Sunday, 26 October 2014

3 chaps, 2 Morgans, 6 wreaths, 1 plaque, a cemetery & an important journey to mark a WW1 centenary

On Thursday 30th October 2014, I will be setting out from Gheluvelt Park in Worcester in my beloved Morgan Plus 4 (Molly) with my old school chum Nigel Bradford and his friend Neil Styles in Nigel's 4/4 Four Seater (Gladys). The story behind our journey to honour the courage and sacrifice of the men who fought in the First World War is given in the beautiful piece written by Nigel at the end of the blog below.

We are honoured to be taking wreaths on behalf of various Worcestershire organisations that we will be representing on Friday 31st October in Gheluvelt: the Old Malvernians (former pupils of Malvern College that Nigel and Neil attended), the Old Vigornians (the former pupils of King's School Worcester, my old school), the people of Worcester City, the Morgan Motor Company, the Worcestershire Cricket Club, and, of course, the Worcestershire Regiment.

A number of Old Vigornians will be attended a service of dedication in St George's Church Ypres, where a plaque to commemorate the OV's who perished in the war will be unveiled and I will be reading a list of their names as part of the ceremony.

On our way home, we are going to visit the cemetery in Contay, France. This is where my wife Lit's great great uncle, Jonathan Tombs is buried. Lit wrote a lovely piece on Jonathan in her blog here Lit's blogpost on WW1 and Jonathan Tombs. With it being so difficult for Lit to travel that far, I am going to visit his grave for her. Jonathan died in October 1916, having travelled to France from Canada (via England) as part of the Canadian First Pioneer Battalion. Originally from a farm in Edwyn Ralph in Herefordshire, Jonathan was one of 29,029 Canadian casualties during the Battle of the Somme, lost in the fight for a 6 km stretch of mud.

The story behind the trip written by Nigel Bradford RD

There's a Park in Worcester called Gheluvelt. Growing up I played on its swings and enormous slide, paddled in its pool, fed its ducks, rode on its miniature steam trains and fancied myself to be Tony Jacklin on its putting green. In short, it was a child's paradise. 

But where did its name come from? Some might imagine the name to be taken from another more famous pleasure grounds, like Tivoli, Belle Vue, or Vauxhall. To some, even to this day, the name is too exotic, or too foreign, and they still refer to it with splendid Worcester cussedness as Barbourne Park.

The clues come from the smart little houses built along the park's northern side. These are homes for ex soldiers, some built in memory of a fallen son of a privileged  family. A poignant reminder that combat does not recognise such privilege. Then there is the main gate to the park itself. A splendid red brick archway with wrought iron gates painted in the Faithful City's red and black and bearing its Arms, but on that brickwork are two terracotta wreaths. They are not laurel wreaths of victory, but wreaths of mourning, so this is no triumphal archway. 

Over the years I slowly became aware of what and where Gheluvelt is. That it is a small village on the Menin Road, just to the east of Ypres. Now those are names that people from all over the country have heard of, names that signify courage, sacrifice, mud, bullets and Hell on Earth. Clearly not names you might associate with a pleasure park.

As this centenary year of the start of the Great War progresses, much will be made of how Britain was swept along in enthusiasm for war, to teach the the Kaiser a lesson. How men flocked to volunteer to fight for King and Country. How everyone said it would be all over by Christmas. Indeed one famous Worcestershire company, Morgan Motors, who had just opened a brand new factory in Malvern, announced that all its employees who rallied to the colours, would have their jobs kept open for their return at the end of "the present crisis". We will be reminded of how the British Expeditionary Force advanced towards Germany through Belgium. Then how they were forced to retreat in ignominy through towns that had previously welcomed them as the Heroes that had come to save them from the Hun.

All this was to come to an end, in the First Battle of Ypres, at a little place called Gheluvelt. 

It was the morning of the 31st of October, and the 400 men of the 2nd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment were resting in the cover of a polygon shaped wood a few miles to the northwest of Ypres. They were dirty and tired. Concern was growing, they had been ordered to stop. Other British units were continuing to retreat. Words were spoken, some in jest but nonetheless expressing resentment at the men who continued towards the coast. Then an order came that they were to move rapidly a few miles to the south and turn to face the enemy advancing to Ypres along the Menin Road. A battalion of the South Wales Borderers had slowed the German advance and this was the chance to stop it. The Worcesters left behind their packs and moved swiftly accross the ploughed fields to their new position. They halted, lined up two deep across the road fixed bayonets and in a magnificent display of Worcester cussedness, charged.  All the frustrations and anger of weeks of retreat was vented on the Germans, who fell back and retreated as the foul mouthed fury of the Worcesters wreaked terrible slaughter in the German ranks. 

The fighting was quickly over, the Germans had fallen back and the men of Wales and Herefordshire greeted the Worcesters with cries of "what kept you?". And together they took up defensive positions in the grounds of Gheluvelt Chateau. The Germans had been stopped and the Kaiser did not have his dinner in Ypres that evening as his Generals had promised him he would.

The First Battle of Ypres, as it came to be known, went on for days, until soldiers of both armies started to dig trenches. These trenches would be occupied for four more years as the Great War developed into the bloody stalemate of our collective memory. Ypres never fell to the Germans, though the little village of Gheluvelt did and it remained behind the German lines until the end of the war. 

After the war, the City of Worcester decided to dedicate the little park in the North of the city to the memory of the Fallen of the Worcestershire regiment. It was to be a place of peace and contemplation, but also a place for children to play and enjoy. The little houses were built for veterans and these are occupied by men from later conflicts to this day. But over the years the meaning of the name of the park was all but forgotten. Then a new War Memorial was built in a conspicuous corner of the Park. This stands in stark contrast to the peaceful idyll originally created for the Park. But it has served to remind people of the horrors of war and has  become a focus of the City's Remembrance each year on the anniversary of the battle.  

This year will see the centenary of the battle. Of course all who fought in the Great War have passed on. But I felt something special should be done to commemorate and remember the Worcesters and their finest hour. 

So two Morgans, built in that Malvern factory that is also celebrating it's centenary this year, are going to drive from Gheluvelt Park to Gheluvelt itself, arriving 100 years to the minute after the Worcesters were asked, "What kept you?". (The cars themselves would not have been thought too unusual by those soldiers all those years ago. They are fine examples of that Worcestershire cussedness. Why change the basic design of a car if it works in the first place?). We will lay wreathes from the Regiment, Morgan Motors and other County organisations that existed 100 years ago. Then we will do what the Kaiser failed to do, have dinner in Ypres.  But only after commemorating a Memorial Plaque to St George's Church on behalf of the King's School Worcester and attending the playing of Last Post at the  Menin Gate. 
We will return the next day. Our journey will take in a family grave and it is hoped that we will bring a sandbag of soil back from the grounds of the chateau to be scattered in the park.

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