Brothers in arms laid to rest in a foreign field and reunited shoulder to shoulder in death

In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave […]

Thirteen soldiers from the Dorsetshires killed in action
Thirteen soldiers from the Dorsetshires killed in action and laid to rest shoulder to shoulder in Authuile

World War I battlefields – Northern France and Belgium

(Originally published October 2014)

Words by Jeremy Miles   Pictures by Hattie Miles

In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave way to an infantry raid.

In the gunfire and desperate hand-to-hand combat that followed the daring dozen and their 19-year-old commanding officer were slaughtered – shot, bayoneted, blown to pieces. The violence of the deaths of these men – Privates Stretton, Painter, Cottom, Barrow, Cavley, Haynes, Sergent and Matthews. Lance Corporals Keeping, Eaton, Wells and Greenway and 2nd Lieutenant Vere Talbot Bayley, the teenage subaltern who led them, was appalling. It is particularly sobering to think that Bayly was barely a year out of Sherborne School.

Continue reading “Brothers in arms laid to rest in a foreign field and reunited shoulder to shoulder in death”

25th May 1917 – the WWI air-raid that blasted Folkestone into a new age of violence

 

William Henry Stokes_2
My great grandfather William Henry Stokes one of 61 people killed in the Tontine Street air-raid

The date:  Friday 25th May 1917. The time: 6.22pm.

It was a beautiful early summer’s evening and for the people of Folkestone the start of a seaside holiday weekend. In bustling Tontine Street children were playing while their mothers chatted and queued outside Stokes Brothers the greengrocers. There had been wartime food shortages and a new delivery of potatoes had just arrived. A crowd had quickly gathered as news got around. Shopkeeper William Henry Stokes, my great grandfather, and his staff were doing brisk business.

The mood was surprisingly carefree. Despite the terrible death toll on the Western Front just a short distance across the English Channel, the actual violence of war had had little direct effect on the town. The sound of distant explosions caused scant concern to the shoppers outside the Stokes grocery store that evening. It was just the military practising at nearby Shorncliffe Camp. Or so they thought. Continue reading “25th May 1917 – the WWI air-raid that blasted Folkestone into a new age of violence”

Birdsong – love, loss and slaughter on the Western Front

Birdsong: Lighthouse, Poole

This play is an absolute triumph! Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ best selling novel Birdsong brings the murderous madness of the First World War battlefields on the Western Front into sharp focus.

Faulks’ poignant story of love, loss and inhuman suffering has been reworked as a magnificent piece of multi-layered theatre in this touring production by the Original Theatre Company.

Continue reading “Birdsong – love, loss and slaughter on the Western Front”

The agony and literary ecstasy of ‘Great War’ poets Sassoon and Owen

Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen
James Howard (left) as Siegfried Sassoon and Ben Ashton as Wilfred Owen in Not About Heroes

Not About Heroes: Blackeyed Theatre – Lighthouse, Poole

It is 100 years after the start of the war that was supposed to end all wars. What better time to reflect on Stephen MacDonald’s 1982 play about the appalling slaughter on the Western Front and its profound effect on two of the finest literary minds of the era?

The shameful events of 1914-18 changed the world but not for the better. Generations of old soldiers, traumatised by what they had been through, rarely spoke of its horrors.

In this centenary year the First World War is finally a subject for widespread commemoration and analysis. However as we honour the courage and sacrifice of the those who gave their lives, opinion remains divided over the actions of the generals and politicians who orchestrated the carnage.

Not About Heroes is uncompromising in its stance and delivers a hammer-blow to those who would be apologists for British commander Douglas Haig’s war of attrition.

MacDonald’s play examines the wider effects of the conflict, not least its contribution in changing poetry forever. It focuses on the meeting at the Craiglockhart Military Hospital for nervous disorders of two of the finest of the ‘Great War’ poets – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Both have been invalided out of the living hell that is the ongoing Battle of the Somme. Owen, a young idealist at the start of what promises to be a brilliant writing career, is determined to tell the truth about the horrors of the battlefields. He is being treated for shell-shock.

Sassoon, just half-a-dozen years older, is established as both a poet and a war hero. His arrival at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh has been ordered by his commanding officers in response to a public and embarrassing (to the authorities) condemnation of the war. Best to pretend he’s suffering from nervous exhaustion!

This excellent production from Blackeyed Theatre, directed by Eliot Giuralarocca, evokes beautifully the curious mixture of despair, fear, weariness and thrill of what can still be achieved.

Viewed through a series of flashbacks, it is set on a bleak stage populated by ghosts and books, we witness a rare meeting of minds.

The nervous young Owen (Ben Ashton) and the arrogant Sassoon (James Howard) forge a friendship that gradually finds them becoming utterly inter-dependant. The homoerotic attraction between them is tangible but destined to remain unexplored.

As Owen’s confidence as a writer grows he finds literary success thanks to the ever supportive and well-connected Sassoon. MacDonald deftly weaves their powerfully emotive poetry and letters into the story. Atmospheric lighting and sound enhance the sense of dread as they both return to the front line

War-weary Sassoon is back in hospital within weeks after taking a sniper’s bullet to the head. Owen, with so much still to give, dies in a hail of machine gun fire… exactly a week before the end of the war. His death leaves Sassoon bereft amid the ringing of bells and ‘victory’ celebrations. The play, which slips back and forth in time, finds the older man wracked with guilt and tormented by nightmares….like hundreds of thousands of others. Nothing will ever be the same.

Jeremy Miles