Why I love Buy Nothing Day and not spending money at Thanksgiving or Christmas

Saturday 29th November is Buy Nothing Day, a day or rather movement that started in the United States in protest of the over-commercialisation of our holidays and life in general.

One of my earliest blog posts was on the reversing the commercialisation of holidays, Sundays and Christmas.  It is hard to avoid spending money and yet it is so easy at the same time.  In North America, Thanksgiving should be a time to spend with family and friends, escaping the pressures of work, school and life in general for a few days and yet more and more it is being overshadowed by Black Friday, a day when major discounts are offered to entice people to buy stuff they don’t need or really want for Christmas.

This year we even have Black Friday in the U.K. which is doubly stupid as we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here and because of that, the focus on buying Christmas gifts actually gets under way from the very end of August and we need no more encouragement to spend money.

If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem!

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!

Just why can’t we be content with what we have?  More of us probably could be if it weren’t for the overbearing commercialisation of all our holidays and Holy Days.  I can actually list all the things which I have bought in 2014 aside from food (all of which is eaten and preserved and not thrown out).  Four books, 2 Blu Ray movies, a pair of trainers which replaced items 2 or 3 years old if not older and which were full of holes, a wooly jumper and also a polo shirt for work.  I also treated myself to a gift whilst on holiday in September and a computer to replace my turn of the millennia PC and that is my entire expenditure.  Of those I’d say only the movies and my holiday treat were unnecessary purchases seeing as I do need something to wear when I am out walking, a top to wear when touring and a computer to write on.  Yet I am happier today than most of the people I see struggling around the shops heavily laden with cheap clothes and plastic tat.

I’d like to think that rather than just follow a Buy Nothing Day, I follow a Buy Hardly Anything Year.  I can and do buy things but not just because everyone else is doing so or because it is the specified day or month to go wild in the shops.  Nothing in the shops can equal what I have and they want, my money.  Money is the most valuable commodity in the whole shopping experience.  Why ‘Buy One Get One Free’ or ‘Get 2 For the Price of 3′ when really I only want one and if I think about it, don’t need any.  Whatever I buy in the stores will likely degrade and be either old or not used by next year, your hard earned cash though keeps it value and you shouldn’t waste it on junk you don’t need when the real meanings of Thanksgiving and Christmas are so far away from rancid commercialism and over consumption.


It is often said that Christmas is one of the hardest parts of the year.  Every year society is pressured to celebrate Christmas and that we must be happy and joyful . Yet undeniably for many Christmas can be stressful and at worst outright difficult and even tinged with despair.

I’ve found in fact that the Christmas that most other people enjoy couldn’t really be any further from the true meaning of Christmas or indeed the type of Christmas which we grew up with just 20 or 30 years ago and I am sure things are similar for Americans in Thanksgiving.  The first Christmas adverts start appearing straight after the August Bank Holiday and become ever more aggressive as the weeks roll by.  The first Christmas songs started appearing on the radio around Remembrance Sunday.  Of course by Christmas they mean spending money and having fun with overconsumption of pretty much everything; two things which should not or need not have much to do with Christmas

The true message of Christmas seems to be entirely lost, there is little if any mention of Jesus Christ or God in the mainstream media except for the few dedicated services televised from Kings College or Midnight Mass.  Even traditional themes such as spending time with family is made out to be all old-hat.  If we are not eating and drinking too much and spending money then we aren’t in the Christmas Spirit. And yet what is the Christmas Spirit?

Increasingly people complain that they are too busy and too stressed and that Christmas isn’t the same as when they were growing up and yet they literally BUY into the overly commercialised nature of the season.  Increasingly people use terms like Season or Holidays because they don’t want to be marginalised into being seeing as old fashioned and Christian and actually wanting to celebrate Christmas for the right reasons.  In a recent search through my home town I found two dozen different boxes of assorted Christmas cards and only one had the overtly religious cards that were commonplace until just 10-20 years ago now largely replaced by cute animals, Father Christmas or the even more commercialised Santa.   Also I couldn’t believe just how much junk was for sale.  Stuff we all have all ready but we HAVE to buy because it is a few years old, not cool or made so cheaply it breaks almost immediately.  I just saw store after store selling total <insert swear word here>.

We work and commute almost every day of the year.  Why waste the few we have free on going out and buying stuff we don't need and sometimes can't afford.

We work and commute almost every day of the year. Why waste the few we have free on going out and buying stuff we don’t need and sometimes can’t afford.

I don’t want to make this a Christmas/Christian only issue either.  I’m very happy to celebrate Eid, Hannukkah, Diwali and any other faiths that my friends and colleagues have but lets call them by their names and lets take away the commercialism.  We can all celebrate each of these festivals but at heart they are religious in nature and have a special place for those who practice them.  Christmas is the same to me.

I always disliked how Christmas was becoming more of a marketing ploy and holiday rather than a religious Holy Day.  Even now in late November, Christmas lights and decorations are going up on houses if indeed they are ever taken down.  It’s a pretty safe bet too that they will be the ones that take their lights down on the 27th December seemingly unaware that Christmas lasts 12 days starting on Christmas Day and finishing in January.  Of course they probably do this because for them Christmas is over.  They ate and drank too much, spent too much money on presents they didn’t need or want in the first place and then as they were so determined to have a good time and regardless that they shopped right up until Christmas Eve with enough food and chocolates to last most of us a week or two, they head out to the New Year Sales on Boxing Day.  They have nothing really exciting to celebrate and enthral them as the wonder of the Christmas Story, the actual event that sparked the whole thing off is totally forgotten about or even discarded.

