Salient Reflections

Where to start with this blog? I suppose if I was thirty years younger I would be vlogging, or posting short video clips via smart phone on social media. Everything seems to be “in the moment” nowadays. That’s why I’m an Old Gal I suppose!

This time last week I was packing to return home from Ypres.

The trip reinforced what the pandemic had shown me, that life sucks without personal interaction with people. Social media and “zooming”  can fill that role to an extent, but it will never beat face-to-face (or often, sadly nowadays, mask-to-mask) contact.

Returning to the Ariane hotel was a joy, but a joy slightly diminished by not being able to see the full familiar faces of the staff.

Still, they say that you can tell the sincerity of a smile by its reflection in the eyes and many eyes were lit up!

It seems a no brainer, despite some curmudgeonly opinions on social media, that the travel and hospitality industry in Ypres would welcome the return of British tourists from so-called “Plague Island”. However, what was also telling was a conversation our table of four had one evening in St Arnoldus bar with a young couple on an adjoining table. They were local residents who did not work in tourism but told us how pleased they were that British tourists were drifting back and how much they and the town in general had missed them.

In 1919 when Ypres was still in ruins, later to rise again as Ieper, Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War, expressed a personal desire that the British should be enabled to acquire the ruins of Ypres and preserve them as a monument: “A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world”.[1] Whilst his wish could not have been more heartfelt, it could not have been more facile. Equally, what the Covid pandemic has taught us is that the over-simplification by some people to the challenges others face in making an honest living is just as distasteful. For example, Eeyores who complain about commercialisation of the Salient examine one side of a coin, that which reflects their own safe perspective. The other side of the coin is that, for example for others, branded poppy goods are a means of paying the bills.

I can take or leave the poppy branding and, of course, I have a poppy scarf and other bits and pieces, however I draw the line at a thong! But, whatever rocks your boat and I don’t suppose such an item can be purchased in Ieper anyway. What I do find distasteful is the way some consumers of poppy branded goods flaunt them as if they are a badge of honour. And don’t get me started on modern tacky memorials, which often are about reflected glory on people *now* rather than people *then*.

This Armistice trip held a couple of surprises for me, one of which related to these graves and I will blog about another time:-

The other was interaction with someone whom I would never have expected to bump into or exchange conversation. Whilst waiting under the Menin Gate to lay a wreath on 11th November, I became aware that the lady standing next to me seemed familiar. She spoke to me first and evidently also did not recognise me; we were both wearing masks, which did not help matters, albeit many people were not. Eventually I realised that she was a local councillor at home and that we had crossed swords on the opposite side of a particular argument on many occasions. This was confirmed when I asked her name and introduced myself. Nevertheless, we exchanged pleasantries whilst waiting and also at the end of proceedings and parted on friendly terms, which was wholly appropriate given the occasion. This is the wreath she laid:-

Part of my party’s recce of the Salient was to Hill 35 where we took a rookie battlefield visitor for a lesson on orientation by reference to church architecture on the horizon. And also how one’s perspective of the landscape changes, and the military challenges involved, when viewed at ground level, rather than from the window of a vehicle. Along this road is to be found a modern granite monument to 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions, plus a blue plaque which was appended to it some years ago commemorating a much loved chaplain. (I’m not including a photo of the plaque!)

From my research, of which I have done a bit more than some others, my feeling is that Fr Doyle would be content with how his death in service had been commemorated i.e. in the standard manner by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission alongside the other missing of the Salient (post-15th August 1917) at Tyne Cot. He would not have wanted any special recognition. However, some people decided that something extra was required and, irrespective of one’s views on modern memorials, there are several things wrong with the resulting blue plaque. 

Following years of training William Joseph Doyle formally entered the ranks of the Society of Jesus in July 1907; the religious order’s initials, SJ, after his name is what defined his adult life and thereafter he was known as Fr Willie Doyle, SJ. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 and became Fr Willie Doyle, SJ MC. The CWGC only record names, initials and gallantry awards on their Royal Army Chaplains’ Department memorial panel at Tyne Cot i.e. in this case Doyle W.J., MC.

