Old Haunts Revisited

By way of a difference, I am including an account of a visit to the battlefields made by my Grandfather, a Great War veteran, in April 1920. I feel that readers may be interested in his descriptions of the battlefields as they were only 18 months after the Armistice, as well as in some of the attitudes that he expresses.

This account was first published in "Memories" the journal of the Old Comrades Association of the 19th London Regiment in late 1920. He also took about 35 photos which I have, and for several of which I have been able to find the exact present day view.

Before the article there is a brief biographical summary of my Grandfather's career which I hope will help to put what he wrote into context.

Charles Fair

Summary of career of Major Charles Herbert Fair DSO

Born the son of the vicar of Westmeon in Hampshire.

Educated Marlborough College, Wiltshire and at Pembroke College, Cambridge University where he gained first class honours in classics. Captain of Pembroke 1st XV and rowed in the 5th (rugby) boat.

Took up a position as a master at Haileybury College, Hertfordshire.

10 August joined the Honourable Artillery Company as a private, later promoted to lance-corporal.

Mid September received a commission in the 19th London Regiment, posted to the 2/19th battalion who were training in the east Hertfordshire/western Essex area.

Late October posted to the 1/19th battalion (47 Division) in the Loos area who were now short of officers after the battle. By now acting Captain.

25 December - Christmas Day in the Hohenzollern Redoubt.

Promoted acting Major and company commander.

July appointed second in command of 1/19th battalion. Helped set up 19th London Old Comrades Association.

15 September acting CO at High Wood after the death of the CO Lt-Col Hamilton that morning. Battalion reduced to about half strength.

1-4 October acting CO during Le Transloy Ridges phase of the Somme.

Mid October reverted back to 2 i/c. Awarded DSO: according to the order announcing this, his substantive rank was Lieutenant, his temporary rank was Major and his acting rank was Lt-Colonel.

5 November in a letter he noted that he was now the longest serving officer with the battalion i.e. it had suffered over 100% turnover in 12 months.

1 January Mentioned in Despatches.

June battalion in reserve at Messines.

July - early Sept Senior officers training school, Aldershot.

28 July met Miss Marjorie Secretan for the first time.

Early August met her for the second time, and consoled her on the death of her brother.

3rd week of August Proposed to her.

18 September Married at St Michaels Church, Chester Square, London.

End September after a one week honeymoon in Devon, he was back out at the front with the 1/19th.

29 Nov - 4 Dec Bourlon Wood. The Battalion was gassed, and suffered 90 per cent casualties, incl. the CO. He took over command again and had 6 officers and 66 other ranks left with which to rebuild the battalion.

Mid January still acting Lt-Col broke leg near Flesquieres and sent home to recover. One very relieved wife.

April posted to 24 Officer Cadet Battalion at Hazeley Down nr. Winchester.

End September discharged at the end of his 4 year territorial commission engagement. Goes back to teach at Haileybury as a housemaster.

Joined Home Guard as a private on the day that its formation was announced. Serves until its disbandment. 1946 retires from Haileybury to a cottage in Hinxworth, north Hertfordshire.

29 July died suddenly of a heart-attack.


By Major Charles H Fair DSO (1/19th London Regiment, 47th London Division)

(Click on a footnote number to jump to the footnote itself.  There's also a link to bring you back.)

On April 13th (1920) with three companions I arrived at Amiens on the first stage of a week's trip round the battlefields of northern France and Belgium. The idea was to visit most of the places which had become familiar during the year of 1915-16, the period above all others when our armies were composed of the men who had joined up in the first rush of enthusiasm at the beginning of the war, when conscription and "combing out" were unknown and D.O.R.A. was yet in her infancy. (1)

We were lucky in being provided with a car driven by an English chauffeur who had himself served in France during most of the war.

Directly one landed at Boulogne the flood-tide of memory was let loose and even now it has hardly begun to ebb. At Amiens we saw with regret the damage done in 1918, but were glad to see that the cathedral had been so little hurt. The whole scene brought up at once pictures of those "joy-rides" in August and September 1916 when many of the 1/19th were lucky enough to make a pilgrimage there from Brèsle.

The village of Hamel, Somme, as the war left it.

