If you ever have a chance to attend Highbury's Remembrance Day Service in the Chapel, you should take it. The Service is a beautiful and very emotive tribute to the long list of Highbury boys who bravely gave their lives in the World Wars. Our Grade 7s read war poetry, the Roll of Honour is read, the Last Post sounds and prayers are said. Some of our retired Highbury teachers return every year to attend the Service, as it is certainly one of Highbury's treasured traditions.
This year, 2017, is 100 years since many of the major battles of WW1 and Highbury wanted to do something new to mark this time in our history. We were delighted when Marcus Kotze, son of Glynis Kotze our FP Music Teacher, offered to make a pilgrimage to place memorial crosses at the graves of the Highbury Old Boys who gave their lives in WW1. Seven of the nine gravesites are in the Belgium/Northern France region, close to where Marcus is currently living. Highbury custom-made a memorial cross for each boy and posted them to him, together with a memorial poppy made by Highbury boys, to place at the graves.
Marcus' journey to the Highbury Old Boy graves was spread over three weekends in September and October this year and included more than 10 hours of cycling through French and Belgian countryside between the sites, many of which were quite remote. A photographic slideshow of the seven sites he visited was included in Highbury's 2017 Remembrance Day service held on Friday 10th November, and added a very special touch to what is always a very special service. Thank you, Marcus, for such a meaningful expedition. Read on for the full story, in his own words, below.
Highbury WW1 Soldier Commemoration Expedition
As part of my travels in Belgium, I made a trip to Ypres in the west part of Belgium. The area around Ypres is infamous for being the site of many costly battles during World War 1 (WW1). Many soldiers fought, died and are buried in this area. It was a moving experience for me to see so many sombre cemeteries and memorials dedicated to the fallen soldiers. I have no relatives who fought in WW1, so the only link for me was to any South African memorial or gravesite I came across. After my trip, I spoke to my mother, Glynis Kotzé, who is a music teacher at Highbury Preparatory School. She sent me a photograph of the Roll of Honour in the Highbury chapel of old boys who fought and died in WW1.
A bit of research revealed that 7 of the 9 boys who died in WW1 are either buried or commemorated on memorials in Belgium and northern France, which is relatively close to where I live in Leuven. The other two are buried in Durban and in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. I contacted the Highbury marketing department, and we decided that, being a hundred years since WW1, this would be a good time and opportunity to commemorate these old boys. It would also make my travels far more meaningful.
Highbury made crosses dedicated to each old boy who fought in Europe, which were then posted to me in Belgium. I then waited for a weekend with good weather and then undertook the first major trip to deliver the crosses to the old boys buried or commemorated in northern France. The above map shows the location of Highbury WW1 old boys in France and in Belgium, as well as the Delville Wood Memorial. These are the sites I planned to deliver the crosses to. I did not have a car, so the trip was a combination of train and bicycle.
Above is a picture of my main mode of transport. In Belgium, you are allowed to take your folding bicycle on the train for free, but you have to buy a special bicycle ticket for a full sized bicycle. While perfectly suitable for cycling in towns and on good roads, I think that taking the bicycle on a cross country trip through rural France is not what the designers intended. In hindsight, bringing a proper bicycle would have been a far better idea.
2 TRIP TO NORTHERN FRANCE DAY ONE
I took the train early on Saturday morning, 23rd of September to Arras in France, where I would start cycling. Unfortunately, there was a problem on the railway tracks, which delayed my trip by a few hours. Fortunately, I had planned for some delays, so it wasn’t too costly. The first stop was the grave of GK Ramsay, buried in Faubourg D’Amiens Cemetery on outskirts of the town of Arras.
My procedure was to photograph the headstone as is, and then with the cross, poppy and South African flag. I would also make a note of my visit in the registry book which is kept at all Commonwealth cemeteries.
My next leg was a long cycle down to the Thiepval Memorial. It was here that I realised that there is a big difference between cycling in Belgium, which is flat and has many dedicated cycle lanes, and France, which has some steep hills which I am unaccustomed to. Also, I made the mistake of trusting Google Maps completely, which would often attempt to lead me on routes that didn’t exist or farm roads that should only be for mountain bikes, not a flimsy folding bicycle. The estimated travel time given was therefore highly optimistic. It would sometimes take me double the expected time to travel the planned leg.
A few hours later I reached the Thiepval Memorial, a hugely impressive structure which has the names inscribed of some of the thousands of Commonwealth soldiers who died but have no known grave. This is where AC Addision is commemorated. I left his cross on the plinth at the centre of the memorial.
From here it was a relatively short trip to the London Cemetery and Extension, the site where G Beningfield is buried. This area near to the Somme River is where many battles took place, and the landscape is dotted with memorials and cemeteries.
After WW1, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established. Their duty is to look after the hundreds of cemeteries around the world where soldiers of Commonwealth nations are buried. Their record keeping excellent, I used their website to find each soldier’s exact burial or commemoration location. The cemeteries are also immaculately kept, it is clear that the Commission regularly has someone to look after the gardens of the cemeteries and makes sure that everything is well kept.
The next stop was the Delville Wood Memorial. It was built to commemorate all South African soldiers who have died fighting for South Africa. The site at Delville Wood was chosen for the memorial because it is where the South African forces fought in their first major action on the Western Front, the Battle of Delville Wood in July 1916. They were given orders to take and hold the wood at all costs, which they managed to do despite taking horrific losses and fighting in appalling conditions. Of the 121 officers and 3032 other ranks that entered the wood on the 15th of July, only 29 officers and 751 other ranks were present at roll call when the South Africans withdrew on the 21st of July. There I left a cross dedicated to all Highbury old boys who have died fighting for South Africa.