This brings us to a second issue in that the blue plaque on Hill 35 says Fr Doyle’s unit was 8th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, whereas he was recruited to and served on behalf of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department.

The reference to 8th RDF is not wholly incorrect, neither is it anywhere near being correct. It is true 8th RDF is the battalion Fr Doyle was with at the time of his death, one of four battalions of 16th (Irish) Division’s 48th Infantry Infantry Brigade. Fr Willie Doyle, SJ MC was padre to two of the brigade’s battalions, 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 2nd Royal Irish Rifles and his Jesuit compadre, Fr Frank Browne, SJ MC ministered to the other two, 2nd and 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. When Fr Browne was transferred back to the Irish Guards at the beginning of August 1917 a replacement chaplain failed to turn up and Fr Doyle took charge of all four battalions. Indeed, Fr Doyle would not have regarded himself as being identified to only one battalion, one brigade, one division, one religion or one nationality, he saw himself as God’s emissary to minister to whomsoever was in need.

The other problem with the identification of Fr Doyle to 8th RDF on the blue plaque is that it leads to an assumption that he won his Military Cross while attached to that battalion. In fact, the multiple actions in 1916, for which the 1917 New Year’s honours award of an MC was made, occurred when he was attached to 49th Infantry Brigade’s 7th and 8thRoyal Irish Fusiliers.

Moving on, it was great to see a British coach back in the Salient, parked outside Hooge Crater café and museum and proprietor Niek echoed the general local vibe of welcome. There are two stories attached to the cemetery of the same name opposite that members of our party had researched before we came out and I shall save one, as stated above, for another time.  The other relates to these two graves, casualties of the First Battle of Ypres:-

In the local church to the residence of two of our party is a memorial to Lieutenant Colonel H.O.S. Cadogan who lost his life when he left the shelter of a trench to go to the aid of his Adjutant, A.E.C.T.  Dooner (recorded as Lieutenant in the war diary but Captain on the headstone) who was returning from delivering orders to men in the front line.

The history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers[2] contains the testimony of Lieutenant Wodehouse who was wounded and captured:-

30th October – We were holding a line about three-quarters of a mile long. A Company on the right, then B,D and C on the left. Battalion H.Q. was in a dugout about 600 yards to the rear. The trenches were not well sighted for field of fire. So far as I know, no one was on our right; some ‘Blues’[3] were supposed to be there, but I did not see them. It was foggy in the early morning, so that the Germans could not shell us much, which was lucky, as they had two batteries on Zanvoorde Ridge. About 8 a.m. the shelling increased, and we saw large numbers of Germans advancing down a slope about 1,500 yards to our front. Also I believe large numbers were seen coming round our exposed right flank. The batteries on the ridge were now firing point-blank into our trenches, so that it was difficult to see what was happening, and the rifle fire also increased from our right rear. No orders were received, so it was thought best to stay where we were, and about midday the whole battalion was either killed, wounded or taken prisoner.” [The battalion was already depleted from earlier actions.] Casualties: Colonel Cadogan,

Dooner, Egerton, and an officer of the Cornwalls killed, self wounded and prisoner, Poole, Evans and Barrow (Cornwalls) prisoners. During that day or the next Baxter, who was doing Staff-Captain, was killed. I was taken to a dressing-station in Zandvoorde and patched up.” 

This is a lot more detail than the battalion war diary at the time and even that is truncated because of damage to the file.

I’ll finish this blog by returning to the subject of battlefield tourism being integral to the local economy of many former war torn areas, by giving a shout out to Mieka and her Aladdin’s Cave of eatables and drinkables. Many of Chez Marie’s products are locally produced and it’s worth popping in when next in Ieper.

I don’t know from whence the Ariane Hotel obtains their chocolate, but this battlefield visitor is glad of a bit of frivolity! 

[1] Ypres as Holy Ground, Menin Gate Last Post, Dominiek Dendooven, translated by Ian Connerty, de Klaproos, 2003, page 20.

[2] Regimental Records of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (23rd Foot) Compiled by Major C.H. Dudley Ward, D.S.O., M.C., Vol III, 1914-1918, France and Flanders, Forster Groom & Co. Ltd., London, pp 94-95.

[3] Blues were the Royal Horseguards.

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