate during the war

Down a side-street they caught a glimpse of the shattered Cloth Hall. They remembered that. Tom had told them. They passed, without knowing, the site of the old dug-out in which Tom, with indelible pencil marks all over his lip, used painfully to begin a letter: “Dear Mother, …” And “Dear Mother” was walking through Ypres. How incredible that would have seemed to Tom!

They went through the white Menin Gate, where already a great gathering had assembled. When they saw the long line of names on the stone – 55,000 names – tears came into their eyes. Tom was there, a little name on Menin Gate.

They sat in special enclosures, and watched the hot sunlight fall on the white stone and on the sitting lion over the portico who gazes out over the Salient. They thought he was a “nice” lion. He looked very proud.

They did not know that they were sitting on the road to Hell Fire Corner. Oh, Ghost of Ypres, what sight could amaze you more than that of “Dear Mother” so near to Hell Fire Corner holding a bunch of flowers from the front garden at home?

Then the ceremony began …

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The buglers stood facing the Menin road, and blew their call towards the old front line.

No sooner had their last note faded than the pipers of the Scots Guards, standing outlined against the sky, high on the great rampart, played the lament, “The Flowers of the Forest,” and the wind, catching the sound of the wild Highland pipes, carried it out over the Salient, over the little dips and hollows in the green fields which were once trenches. There were dim eyes in Ypres to-day.

The sound of the pipes in that place was indescribable. One forgot the Menin Gate, the crowd, the very scene itself, and one’s thoughts went out into the open country, where the corn now waves and flowers grow, and one waited there with aching heart at the end; waited, it seemed, for some signal which should have come from out there along the Menin road.

The King and the generals went, the officers of state and the guards of honour departed, leaving the Menin Gate to the mothers of England. They came to it bravely, so bravely and calmly, holding their little posies of English flowers. All once could do was to put one’s arm in theirs, as if they had been one’s own mother, and, pointing high up on Menin Gate, spell out a name to them.

“That’s him,” they said, and cried a little.

Then they hung their appealing flowers on Menin Gate; little clusters of rambler roses, snapdragons, lilies, all from England. The wind of God will take the message of these English flowers and bear it over those little lost corners of a foreign field which are “For Ever England.”

(Originally circulated on 11/11/20 as HVM Society Snippet – No.269)

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The Soul of Scotland

HV Morton’s “In Search of Scotland” was first published in 1929. A year later a section of chapter two was reproduced in a pamphlet, “The Soul of Scotland”, a guide for visitors to the Scottish National War Shrine in Edinburgh Castle, something which Morton said he found it more difficult to write about than anything he had ever attempted to describe. This publication is now possibly the rarest piece of Mortoniana there is and I thought this excerpt from it would be a fitting one for today’s post.

If you mount the Castle Rock in Edinburgh you will find the Soul of Scotland. Men call it the National War Shrine…

AS I stood inarticulate before the Shrine a thought came to me which was like a light. I was, not so long ago, in Ypres at the opening of the Menin Gate. It was a fine day with a wind blowing over the old front line. When the gate was declared open Scots pipers mounted high on the ramparts played the ‘Flowers o’ the Forest’.

No man at that moment dared to look into another man’s eyes. It was one of life’s terrible moments. The lament sobbed its grand way out along the road to Hooge, it wailed its way, sobbing, sobbing, ‘the flowers o’ the forest are a’ wede awae’ into every little dip and hollow where the corn now grows. . . .

It seemed to me, as I stood in Scotland’s Shrine, that the sound of this lament had flown home to crystallize in stone upon the rock of Edinburgh. The Shrine is a lament in stone, the greatest of all Scotland’s laments, with all the sweetness of pipes crying among hills, with all the haunting beauty of a lament, all the pride, all the grandeur.

I think the Cenotaph in London and the National Shrine in Edinburgh are the most remarkable symbols in existence of the temperamental difference between the two nations. One is Saxon and inarticulate; the other is Celtic and articulate. Grief locks the English heart, but it opens the Scottish. The Celt has a genius for the glorification of sorrow. All his sweetest songs are sad ; all his finest music is sad ; all his greatest poetry springs from tragedy.

That is why Scotland has built the greatest war memorial in the world.

THE ‘Flowers o’ the Forest’ have all turned to stone.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, England
Sunday, 10 November 2019

(Originally issued as HVM Society Snippets – No.244)

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“I, James Blunt” – propaganda, fiction or both? by Elisabeth Bibbings

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This article was first issued as HVM Society Snippets – No.174 on 11 November 2014

This summer, I was browsing (yet again) in a secondhand bookshop, and found a delightful volume of Paul Gallico short stories (famous of course for “The Snow Goose”).  In this book, he reproduced some of his best magazine stories, and also had written an interesting preface to each one, telling how the story came to be created.

One such story was called “Thief is an Ugly Word”, (produced in Cosmopolitan during the Second World War).  The story told how the Nazis, to fund their war effort, turned to peddling stolen art, mostly using Fascist sympathisers in Argentina.  There was truth behind the story, and Gallico explains how the truth came to be spelt out in this fashion:

“During the war (in America) there was created at the behest of Washington, the most astonishing propaganda agency which met in New York, called the Writers’ War Board. . . its function was simple and easy to understand. When the psychological warfare boffins in Washington needed a writing job of any kind, the problem was dumped into the lap of the War Board in New York which found the right author in the shortest possible time and got the job done.  This would be in the guise of short stories, novelettes, newspaper articles or even circulars and pamphlets.  It worked . . .Propaganda in fiction is useful only when the characters and the story are thoroughly beguiling, interesting, or exciting and entertaining.  [He goes on to say that the story must be good or else the nugget of information you are conveying won’t get through – like “sugarcoating the pill”.]