This isn’t the sort of Christmas I ever believed in, nor one that I ever intended to follow once I reached reached adulthood.  I wanted to opt out of mainstream Christmas and enjoy Christmas my own way and in a style that better fits with a traditional Christmas albeit it with a few hints of modernity.   Like many other things, Christmas is very much what you make of it and the idea of spending and indulging so much for one day only to spend the next 3 months not having any money or being able to squeeze into the new clothes that I’d bought but didn’t need seemed entirely stupid.

When I was lucky enough to marry my lovely wife we both shared the same philosophy that we should enjoy a Christian Christmas.   After spending all year working manically on jobs based far away from home we were glad not to do a great deal.   We would attend the odd Church service and enjoy our few days in peace.  Not for us the chaos of Tescos or the vast retail parks but instead some peaceful if rather bracing walks.  We’d take the opportunity to check up on old friends or neighbours and also get to know each other again.  Maybe watch some television or catch up on the backlog of books or movies.

It can be a challenge as a moderately young couple to celebrate Christmas in the old-fashioned way.  Apart from what seems to be much of society destined to spend their way to happiness, there are friends and even family members who insist on doing things certain ways.   We aren’t scrooges, Christmas is probably our favourite time of the year and definitely our happiest.  It just happens that what makes us happy makes us more in common with our Grandparents or even those further back than the majority who we live our lives with today.  We like traditional Christmases.

It’s one where more than any other time, people do help each other and maybe if we all spent less time trying to be happy and just were happy.   Traditional Christmas roasts might be big but they are also relatively healthy and left-overs can be used for much of the week or if like us and you’re time-scare for much of the year we actually go out and do the same again when we run out before New Year.   Christmas Dinners are also cheap, it is the treats, drinks and fast-food outings that cost a lot of money.  The last 2 years my wife and I both lost weight over the Christmas period, that despite it being my birthday in that week.

By all means we buy a few things for ourselves and a few others at Thanksgiving and   Christmas but these important days should be more than presents and seeing as we already have the time off and all the other things going on why not forgo spending money this time.  It is nice to buy presents for people throughout the year not because we are told we must do so now.  Nor will we buckle under the pressure of going to parties just to get drunk or spending time with people we don’t want to, just because it is Christmas.  We’d rather go and check on neighbours or do a few chores for people than be forced to be happy with people who are determined not to be.

We can do almost anything we want with out lives.  Is giving huge corporations who exploit their employees our precious cash the only way to be happy?

We can do almost anything we want with out lives. Is giving huge corporations who exploit their employees our precious cash the only way to be happy?

There is no reason to feel stressed at Christmas, sad perhaps if you have memories of happier times with loved ones that are no longer here, but not stressed.  Like the last few years we are going to use Christmas to reconnect with our faith and with ourselves.   Our Christmas shopping was already done in one morning and our budget is barely any more stretched than at any other time of the year.  What Christmas will give to us are the priceless gifts of free-time to spend on ourselves and others that we care about.

When did our lives become so empty and our minds so over-stimulated that we can’t stand just a few days without spending money or going shopping?  Even if you don’t believe in Christmas, is being away from work for a few days so boring that you have to go out and shop or eat?   I’m not American and if I were in America on Thanksgiving I’d love to be invited to eat a Thanksgiving dinner with strangers or friends, I’d be more than happy wondering the empty streets of the city or spending some quite contemplation with nature.  Going shopping would rank several hundred places down my rankings of what to do on Thanksgiving!

You can keep all your discount signs, drunken parties, indebtedness, forced cheeriness and then New Year resolutions.   Thanksgiving was not created to force overworked families to work in Walmart and Christmas or indeed any other religious festival is not about buying junk, over-indulging and standing in line at 2am to purchase a coat or phone for a few pounds less than usual.  Christmas was and is a religious holiday, we don’t have many.  If you don’t believe in the real meaning of Christmas then that is just fine but there are no negative sides of a traditional Christmas and all those who complain are likely over-indulging in the commercial aspects of it all.

The only sad thing about Christmas is that a time of  peace and kindness which can be enjoyed wherever people may be has been entirely overshadowed by selfish me me me spending which even overshadow the secular but entirely wonderful idea of spending Christmas quietly at home or the magical tale of Father Christmas or Santa.

Let us have our Thanksgiving and Christmas in peace and take your tacky commercialism to the other 360 odd days where it is more than welcome.  There has to be more to life than just buying things.  Join with myself and many others and do anything else this weekend and indeed this Christmas but buying stuff!

There are even organised zombie walks in shops to imitate how brainless many of us are devoting our lives to shopping.

There are even organised zombie walks in shops to imitate how brainless many of us are devoting our lives to shopping.

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Mr Turner, the movie and the man.

I’m always a big fan of the longer movie.  I enjoy getting into a story I can get my teeth into and that doesn’t necessarily revolve around car chases and fast cutting shooting and fighting.  A small part of me also thinks that with the high prices at the cinema, that longer films give me a bit more value for money.

In the last week I have watched two long films.  The first was Interstellar which despite its name and premise I found to be distinctly unimpressive with often poor special effects and a predictable plot, so much so that I guessed the ending within a few minutes of the film starting.

I went into see Mr Turner just waiting for my faith to be restored in longer films.  The film Mr Turner is about one of the most gifted artists of all time and probably most people’s top two British artists, Joseph Mallard William Turner.

William Turner lived from 1775 to 1851 and is a giant in the name of art.  His early paintings were quite traditional featuring buildings and landscapes but Turner was fascinated by light and his later works became much less conventional. In fact there is an argument to say that Turner led to the Impressionist period of painting and indeed his work was much studied by artists such as Van Gogh and Monet in the early 20th century.

Turner was born into a very much working-class family, his father being a barber and wig maker whilst his mother was from a family of butchers.  At the age of 10, due to problems at home, the young Turner was sent to the small town of Brentford, now part of West London and it was at this young age that we know he started sketching and painting as he spent time in Oxfordshire and by the sea in Margate.