The next day we started off to visit the Somme country. The first village I sighted was Franvillers, where we spent a week of reorganisation in October 1916. After that the familiar sights came thick and fast. The fields over which we practised for High Wood, the hills round Brèsle where we did night attacks behind a creeping barrage of drums, and then Albert itself. A few wooden houses and one new brick house are all the habitations in Albert since 1918. We photographed the ruins of the cathedral and spent some time among the ruins. It was for my companions their first sight of a ruined town and I do not think any of them will forget it.

Before going on I insisted on visiting Aveluy where there were some indications of the camp in which the battalion spent Christmas 1917 and certainly some of the pickets in the horse lines. The village itself is of course in ruins.

We then turned back through Albert and made our way past La Boisselle to Contalmaison of which there is nothing visible at all except three steps of the church. From there we went on through the Bazentins. The machine-gun dugout at the "circus" which served as H.Q. after High Wood has gone but a curious shaped tree which I remembered was there. I could not find Col. Hamilton's grave, presumably it has been moved. (2)

Over what was Brigade H.Q. on September 15th 1916 some sort of a house has been erected. We then went on through the utter desolation of these grisly fields to High Wood itself. The undergrowth of broom and small shrubs has mercifully covered much of its ugliness but of the original trees only forty bare poles are still standing. I found without difficulty the 47th Divisional Memorial Cross, (3) and then came upon the remains of the shelter which served as joint HQ for all the battalions of the brigade. (4)  It was a litter of bomb-boxes and bits of timber, but there is no doubt it was the right place. We wandered about waist-high in the undergrowth gradually finding the trenches, and then I saw some graves outside the wood, and on going over to them I found they were mostly those of officers and men in the regiment.

Captains Henderson, Gauld and Davis; Lieutenants Pleydell-Bouverie, Cooper and Rowson; R.S.M. Ridout, C.S.M. Bolton, Sergeant Deighton, Corporal Toole, Privates Whybrow and Prewer (the latter my own orderly) were some of the many names I saw. (5) For me it was I think the most touching moment of the week. The longer we stayed there the more we became convinced how important a tactical feature the wood presents. The observation in each direction is wonderful. One of the most interesting parts of our journey all through, to my mind, was to go into the German positions and see how completely they dominated ours in almost every place.

On our return journey that day we visited one of the German "Big Berthas" near Bray. (6) It is believed to have shelled Amiens, Arras, and Béthune, and was captured eventually by the Australians.

The huge gun referred to by Maj. Fair

The next day our first objective was Eaucourt L'Abbaye and the Butte de Warlencourt, certainly the scene of one of the most interesting and thrilling situations in which the battalion found itself during the war. (7)  I could not find any graves belonging to the Regiment in the neighbouring cemetery, but here again as at High Wood we were at struck at once with the tactical importance of the 'Butte', though in itself it is not a place of any size at all. From there we went on through Bapaume - a terrible sight of ruin and decay - and eventually crossing the Canal du Nord by a wooden bridge reached Flesquières after skirting Bertincourt, the scene of a certain dinner on December 10th 1917. Flesquières had a personal interest as it was the last spot in which I served with the battalion. (8) The village appeared capable of being rebuilt more than most of the places in the neighbourhood. We could make out the line of the trench which we held in front of the village in January 1918. Then we went on to our furthest objective, Bourlon Wood.

Time was pressing and rain was falling so we did not go into the wood, but round the left side of it into the village. In spite of its fearful shelling and the gas, the wood looked more like a wood than the woods of the Somme country or Ypres and will probably recover, but there is something grim and menacing in the way it frowns down on all the country round.

We went back in one stage from Bourlon to Amiens which must be one of the widest strips of devastated country. In almost every village there are a few inhabitants living in anything which can be made to look like a dwelling and endeavour to eke out their existence with vegetables, poultry and a cow or two. But one wonders what joy or happiness can ever come into the lives of these people again. There is no town within reach of many of them. Supply trains are few and far between. There are no schools, churches, or places of entertainment. Education for the children and relaxation for their elders must be non-existent. The feeling in the minds of all our party on this and every day was that those who lived in peace and safety in England could never know what the war had really meant to France, and that nobody can blame her in any demand which she makes for reparation or future security.

