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Retracing the steps of the Hertfordshire Regiment in the Great War

hertfordshiremercury.co.uk reports:

It is hard to picture the scene of indescribable slaughter when you look at a field of cows.

Combined with the odd tractor and the pong of a nearby mushroom farm, St Julien appears an unremarkable village in the Belgian countryside.

But it was here, at one of the great clashes of the First World War, Hertfordshire blood was spilled.

The engagement was part of the third Battle of Ypres – better known as Passchendaele.

About 300,000 allied soldiers died during the three-month push, about 35 men for each meter gained.

At the Battle of St Julien on Tuesday July 31, 1917, every officer in the 1/1 Hertfordshire Regiment was either killed or wounded.

Of the 459 Hertfordshire men from the ranks 236 perished, while just 36 officers and men could be identified for burial.

Today, there’s no sign of the reams of barbed wire and fortifications that once crisscrossed the landscape.

Only the occasional car passing through the village breaks the tranquillity of the rural scene, once punctuated by the deadly chatter of the machine gun and the deafening explosions of artillery shells.

But the sacrifice of our county’s men on these fields has not been forgotten.

Motorists toot their horns as they pass tourists in recognition of the sacrifices made more than 100 years ago.

Remembering is also the purpose of Herts at War, an initiative commemorating the centenary of the Great War throughout the county.

Project co-ordinator Dan Hill said: “The idea is with the centenary of the First World War coming up we feel it is important to mark the event, particularly the role of Hertfordshire in the war.

“By telling the smaller stories you’re helping to tell the big one.”

The team is attempting to chronicle the lives of every soldier in the 1/1 Hertfordshire Regiment.

And teaming up with Battle Honours, a battlefield tour company co-owned by Clive Harris, of Knebworth, the Ypres salient can be reimagined and reinterpreted as it was on that fateful Tuesday.

“We’ve only got one chance to get this right,” says Clive, who wants to dismantle erroneous views widely held on the conflict, perhaps exacerbated by simplistic interpretations in school textbooks.

Four out of five soldiers who left for the front would return, with the average age of the soldier being 26.

They did not fight every battle in a quagmire of mud like the men of the 1/1 Hertfordshire Regiment.

For Clive, Field Marshal Douglas Haig should not be viewed as the bloody-minded butcher of the Somme without exploring the context.

No British commander before or since had wielded such a large force and the nation’s losses are dwarfed by those of other countries.

Attacks were not pushed on regardless of how they were progressing and communication limitations meant it was extremely difficult to bring an assault back once it had started.

Clive also points out life in the trenches was not constant.

Soldiers would typically rotate in for four days and spend eight days out, sometimes spending up to six weeks out for training and other purposes.

And of the 3,080 sentenced to death in all theatres, 346 were actually executed, with murder the second biggest reason behind desertion for their executions.

But the sacrifices made cannot be ignored.

Dotted around are numerous cemeteries paying tribute to those who died.

Some are just a handful of graves tucked around the back of a village street, while others have a looming presence over the landscape.

No matter how small or large they are, all of them are in immaculate condition.

The largest, Tyne Cot, has 11,900 burials, with nearly 70 per cent of burials of unknown soldiers.

A further 34,800 names of soldiers with no known grave are also engraved on panels on the rear of the cemetery.

The numbers are mindboggling and incomprehensible.

Walking between the rows of graves there is an air of serenity, sadly devoid when many of these men met their fate.

The headstones with the most complete information only betray a slight glimpse into the life of the man beneath.

You can’t help but wonder who is buried in this foreign field and how their life would have been were it not for the war.

Every gravestone signifies a personal tragedy; a family ripped apart forever by the untimely demise of their son, father or husband.

Those lucky enough to have made it home might spend the rest of their lives suffering with a debilitating injury.

And those with no physical wounds will have no doubt been tormented by the indelible images of losing their friends in front of their eyes.

For many this period has been consigned to history.

But in the town of Ypres, around the salient of which was to cost so many lives, a humbling act of homage takes place daily.

There are 55,000 names of the missing commemorated within the Menin Gate Memorial.

Each night at 8pm since 1928, bar a four-year break for German occupation, the Last Post has been played by the town’s inhabitants followed by a minute’s silence.

Last Saturday was the 29,217th time and for the hundreds there to witness it, the ceremony had lost none of its poignancy.

Nearly 100 years on, the message had not changed.

We will remember them.

Read more on the hertfordshiremercury.co.uk site

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