A View of the Archbishop's Palace in Lambeth

A View of the Archbishop’s Palace in Lambeth painted by William Turner at the age of 14.

Aged 14 he applied to The Royal Academy of Art and incredibly just one year later, his work was featured in an exhibition there.  By 1790 he was already creating waves by mastering the realm of marine painting, a theme which he would later become famous for.

Turner travelled extensively across England, France and the low countries and was particularly influenced by his stay in Venice.  Much of his work is dedicated to landscapes but frequently such painting include humans in the foreground as despite his complex and curmudgeon nature, he loved humanity but his artwork would often focus on the vulnerability of humans by the forces of nature, particularly the oceans.

His work became less detailed and instead focussed on light and luminosity and his fame spread throughout the world.  It’s widely reported than a rich art lover from New York purchased a Turner work without ever seeing it and when he set eyes on his expensive purchase he was unhappy at how indistinct the details of the painting were.  On hearing of this Turner told him that he specialised in indistinctness!

Staffa, Fibgal's Cave.  An old volcanic island off the SW coast of Scotland and most indistinct.

Staffa, Fibgal’s Cave. An old volcanic island off the SW coast of Scotland and most indistinct.

He generally refused selling off most of his work and instead bequeathed it to the nation.  He put it in his will that all his work had to be displayed together, preferably in a dedicated gallery but sadly that didn’t come to pass and a special Act of Parliament was created allowing his work to be displayed separately.  Now much of his work can be seen displayed together in the National Gallery and around the world.

The film Mr Turner is pretty much everything that Interstellar isn’t.  It is a cosy, literary film and very down to earth.  It follows Turner in the last 25 years of his life and I found it totally engrossing.  Victorian life is portrayed very accurately but not in the overly twee style that can happen.

The cinematography is incredible and the entire film is shot almost as if it were in a Turner painting.  The colours and palette are incredible as are the sets and costumes and the small budget even stretched to a wonderful CGI moment when Turner rows out to see the Fighting Temeraire which is one of my two favourite 19th century paintings.

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire – often said to be one of the two top paintings produced in the 19th Century.

The film is almost entirely devoid of any plot or narrative which a small section of viewers don’t seem to be able to get their heads round but to me it is a revelation as life doesn’t really have a plot and this film is more of a series of connected scenes which is probably what many of our lives are like.

Turner is portrayed by the truly wonderful Timothy Spall who I have been a fan of since the early 1980’s.  He is known to many international viewers for his part as Wormtail in Harry Potter but happily in Britain we get to see him all the time including in the current tv show The Blandings.   He portrays Turner has a complicated, grumpy and not entirely pleasant individual which to my surprise is exactly how he was in real life.  He is likeable but somehow it is hard to tally such an individual to the beautiful art he created but then again similar things happen today with actors and musicians.

The Burning Of The Houses Of Parliament

The Burning Of The Houses of Parliament for many a national disaster, for Turner a thing of beauty.

The film shows his close relationship with his father and how he refuses to acknowledge the two children he himself fathered with a mistress who scowls at him through flared nostrils.  He treats almost everyone with scorn should they interfere with his art and from time to time forces himself on the family servant.

However, he is also wonderfully eccentric and is a man of few words and somehow he comes over as very sympathetic.  Never has a film seen the leading character growl, tut and harrumph his way through a movie like this and Timothy Spall does so fantastically.  He looks and sounds every bit the part and importantly painted for 2 years in training for his part in the film.

We don’t get to see much of his painting process except for his passion and showmanship.  He can be loving and cruel, obsesses over a relatively minor personal debt and yet refuses large payments for his art.  William Turner is a man of many contradictions.

There is no or next to no profanity, action or sex in this film and it entirely feels like you are just living life with Turner.   There is a surprising amount of wit in the film though you sometimes have to be alert to catch it. I found myself laughing quite a few times through the movie.  Turner of course is an art genius but he doesn’t quite fit in with the artistic establishment and he is from the wrong class of people to feel at home with them or for him as a person to be accepted by them.

There are a number of wonderful scenes such as when he lets the rather camp critic Rushkin make a fool of himself by talking about subjects that are entirely irrelevant to try to impress everyone present and Turner simply inquiries about what sort of meat pie he prefers.

Constable and Turner

Constable and Turner admire each others work but have a strong rivalry. These viewings were important and artists would perfect their work until just minutes before the public arrived. Hundreds of paintings could be sold and such events were a major source of income for Victorian artists.

Of course in real life, Turner had great rivalry with possibly the other joint top British artist, John Constable.  In this film of few words, all that needs to be said of this rivalry is said by the way the two characters exchange pleasantries, “Turner…. Constable”.  All hell breaks loose when Turner apparently ruins his own masterpiece which is hanging next to Constable by adding a large bright blob of red paint.  Constable has no patience at all with the charisma and show-boating of Turner and storms off in disgust that his own painting has been sabotaged.  Turner soaks up all the attention before finally returning and retools the blob into a harbour buoy.

As Turner gets older, incredibly he becomes more grumpy and more eccentric.  He is lonely and finds solace with the landlady of his property, Mrs Booth  in Margate which sitting by the sea gives him all the marine scenes he could ever wish for.  In fact so much into his art is Turner that ties himself to the mast of a sailing ship during a snow storm to get the feeling of what it is like.

Turner gets on with the landlady because she doesn’t know who he is or care how famous or rich he might be.  The film takes the rare step of having something of a romance between these two elderly characters which I find refreshing.