Delville Wood was my last objective for the day. I then made my way to the small town of Rocquigny, where I was staying at an Airbnb for the night. It was becoming a bit dark by then, so I had to get a move on. My host was very kind and welcoming and I had a good night’s rest to recover. By this time all the local shops were closed, fortunately my host generously allowed me to have some of her food.
3 TRIP TO NORTHERN FRANCE DAY TWO
The next day I set out for Busigny Communal Cemetery, where B Collins is buried. The lack of proper cycle paths and unsuitable Google Map directions really slowed me down that day, and by the time I got there it was mid-afternoon, somewhat later than what I had planned.
After laying the cross I evaluated my situation, and I decided that I had pushed my luck far enough, trying to cycle across northern France on a bicycle ill-suited for such a task. I had also run out of water and food, and on Sunday in rural France, all shops are closed. I decided that visiting the last Highbury soldier in France could happen on another day. I caught the train from Busigny to the border station of Lille, where, to save on cross-border train ticket fees, I cycled over the border to the Belgian town of Moeskroen. From there I caught the train home to Leuven. Fortunately, there were proper cycle paths from Lille to Moeskroen which made the travelling much easier than through the French countryside.
4 TRIP TO VILLERS-POL, FRANCE AND YPRES, BELGIUM
On my next free weekend with a good weather forecast, 14th October, I made the journey to JR Saunders, who is buried in Villers-Pol Communal Cemetery, which is very close to the border between Belgium and France. I caught the train from Leuven to Quievrain, which is a small town on the Belgian side of border. From there I cycled to Villers-Pol. One of the great things about travelling in Europe is the open borders. If you blink at the wrong time you won’t notice that you’ve crossed into a neighbouring country. I had learned my lesson about trusting Google Maps, and this time I made sure the route I took was suitable for an amateur cyclist equipped with a folding bicycle.
Instead of the Springbok symbol associated with South African forces, his headstone carries the symbol of his British Army unit, the Coldstream Guards. He is one of two WW1 Highbury boys who fought as part of the British forces.
I cycled back to the station at Quievrain and caught the train to Ghent in the west of the country. I was stayed at a friend’s home that night, and the next morning I went to Brugges, to run the Brugges Marathon. After successfully finishing that, I caught the train to Ypres, to lay the last two WW1 crosses.
This trip proved to be a good warm down for the marathon, and I cheated a bit by renting a proper bicycle to make this short trip with, which made it far easier. It was, however, getting late, so I had to cycle with some urgency. Like the area around the Somme River battlefields in France, this area is dotted with cemeteries, memorials, and even some conserved trench works. The land is now peaceful and productive farmland, it was strange to think that 100 years ago this was a terrible battlefield which claimed thousands of lives over 4 years of fighting.
I managed to get to Cement House Cemetery in good time, and found LL Straw’s resting place. He was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, which is why the symbol on his headstone is the RAF emblem and not the Springbok. From there it was to the Menin Gate where EC Addison is commemorated.
The Menin Gate was built to commemorate all Commonwealth soldiers who died but have no known graves. However, after it had been built, it was realised that there wasn’t enough space for all the thousands of names. Therefore, some are commemorated here, while others are commemorated at other memorials such as the Thiepval Memorial, in France. Like his brother, EC Addision is one of those with no known grave. Therefore, his name is inscribed on the wall panel dedicated to South African soldiers.
Since 1928, there has been a 'Last Post' ceremony at the Menin Gate every day at 20:00, no matter what the weather is like. The only time it was interrupted was during World War 2, when Germany had occupied Belgium. On the evening that the city was liberated, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, even though there was still fighting taking place in other parts of the city. I have attended two Last Post ceremonies, and it is a thoroughly moving experience.
5 TRIP TO GR LACEY, WW2 SOLDIER
While doing the research for this trip, I also researched the Highbury old boys who died in WW2. I discovered that GR Lacey, a pilot in the South African Air Force, is buried in the Heverlee War Cemetery, which is a few kilometres from where I live. He was a bomber pilot, and war records that I found on the internet say he died when his aircraft was shot down returning from a bombing mission over occupied Europe. On the 16th October, I made a trip to photograph his headstone with the cross and poppy from Highbury.
I did not leave the cross there, as I intend to lay the cross there on Remembrance Day 2017.
I have read many war stories and accounts of WW1, so a visit to the actual battlefields, cemeteries and memorials was on the top of my list of things to do while in Belgium. It was very moving to do this pilgrimage. Simply walking through the Menin Gate or in one of the cemeteries gave me a sombre feeling of awe at the immense sacrifice these soldiers made. I am exceptionally grateful that with Highbury’s help, my travels have been far more meaningful, and that I could contribute to ensuring that these soldiers buried in a land far from home are not forgotten.
On this trip I have seen more than my fair share of cemeteries, and many of the graves I saw have flowers, wreaths or crosses laid there by the descendants of the soldiers. It was sad, but also heartening to see that families ensure that the soldiers are not forgotten, even after 100 years. However, the saddest thing for me was that many of the tributes were addressed to “great-uncle” or “great-great-uncle”. It is mostly the descendants of sisters and surviving brothers who come to lay tributes. The majority of the soldiers died before they could marry and have children, many were barely out of high school. It is shocking to think that some Highbury boys would have been fighting merely 5 years after leaving primary school. I, as a 26 year old, would have been considered an old man amongst the soldiers of WW1 and 2.
The effect of this pilgrimage for me is probably best summed up by King George V who said this on the 11th May 1922, during his own pilgrimage:
We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.
26 October 2017.