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Essay: Walking in my grandfather's footsteps

THEY will be sending children to the front line in Flanders as part of the centenary commemorations of the First World War.

Sadly, for me, there were no such school trips on the 50th anniversary, when I was an avid student of history under the influence of iconic teacher Bob Crampsey. I read as many books of eye-witness testimony as I could find in Pollok library and was fascinated and horrified by accounts of trench warfare.

The story I did not pursue was the death of my own grandfather, Gunner John Shields of the Royal Field Artillery. Ancestry research was not a common pursuit in 1964. The question "Who do you think you are?" was more a put-down than encouragement to investigate the family tree.

I remember my father, Charlie, speaking only once on the subject – how, as a seven-year-old, he witnessed the screaming and sobbing of his mother, Maggie, when she received the War Office telegram. The ensuing grief, sadness, and no little hardship gave my father no appetite for discussing the Great War.

Family documentation about John Shields is scattered and scarce. There is no "old photograph torn, tattered, and stained and faded to yellow in a brown leather frame", as Eric Bogle sings in The Green Fields Of France. That war telegram is somewhere around but can't be found. There are no letters or postcards from the front line. There is a tin with three medals.

He has no marked grave in Ypres, the Belgian town where he was killed in June 1916. His name is on the Menin Gate memorial with 60,000 other British empire soldiers with no known resting place.

I went to Ypres to see how present generations remember the fallen, but mainly to find a name chiselled in stone, to walk in my grandfather's footsteps, find where and how he died, and contemplate why.

Modern genealogy tools made it easy to discover the basic facts. A slim dossier, The Military History of John Shields provided by Great War Family Research, reveals he was among the first sent out to the battlefields and speculates that he was either a regular soldier or high on the reserve list.

It is unlikely he was a regular soldier. The 1911 census has John Shields living with his family in Atholl Street in Lochee, Dundee. The area was known as Tipperary because of its large Irish population. He was working as a riveter in the shipyards.

When my grandfather was called up in Glasgow on August 5, 1914, he was most likely working in a Clyde yard. He left his wife and five-year-old son in Errol Street in Gorbals and two weeks later was with the Fifth Divisional Ammunition Column of the Royal Field Artillery, facing the Germans in Armentieres.

His unit was quickly in battle at Le Cateau, where the conflict was described as dashing, and reminiscent of Waterloo and Balaclava. By October 1914, he was in Ypres as the two armies dug in and the long war of attrition began. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we assume he spent nearly two years in Ypres shelling the German trenches and being bombarded in return.

Ypres was a prime example of the futility of trench warfare. The Allies and the Germans spent four years fighting over some high ground (at least, as high as any hills get in the Low Countries) with little territorial advance by either side.

Gunner Shields would have been involved in the First Battle of Ypres, then the second, and "the brilliant capture and defence of Hill 60" (as it was reported in the popular magazine of the time, War Illustrated). The rest of the time, his ammunition column would be providing back-up for what the military men called "artillery duels". These were like pistols at 10 paces, except it was with shrapnel and one-tonne shells as generals with a 19th-century mindset played war games with 20th-century weapons of hellish destruction.

The war zone was called the Ypres Salient because the frontline was arc-shaped. The ability to indulge in cross-fire made the killing fields even more dangerous.

British soldiers called Ypres "Wipers". The Flemish town authorities not so long ago renamed it "Ieper" with the curious typographical result that many people now think it is called "Leper". I will stick with Ypres.

With visions of Ypres as a place of muck and bullets, I arrive to find a neat town verging on picture-book with simple but pleasant brick buildings, brick streets, and brick pavements that appear centuries old.

My B&B establishment is in Lille Street, a road down which my grandfather would have walked on his way to the battlefields just outside town. He may have stopped at the inn beside the Lille Gate. It is now a pub and the First World Curiosity Museum and sells vredesbier – "peace beer". A military mannequin in the uniform of the Blues regiment stands guard at the door.

