High Wood

every so often a poem catches my breath and I feel wonder at its impact.  This prophetic poem was written in 1918.  The poet Philip Johnstone appears to be a pseudonym and little else is known about him.  There are some preserved trenches in Belgium and France, and I too have trod the tourist’s path s at Hooge and Vimy Ridge, feeling slightly uncomfortable at indulging in battlefield tourism.  
High Wood

Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood, 
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux, 
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen, 
July, August and September was the scene 
Of long and bitterly contested strife, 
By reason of its High commanding site. 
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees 
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench 
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands; 
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave. 
It has been said on good authority 
That in the fighting for this patch of wood 
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men, 
Of whom the greater part were buried here, 
This mound on which you stand being… 
Madame, please, 
You are requested kindly not to touch 
Or take away the Company’s property 
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale 
A large variety, all guaranteed. 
As I was saying, all is as it was, 
This is an unknown British officer, 
The tunic having lately rotted off. 
Please follow me – this way … 
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense 
The Company keeps absolutely untouched, 
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide 
Refreshments at a reasonable rate. 
You are requested not to leave about 
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel, 
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate

By Philip Johnstone.

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May 1915 – death on the Home Front


Passing through Lime Street station just before 11am yesterday I noticed a group of people, passengers, railway personnel, passersby and service men and women standing in a loose circle at one corner of the station.  In front of a plaque I must have walked past and never noticed a hundred times stood a lone bugler.  

Thetraditional prayers and poems were recited, wreaths were laid and the last post was played before the two minutes silence.

Echoes of the last post are now being played in the background as I write this.  I am listening to Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony.  Not a cow-pat depiction of idyllic rural England, but a work RVW started in 1916, music that rose from the horror of the trenches.  RVW served in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

But standing at the station in silence yesterday I had a half recollection of reading about a train disaster in Britain early on in the war so came home to research it.

In Edinburgh, on May 22nd 1915, 500 men from the 1/7th Battalion of the Royal Scots boarded a train bound for Liverpool.  They were heading for Gallipoli.  The train carriages were old and ramshackled, totally unfit to travel at high speed.  They were built of wood and lit by gas, which was stored in containers underneath the carriage floors.

The troop train sped southward.

Their were four lines which were operated by the signalmen at Quintinshill signal box, two main tracks and two loop lines for passing trains.

On this day,  both of the loop lines were occupied by freight trains.  

Meanwhile, a local train and two express trains were heading north towards Quintinshill as well as the train with the soldiers heading south.

The troop train steamed into Quintinshill at high speed and smashed into the stationary local train.  The train was derailed and the wreckage from the trains spread across the main lines.  Some men were killed instantly, others were trapped in the wreckage.

But worse was to come.

Travellig at around 80mph, the second northbound express ploughed straight into the wreckage.

The gas tanks on the troop train ignited.  The fire spread rapidly to the other trains on the loop lines.  Many soldiers were trapped in the train with fire raging around them.  There were reports at the time that some of the trapped soldiers were shot to spare them the agony.

A total 230 people died and another 246 were injured. Of the 500 soldiers on the troop train, only 58 men and seven officers escaped the Quintinshill train disaster alive and uninjured.

Those who survived were sent on initially to Liverpool to be dispatched to the doomed Gallipoli campaign, but they were declared unfit and returned to Edinburgh.

A Northamptonshire Lad

Looking eastwards towards the Leam valley is the countryside that was Peter’s home, the place of his birth, where he spent most of his life and the land that has been home for generations of Noons. Here beats the very heart of England.

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My Dad never strayed far from his home County, it was if he was hefted to these gentle rolling hills.  Apart from his years of National Service with the Royal Air Force, his home was always in Northamptonshire.  Dad loved his National Service years, even if he enjoyed contriving ways to bunk off to go rowing on the Severn.

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He joined up wanting to train to be a pilot.  But such is military thinking that once he completed basic training he was stuck in an office and the closest time he ever got off ground was when he borrowed a cousin’s bike and went freewheeling down the hills of the Lake District. Having Failed to be enticed by some of the exotic locations he had been sent to by the Forces, places like Wem, Swansea and Wilmslow, Dad returned to Staverton and the family home, working for a while for a bank in Rugby, where he cycled to every day. We moved to Kettering for a while, the furthest north he ever lived.

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Dad loved working in the garden, and even when he only had the smallest of plots, he would reserve some area for vegetables. I have been told that I tried to emulate my father by pulling up all the potatoes he had planted the day before in our garden at Kettering.   Of course, in Staverton, he had a much bigger garden to tend.  Never particularly fond of flowers, his favourite flowers were snowdrops – these small yet fiesty flowers heralding the end of winter which meant time to put the seed catalogues away and get back out there in the mulch, the muck and the manure.

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