Gavin Esler travels to northern Europe to explore his family's connections with Passchendaele and Dunkirk, both key sites in the two world wars
Lest we forget: memories of my father and great uncle and their world war experiences
The drive from Calais on the French coast towards Belgium and Germany is full of names with great historical significance. And personal significance. My father was a member of the Dunkirk Veterans Association. In 1940, as part of the British Expeditionary Force, he was trapped by Nazi troops in Calais, but a group of around a dozen British soldiers escaped by seizing a lifeboat and paddling out to sea. Picked up by a French warship, my father was then passed on to a Royal Navy ship off Dunkirk. I do not know if any other Dunkirk veterans never actually touched French soil in Dunkirk, but my father certainly was one.
Farther north, just over the Belgian border, there is the site of one of the most horrific battles in history, Passchendaele, which began 100 years ago this summer and was fought from July until November 1917. Some 275,000 Allied and 220,000 German soldiers died. My father was named in memory of Sergeant Major William Esler of “C” Company, 8th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, who died at Passchendaele on August 22, 1917.
I have a worn old photograph of this great uncle, and a very moving letter written to my family by “C” Company’s commanding officer, Captain G G Blackwood. It is in front of me as I write, and it is remarkably free from military jargon or formality. Rather it is an extremely moving testament to the camaraderie of men from different backgrounds and professions finding themselves is a terrible war.
Capt Blackwood relates how Sgt Maj Esler was “in a very stiff fight” — a bit of an understatement when half a million men were dying in those desperate few months. The letter explains that Esler “took charge of a Lewis Machine Gun to deal with enemy snipers. "To get a better position, he got on top of a small concrete dug-out and was observed through binoculars when a sniper’s bullet hit him in the head … death was instantaneous. I was present with him at the time and witnessed the whole tragedy.”
The letter goes on to say that Capt Blackwood “had a small cross made with the Sgt Major’s name, number and date of death on it and we buried his body after dark a few yards from where he fell. I am not allowed to mention the place, but I sent our Orderly Rooms a note of the exact spot…. I may say that I miss Sergeant Major Esler very much…”
So much for the British stiff upper lip. Unfortunately, in the chaos by the end of the war, the graves were so fought over that Sgt Maj Esler’s body was unrecovered, and for decades my family actually thought he had died at the Somme in France. His death is marked at Tyne Cot cemetery, Belgium. I also discovered a copy of a letter written by another comrade, Duncan Strong. Strong makes the point that Sgt Maj Esler had been “out so long” at the front — three years — and yet miraculously had survived. Until Passchendaele.
“How many fellows in our battalion has he followed, to leave behind weeping and heartbroken relatives?” Strong asks, and he talks of my great uncle in the most glowing terms “as brave as he was handsome ... he was a man for a nasty corner and one can say nothing better of any soldier than that.”
More from the author
A hundred years later I am travelling to be with family and friends in Germany driving past the war memorials and the graveyards of France and Belgium. I expect all my German friends will have lost relatives somewhere here too. Perhaps some had relatives with Gen Heinz Guderian’s Panzers as they corralled my own father in 1940 along with a quarter of a million more on the sands of Pas-de-Calais and the evacuation zone of Dunkirk. What stands out for me is that no member of my family, and certainly not my father, ever expressed any hatred or even dislike for the German people or the soldiers he faced. My father loathed Nazis and leaders who started wars that people like him and his German counterparts had to finish. I even have on my wall a wonderful sketch of my father made in 1945 by a German prisoner of war in a prison camp in Italy, a man my father guarded as an enemy, but treated as a man who in better times would have been a friend.
Europe, the bloodiest continent in world history, has not entirely been at peace since 1945. The Cold War, Bosnia and Ukraine remind us that peace is fragile. Iraq and Syria remind us that no society or culture is immune from conflict. The idea of “civilisation” is a veneer behind which we develop higher forms of killing, not better, more moral, conduct. As the writer Aldous Huxley once put it: “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”