It’s been 100 years since the end of WW I. Justin Fox pays his respects.
This month marks the centenary of the end of World War I. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we will commemorate the falling silent of the guns 100 years ago. The world was never the same again. In many ways, we are still living in the shadow of that confrontation and its spawn, World War II.
My grandfather, Albert (Bertie) Fox, fought on the Western Front and was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele. He, too, was never the same again. It’s said that no soldier ever returned from the trenches, not even those who lived. Bertie was a gentle soul who died in 1959 from the after-effects of shell shock.
Nostalgia, heritage and battlefield touring are increasingly popular, especially in Europe. Not long ago, I was invited to join a tour of World War I sites. We visited famous battlefields along the Western Front, especially the Somme in northern France. This was the costliest battle in British history. The first day alone resulted in more than 50 000 casualties. Troops were ordered to march slowly in ordered ranks towards the enemy trenches. German machine guns scythed them down like wheat. The battle lasted more than four months. For South Africans, the most important episode was the taking of Delville Wood in July 1916.
Our coach stopped at the graveyard so we could pay our respects. Designed by Herbert Baker, the memorial is one of the most beautiful of its kind. All around was peaceful forest, replanted after the war by the South African government. I thought of the many soldiers who’d fallen on this hallowed ground a century ago. The South African brigade went into battle on 15 July with 3153 men. At roll call on 21 July there were 780.
In 1916, Grandpa Bertie Fox set sail from Cape Town and joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the same regiment as war poet Siegfried Sassoon. He arrived at the Somme in August, just in time for an attack on German strongpoints near Thiepval. Next, his battalion moved to Messines Ridge, Belgium. Tunnels were dug below the German lines. The plan was to detonate a series of mines underneath the enemy trenches at 03h10 on 7 June 1917, followed by waves of infantry attacks.
The massive explosions blew the crest off the ridge. Thousands of Germans were instantly vaporised and the British attack was hailed as a success. Bertie was part of the Fusiliers advance, charging into a scene of utter devastation.
The summer of 1917 was hell. Known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele (Passion Dale), it came to symbolise the worst horrors of trench warfare. Incessant rain turned the land to mud and many soldiers drowned in the sludge. Bertie prepared for the next assault (at Menin Road) under constant artillery fire. The attack map places him in Imperfect Trench, near Klein Zillebeke, Ypres, on 20 September 1917. That’s when his war came to an end as shells rained down on his position. I wanted to find that spot.
We reached the hamlet of Klein Zillebeke. I asked our driver to stop. According to the battalion map, the cornfield on our left was where my grandfather’s trench was situated on that fateful night. I trudged through cloying Flanders mud to plant a small remembrance cross in honour of the grandfather I never met. What brutality did he witness here?
The German shell exploded in the dugout, killing most of his men. Bertie staggered to his feet, but was buried alive by fallout from the next shell. Soldiers dug him out five hours later. The Battle of Menin Road (page 14) was his last act in the war. Bertie spent the next eight months in hospital in Britain being treated for severe shell shock, before being shipped back to Cape Town.
We honour all those South Africans who served in the Great War: in the European trenches, in Africa and at sea on fateful ships such as the SS Mendi. What horror it all was, what futility. ‘We will remember them.’