Heritage Column: ‘My uncle will not be forgotten’

Remembering my great uncle
Remembering my great uncle

Journey to Belgium to remember those who died at Passchendaele in the Great War.

It’s only in the last 10 years that I have learned about my Great-Uncle, Charles E. Johnson.

Remembering my great uncle

Remembering my great uncle

He was my grandad’s younger brother and they both served in The Great War.

Charles never came home, losing his life at Passchendaele 1917.

On July 31 my husband and I joined 4,000 other descendants at the Tyne Cot Memorial in Belgium for a very special centenary service.

Tyne Cot is a cemetery to nearly 12,000 servicemen, of whom almost three quarters remain unidentified.

It also has memorial panels, the location for the inscription of another 35,000 soldier’s names, missing in action.

Most of them lost their lives after August 16, 1917.

It was at panel 96 that Serjeant Johnson C.E. was inscribed. He was killed in action on August 22 1917 aged 23.

It was a precious moment for me, one that I never dreamt could happen.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission had organised this very special event, held over July 30-31.

On the evening of Sunday 30, there was a huge outdoor event in the market square at Ypres with the magnificent Cloth Hall as the backdrop. This started the commemoration of the 100 th anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres.

The story of the battle and those involved in it was a dramatic representation with music, spoken word and special light effects.

Looking round Ypres cathedral earlier in the day had shown me one facet of the battle that I’d not really thought about.

Within the cathedral was a display dedicated to the chaplains whose front-line work provided strength and support to the soldiers.

This was evident from the letters and journals.

One example read: “In trenches, I do not speak about faith and religion. I try to comfort the soldiers and give them confidence.

“ In doing so, we become companions. At the time of the attack, I’m always close to them and I hear them murmur: ‘the priest, he is not afraid.’ I’m with them and that’s the most beautiful sermon which I can offer them.’

July 31 was the day of the memorial service at Tyne Cot, marking 100 years since the first day of battle.

The CWGC swung in to action to transport 4,000 descendants from Ypres to Zonnebeke Memorial Park and finally on to Tyne Cot.

At the Memorial Park we found ourselves stepped back in time to 1917, with military vehicles, soldiers and camps from that era.

It was interesting to see how they had lived and served in the trenches, the camp sites and the field hospital.

Various vehicles were on show, both horse drawn and mechanical.

Moving on then to Tyne Cot and, as we entered through the main gate, it unfolded in to an overwhelming sight.

Row on row of white headstones, all carefully looked after over the decades, spread out before our eyes around the Cross of Sacrifice.

This central point had been a German blockhouse in the battle and had been captured by the 3rd Australian Division in October 1917.

Its base was used to form the Cross of Sacrifice and it was here that the service was held with royalty and other dignitaries joining the descendants in a unified act of honour and respect.

At various points in the service there was pause for the Calling of Names, when some descendants read out the name of their relative standing next to either the headstone or memorial panel.

Inevitably, the playing of The Last Post was very poignant and in the two minutes silence that followed, only the wind could be heard rustling the trees.

A very moving service in all, brought to its conclusion with a fly past from the Belgian Air Force.

All the descendants had been given remembrance crosses to place and, after leaving one at panel 96, we put our other crosses at the headstones of unknown soldiers.

Each of these held the inscription ‘A soldier of the Great War, known unto God.’ I noticed that many other people were also doing this and I would think that by the end of the day every headstone would have been marked with a cross.

Earlier in the service Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence had spoken these words by Laurence Binyon:

“They shall grow not old, as we grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning; We will remember them.”

July 31 2017 was most certainly a day when thousands came together and did just that.

It has been an honour to be given the chance to remember the sacrifice and courage of thousands of soldiers at Passchendaele.

An emotional day but one that was also uplifting.

The chance to see that it wasn’t all about death, that all of these soldiers had lives too.

As Prince Charles said:‘Passchendaele is in many ways a tale of human endurance and perseverance, through camaraderie and comradeship, bravery, humour and bittersweet memories of home.’

It was also a day to strengthen my own connection with great uncle Charles and his part in The Great War.

He won’t be forgotten.

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