LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Honouring the Fallen in Flanders -
Date of photography: 19th August 2017
In the Great War, Mark’s grandfather was amongst the few to survive the slaughter that was the Battle of Passchendaele; most of his comrades were killed. In 2017, the centenary of the Battle, Mark led 60 others in honouring the memory of the fallen by undertaking a sponsored march to the battle site in Flanders, thereby raising funds for a veterans’ charity, Combat Stress. Mark observed, philosophically: “I knew that the whole thing would rest on my shoulders and, having conceived it, I was determined to make a success of it. Of course, I also knew that my loyal friends would stick by me all the way, so it didn’t really matter whether there were to be 5, 50 or 500 of us; we would be there, saluting the spirit of my grandfather, and demonstrating to all our fellow soldiers, to those missing and fallen in the muddy fields of Flanders, and in countless battlefields across the globe, that they have not been forgotten. In dreadful remembrance of the Great War, and the millions of lives it destroyed, our march will be a march for peace.”
I met Mark Hastings originally on Chiswick railway station, where he did rather stand out, dressed as he was in the khaki battle dress of a British infantryman of World War I, and decorated too with a row of medals. I learned then that he was making his way to Whitehall, the heart of government in central London, to make a presentation to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) of his proposal to commemorate the forthcoming centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, a project appropriately codenamed: Passchendaele 2017.
Mark kindly agreed to meet me five years later, when we were but three months away from the planned commemorative event. Instead of a railway station, on this occasion we met at his comfortable, family home in South West London. I arrived early and caught him still in the process of donning the various pieces of uniform and kit that a WWI foot soldier would have been expected to wear and to carry as he marched towards the front. Mark is a tall, fit, well-built chap and now, fully togged up, he makes an imposing, larger-than-life figure - he has to stoop to clear the doorway and his bulk makes all the furniture look as if it was designed for the nursery.
Mark has now served as a London firefighter for nearly 23 years but having been in the British Army for over 10 years prior to that, a uniform is clearly a form of attire he is well used to. Every detail of his present WWI uniform is authentic and though some elements are no longer to be found, and so have inevitably had to be reproduced, they are exactly right - all the detailing is impeccable. By the middle of the Great War, the complete uniform of an infantryman in Flanders, together with all his essential battle kit, could weigh up to 40kg and while I can envisage Mark being able to march some distance with it, I could not easily imagine how this would have been possible for someone of smaller, slighter stature - we should remember that the average height of a British Army recruit in 1914 was 5ft 5in or 1.65m, and he would only have weighed around 8 stone, or 51kg.
We should also not forget that during the First World War, once Britain had to resort to conscripting its young men for the front, the lamentable physical condition of many young recruits from British cities became immediately apparent: young men, supposedly in the prime of life, were actually deemed unfit for active service, a state of things noted with alarm by the military authorities, although with army physical training & '3 square meals a day', within their first year the average Tommy had put on a stone in weight & grown by about 2 inches. But at enlistment, the real impact of chronic poverty and deprivation was staring everyone in the face and diverting the gaze proved difficult. Many of these half-starved young men would never return from the muddy battlefields of France and Belgium but to those who did return, the nation felt an obligation to offer some hope for a better future and a better life. Typical of this mood was the campaign, born in 1919, and known as, Homes Fit for Heroes.
I attempted to photograph Mark in full uniform, complete with his battle helmet and full battlefield kit, including an authentic gas mask; in his living room, he looked ginormous and, as I could barely see his face, I decided to apply the principle of ‘less is more’ and proceeded to photograph him simply in uniform with his Lee Enfield 303 rifle and fixed bayonet, holding his grandfather’s medals.
