In September I took a friend over to Flanders on a day trip and we stopped at the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing. The village of Ploegsteert (Plugstreet as it was known to the troops during the war) lies to the south of the town of Ypres, close to the French border. For the majority of the war the area lay just a short distance behind the British front lines and although no major battles took place in the area itself, it became an area where Allied troops massed. Many trenches criss-crossed the areas around the village and Ploegsteert Woods, it was a hive of activity with many new units journeying to Plugstreet for their first taste of life in the trenches. Although this area was not the site of any major engagements, it was still a dangerous place to be. Often targeted by enemy artillery bombardments, the men serving here were frequently taking part in raids and other tasks to support the attacks which took place in the surrounding areas.
It was while I was in Berks Cemetery Extension (the cemetery in which the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing lies) that I came across this grave:
It is the grave of Private George Lawrence Holmden of the 5th Battalion Canadian Infantry. I was drawn to Private Holmden’s grave when I noticed the inscription which reads:
‘If I fall I shall have done something with my life worth doing’
I wondered if this was something that he himself had said. It is something which struck a chord with me, as the idea of whether I’m doing something of value with my life is one which weighs heavily upon me and something I often consider.
Private Holmden was born in 1895 in Montreal, Canada. He was a piano stringer by trade and joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force early in the war in August 1914 when he was just 19 years old. Leaving Canada for the UK a few months later as part of the 1st Canadian Division, he underwent a rigorous training programme on Sailsbury Plain. The 1st Canadian Division numbered around 31,000 men. Volunteers from many different backgrounds from lawyers to bricklayers – these were among the first men from Canada to join the war effort. Conditions in training were grim, it was cold and rained heavily and the work was arduous. George spent two days in hospital through sickness during this period, but finally arrived in France in February 1915.
One might imagine that being so young and so far away from home that he was nervous or scared and perhaps he was, but it’s also likely that he was excited. The prevailing attitude of new recruits at this time was that they were eager to ‘get stuck in’ and embark on this great adventure. Morale was high and here he finally was, spending time in reserve getting his first taste of the war. Things would change dramatically for George in April of 1915 when his division was moved into the front lines of the Ypres Salient.
The town of Ypres was of vital importance to the British, both symbolically and strategically and they were determined to keep the medieval Belgium town out of German hands. It had been held so far, with British front lines bulging around the town causing a salient – or an outward protrusion – leaving the British surrounded on three sides by the enemy. The Canadians had been tasked to defend the area around St Julien, a village located on the edge of this salient, in what would become known as the 2nd Battle of Ypres.
When they arrived in the line, conditions were appalling. The trenches had been badly maintained; they were shallow, wet and littered with the detritus of war from the fighting that had taken place there previously. It was on the 22nd April that the Germans launched an attack on the Canadians and the French Colonial troops adjacent to them, that would unveil a new horror never before seen in the conflict. It began when a cloud of yellow fog was seen drifting from the German lines over no-mans land. The Canadians watched, as the wind of the salient sent the noxious smelling cloud over into the Algerian troops on their flank. Men quickly began coughing, clawing at their throats – for they were being poisoned by chlorine. The chemical burnt their lungs, filling them with foam and mucus so that the men effectively drowned in the most horrific way. Terrified at this new and evil weapon, the Algerians panicked. Fleeing in desperation, leaving a hole some 6km wide in the line directly next to George and his comrades. Reserve troops were sent into the line and the Canadians spread themselves out, although many themselves were suffering as a result of the gas, in a desperate effort to hold the line and prevent the Germans from advancing on Ypres.
This was a new weapon and it’s important to remember that at this point, none of the troops had been issued with gas masks. Their only defence against the horrendous effects of the chlorine was to urinate on a piece of cloth and hold it against their faces until they were out of danger. On the 24th April, the Germans released more gas, this time aimed directly at the Canadians, but still the 1st Division hung on, although they had many men lost and injured they refused to retreat. It wasn’t until early on the 26th that they were finally relieved. Their courage and determination in the face of this most cruel and insidious attack provided the foundations for a reputation as a most brave and tenacious force.
So, what of Private George Holmden? Having survived the horrors at Ypres, his Battalion moved into the trenches around Ploegsteert. It was here, in this area of relative safety in August of 1915 that George was killed by a shell – his war had lasted only 6 months. He lies now, in the peaceful surroundings of the Berks Cemetery Extension next to the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing. George was only 20 when he died, the inscription on his grave was likely chosen by his Mother and Father back in Canada.
Many will argue whether the losses in the Great War were ‘worth it’, conversations that I try to avoid. In my view, to say they weren’t is not our place and does a great disservice to all the George Holmden’s who fought and died, and whose families held tightly onto the pride they felt in the face of what must have been unimaginable grief.