Lest We Forget

Hard to imagine the reality of what 11 o'clock on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 truly meant, when viewed from the safety and sanctity of 2018.

Signing of WW1 Armistice on 11 November 1918The statistics are really just that: numbers.  The war lasted 4 years and 4 months from the German declaration on 1 August 1914.  It ultimately led to the end of the German Empire, with the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on 8 November 1918 (and him fleeing to exile in the Netherlands until his death in 1941).  The armistice was signed in a railway carriage at Compiegne, some 40 miles north of Paris (or 20odd south of the River Somme).  It is believed that 9 million soldiers perished making it the bloodiest conflict of all time (the Commonwealth War Graves Commission estimate the death of at least 887,000 soldiers from Britain and its Colonies, with the French losses exceeding 1.15m), and a further 7 million civilians.  Those numbers roll off lightly, almost flippantly, but ignore the truth that these were real people from real families.

After the declaration of war on Belgium and France, the Germans were held up at the Battle of the Marne in early September.  This effectively halted their advance but from it developed the four years of ghastly stalemate trench warfare on the Western Front, where so many British and French (and German) soldiers perished.  The River Marne is a major artery flowing through the Champagne region and the area was beset by live warfare at its' southern end towards Chalons.  Indeed from some vineyards around Montmort St Lucy it is possible to see where the opposing networks of combative trenches were dug.

Every family has a story about their losses in the Great War and the LeComber family is no different.  Although happily established in the North West of England and with Estates in Ruthin, North Wales, following their Huguenot exodus from France a century earlier (LeComber et Fils is still the brand of champagne Park Lane imports), the three young sons were all involved in active service.  Two survived: Lieutenant George who was in the RAF and Captain Eric in the Lancashire Fusiliers, although he died a few years after as a result of his wartime injuries.  Lieutenant Philip (2/7th Manchester Regiment) was killed in action aged 21 on the 27th of March 1918 near Harbonniers, leading from the front a daring counter-attack against the German Spring Offensive.

CWGC maintained WW1 Heath Cemetery near Harbonniers, northern FranceAnd so it was that on Armistice Day 2018, I found myself visiting the CWGC Heath Cemetery outside Harbonniers.  This is under 100 miles from Calais and brings home the proximity of that battleground horror to the UK shores.    Philip was posthumously recommended for the VC - which could not be awarded because no more senior officer had survived to verify his 'sustained gallantry', according to his contemporary Lieutenant A A Lamb;  Lamb kindly wrote to  Philip's brother George after the war to reiterate this heroism and to reassure the family that Philip was instantly killed from multiple bullet wounds under heavy and sustained machine gun fire. 

Philip LeComber's war grave in Heath Cemetery near Harbonniers, FranceIt transpires that the Germans (presumably) later buried his body, along with two soldiers from his regiment.  By the time this was exhumed and reburied by the CWGC, the remains that are presumed to be his could only be partially identified (incorrect rank) from his uniform.  That this is all known and able to be researched from the records of the CWGC is frankly astounding: the exact location of the grave from where the body was recovered (62d.SE.X.1.d.75.70, per the CWGC) as well as the reburial location (Grave II. C. 4, Heath, again per CWGC) is all carefully noted, cross-referenced with the movement of battle lines and timings of attacks that day - and all this a century ago in ink and paper.  I was moved by the marvellous cemetery and left a simple Haig Poppy Cross at what is believed to be the grave of the LeComber Hero.  Others were also paying their respects at graves to soldiers who had fought and died in this same area during the four years of war; people they had never known but who they felt compelled to remember a century on.

Clay fields looking towards Harbonniers, the scene of fierce fighting and trench warfare during WThree miles brought me to fields where the terrors of that skirmish waged in March 1918 had taken place and to the spot from where Philip's body was exhumed on the 23rd of May 1919.  Miles and miles of flat and characterless agricultural land sandwiched between the two fatigued and unremarkable farming villages of Harbonniers and Vauvillers.  The futility of war could not be avoided or underestimated when faced with such reality;  standing there, nothing glorious struck me about the pointless fighting by young men in their prime, over no more than a mile of heavy clay ground and with the hideous loss of life that emanated.  An ordinary place on foreign soil for a war that Britain had entered through honor only over that "scrap of paper" (a British commitment to defend Belgium hailing from an 1839 treaty), as the Kaiser had called it (the Kaiser being a grandson of Queen Victoria).

Northern France was a very long way from the Industrial powerhouse of North West England, where the LeCombers were highly successful and well regarded industrialists and engineers.  I only hope that Harbonniers and Vauvillers induced a perception of glamour when that telegram arrived with the family, to endorse the great valour that young Philip Hebdon LeComber displayed when he died, like so many others, fighting for King and Country.

 Philip Hebdon LeComber, son of William Godfrey and Margaret Speakman LeComber, killed in action on 27 March 1918