Western front pilgrimage 2016

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By Chris Johnson

A British family pays respects to their Fallen and to those from Manipur in France and Belgium during the Great War 1914-18

2016-04-24 034Every evening since 1928 (except during WWII) at precisely eight o’clock at the Menin Gate in Belgium, the Buglers from the Ypres Fire Brigade play the Last Post and Reveille in memory of those who died in the Great War of 1914-18. Myself and four other members of my family traveled from the UK to be present on the evening of the 23rd of April this year to honour those of our family who fought and those who died during those terrible four years.

In addition to our family pilgrimage we also had other acts of Remembrance to perform on behalf of our Manipuri friends. As members of the Manipur based World War II Imphal Campaign Foundation we sought to find the graves of some of those men of the Manipur Labour Corps killed in the Great War who lay in cemeteries dotted throughout France. The Corps was raised in 1917 by the King of Manipur Maharaj Churachand when an official request from the Political Agent was sent out to all the villages in Manipur asking for two thousand labourers. These men would have the vital job of digging trenches, clearing battlefields and moving supplies, allowing the fighting troops to concentrate with fighting rather than doing all the mundane work of war as well. Official documentary evidence shows that around seventy men from Manipur were killed in action or died of sickness in France and an untold number wounded. Others were lost in Italy, Egypt and Yemen.

The second day of our pilgrimage took us to the site of the battle in which my great uncle James Rowe was killed in 1915. He has no known grave and may still be laying under the field where I planted a poppy cross in his memory. From there we visited various museums about the Great War and the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world at Tyne Cot. In this vast cemetery lay the remains of nearly twelve thousand soldiers of whom only three thousand six hundred are identified. In addition to this the names of a further thirty five thousand men with no known graves are carved on the walls around the cemetery. All these men were killed just within the area of Ypres alone. We finished the day in the area where my brother in law’s grandfather Richard Westgate was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in 1917.

The next day was spent visiting other memorials and in particular the huge and impressive Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge where again thousands of men were lost in fierce battles. We visited and paid our respects at the graves of two more of my family members, James Latimer and George Wardell, before going in search of the first of our Manipuri men. This was at Barly cemetery, a combined French and British cemetery that was quite isolated. Here, because we believe he may be the first Manipuri to be specifically visited (certainly no family member has been), we placed a poppy wreath in memory of all Manipuri’s at the grave of Arkhill Pukhini who was killed on the 4th May 1918. He is the only Manipuri buried in this cemetery but he lay’s alongside some of his Indian brothers.

The next stop along our route was the cemetery at La Chapelette British and Indian cemetery in Perrone. This beautiful cemetery has nearly six hundred British and Indian burials and in amongst them are three from the Manipur Labour Corps. We soon found Kapani Ashio (killed 3rd December 1917) and Shishi Limu (6th December 1917) as they were buried side by side and a poppy cross was placed on each grave. Beautiful purple irises were in full bloom and stood out in contrast to the deep green of the short grass surrounding the burial plots. A few more rows of Indian graves away stood the headstone of Thurm Vung (19th December 1917) and a poppy cross was placed for him too. It is thought that they may have died of wounds as this was the location of the Lucknow Casualty Clearing Station at the time of their deaths.

On the last day (a very busy one!) we saw the Lochnagar Crater, the largest crater on the Western Front, caused when British miners placed a huge charge of explosives under the German trenches to signal the start of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916. This battle is remembered as the British Army’s worst day when twenty thousand men were killed and a further thirty or forty thousand wounded. My grandfather Nathaniel Rowe was only a mile or so away when this went up, with the explosion being heard in London it is said. A few miles further north we visited the Thiepval Memorial where another family member is commemorated. Sadly the monument was being repaired in time for this year’s hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and we could not get to see his name carved there. However, we went to Delville Wood where Ernest Smith was killed and still lays there with thousands of soldiers from both sides as their bodies were never recovered because of all the unexploded ordnance making it too dangerous.

In this part of France one can travel no further than a few hundred yards without seeing a cemetery ranging from those that contain only a handful of graves to those with hundreds or even thousands. Our next stop was at Neuve Chapelle where the impressive Indian Memorial is situated. Still pockmarked with bullet and shrapnel scars from World War II, the circular white stone walls, modelled on the enclosures of Indian shrines, contain the carved names of over four and a half thousand Indian soldiers who travelled five thousand miles from home to die in the muddy battlefields of France. (A similar number are commemorated on the Menin Gate mentioned above.) Here we placed a poppy wreath in memory of those brave Indian soldiers and signed the visitors book before moving on to our final destination of the pilgrimage.

La Paradis is infamous in the annals of our local county regiment The Royal Norfolk Regiment as the place where nearly a hundred unarmed prisoners  were murdered. During the British retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940 elements of the regiment were surrounded and taken prisoner of war. The German SS marched the men to a local farm and machine-gunned them down. Some of the bullets can still be seen imbedded in the wall of the barn. At this spot we laid a wreath and drank a toast to those men. My father George Johnson would have known some of them as he was in the same regiment though thankfully not with them at the time.

With our duties completed we headed home happy in the knowledge of a successful Pilgrimage of Remembrance. Already we are planning our next one when we can visit more of Manipur’s forgotten men that lay in the cemeteries in France.

Those who partook in the Pilgrimage were Christopher Johnson, Harry Johnson,  Andrew Westgate, David Westgate, Ken Westgate.

1 COMMENT

  1. Sir,
    Please allow all the name list of Mao – Poumai labour corps who went to France.

    Yours faithfully,
    Sp.Liba
    Grandson of Sehii Thaipei.
    Purul village, senapati, Manipur.

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