Mark is now 53 and was born to a hard-working family in London. His father was in the South African Navy and that is where he met his English wife, who was a nurse. They raised a family of three in a large Victorian house in Chislehurst. At that time, his father worked as an architect’s draughtsman and, being very much an outdoorsman himself, he introduced Mark to the many joys of outdoor life and they both climbed many mountains and hills in the Lake District and in other parts of England. His mother was a strong, determined character, something she had inherited from her own father, Kenneth Thompson, a veteran who had survived the nightmare of the First World War. In the winter of his life, he became increasingly frail and so came to live with Mark’s family. Mark loved his grandfather and saw in him a kindred spirit, a guiding light for his own life.
Kenneth Thompson was indeed a remarkable man: originally a police sergeant, he had been drafted into First World War service during 1916, when he was already 35. He joined the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment and, in 1917, his regiment was posted to Belgium where he served mostly as an Intelligence Officer. The Regiment fought in the Battle of Passchendaele, officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres or, unofficially and possibly more accurately, as ‘The Battle of the Mud’. For his endurance, bravery and contribution to the War effort, Mark’s grandfather was highly decorated, having been awarded the Military Cross and Bar, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Sadly, after his exposure to mustard gas, he suffered permanent damage to his lungs and Mark still remembers an oxygen cylinder was always close by him in his old age. Even now, Mark’s eyes well with tears when he talks about the day when his dear grandfather died. He was nine and his parents, knowing how close he was to his granddad, tried to shield him from the news. But the loss had to be faced, of course, and while Grandfather Thompson was no more, Mark made it almost his mission in life to honour his grandfather’s spirit by the way he would live his own life and how he himself would contribute to his country’s service. The Passchendaele 2017 event is very much an act of remembrance for his granddad but, above all, it is in honour of those thousands of young men who never came home, as Kenneth Thompson had, and who never saw their loved ones again, never enjoyed once more a world at peace.
The First and Second Battles of Ypres had been launched by the Germans, in 1914 and 1915 respectively. The British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, controversially and very much against the view of the then Prime Minister, David Loyd George, conceived the Third Battle of 1917 as an attack that would achieve the elusive Allied breakthrough against the Germans. But making progress in trench warfare was slow and in July of that year, in a preliminary bombardment, 3,000 British guns fired over 4 million shells. Unfortunately, that was also the month when the area was drenched in extremely heavy rain, the heaviest rain in fact in 30 years. The torrent of rain and shells turned the low-lying Flanders fields into a vast, muddy swamp; mud filled the trenches, immobilised the tanks, and made it almost impossible for either the cavalry or the infantry to advance. Sir Douglas Haig, unhappy with the progress of his intended ‘breakthrough’, replaced General Hubert Gough with General Herbert Plumer who favoured a strategy of making small gains but often at an astonishing cost in the loss of private soldiers’ lives.
Fresh attacks were launched on 20 September, with the Battle of the Menin Road Bridge and, after this, the Battles of Polygon Wood (on 26 September) and Broodseinde (on 4 October). The cumulative effect of these onslaughts gave the British forces possession of the ridge east of Ypres. At that point, however, the Germans began to make extensive use of mustard gas, inflicting appalling chemical burns on the eyes and lungs of any soldiers exposed to it without gas masks.
General Haig was not willing to concede that his planned breakthrough had been a failure and he pressed on with another three assaults on the ridge in late October. On 6th November, Passchendaele village was eventually captured by British and Canadian forces and this modest victory finally provided General Haig with a plausible excuse for claiming his breakthrough a success and calling off the offensive. But this victory was at what cost? The Battle of the Mud cost the British Expeditionary Force some 310,000 casualties, with 260,000 on the German side - that is, over half a million men killed or wounded. Some historians argue that Haig’s was indeed a true Pyrrhic victory, with perhaps as many as 180,000 soldiers’ bodies lost in a sea of mud, never to be recovered. Mark remembers his grandfather’s own words: “The Ypres Salient, of which the Passchendaele offensive was a part, was a truly ghastly place: death came to both your comrades and your enemies in a shocking variety of ways and their lifeless bodies would then just sink into the mud in front of your eyes. The corpses that didn’t sink just rotted where they fell; it was too dangerous to try to retrieve them and almost impossible to dig graves in the mud anyway.” Passchendaele was truly a hell on earth and yet the Great War was described as ‘the war to end all wars’. How wrong we were …
In order to honour all those who fell in that First World War, and especially to mark the centenary of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, one of the cruellest, most wasteful episodes in the entire, nugatory conflict, Mark conceived the idea of a memorial march, to take place over two days in November 2017, replicating the march of Commonwealth troops from Poperinge, through Ypres and on to the front line at Passchendaele. Representing the troops who were sacrificed in that notorious and profligate waste of human life will be ex-servicemen from the British and Commonwealth forces of today, and from German forces, together with uniformed re-enactors and military bands. This living memorial was devised and planned as very much an international event, one that would bring together the nations from both sides of the original conflict, uniting them in remembrance of the fallen in the Ypres Salient. By recapturing something of the spirit of 1917, and by observing the lessons of the past, it was hoped to help promote peace for the future.