Throughout the film you get the feeling that Turner is both fascinated by and slightly fearful of technology or perhaps mournful of the passing of the old ways.  He is fascinated by prisms and light, curious about cameras but angry that he realises they will have major repercussions on his profession.    He obviously thinks of the juxtaposition of the old with the new for his famous painting of the Fighting Temerarie, the old heroic sailing ship that fought at Trafalgar being towed to the breakers by a steam-powered vessel.  A similar feeling can be had for Rain, Steam and Speed which highlights a locomotive crossing a bridge as a tiny boat nestles in the water beneath.

Rain, Steam and Speed.  The Great Western Railway.

Rain, Steam and Speed. The Great Western Railway by JMW Turner

He is much aggrieved that many former friends and admirers dislike his move towards indistinctness and Impressionism, even Queen Victoria dislikes it but Turner cares not one jot.  After years of trying to get people to buy his work, when he is very successful in his later years, he is much less bothered about selling any of them and takes the stance of art for arts sake.

As Mr Turner gets older, his health suffers and he grows more distant from his family and friends whilst taking up residence in west London with his landlady friend.  He keeps his love of art to the very end, rushing out of his death-bed to paint a drowned lady on the harbour steps and when his doctor gives him the bad news Turner says something along the lines of “I suggest Sir that you go down those steps and avail yourself upon my wife to have a large glass of Sherry before returning to this room to give me a different prognosis”.  The Doctor replies that he shall not, Turner grumbles loudly under his breath.

Turner up before the dawn.

Turner up before the dawn.

His final words in the film as in life were “The Sun is God”, no doubt in reference to his love of light and the fact he would be up before dawn every morning to catch the morning light at its purest.

I was sure that I would like a film about this incredible artist and I freely admit thinking that it would be a more traditional plot driven film but the fact that it wasn’t made it all the better to me.  Mr Turner is full of splendid performances particularly from Timothy Spall as Turner but the costumes, sets and particularly the Turner-esque palette make it a beautiful film to watch and the flowery conversations scattered with unexpected humour, grunts and all make it a wonderful film and I could spend a lifetime watching it.

Turner himself would most likely give a grunt of approval before throwing a chair at the door so we leave him in peace to do what he did best.

Timothy Spall as Turner

Timothy Spall as Turner




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Band Aid 30

There are many problems with the world at the moment and certainly with our country but one thing that we can be proud of is our record of charity and giving to countries that are poorer than our own.  In fact we are the only G8 country and one of only 5 in the world to surpass the UN target of giving 0.70% of GDP in foreign aid a massive $18 billion in 2013.

Overseas Aid figures.  Special praise should be given to Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and Sweden as the only countries to exceed the agreed UN payments on Foreign Aid.

Overseas Aid figures. Special praise should be given to Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and Sweden as the only countries to exceed the agreed UN payments on Foreign Aid.

It’s something I think we can be proud of that even in times of hardships at home we increase out overseas payments even more, so long as they go to the right people.  As I once wrote in my post on Soft Power, we (The U.K.) are in the gradual process of moving our country from waging military wars to becoming a country that wages war on poverty, illness and disease.  We were also instrumental in forging agreement for the richest nations to cancel lots of debt from impoverished nations.

It’s something that we have an incredible track record of and not just with government spending.  The British public go out of their way to support charitable causes almost like no other. Thirty years ago, I along with my class-mates, were busy rehearsing the original Band Aid song for our school Christmas concert.  It was a then unique musical production featuring many of the biggest musical stars producing a song to help aid in Africa and if my memory is right, the famines in Ethiopia.    Do They Know It’s Christmas was the fastest selling song of all time and it stayed at number 1 in the charts for 5 weeks and can be relied on to be played each Christmas as one of the more downbeat Christmas songs and certainly the most important.


Selling 2 million copies and raising $24 million, it went on to inspire performance charity in the USA, France, Canada and Spain and even better led to the performance of two massive global Live Aid concerts in the U.K. and U.S.A that were broadcast to 165 countries and raising another $150 million.

Then there was a Band Aid 2, Band Aid 20 and a more recent concert in London all with the general aims of helping the poor overseas.

Last week it was announced that a new version of Do They Know It’s Christmas will be released for Band Aid 30 with new singers and indeed new lyrics.  The original song was quite negative towards Africa, part through naivety and partly perhaps to raise more money.    Though much foreign aid has been squandered in Africa through bad planning and corrupt officials, Africa cannot any longer be classed as the almost hopeless lost cause it was portrayed as in the 1980’s.

7 out of 10 of the fastest growing economies in the entire world are now in Africa and so it is wrong to think that things there haven’t improved.  In fact it’s often forgotten that Ebola was extinguished from Nigeria in a short period of time due to their competent health care and infrastructure.

However there are still many countries that for one reason or other still need assistance as can be readily seen with the recent outbreak of Ebola.  The United States, Britain and France have taken the lead in helping to beat the epidemic with Britain being tasked with Sierra Leone.  Thousands of service personnel have now been posted to the country and large numbers of volunteers and NHS doctors and nurses are leading the way in the crisis.

Band Aid is led by Sir Bob Geldof who has overseen every iteration since 1984.  He is a very passionate advocate of musicians and indeed everyone in the country doing whatever they can to beat poverty in the developing world and releasing a new version of Do They Know It’s Christmas is his way of lending his and our support for those of us who are not able to help against Ebola in West Africa.

I’ve seen him in a number of interviews yesterday in which he was adamant that not a single person needs to die from Ebola if only everyone was free from poverty, intact in his typical style he was cut off from at least one interview for swearing too much in an interview.   I think though, the world needs more people like Sir Bob as if you can’t be passionate about saving the world or eliminating poverty, what is the point in anything?  He also made a point of urging other countries to do more to combat Ebola and particular singled out Germany  stating “its leaders were not “doing enough” to tackle the epidemic.  The most powerful economy in Europe are laggards and they shouldn’t be, it’s as dangerous for them as it is for us.”

