On a sunny summer afternoon, I stood before the wall of the Tyne Cot Memorial, in sight of the church tower of Passchendaele Village beyond and read:


Corporal Palin B.

... and so ended a Pilgrimage to find an Uncle I never knew, and vague memories, which I had often doubted as mere childhood dreams, were finally confirmed.

I remember enduring, as a child, those awful family gatherings which usually coincided with christenings, weddings or funerals. The bonding rituals of my mother's family always seemed to be conducted in rarely opened, echoing, musty sitting rooms with huge high ceilings in Victorian houses near Bradford. Here I was gathered to the bosoms of various aunts who seemed to know me so well, though they looked, sounded and smelled so foreign to my senses.

My sister and I sat, as did the cousins I barely knew, bolstering parental self-esteem by being demurely silent and immobile according to protocol, for hours, or so it seemed until we were mercifully released to go and play.

Inevitably, the family archives always had to be opened before our liberation, and photographs were passed from hand to hand around the circle of chairs that surrounding the central table piled with cakes and best china. Most pictures were passed to me without comment - sepia toned faces and places with neither meaning nor connection; but from those faded memories of huge stone houses, of the smell of boiled cabbage, and of chilly, immense bedrooms, one memory has remained with me for over forty years.

Probably six at the time, I remember being passed the khaki coloured postcard photograph taken in an indistinct room with a tiled floor, of four young soldiers in puttees, shorts, battledress tunics and army caps, awkwardly posed in attempts at nonchalance on and around a wooden bench. The picture had hole through it.

Later I asked my father why the hole was there and he simply said, "bullet hole". The picture was of my uncle Bernard and three comrades. It had been in the breast pocket of his battledress when the sniper's bullet passed through his own face in the picture and into him.

Whether I learned further details about my uncle at the time or later, I do not know, but my ninety year old aunt, the last survivor of my mother's five sisters, recently confirmed not only my childhood memory of this picture (which I sometimes imagined to have been just a vivid childhood dream), but also produced that very picture again from her bureau.

Sitting in her room with that photograph in my hand, I learned that Bernard was a happy, easy-going young man who was merely seventeen when he lied about his age and joined the Army in 1916, following his elder brother, Arthur, and his own father to the Ypres salient. John Henry (Harry) Palin, his father, (later Lord Mayor of Bradford) was a union zealot on the Bradford trams who organized the first Tram Workers' Union, and although old, was challenged to enlist by a younger man at a recruiting drive . He did so, and at forty-seven years of age, left his family of ten to marshal munitions trains in and out of the ruins of Ypres. Perhaps this was the reason why Bernard in his youthful zeal joined the army, endured his mother's wrath, and followed Arthur into the Army Cyclist Corps and the third battle of Ypres.
The cyclists were attached to various regiments as high-speed "cavalry" to sweep and search the roads ahead of foot soldiers on the move, just as cavalry ranged across the open ground. They were usually in small companies of six and armed with Lewis guns. The glamour of their purpose, expressed in the galloping steed of their cap-badge, would have been seductive to young minds; however in reality the Cyclists became trench-bound fodder for wire and machine guns, indistinguishable from the infantry in the morass of the Ypres salient.

Bernard seated at left

Apparently, when relieved at the front, Bernard was able to visit his father a few kilometres away in Ypres and on occasions was able to stay overnight with his father and his men, who liked Bernard very much. My aunt reported that Bernard was an observer who "climbed trees" and spied on enemy activity. (One wonders about the existence of trees in the wasteland where he died).

I asked my aunt when and where Bernard had died, and she said a name that sounded like "Pullcapple," a surprise to me because my mother had only ever replied "Passchendaele," a word which had sent me to the encyclopaedia to encounter for the first time in print and pictures the tragic and futile connotations of that name. A little research revealed that on October 9, 1917, three Yorkshire regiments were engaged in an assault upon the village of Poelcappelle, less than three miles north west of Passchendaele in an attempt to push the salient's front lines northwards to the Houthulst Forest and eastwards towards the ultimate goal: the shallow swell of Passchendaele ridge.

Gloster Farm just south of Poelcappelle. The West Yorks lines ran across this field and through the line of trees in the background.