It is too late in the day for me to take the battlefield tour, but the lady from the B&B recommends a walk along the town ramparts just a few steps away. It is a tranquil spot, looking over lakes to the green and pleasant countryside that was once the scene of death and destruction.

On my own hand-knitted Great War mobile-phone app, Eric Bogle sings about sitting at a young soldier's graveside, hoping that he died quick and clean – or was it slow and obscene?

As I sit on the ramparts it is 97 years to the day, June 3, 1916, when my grandfather was killed. Copies of the artillery war diaries sketch brief details of his demise.

He is no longer with the ammunition column, which has moved on to Arras and the Somme. He is with the 83rd battery of the Lahore division of the Indian army, attached to the 3rd Canadian division.

He qualifies as an Old Contemptible (from Kaiser Wilhelm's description of the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 as a "contemptible little army") and as a veteran would have been assigned to stiffen up a unit with new recruits.

In 1916, out beyond the ramparts, the Canadians, the Lahore battery, and my grandfather are suffering a massive German bombardment as the prelude to an attack by the 13th Wurttemberg Corps, which will overrun the Allied trenches.

Military intelligence knew the German offensive was coming but Field-Marshal Douglas Haig did not send reinforcements. He was assembling his troops for the big one at the Somme in a month's time. The Battle of Mount Sorrel, as this few days at Ypres is known, was a side show. But not to the men who died or their families back home.

The war diaries report "the 83rd battery is badly knocked out" and "the 83rd position is virtually demolished". Gunner John Shields is posted missing, presumed obliterated. His death may have been quick but probably was not clean.

On my phone I also have excerpts from The Great Push, an account by Patrick MacGill of his time as a stretcher-bearer. MacGill is best known for his book Children Of The Dead End, about squalor in the Glasgow slums. His documentary style captures the humanity and inhumanity of trench warfare. This short extract seems relevant:

"A big high explosive shell flew over our heads and dropped fifty yards away in a little hollow where seven or eight figures in khaki lay prostrate, faces to the ground. The shell burst and the wounded and dead rose slowly into air to a height of six or seven yards and dropped slowly again, looking for all the world like puppets worked by wires."

Darkness fell and I was walking with ghosts. In his time in Ypres, my grandfather must have had some respite, some agreeable moments. On his behalf I decide to have his lost, last supper. In a restaurant with the unlikely name Utopia, I order a large helping of Flemish stew, not unlike the kind my granny made in the blackened pot that hung over her kitchen range in the Gorbals. It came with far too many delicious Belgian chips. As a token of Glasgow solidarity I didn't touch the salad.

Next day at first light, I walk the Mount Sorrel battlefield. It turns out that John Shields was not killed in Ypres, but in a small village called Zillibeke. It is set in lush farmland dotted still with place names given by the Allied armies: Sanctuary Wood, Maple Copse, Armagh Wood sound almost idyllic. Other locations, such as Hellfire Corner and Shrapnel Corner, more accurately described the conflict.

Sections of the trenches are preserved and can be accessed by tourists. I couldn't look, far less set foot in them. Zillibeke means "salty brook" – maybe a place of tears.

The Ypres Salient in numbers: half a million dead, 250,000 of them Commonwealth soldiers, 100,000 with no known graves. Four years of fighting. Site of the first gas attack and the first use of flame-throwers. Some 300,000 visitors are expected during the centenary year.

By 1916, Ypres was rubble, hardly one stone upon another. Winston Churchill said in June 1919: "I should like to acquire the whole ruins of Ypres- a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world." Ypres residents, streaming back from refugee camps, had other ideas. They reclaimed and rebuilt their town.

But Ypres is a monument. Daily life goes on to a backdrop of permanent remembrance. There are at least 150 cemeteries, monuments, and museums in the vicinity. The Tyne Cot cemetery, with 11,000 crosses, is awesome in a way this word is now rarely used. The smaller, intimate burial places strike no less a chord.