Foreign Aid by national income

Foreign Aid by national income. Special praise should go to Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and the U.K. for being the only nations to surpass the UN targets.

To reflect the changing circumstance in Africa and the fact that this song is targeting Ebola, some of the lyrics of the song have been changed.  30 years ago despite a massive row, Mrs Thatcher refused to give Band Aid tax relief.  This time round tax relief was given in advance and even iTunes have said that all monies paid will go entirely to the charity.

I have to say that I’m not very familiar with the majority of the  names on the list and have heard even less of them sing but it is nice to see that everyone has the opportunity to help eradicate this awful plague in their own way.

Bob Geldof – organiser
Midge Ure – organiser
Paul Epworth – producer
Instruments: Roger Taylor (from Queen) – Drums


Bastille, Bono (from U2), Clean Bandit, Disclosure, Elbow, Paloma Faith, Fuse ODG, Nick Grimshaw, Ellie Goulding, Angelique Kidjo, Chris Martin (from Coldplay), Olly Murs,
Sinead O’Connor, One Direction, Rita Ora, Emeli Sande, Seal,
Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Underworld and Jessie Ware

Remixes: Underworld and Disclosure

Band Aid 30

Band Aid 30

The song was first aired on Sunday Night during X-Factor and raised £1 million in the first 4 minutes so it looks like once again Do They Know It’s Christmas is going to be a big hit.   If you want to do your bit to help then you can download Band Aid 30 from iTunes  for just 99 pence or $1.29 and it will be available to buy in stores from early December. You can also view the new video here  and see the original hit here.

There is a valid argument that Foreign Aid means that the poor from rich countries end up giving money to the rich in poor countries and in Britain there has been some unhappiness with giving aid money to countries with Space Programmes or unfriendly intent might seem wrong,  at a certain level most people are more than happy to give money to those truly in need.

Where does British Tax Payers money go on Foreign Aid?

Where does British Tax Payers money go on Foreign Aid? (Figures and destinations 4 years old)

Whilst the United States gives the largest in absolute terms, add a percentage of national wealth, it isn’t doing as well compared to other much less wealthy nations.  What’s more around a third of the American foreign aid goes to a country that is as wealthy as an average European nation for political purposes whilst truly  impoverished countries like Ethiopia receive in comparison just a few crumbs.  Think what the 200 billion dollars that Israel has received in recent decades could do for a truly impoverished nation like Ethiopia.  Imagine if every nation met the target of the UN, so many lives would be saved and improved.  There is no excuse for countries like Germany, Japan, the United States, most of Europe and now nations like China.

U.S. Foreign Aid

U.S. Foreign Aid

In the end Foreign Aid is one of the few things we can do to help others at the country level.  At Christmas and at any other time of year we should always be grateful for living in the rich nations that most of us live in and give just a little each year to those in need.  If for no other reason than until poverty is eliminated then neither will people trafficking, mass immigration and many other problems which are overtaking our societies can truly be resolved.

As Sir Bob says, download the new Band Aid track, listen to it and then delete it and buy it again!

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Once you go Mac, you never go back!

There is a saying in the Apple community, that once you go Mac, you never go back.  Three weeks ago I went Mac and I thought that I would write a little about my experiences.

It was probably the longest switch over in history as I had been slowly but surely dabbling in Apple products since I was given an old iPod about 3 years ago.  I have written many a blog on a tiny iPod touch whilst away from home.  I always wanted Apple products but they cost too much money to someone who was happy putting up with what they already had even though it was always substandard.

I had my concerns of course.  20+ years of using Windows and with lots of files and software all backed up on my creaking hard drive.  Of course, much of the data is never used but it was nice to know it was there and being a writer, there were all sorts of works in progress and articles that I had written and published in the past.  Several thousand photos too amongst other things.  There were also the worries of starting off on a new system that I knew nothing much about and had no huge collection of software for.

Of course I knew I wanted to switch over and it wasn’t as if I ever liked Windows or never used computers before Windows.  I remember Dos, I had 3 Amiga computers that were all much more use-friendly and which at the time only had one real competitor, Apples of course. Before the Amiga’s I had a Commodore 64 and on Christmas Eve 1980, I received a Vic 20 computer.  A 6 year-old with a computer in 1980… who says only kids today grow up with computers, some of us were on the ball 35 years ago!

In the end working with my ancient PC became impractical so I had to upgrade and as I had become increasingly happy with my iPod Touches and iPads.  They never crashed, they always had all the software I needed, they were fun to use and as I don’t buy many consumer products I’m happy to pay more for something that will work well and last a long time.  I’ve also noticed that several of my friends who have used Apple phones and tablets who have switched over mostly due to costs have been generally unhappy with them.

So I found myself in the local Apple Store.  It was only the second time which I had entered it, the first being several years ago when the creator of the new Star Trek films said that the bridge of Enterprise makes the Apple Store look uncool.  In the end, he wasn’t lying but the Apple Store  was still a memorable place to visit and 4 or so years later,  I was going to get an iMac.

I was all prepared to spend a lot of money on the justification that I would keep the machine for a long time and that I spend 12 hours a day working on it at home so even the new Retina Display machines wouldn’t be a total indulgence, well maybe just a little bit.   As it happened I came away with the second bottom iMac model and half of my money too.

The shop assistants were very pleasant and helpful and they were very honest over which machine I needed and unlike many places, they didn’t point me in the direction of an expensive product, in fact I paid a bit more for a slightly better model than they said that I would need which they already assured would last me 7-10 years.

