Village Archive9th Dec 2014 Last updated at 16:46
By Walter Frederick Little
An account of the pilgrimage to the battle fields of France on September 1st 1961, of an old soldier.
It was during the summer months of 1961 when I decided to make the pilgrimage. I set off on 1st September with no known destination.
On arriving at Arras station in France, I asked a taximan to take me to a pub, and having arrived and booked my stay, I had a nice beer at the bar. While I was resting, I saw a beautiful surprise, for on the opposite side of the road was the great garden of Remembrance. I thought what a beautiful place the taximan had found for me.
Fred was a local gardener who lived all his life in Mugswell and Chipstead. Here he is in one of his beloved gardens with his push-along lawn mower!
I walked through the gardens every day and felt very proud being so near to my old comrades. One day, when I was alone in the gardens, I was suddenly joined by an old French soldier. We were the sole occupants in those beautiful gardens and we talked together of the horrors of war and of the young lads of tender age who had unselfishly given their lives. After that episode I thought to myself what a beautiful place for two Allied soldiers to meet - in the Garden of Remembrance!
My pilgrimage was full of adventure, and one day I was sitting at the bar when the publican’s wife came towards me holding a bottle of medicine. She approached me and asked if I thought her doctor was treating her correctly. I was not embarrassed at all, as I have myself been connected with Faith Healing for many years. She showed me her disability, and I tasted her medicine and assured her that I believed her doctor was not treating her correctly. It was a coincidence, as my own wife had had the same complaint at one time. I had known this lady for only two or three days and yet she must have had some feeling that I could help her.
My Good Samaritan the taximan came to say he was very happy to take me in his car to visit all the old places where I had been in action during the 1914-1918 war. We paid a visit to a village church; it was Thilloy, which was blown to pieces during the war, and very near to our gun battery. The little church had been beautifully rebuilt. As we went inside, the sun was shining through the windows and all was quiet and peaceful. It was a very warming feeling for me to enter this little church again.
On several days I strolled around the streets and roads of Arras. There were still some ruins of the First War which I quickly observed. One day when I was exploring the town – I knew it well, having been in action there while waiting for the great offensive – I was suddenly lost and no-one could help me. I was beginning to feel tired, walking and trying to find my way back to my old pub where I was staying. I was on the point of collapse, being both hungry and tired, and it was an awful feeling wandering through the evidence of war. I came to one conclusion: I strongly believe that I was lost by God in order to explore and examine the aftermath of war.
The town square in Arras in 1919 which suffered considerable damage during the war, where Fred returned in 1961
On another day, while I was walking peacefully in the garden of Remembrance, the gardener took me into his little mortuary and showed me the remains of two British soldiers who were killed during the second offensive in 1917. Little remained of these poor chaps; their machine gun was also found buried together with the magazine of bullets. There was only a watch-glass and a 1913 penny remaining, and the gardener said I could have the penny for a keepsake. It is now in my possession and I treasure to have it still now. It was a coincidence that their bodies were found on the same day that I landed in France; thus I was reunited with my old comrades, but in a sad way. It was a remarkable adventure.
I had yet another great adventure. My little bedroom faced east over the old battlefields, and every night there was a bright and most brilliant eastern star shining above my bedroom window. It was a most wonderful feeling to gaze through the darkness across those eastern battlefields, and as I gazed through the stillness of the night, a warm and solemn message went slowly through my mind – ‘The war has gone.’
It was nice in the evening seeing whole families, including the children, sitting as if at home in the pub. I saw much love everywhere; I even saw two old men in their very late years necking like a young couple.
I regret that I forgot to mention that during my arrangements for this pilgrimage, I had wondered if I should see a vision during my important journey; indeed, I had forgotten about the vision, but as I was preparing for home, I was suddenly aware that I was watching a great ghost. France was being torn to pieces and it soon became too horrible to watch. I could not leave the room as this great ghost was between me and the door. I was terribly frightened and covered my head. I then tried to focus my eyes on a small picture. It was the only picture in the room and was of three beautiful horses. They gave me some comfort, for the names of the three horses were Faith, Hope and Charity.
I was later having a farewell drink with my hosts and emptied my pockets to these lovable people and, with a warm embrace with Madame, I set off for home. That dear lady stood at her door and waved until I was out of sight.
British soldiers in the trenches near Arras. Fred was a gunner and would be stationed well behind the front line, but not immune to shelfire.
In a shop in Arras, I looked for a little present for my wife and I bought a tiny china soap dish. It had a broad marking across from end to end, which looked like a long bolt with a nut on each end. I had no idea what it represented. My wife loved the present, but she too could not identify the marking. One day a gentleman came to our house, and we asked him if he could explain the markings, and he said they were of the cart axle and the broken fellese which was the symbol of a broken France. It seemed amazing for one to see a horrible vision and then unknowingly to buy a replica of the same thing.
WW1 artillery in operation behind the trenches. As a gunner, Fred may have seen action in a similar environment
Having bought this present for my wife, I walked to Arras station for my train home. Having time to spare, I had a last look back to see the great building of the British and Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and was convinced this great building had been erected on my old gun site which I had helped to make in preparation for the Great Offensive. I said to myself: “This is an everlasting memory of my old gun battery”, which was to be the foundation of this great building.
On the train to Boulogne, I had one important change at St Pol. I did change as requested, but the porter said I should not have done so. However, I had an hour to wait, then owing to unforeseen circumstances I found the last ferryboat had gone, leaving me with a rough night in Boulogne harbour. In the early hours of the morning, I had a coffee in the station buffet and then boarded the boat for home. After some way out, I was enjoying a smoke on deck, when a lady – not an ordinary person – conversed as to the beautiful morning and the calm sea. It was only a short conversation, as this lady was waiting for her husband to return. I told her I had been on a pilgrimage and she said: “How nice of you.” And then, with a very pleasant face, this lady said: “I am sure God does look after you.” I accepted the message with warmth. I began to wonder – was my journey delayed in order to meet this lady?
I was soon on the train to London, and in the same compartment with me was a young man just returning from Switzerland. He was fondling many silver coins which he had collected on his holiday, but my own heart was warm with the penny I was holding for one of my lost comrades.
The theme of my pilgrimage was Love and Loyalty. Love is the greatest constructive power in the world.
Most sincere to all readers from the writer,
Walter Frederick Little.