Visit commemorated centenary of relative's death in WWI

Poppy petals flutter gently against my fingers as we tread ever more softly around a French countryside cemetery to locate the grave.

Tuesday, 9th October 2018, 5:21 pm
Updated Wednesday, 10th October 2018, 4:07 am

Row upon row of young soldiers lie here - many of them killed just weeks before the end of World War One.

Their final resting place is a peaceful one - the surrounding farmland once scarred by shells now carefully tilled and dotted with great wind turbines.

Among the headstones is my great, great uncle Walter Lewis Wakefield who died a century ago on this, the day of our visit.

Finally, my youngest daughter locates the grave and we huddle in reverence around it - trying to work out how best to lay our tribute wreath. We read poems about “there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England” hold a silence, try to imagine how he lived - and picture how he spent his final hours.

I had known for some time that there was a relative who had not made it home.

And after sifting through records and piecing together his story with every fact that I uncovered - the more I felt determined to ensure the 100th anniversary of Walter’s ultimate sacrifice was not forgotten.

My thoughts turn briefly to his older brother (and my great-grandfather) John, who was injured at Passchendaele in 1917. And how he, along with their parents and two other siblings, had to watch young Walter head to the front, knowing the hell that awaited him.

Walter was launched straight into a huge British offensive to break through the last line of German defence - the Hindenburg Line.

On September 28, 1918 six German artillery pieces were captured by his batalllion, as well as machine-guns, trench mortars and around 300 prisoners, but the attack was held up as enemy resistance stiffened. Prevented from crossing the Canal de St Quentin, his batallion established a line on the railway embankment north- east of Noyelles, having lost a further 170 casualties.

The following day, Private Wakefield would have woken to the largest British artillery barrage of the war, with some 1,600 guns firing almost one million shells.

Just how that almighty bombardment must have sounded is unthinkable - it must have felt like the end of days - the perception at the time was that the tide had turned and victory was finally within our reach.

As Walter went into the fray his battalion was subjected to intense shelling throughout the day and lost around 30 casualties of which he was one and was reported to have died of wounds.

He was never to know that some time later, after an intense, 56-hour-long attack Allied forces breached the previously impenetrable line, putting in motion the final stages of the war.

At such a young age he had played a small part in such a momentous day - which ranks among the greatest-ever British military achievements.

Walter’s father, Joseph, was sent the balance of his effects, valued at £5, by No. 6 Infantry Record Office at Lichfield on 17 April 1919. His son’s British War Medal and Victory Medal were issued in 1921, and the family would also have received a memorial plaque and scroll.

And as we watched the late afternoon sun bathe his headstone the over-riding feeling is simply of gratitude.

We return to the car and set off for the Menin Gate - where we arrive just in time to hear the Last Post surrounded by hundreds of other people gathered to pay their own respects. We’re humbled by the endless rows of names - and reminded that even though our visit marked an important anniversary the sacrifice that these young men made is one that we should be grateful for always.