It was quite shocking, I’d had something similar earlier in the summer when I got a second hand car and I assumed that was because I purchased it hundreds of miles from London.  I’m a firm believer that such unpressurised sales is a beneficial in the long term as otherwise I would like have walked out… as it is I know exactly where I will go for my next car and likely another computer too.

The iMac was boxed up and though they offered to set it up for me, I decided to take it home and do it all myself.  I got quite a few stares from people as I was carrying it back to the bus but having decided to buy a computer, I’d rather actually have a reason to go in the Apple Store than buy it on the internet.

V'ger is that which seeks the creator.... a Star Trek gag for those whose wondering what I am on about.

V’ger is that which seeks the creator…. a Star Trek gag for those whose wondering what I am on about.

I registered the iMac and it instantly recognised my wifi network and my other Apple products.  Then began the 19 hours process of automatically copying over every relevant file I wanted from my PC over the wireless network.  It came to about 180Gb so I was glad it was all automated.

The next morning I excitedly checked and it was all ready, I unplugged the old PC and installed the new iMac.  It is a thing of beauty, sleek and hi-tech looking with no wires or boxes or whirring fans.  However, everything was different and I spent a whole day just working out the basics.  The mouse was different, the keyboard too and just where were the files and whatever the things were on a iMac that let you do stuff?

Well I soon got to know the basics.  The iMac is extremely intuitive and use-friendly and there is nothing I have encountered which makes little sense or is harder to use than even on the new Windows PC I used at work last year.  Everything is different but everything seems to be easier and more fun to use once you know what you’re doing with it.

I ditched MS Office as quickly as I could and already enjoy Pages and Numbers more than Word and Excel.  I can’t pretend that I know all the tricks that I used to know but each time I come across a new requirement, it is easy to find the solution.  There is great file compatibility too so I can still read and write in Windows file formats when I ever want to.

I realise that some of what I will say is because it is a new computer but it’s not entirely just because it is a new computer.  I’ve had a variety of new computers since 1980 but this is the first since about 1994 which I have enjoyed learning and which is totally intuitive.  There are just no problems with it.  I have worked on it now for about 85 hours a week for 3 weeks and not once has it crashed, frozen or done anything unexpected.  A big bonus for me of course is that it all works well with my iTunes account and other Apple devices.

My new iMac, works like a dream and I entirely love it.

My new iMac, works like a dream and I entirely love it.

I can see now why Macs are so highly praised by creative and artistic types.  There are still lots of things I don’t know how to do (the file tree structure and Finder for starters) and there are probably lots of useful features and software that I don’t even know exists yet.  I try to take out a little time each week to go off exploring into Launchpad and other places but the truth is that I am always so busy that I know I will probably not learn most things until I have to know them and that might take a few years.  It’s kind of like moving house, you unpack the things you need most straight away, on a computer this being your internet connection and things like WordPress of course.  Then you check to make sure your belongings moved ok without getting smashed up on the removal truck which here was making sure my files were there, useable and that I wasn’t missing anything.  Then after a while you start to enjoy your new house and go and explore your new neighbourhood.

One thing I am sure of though is that once you go Mac, you never go back.   If you’re one of the several people who left comments after my previous post or who emailed me afterwards, I really recommend making the switch.

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PS. Thanks for being my hero

As long-time and regular readers will be aware, I have been for some time been interested in a particular family relation of mine, Serjeant Reuel Dunn who served in the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the RAF.  He was an experience flyer himself and had a number of kills to his name before bad luck struck and he had the misfortune to be attacked by perhaps the most famous pilot of all time.  He fought the Red Baron and died as a result of his wounds he gained when bravely fighting on when his plane had been forced to ground when most would have surrendered.

One of the things I really wanted to do on my recent visit to the Western Front was to visit his grave.  I had been in the area before but was unaware of his location which ironically was only a few miles away from where I had been before, in fact I think I may even have inadvertently visited his cemetery 15 years ago.

Finding his grave was relatively straight forward.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have an excellent website that makes it easy to find information about any British or Commonwealth grave from 20th and 21st century conflicts.

As my earlier blogs report, Reuel Dunn was an observer/gunner on a WW1 plane in the Royal Flying Corps.  He was on a reconnaissance mission when his plane was targetted by the legendary Richthofen Flying Cirus, led by the Red Baron.  After sustaining damage and being unable to lose his pursuers in low cloud, the pilot landed the plane and Serjeant Dunn rather than surrender himself and spend the rest of the war, turned his gun on the Red Baron and inflicted enough damage to make the hotshot German circle round and attack the sitting duck plane on the field below.  Serjeant Dunn was shot in the stomach and died later that day but not before the Red Baron remarkably visited him in a German military hospital to pay tribute to his valour.

Sgt Ruel Dun of the Royal Flying Corps

Sgt Ruel Dun of the Royal Flying Corps

I really wanted to visit the location that this battle had taken place but it seemed a hopeless task given that nearly a century had passed not to mention the destruction that not just one but two world wars had impacted on the area.

Still I decided to give it my best and decided to put to use my best historian skills.  After a little while I found the official log book of Manfred Von Richthofen, The Red Baron and he reported the battle and the fact that my relation landed and fought in fields 300 yards east of Givenchy.

Excellent I thought to myself a breakthrough!  However my enthusiasm was dampened when I found out that that there are 4 villages in that region of France named Givenchy and none of my emails or phone calls to local officials helped me one little bit.

I looked more closely at the burial documents of Reuel Dunn and found that his final resting place was not his only resting place.  In fact he had been moved possibly twice before and that he had originally been buried in a German cemetery whose location was near only 2 of the Givenchy villages and nearer one in particular.

Then I had something of a brainwave, if he was on an observation mission, taking photos of trenches and troop positions he must have been over German territory.  Additionally he had taken off at around 10.40am and was shot down just over half an hour later.  Given the slow speed of the planes of that time, to have flown to his objective, taken his photos and be returning to base had to mean something, if only I could work it out in my head.