The In Flanders Fields museum is impressive. It could have been grisly and militaristic, but is calmly reverent and about peace, not war. Museum director Peter Slosse says: "We tell the history in a neutral way. Our message is in the individual stories. What war does to people and how it should be avoided with all possible means."

Ypres is an anglified town. It is full of Tommies, from Tommy Atkins, the nickname for the generic British soldier. The Old Tom bistro. Tommy's tobacco and souvenir shop selling Le Tommy lighters and many other artefacts from a thimble to a gin flagon. Belgium would not be Belgium without chocolate. There is the Ypres Salient selection box containing: Tommy helmets (white and dark), a Tommy milk bar, a Menin Gate milk bar, and a box of poppy chocolates.

Poppy references are in abundance, too. The place mat on the B&B breakfast table has John McCrae's poem "In Flanders fields the poppies blow -" surrounded by photographs from the trenches. Quite harrowing over your scrambled eggs.

There is the Poppy Pizzeria. A local butcher offers Poppy Burgers (not made with the flower, just red food colouring).

I expected to be appalled by the war souvenirs, and came close with the Vickers Mark 1 machine gun weapon of slaughter sharing window space with a DVD of It Ain't Half Hot Mum. But, mostly, the Tommy and poppy mementoes are quite touching.

In the research room at the In Flanders Fields museum, historian Dominiek Dendooven gives invaluable help. A German aerial reconnaissance photograph shows the Zillibeke battle scene the morning after my grandfather died. Dendooven points out, in the sea of mud with hardly a blade of grass or a building left standing, the place where the 83rd Lahore battery was blown to bits.

He tells me exactly where to find John Shields on the Menin Gate memorial. He also suggests a visit to the Maple Copse cemetery, the most likely location of my grandfather's grave as an unknown soldier.

At 8pm each night there is a ceremony at the Menin Gate, where buglers from the Belgian fire brigade play the Last Post. I stand below the panel with Gunner Shields, J. On an adjacent wall is Sepoy Santa Singh who also served and died with the 3rd (Lahore) Division. I wonder if they ever met.

The Last Post is poignant, but made less so by tourists holding up iPads to capture the moment on camera. A youth in the school party beside me is playing some kind of war game on his iPhone.

Now I have seen the name on the wall, but still I have never seen the face of John Shields. There is a scrap of information among the family lore. My granny never missed a Jeff Chandler movie. She thought Chandler a perfect lookalike of her husband. In the café opposite the Menin Gate, amid medal-bedecked old soldiers drinking beer, I download a photo of Jeff Chandler on to my Great War app.

I drive out to Zillibeke and find the Maple Copse cemetery. As Dendooven said, it is an atmospheric place, serene in its wooded farmland setting. Like all Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries, it is beautifully tended.

In the setting sun I move among the graves, hoping there might, by some quirk of fate, be a headstone for John Shields. This is unlikely, given the efficiency with which the commission remembers the dead. I find a grave marked Unknown Soldier of the Royal Field Artillery and decide unilaterally that this is where my grandfather lies. His companions at Maple Copse are mostly Canadian, with a few Cameronians, Royal Scots, and Highland Light Infantry.

In the morning before I leave Ypres, I find a small cemetery equal in eerie beauty to Maple Copse. There is an excerpt from MacGill's book where soldiers waiting to go over the top smoke cigars they had found in a dead comrade's pack. I am smoking a fine Havana cigar lit with my Le Tommy lighter. Other tourists moving respectfully through the headstones may disapprove, but they do not know the context.

There is a row of graves for soldiers of the Maori Regiment killed on New Year's Eve, 1917. I am brought to tears for the only time in Ypres at the thought of widows and family learning the news in far-off New Zealand.

I ponder on the curious kinship between the Maoris and John Shields, the first Scottish-born child of an immigrant Irish family. A soldier of the British empire who fought for king and country and may have been proud to do so. One of the fallen. Or was he pushed? What did he make of the senseless massacre into which he was pitched?

Back home, I look at his three medals. One for going to war. One for being killed. And the other with the words "The Great War for Civilisation". Where in God's name was the civilisation?

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