The next day we cut through the back areas having lunch at Doullens and picked up the real track of the war again at Arras. There the Hun seems to have deliberately set himself to destroy the more beautiful parts of the town while leaving the meaner quarters comparatively unhurt, though of course suburbs like St. Catharines have suffered badly. Here the work of reconstruction was going on apace, but nothing can replace the noble buildings of ancient Arras.

Arras - near the railway station, 1917

A remarkable sight was a French fair in full swing with its attendant booths and swing-boats for the children, while the workmen went stolidly on mending the roads and houses beside them. Arras would not be a pleasant place to walk about in at night, the square is full of yawning gaps leading to apparently bottomless pits. On leaving Arras we could see Moreuil and its familiar church and chateau. I wondered if any of the elegant handiwork of Sergeant Sewell and the pioneers remained. Then we came in for an appalling storm of hail and rain which however eventually proved a blessing in disguise. For as we reached Cabaret Rouge the sun came out and the view of Notre Dame de Lorette, with Ablain St. Nazaire in the foreground, was wonderful. We left the car in Souchez just where battalion H.Q. dugout, near the foot of the ridge, used to be in 1916 and then climbed right up to the craters. I managed to identify our old front line near the top of 'Robineau' and then we stood on one of the craters - possibly 'New Cut' - and looked right out into the blue. (9)

We could see for miles past Lens and away out towards Douay, and behind us to the Servins and Mont St. Eloi. It was a splendid moment to be there and I could have stayed for hours. Some French girls who were on the crater told us they were natives of Souchez and had been deported in 1914, but repatriated in 1916.

All too soon we had to descend the ridge and make our way through Aix-Noulette, past 'Colonel's House', and the quarry where battalion H.Q. was in July 1916. We could see Bully Grenay and Fosse 10 on our right and the slag heaps of Noeux-les-Mines and Ruchel in front of us. Eventually we arrived at Bethune which, like Arras, has suffered more in its better quarters than in the poorer districts. The big square has practically no buildings left except the remains of the belfry. With pathetic and unconscious humour the inhabitants had put up notice-boards to announce that such-and-such a shop had 'removed' elsewhere!

Saturday April 17th was devoted to the Loos district. We started through Philosophe (already busy again) and Vermelles and then skirted the Hohenzollern Redoubt. I did not actually see 'Bart's Alley', but nobody who spent part of Christmas Day 1915 in it is ever likely to forget that health resort. (10)  This part of the country struck us as more depressing than almost any other. It could never have been beautiful, and the scars of war take longer to heal in a chalk soil naturally, while in many places the barbed wire was still standing or at best only raked into heaps. We then went on into Loos, of which there is little left. We could get a good idea of the topographical aspect of the battle. It takes more than a war to wipe out Hill 70, the Green Crassier and the Double Crassier. The sight of the latter recalled some chilly days in February 1916. Was there not a wonderful plan for pushing a trolley of explosives along the northern arm of the Crassier?

We turned to the left over Hill 70 into Lens itself, a place one had always wondered about and seen perhaps through glasses from the Lorette heights or the Bouvigny Woods. Here was destruction deliberate, naked and unashamed, but at the same time more obvious activity in the work of reparation. In the very centre of the town, on what used to be the principal church, stands a board 'Lens veut renaître', a typical motto for the unconquerable spirit of northern France.

From Lens we went over the reverse side of the Vimy Ridge, honeycombed with Bosche dugouts, through Roclincourt where there is part of the officer's club still standing and the London Irish transport lines, and then on into Arras for tea. It was strange to find ourselves the only English people in the café and but for the scarred walls and cracked mirrors it might have been a pre-war scene. That evening we came back through Estrée-Cauchie, passing the camp where 1/19th and 2/19th were able to exchange greetings in July 1916 and then through Ranchicourt and Houchin back to Béthune. (11)

The last two days were to be spent mainly in the Ypres salient, so we set off on April 18th in the direction of Armentières, passing La Bassée, where the 'leave train' still stands on the rails, and the brick-stacks of Cuinchy. Then on past Neuve Chapelle to Armentières and from there across the frontier near Neuve Eglise. There we made our way to Wytschaete and stood at last on the lip of the Messines ridge and began to realise how every movement on the lower ground must have been visible to German eyes for the greater part of the war. Here, as on the Somme, one could get some idea of the havoc played by modern artillery.