Manfred_von_Richthofen – The Red Baron

He died on 2nd April 1917, at the beginning of what is known as bloody April for the Royal Flying Corps, for obvious reasons.  On the wider military scale however, he died just a week before the massive attack on Vimy Ridge.  There was a village very close to Vimy and it was called Givenchy En Gohelle and it was taken by Canadian forces after a fierce battle in mid April 1917.  Surely Serjeant Dunn had been on a observation mission to assist on what was going to be one of the biggest attacks in the entire war.  He had to have crash landed here, I had finally located the right general location.

I printed off a map of the village. 300 yards east of Givenchy en Gohelle wasn’t so easy to find as you’d imagine given that the village is rather spread out.  However by finding some maps and aerial photos of the time, some perhaps taken by Reuel himself  I worked out what the village must have looked like in 1917 and knew where to go if only I could find it.  It helped that most French villages were rebuilt after the war on their old footprint and though a handful of new houses may have been built in recent years, it is unlikely to have built over the area I was interested in.  After much thought and consideration, I decided where 300 yards east of Givenchy was on the map below, the option on the right.

Givenchy En Gohelle

Givenchy En Gohelle the location of a battle to the death.

I wanted to make sure that I got to visit the locations that I had researched and so on the first day of our week long stay in France and Belgium we headed off in the car.    Being so immersed in the history of the area it is a strange feeling to see all the signposts and the general sights of the place.  Much like the first time I went to the Middle East and saw all the road signs to places mentioned in the Bible so I had a strange sense of familiarity with Mons, Arras, Lens and Souchez.  It almost felt like I was coming home.

After visiting the massive Vimy Ridge memorial, we made our way to Givenchy En Gohelle which was only a few miles away. It was a small, pretty village full of life and activities on this Sunday lunch time which was nice to see.  With a little luck and skill we reached the end of the village and headed off a lane eastwards to a small field.  Something about it didn’t feel right though, it was too enclosed to land even a WW1 plane and to me it just didn’t seem like the right place.  Our options were limited though not possessing a smart phone with a GPS system and my not wanting to make everyone spend an afternoon of their holiday on a forlorn treasure hunt.

X doesn't mark the spot

This field seemed to small to land even a WW1 era plane in.

However, we drove on another 30 seconds and behind a hedgerow we came across a long and wide plain that stretched to the horizon.  This was surely the right spot, it may have been the exact spot but if it wasn’t I know I was able to see the place in front of me.  It was roughly 300 yards east of the village and would be a natural place to land a plane.  I took a few photos of the landscape and noticed behind me towered Vimy Ridge 3 or 4 miles away.

Givenchy Field 1

The location 300 yards east of Givenchy En Gohelle where Serjeant Reuel Dunn made an emergency landing after being attacked by the Red Baron.

Givenchy Field 2

For King and Country and more likely for his family including yet unborn me. Reuel Dunn fought a brave life or death battle here around 11.15am on 2nd April 1917.

I pictured what it must have been like on 2nd April 1917 and imagined daring actions that in truth few really could imagine today. Strangely I felt a connection with the place, it felt right and I was in no doubt that I had found the exact spot that I was looking for.  If I wasn’t standing precisely where it all happened then it was just a few feet away in the field I was standing in. Satisfied that I had found the right spot, we drove on to his burial spot at the rather lively named Cabaret Rouge cemetery just outside the small village of Souchez.

Cabaret Rouge Arch

Entrance to Cabaret Rouge Cemetery – so named for the red roof cafe that stood here until the end of WW1.

During my detective work I had discovered that this wasn’t the only spot where my relative had been buried.  As he had died in German territory, he had been given a military burial in a German cemetery.  Then just a few days later, the area had been captured by Canadian troops and he and a number of other were transferred to a makeshift Commonwealth cemetery.  As it is there are thousands of British and Commonwealth cemeteries but immediately after the war there were even more and the understandable decision was made to centralise some of the more remote graves into larger cemeteries to assist with their maintenance.  It seems at this time Reuel Dunn was moved to his final resting place just outside of Souchez.

I had come prepared of course with flowers and a brief message that I had waited to write for years and yet I only wrote at breakfast that day.  Cabaret Rouge was is an impressive and beautiful Commonwealth cemetery with mostly British but some Canadian dead too.  It is large enough to feature architectural monuments only found in medium-large sized cemeteries.  I looked in the register book which can be found in all the cemeteries along with information on the site itself.

Information board for the cemetery.

Information board for the cemetery.

Book of remembrance

Book of remembrance

Serjeant Reuel Dunn is buried at plot XV. M. 24 which made him easy to find amongst the eight thousand or so of his colleagues and compatriots.  It was the end of a long search.  All my family had talked about Reuel for far longer than the 35 years or so I had been aware of him.  It was an emotional moment as I said hello to my brave heroic 3rd cousin.  I wondered if any other family members had visited him before.  It was possible but I doubted it as even when I was a child, travel to somewhere as close as France just didn’t happen very easily.  Though I was sure others must have stopped by as I stopped by hundreds of other graves, they weren’t family and they personally didn’t miss meeting this man like I did and they didn’t know of his heroics as I did, just as I wasn’t aware of the heroics of the men laying each side of him.

WW1 Hero Reuel Dunn

6396 Serjeant Reuel Dunn of the Royal Flying Corps. Died 2nd April 1917 Aged 24. Absent from the body, present with the Lord.

Me and Reuel

Me and my family hero, Reuel Dunn.

The cemetery was well cared for as all the war graves are.  His headstone was made of a marble like stone rather than the more common lime stone that most other Commonwealth stones are and later saw that all Royal Flying Corps head stones were made of similar stone, perhaps because there were relatively so few deaths in the air compared to on the ground.

