Home > Uncategorized > In Memoriam Lt. C.M. Pope and Lt. R.T.B. Pope, Ypres

In Memoriam Lt. C.M. Pope and Lt. R.T.B. Pope, Ypres

My daughter whooped. Scouting ahead through patches of cream Commonwealth War Grave headstones amid the grey and polished marbles of Ypres municipal cemetery last week, she’d found the name tucked away under an ivy-encrusted back wall. Lieutenant C. M. Pope. Here was the final resting place of my first cousin three times removed, killed at the age of 26 in a desperate melee in a nearby wood, one of the actions that helped stop Germany’s October 1914 advance toward the ports of the English channel.

Cyril’s death in Belgium is one reason the First World War looms far more regularly in my mind than the Second World War, or in fact any of half a dozen conflicts that I have actually seen in progress as a reporter. Finding his grave reminded me again of how it keeps surfacing in my mind.

Maybe it’s the heady abandon with which young soldiers like Cyril plunged into what soon became senseless slaughter in the front line trenches. Maybe it’s outrage at world leaders’ failure to either avoid that war, or to manage the conflict in a civilised manner, or the way the peace treaties afterwards just made the underlying dynamics worse, setting the stage for more wars in in Europe, the Middle East and beyond. For sure, as with so many other families in Europe, it’s because of the memories that echo down the generations from those relatives who experienced it.

My first acquaintance with that history is of sitting as a teenager with my great-uncle Gil, waiting for the moment when he’d allow me to pull a small purse out of the glass-topped display case in his sitting room. Inside it, I knew, was what ended his time as an Australian ambulanceman on the Western Front: an evil chunk of shrapnel the size of an ice-cube that had been dug out of what was still quite literally a hole in his head. A tall, gentle giant, he seemed to have been little affected physically, but never said anything more about his experiences.

Then there was my father’s father, Philip. Another chunk of shrapnel had ripped into his upper leg on 30 July 1915 during the umpteenth attack by one side or the other to capture Hooge Chateau, which before it was flattened by shelling sat on a low hill a couple of miles east of Ypres.

A field gun roughly where my grandfather was wounded on the lip of a mine crater on the front line at Hooge Chateau.

After months in hospital back in England, he was sent back to the trenches. He was gassed multiple times and ended up a prisoner of war. He never, ever talked about what happened. Instead, my parents would tell of how he would often have nightmares and wake up howling with terror.

Lt. K. J. Garle

My mother’s father Kenneth Garle and his brother Bernard seemingly had less arduous tasks behind the front, in Kenneth’s case, possibly being in charge of logistics behind the lines. But he too never talked of what he saw, even when he took his family on a tour of the Western Front lines just after the Second World War ended. 

At some point he did bring back a carved stone flower from the rubble of Ypres. From the earliest days there were light-fingered souvenir hunters, and a facsimile of an old sign by the town’s Cloth Hall hall still commemorates the ban on the taking of stones. Winston Churchill had even wanted the utterly ruined town preserved in ruins as a place sacred to British sacrifice. But its Belgian townspeople firmly rebuilt Ypres to nearly what it had been before.

Cyril Montagu Pope (L) and his brother Reginald Thomas Buckingham Pope (R)

Before last week, I hadn’t realised Cyril died near Ypres. I first met him by accident in my father’s library, where I found a slim edition of Cyril’s war diary, printed by his mourning family. It told of the confusing progress of the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France in August 1914 to try to stop the German advance. There was an amateurish enthusiasm in his account of the doomed column of infantry, cavalry and guns marching this way and that through the French countryside. Then, two months later, the narrative of this privileged and talented young man – a scholar at both Winchester and Oxford – suddenly ends. A blog dedicated to Sussex people picks up the story: 

“On 24 October, the battalion fought a desperate action in Polygon Wood, to the north-east of Ypres. In hand to hand fighting, with bayonets and swords, the Worcesters were able to clear the woods of enemy soldiers, but suffered 200 casualties … A fellow officer, Major [Michael] Sweetman reported: “I saw him just after I was hit, leading on his men most gallantly against a strong position of the enemy”.

Three months later, Cyril’s brother Reginald, 24, was also in action near Ypres. A book by his school, Brighton College, commemorates its war dead and quotes his commanding officer on what happened:

“We had a terrible time … [Reginald] thought he had seen a sniper and got up with his rifle to try and shoot him, when almost immediately he was hit right through the forehead. He died at once without any suffering at all. When night fell, I managed to get his body back and had him sent out of the trenches.”

Reginald was buried three miles from his brother in another Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, 2,500 of which dot the world in honour of more than one million dead soldiers. The Portland stone is beautifully engraved, and even Cyril’s obscure corner has freshly mown grass and a neatly cut verge.

How is it, I wondered, that a country could so spectacularly mismanage the stumbling into and out of a dreadful war – even losing the personal effects of both dead brothers as they were being sent back to the grieving family – and yet be able to keep the graves of the dead so immaculately manicured for ever after? And what was the point of sacrificing so much to shape the European order in 1914, just to throw in the towel a century later? 

I don’t know if there are proper answers to those questions. But it makes me even more attached to my grandfather’s stone flower from Ypres, which I have mounted on the wall of my garden in Brussels. 

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