Now is the time when Mark’s determination, persistence and singleminded commitment to his idea for a commemorative march will be tested to the limit. Mark shows me his organisational folder; as well as pages and pages of detailed plans, it also contains numerous letters from some of the highest offices of state, from the MOD, and even from Buckingham Palace; all these letters speak highly of Mark’s initiative, yet the sad fact is that after seven years of enterprising, systematic campaigning, none of these elevated bodies, high ranking individuals, or members of the establishment has come forward with the skimpiest morsel of financial, logistical or administrative assistance. How often do we see this happen to individuals and organisations who promote admirable causes, faithfully and continually, only to fail to receive the modest support that would make the critical difference. Thankfully, the Belgian authorities, while not supporting the event officially, proved to be helpful with various practicalities and chose not to place any procedural obstacles in the way of Mark’s march. The event is now in the final stages of preparation, with Mark and his close team of co-organisers putting the final touches to their plans.
The participants will march over two days, on 5th and 6th November 2017. Starting from Poperinge, they will march via Ypres to Zonnebeke, camping there overnight in the grounds of the local Memorial Museum Passchendaele. The following day, they will progress, in full uniform and kit, to the village of Passchendaele itself, where it is hoped that the rebuilt church will provide the setting for a service of remembrance that will mark the conclusion of this act of commemoration.
This thoughtfully considered memorial event has extra meaning for Mark Hastings and his fellow firemen: during May 2017, the London Fire Brigade celebrated Firefighter Memorial Day, remembering those colleagues who had lost their lives in the service of others. Almost 300 London firefighters fought alongside the armed forces in 1914 and many lost their lives in the muddy fields of Northern France and Belgium. London Fire Commissioner, Dany Cotton, has commented: “The level of dedication Mark has put into securing this momentous event is a credit to him, to his grandfather, and to all who served during the Great War.”
Events of this kind are never easy to put together, especially when they are international in nature. However, once Mark had realised that those in power, those with the influence to open doors and to secure resources, were not going to offer anything other than empty rhetoric towards the realisation of Passchendaele 2017, things almost became easier. Mark says philosophically: “ I knew that the whole thing would rest on my shoulders and, having conceived it, I was determined to make a success of it. Of course, I also know that my loyal friends will stick by me all the way, so it doesn’t really matter if there is 5, 50 or 500 of us, we will be there and, with the spirit of my grandfather, we will demonstrate to all the soldiers, to those missing and fallen in the muddy fields of Flanders, and in battlefields across the world, that they have not been forgotten. In dreadful remembrance of the Great War, and the lives it destroyed, our march will be a march for peace, for peace everywhere.”
Text edited: 30th August 2017
Page modified: 22nd April 2019
Update (November 2017)
You will all be pleased to know that, on Sunday 5th and Monday 6th November 2017, around 60 international participants completed the planned charity march from Popperinge via Ypres and Zonnebecke to Passchendaele and the Tyne Cot Cemetery. Over £1,000 was raised for Combat Stress and Mark Hastings' promise to honour the fallen, in memory of his grandfather, has been fulfilled.