“If this strikes you as a devious way to go about an exposee and if you might be inclined to say that a factual and documented article . . . might have been more effective, you would be wrong.  It is a fact, startling perhaps in its implications, that fiction has a far greater propaganda value and gains far more credence amongst readers than actuality.  I need refer you only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the results it achieved. A truth becomes far more vivid and active and lives in people’s minds to a much greater extent when fictionalised than when presented merely as fact.  People like to be told a story.”

From the collection “Confessions of a Story-Teller“, published in 1961.

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This reminded me of Morton and his one fictional work “I, James Blunt”.  For those who haven’t read it, it is a diary of an ordinary man living in Nazi England, after Germany has won the war.  It grimly describes day-to-day life including living in fear that someone with a grouse against you may turn you over to the authorities – which is what happens to James Blunt in the story.  It’s about the only work of Morton’s that I don’t particularly want to re-read and re-re-read.

But was this written in the same way as Gallico’s tale?

Kenneth Fields, HVM Society historian, writes in his book “The Life of an Enchanted Traveller” that the Ministry of Information did the job of the American Writers War Board.

“Its many separate divisions included a Home Intelligence Unit that prepared reports on the morale of the civilian population, a Films Division and a Literary and Editorial Division that produced a range of booklets about the war. The Authors’ Section was housed in the University College buildings in Gower Street, Bloomsbury and for a period its head was novelist Graham Greene who worked alongside fellow writer Malcolm Muggeridge. With academic scepticism they both believed their work was of little importance and found the Ministry to be generally inefficient.

“However in spite of these misgivings Greene continued to take his duties seriously. One of his schemes involved approaching a number of well-known politicians and writers to ask if they would use their talents in writing a series of patriotic pamphlets and books. These famous names included E. M. Delafield, Herbert Morrison, Vernon Bartlett, Dorothy Sayers, Howard Spring and H.V. Morton.”

It was as a result of his work for this Division, that Morton was chosen, along with Howard Spring, to write up the account of Churchill’s summit with Eisenhower which you will find in his book “Atlantic Meeting”.

I agree with Gallico that fiction makes for powerful propaganda.  Morton has the Union Jack banned, Waterloo Station becomes Goebbels Station, (names of British victories being erased from history), houses crumbling and the suicide rate soaring.  The Hitler Youth Movement is planned to be rolled out in schools.  Children will be educated in German.  All this carefully written to stiffen the morale of the British public.

Morton finishes his sombre novella with these words, “Fortunately the Diary of James Blunt will remain fiction as long as England condemns complacency and bring to times of good news the same high courage and resolution which inspire and unite her in her darkest hours.

As we remember those darkest hours, and those who fell in them, and those who did not fall, but fought on with that same courage and resolution – may we also spare a thought for those who fought Fascism with the weapons at their command – the typewriter and the pen.

With best wishes,

Elisabeth Bibbings

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Armistice Day

Armistice Day Commemoration

(This was originally posted to HV Morton members as HVM Society Snippets – No. 145)

In February this year, in King’s Lynn, Norfolk; Florence Green died peacefully at the age of 110. A modest woman, she had worked much of her life at a local hotel and during her spare time was heavily involved with the British Legion – knitting clothes, blankets and toys for children. Before her marriage at the age of nineteen, she had also served as a mess steward in the Women’s Royal Air Force and, with her passing, the world lost its last living link with those people who served in the forces during the First World War.

Remembrance day is approaching. A commemoration of the day when, after more than four years of continuous warfare and roughly 20 million dead, the guns fell silent across the battlefields of Europe and the World on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in the year 1918.

The hope at the time was that this had been the war to end all wars. Surely, after such madness, the carnage would never be repeated? We know now this was in vain, and, little more than two decades following the signing of the armistice at Compiègne in France, the conflagration ignited again. It seems the urge to warfare may simply be part of the human condition.

Twenty-six years after the excerpt below, in his 1951 book “In Search of London”, HV Morton, in somber mood, described post-Second-World-War London as a city “of jagged ruins and hatless crowds”. The bare heads of its populace were symbolic of a people who were, “graver and sadder”  than before – people, Morton wrote, whose courage had been “expended in many years of air warfare… the air raid wardens, the fire watchers, the firemen”. Knowing how the hopes for peace in the years following the Great War had been so thoroughly dashed, Morton briefly considered the possibility of yet another, third world war in the new atomic age.

The following contemplation of the Cenotaph in London is from Morton’s “The Heart of London” and was written only six years after the last shot of the First World War was fired:

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The wind comes down Whitehall and pulls the flags, exposing a little more of their red, white, and blue, as if invisible fingers were playing with them. The plinth is vacant. The constant changing trickle of a crowd that later in the day will stand here for a few moments has not arrived. There is no one here.

No one? I look, but not with my eyes, and I see that the Empire is here: England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India… here — springing in glory from our London soil.

*    *    *    *    *

In a dream I see those old mad days ten years ago. How the wind fingers the flags…

I remember how, only a few weeks ago, as a train thundered through France, a woman sitting opposite to me in the dining car said, ‘The English!’ I looked through the window over the green fields, and saw row on row, sharply white against the green, rising with the hill and dropping again into the hollows — keeping a firm line as they had been taught to do — a battalion on its last parade.

The Cenotaph and no one there? That can never be.

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With best wishes,

Niall Taylor (originally distributed 2nd November 2012)

HV Morton Society members who would like to, can read Morton’s 1927 account of a pilgrimage of 700 mothers of the fallen to the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium in the on-line archive.

For an explanation of the connection between the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the grave of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey, have a look at the British Legion website.

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