The story of Bernard's death, according to my aunt, was that his commanding officer did not want him to participate in the attack that morning, because he was too valuable as an observer, but when the officer went to find him, Bernard had already gone forward in the attack. He was wounded in the assault, but not mortally so, but before his friends could return with stretcher bearers, he was shot again by a sniper and killed. Usually he carried a silver cigarette case in the breast pocket of his battledress, but for some reason, on that day he did not have it with him.

I often wonder if this account of his death contains immutable grains of truth about the events of that distant day, or whether the account was tempered to ameliorate grief..... or has it mutated over the years in the re-telling, like rumours passed from mouth to mouth? One thing is certain: he was buried and his effects returned home to Bradford.

Although Bernard had been able to visit his father periodically in Ypres, a mere twelve kilometres from where he had died, Harry did not learn of the death of his younger son until he received a letter from his wife, Annie, at home. In 1918, my mother's parents went to find Bernard's grave, but failed to do so, because the ground captured near "Pullcapple" had been fought over again and the graves obliterated.

Subsequent to my aunt's words, I located what used to be called the Imperial War Graves Commission who informed me that Bernard Palin, Corporal, 20346, 18th. Battalion Army Cyclist Corps, was killed in action on October 9th. 1917, aged 19, grave unknown, and that he was commemorated upon panel 154 of the Tyne Cot Memorial. (In truth he was only eighteen, having lied about his age). Further reading confirmed that three Yorkshire Regiments were engaged in the battle for Poelcappelle, that day and that this assault was just another dismal chapter in Haig's grand design of reaching the crest ofPasschendaele Ridge and sweeping everything beyond it to the west and to the sea.

I now have a copy of that picture from Bernard's battledress and of the intact original, showing him sitting cross-legged with his friends, wearing a slightly cocksure grin appropriate to a seasoned soldier on leave in Ypres. A more poignant picture of him is a more formal one of a youth, perhaps photographed for the first time in his uniform, peering to the right of the camera, looking serious, nervous, self-conscious, sheepish and also very, very young. (The picture at the top of this article.)
Two years ago, I and my son Mark (already older than Bernard) visited Ypres. Early on a Sunday morning, I emerged from thick early morning mist just north of Saint Julien, and found that I was looking across the fields of reddish earth around Poelcappelle to where the British lines lay on that morning of October 9th., 1917. My imagination could not transform the scene of peaceful Belgian vegetable fields to the churned swamp that it once was, with Bernard and hundreds more huddling in shell-holes (a place where bicycles were indeed of little use) and Poelcappelle lying just beyond, a mere smear of brick upon the moonscape of mud.

Poelkapelle - the 9th West Yorks lines ran through this field, continuing just to the right of the church in the background.
Did Bernard's final attack begin here?

I wondered to which regiment had Bernard been attached. I knew that the 9th. West Yorkshires assaulted the village itself on that day accompanied by the Duke of Wellington's Regiment to the north, and beyond Wallemolen to the south, the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. The West Yorkshires particularly made no progress, taking heavy casualties from enfilading fire amid the ruins of the village. Was Bernard one of these? Did the apparent policy of the day assign Bernard to this regiment of fellow men from West Riding woollen towns?

Like so many battles fought on foot in the mud, the sacrifices of that day's assault on Poelcappelle made little difference. It took a second assault on October12th. and a third on the 22nd. to advance the front eastward some eight hundred yards beyond the shattered village and the ruins of the brewery where the road forks south-east towards Passchendaele.

As I drove back down the gently sloping road to Ypres that morning, I knew that with my aunt, the last living memory of Bernard will soon be gone. I was preoccupied by thoughts of the myriad, fateful events which brought that young kid to this place at that tragic time and conspired against his young life, of how two old photographs and a name upon the wall of Tyne Cot Cemetery could not compensate for a family tragedy so insanely commonplace in those awful years: the loss of such a gentle and amiable young man, the son, brother, uncle, and possibly the cousins I never knew.

Perhaps that is why I am writing this now.

For a direct link to the author of this article, email John Wright

Copyright June, 1999. John Wright

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