Going to Broodseinde

Christmas is past and thoughts turn to summer.

Sailing from Rosslare to Cherbourg on 3rd June, I am planning to pay my respects at Juno Beach in Normandy before going to the Western Front. More specifically, going to Flanders, to Broodseinde, where both my great grandfather and my grand uncle suffered gunshot wounds.

Only yesterday did I discover that Clem had been wounded in action.  GSW his record says, gunshot wound. Why hadn’t we ever been told he had been hit by gunfire?

Memories are clear of Uncle Clem. He had always seemed old, but perhaps anyone over forty years of age had seemed old to a primary school child.

Uncle Clem was seventy-five years old when he died in 1972, which I suppose was a good age to have reached five decades ago. It was a particularly good age to have reached for a man whom we were told had shrapnel in his lungs fom his time at the front.

Uncle Clem was only sent to the front because there was a shortage of men. He had joined up at the beginning of 1916. Being trained as a baker, he had been assigned to the Army Service Corps.

Whether it was Napoleon Bonaparte or Frederick the Great that said an army marches on its stomach, the fact is that without supplies, no army can function. From April 1916 until July 1917, he remained with the Army Service Corps. Then in the summer of 1917, he was transferred to the Royal Fusiliers, to the Second Battalion (City of London Regiment). His records say that there was an adjustment in his pay to ensure he was not out of pocket in being sent to the front (presumably bakers were paid more than men at the front).

The disastrous Battle of Passchendaele was drawing to a close when Uncle Clem was hit by gunfire on 30th October 1917.

No-one ever talked about his war service. No-one ever spoke about what had happened on the Western Front for him to carry injuries that affected him for the rest of his life. Perhaps there were so many war wounded, anyway; perhaps the memories of the Second World War were still so raw that no-one wanted to talk about the Great War that had preceded it.

Yet until yesterday, I believed he had been hit by shrapnel from an artillery barrage. Perhaps it was an easier tale to tell, an impersonal random, shell falling on a trench demanded no further explanation. A gunshot wound to the right hand side of the chest would have been a more personal recollection which he perhaps preferred to forget.

The wounds took him back to Le Treport and then to a posting with the Labour Corps. Returning to life in Pitney in 1919 must have seemed like paradise after Passchendaele.

Reading the records, it is odd to think that the gentle and quiet man who would sit at Aunt Ella’s tea table and chat and laugh with a small boy had once seen a place that was hell on Earth.

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