[The Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph: August 23rd, 1919]
“I had three days in the battle area, and the devastation is so awful, so terrible, that it is impossible for anyone to exaggerate in describing the destruction. I was simply appalled. You have to see the frightful destruction to comprehend what it means, and you do see when you are there the abomination of desolation.”
That is the main impression left on Mr J. W. Green JP after three days spent in the British battle zone in Belgium and France, and a journey of about 120 miles along the line between Ypres and Amiens.
Mr Green went over to France last week, primarily for the purpose of visiting the grave of one of his sons. This son, Reginald Green, was one of those who fell in the defence of Arras, and now rests in the British Military Cemetery on the outskirts of that town.
Another cross in the same cemetery marks the resting place of Meredyth Williams, a son of Alderman H. O. Williams; and these two Lutonians are but two of the very many resting in that spot who, strangers in the normal sense, were brothers in arms and died together for the Motherland.
In his tour Mr Green (picture right) had an invaluable guide in another son, Major Sidney Green, particularly as the area through which they travelled covered some of the ground where Major Green saw very strenuous fighting and gained his Military Cross. The cumulative effect of three days' travel among the desolated belt of northern France, however, was so great that to Mr Green himself, as he told one of our representatives yesterday, it was a welcome relief to leave the battle area behind and to get once more into scenes of peace and activity.
“I was simply appalled,” said Mr Green. “Towns the size of Luton destroyed like our Town Hall; every village and every house destroyed for miles; everything wiped out, and not a tree alive; the fields as far as one could see looking as though they had never been cultivated. There is no mistake about the abomination of desolation! It was frightful.
“And when you come out again, and see here and there a tree still alive, and then the people getting on with the crops, it feels good to be out of it again. But I am glad I went.”
Ypres, La Basee, Lens, the Vimy Ridge, Arras, Albert and Amiens were the principal points visited by Mr Green, and these names will themselves be sufficient to convey to thousands of our readers the things he must have seen.
A night in Poperinghe, the first of Mr Green's experiences – one candle and no more to a room; a third of Amiens, which has fared not so badly at the hands of the invader, but still much too badly. Even today people who visit these places cane experience some of the little discomforts which have formed part of every day life in France for the last four or five years, but the major discomforts are missing – the wandering through and over the trenches, although, still an experience, is one which is shorn of all its excitement and uncertainty.
Mr Green candidly admitted that the trench systems, while they interested him greatly, did not appeal to him very much as a place of residence; while as for the dugouts, they might have been very welcome places at times to the people who had to occupy them, but when he had visited one or two to see what they were like, he had quickly satisfied his curiosity. Narrow stairs and passages, and the gloom of the underworld, did anything but appeal to him.
The absolute and complete destruction of every kind of building, however humble, in some areas was a thing which struck his notice particularly. Whether it was the chateau of a wealthy man, the cottage of a peasant, or even only a barn for the shelter of cattle, it was razed to the ground.
For illustration he said that people should imagine Luton with not a house standing; Streatley gone; Barton destroyed; Silsoe, Clophill, Wilstead and all the other villages round about knocked to ruins, with not a soul living anywhere near. That was the kind of thing he saw for miles, and everyone whose fighting service took them into the area between La Bassee and Arras, and from there down the Bapaume road, will vouch for the realism of Mr Green's picture of what he saw through that area.
Everywhere, Mr Green saw what no one can fail to see – scored of places where clusters of little crosses mark the resting place of Britain's sons. One tiny little plot was given over entirely to London Scottish – about 60 of them, whose crosses bore silent testimony to brave deeds enacted not far away.
Everywhere, too, was to be seen the material wreckage of war; destruction where a train of ammunition had met with disaster while on the way up the line; tanks riddled through and through, and suggesting a horrible end for the men who manned them; gun carriages and timbers smashed to fragments; unexploded shells to provide danger for the future; German ammunition which in their flight at the end of the fighting they could not carry away; and all the litter and debris which marks the passage of an army in the heat of battle.
At some places big batches of German prisoners were busy clearing up the battlefield, “But,” said Mr Green, “it's such a big job that it must be difficult to know where to begin, and the results of their work are hardly apparent at present.”
This statement was qualified a little, however, by a reminiscence of 'wire,' not as most people know it, a bar to movement and a trap for the unwary, but gathered up by the prisoners in their work of clearing the land, and stacked in a pile which must have represented thousands of pounds in value.
Here and there the peasants were busily engaged in endeavouring to create a small habitation out of the ruins of their former homes, but generally the ruined areas were still deserted save for casual visitors.
In another 12 months time, he imagined, there might be more evidence of the return of the natives, but present the only change from last year was that nature, ever ready to heal her wounds, had already covered some of the battle scars with vegetation.
The industrial areas, and particularly the mining region round Lens – well, it was quite beyond Mr Green to form any idea of the time it would take for the reconstruction of life and industry in such regions.