Ypres - the ruins of the Cloth Hall - 1917

No tree showed signs of life and no two bricks anywhere seemed left upon one another. Then we descended into Ypres passing a light railway which carried civilian passengers along the road east of Chateau Segard and Swan Chateau! Here the aspect of the country had changed so much that it was difficult to get one's bearings except by some such spot as "Shrapnel Corner" or "Woodcote House". The remainder of that day we spent in Ypres - the only spot which seemed spoilt by the genuine 'tripper'. Here small boys with picture postcards and girls selling chocolate bombarded us with their attentions. The Belgian authorities are doing their best to leave the Cloth Hall and Cathedral in their ruins as a permanent memorial of British heroism.

We spent two nights at Poperinghe in what used to be the Officers' Club, but is now an hotel most excellently managed by the enterprising ladies who own 'Skindles', which name it bears now. The last day of our tour was spent in such places as Boesinghe, St. Julien, Zillebeke, and last but not least The Bluff. (12) Here I found the old tunnels, fallen in it is true, but still easily recognizable. I could stand at the entrance to battalion H.Q. and almost hear the voice of R.S.M. Trezona sending off ration parties. I am sure the Stretcher Bearers will grieve to know that there was some rubbish visible in some of the neighbouring shell holes! Then on up along the 'Wynd' we went, which, at the top, is apparently a natural pond, so no wonder we failed to drain it ! At last we stood right on the top of 'A' crater and looked out on all sides at the scarred and battered country beyond. This was certainly one of the most impressive sights of all. The effects of war upon nature are shown here in all their hideousness, and while we stood there, to make a final scene to carry away in one's mind, some Belgian engineers exploded a dump of shells near Ypres with the dull familiar roar, without which the place would not have seemed real.

I began this article meaning it to be quite short, and my pen has run away with me. My only excuse is that this was, I think, the most interesting week I have ever spent. I would like to urge all old comrades to lose no opportunity of taking their friends, and especially the younger generation, to visit some at any rate of these spots. It is only by seeing with their own eyes the devastation of France and Belgium that they can ever realize what they have been spared. Then perhaps they may catch something of the spirit of the men who died for them, for surely that unconquerable spirit amongst all the horrors of trench and mine, of shells and gas, is the greatest legacy that they have left to the race.


1 D.O.R.A. = Defence Of the Realm Act.
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2 Lt-Col A.P. Hamilton, The Queens Royal West Surrey Regt was the C.O. of the 1/19th London Regiment and is buried in Flatiron Copse cemetery. He was killed on the morning of 15 September 1916, after which Major Charles Fair took command. Circus trench can be seen on trench maps between Flatiron Copse and Bazentin-le-Petit.
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3 This cross is now kept at The Duke of York's Headquarters on the Kings Road, Chelsea where it can be seen on one of the outside walls.
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4 This HQ was sited on the same spot as the modern house or farm which is in the southern corner of High Wood.  
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5 These men are all among the original burials in London Cemetery which is adjacent to High Wood. Their graves can be found just on the left of the entrance. Captain David Henderson was the son of the Labour Party politician Arthur Henderson.
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6 These guns were 1 km south-west of Chuignies. The IGN 1:25,000 map Bray-sur-Somme (2408 Est) marks a "Bois du Grand Canon" where one can find a large, circular and very overgrown hole in the ground. Pictures of the gun can be found in "Twenty Years After".  
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7 This was the Le Transloy Ridges phase of the Battle of the Somme in which the battalion was engaged 1st to 4th October 1916.
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8 He in fact fell into a hole and broke his leg while inspecting the front line trench (on the east of the village) which was held by the battalion.
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9 These craters are clearly named on the 1:10,000 trench maps of mid 1916. One of these appears in the trench map atlas "Topography of Armageddon" by Pierre Chasseaud. These craters were near the northern end of the ridge near a spot called "The Pimple", a mile or so north of the Canadian memorial. The remains of a memorial to the 44th (Winnipeg) battalion Canadian Infantry can still be seen there today.
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10 He later wrote an article for "Memories" describing Christmas Day 1915 in the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the trench known as Bart's Alley.
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11 Estrée-Cauchie was generally known as "Extra-Cushy".
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12 The battalion was stationed in the Bluff, and was withdrawn the night before Messines. It went into Divisional reserve near Bedford House.
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Copyright © Charles Fair, June, 1997.

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