Dedication to Reuel.

Dedication to Reuel, the last line of my note which can’t be read here is the title of this post.

I took a deep breath and said a few words to Reuel and placed my flowers next to his well tended grave.  I had written a small note which I put with the flowers.  It read:

Dear Reuel, so sorry we never got to meet.  With all our love and thanks, Stephen Emilia and Philip xxx PS Thanks for being my hero.

It was incredible to have finally made it, to think of all the people that linked me to him, none of which now survive but all of whom would dearly have loved to be where I was but are now wherever he is.   Can you imagine just being here for 97 years?  Some people get bored in just a few minutes, myself in a few hours but poor Reuel had been here for nearly a century with no family or friends at all.   I thought of all the people who must have walked past here, the gardeners.  The family of the two people on each side of him must have been here too and thought of me or my family too.

97 years is such a long time, he was here during The Great Depression in the 30’s.  He’d have been here in 1939 when British troops were again here and being pushed back into the sea and then 6 years later when they liberated Suchez in September 1944.  He was here for the moon landings, he for my birth, here for the entire lives of my Grandparents and mother and he will still be here one day when I am not.

Still it was a beautiful place to spend eternity as you can see from the photo 2 down which was taken from his grave. I took a few photos, did my best not to cry and said my goodbyes.  We explored the rest of the cemetery and sat in the warm autumn sunshine near the cross of remembrance.  It was as if we were spending an afternoon hanging out with Reuel which I am sure he would have been glad of.  After an hour or so we made our way back, stopping at various points of interest and I stopped back at Reuel one last time.

Cross of Sacrifice

Cross of Sacrifice

If it wasn’t for the graves, it would be a beautiful English park with perfect lawns, rose bushes and large conker trees.  It had taken 97 years and several generations of descendants but finally someone from his family had visited this particular corner of a foreign field that is forever England.

Rest in Peace

This is the view from Reuel’s grave, not the worst place to spent eternity.

It’s hard to imagine how peaceful it is here or how awful it must have been in WW1 when it was all mud and trenches and the awful, awful smell.

Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

IF I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

There name liveth for evermore

There name liveth for evermore

I was so glad to have finally tracked down Reuel not just for me but for my family before me.  I am sure that somewhere he will have appreciated our visit to know that he like all the others are gone but not forgotten.  I have another relation who was involved in the early years of flight, Grahame-White whose factory is and field went on to become an RAF base and is currently the world famous RAF museum in Hendon, London.

Afterwards we drove a short distance to a village to see a dramatic ruin that was visible from the cemetery.  It is the remains of a church which was destroyed in WW1.  We assumed the Germans destroyed it but actually the steeple was taken over by German snipers and the French army moved in and destroyed the entire ancient church leaving just these beautiful ruins which have now stood this way for a century.

Ruined Church

A beautiful ruined church at Rue de la blanche voi in Ablain Saint Nazare.

There are plenty of other relations that died in WW1 but currently I don’t know their story but I do know Reuel’s and he is someone I will be eternally proud of.  It would have been far better if there had been no war, I’d have much preferred it if there had been a war that he had somehow come through it safely but as it happened he very bravely fought and died for me and a little bit for you too as did everyone else. I love you Reuel. PS Thanks for being my hero.

Tower of London Poppies

Blood swept land and seas of red. 888,246 poppies to remember each of our WW1 dead. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Defence.

If you’re interested in WW1 then why not look at my history book which was recently published in paperback and Kindle formats by Endeavour Press.  It details the history and events of all the countries which took part in WW1 as well as related issues such as social changes, women and the war and technology.

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.

If you’d like to see more imagery of the Western Front then why not look at my new photo book In The Footsteps of Heroes available on Kindle and Paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

New statue of a Tommy at Seaham (photo from BBC)

New statue of a Tommy at Seaham (photo from BBC)

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Sights of the WW1 battlefields

This my penultimate post for now on WW1 and my recent tour to the battlefields of France and Belgium.  There are simply so many places to see and despite being out all day, every day for a week, we only scratched the surface.

One of the first places that we visited was Vimy Ridge.  This is the location of a beautiful Canadian memorial and which lies surrounded by forests, parklands and crater hole after crater hole.    You can see the Vimy memorial from miles around as the ridge itself is comparatively very high over the surrounding countryside and at night-time it is well-lit up.

Vimy Ridge Memorial

A grieving figure grieves for the loss of Canadian blood. Just the smallest section of this mammoth memorial.

Vimy Ridge is a large area of high ground the dominates the region and it was first the subject of French, then British and finally Canadian attention before it was taken.   Ironically whilst many other WW1 memorials were destroyed by WW2, Vimy was saved by amazingly of all people, Adolf Hitler.  The Führer was apparently a fan of this beautiful memorial because it features no guns or violence or nationalistic propaganda, just peace and mourning.  In fact Hitler visited the site several times and even had his photo taken here and in nearby trenches to prove to the Allies that they could be responsible and reasonable.  A detachment of the feared SS made sure it remained protected during Nazi occupation.

Vimy Ridge WW1 trench

A preserved WW1 trench near the Vimy Ridge Memorial with yours truly about to take a peek into the bunker on the right.  Notice the rough cratered landscape in the background.

There are memorials to almost every Commonwealth country in the area from India to Canada, Wales to New Zealand.  One of my favourites is that of the South African museum at Delvilles Wood.  To the modern-day visitor it is in a beautiful serene oak lined park surrounded by dense woodland but in reality there are countless thousands of South African, British and German dead underfoot.   The museum itself is beautiful and just a short walk away is the famous Hornbeam tree which is the only tree out of the entire wood to survive even though it was badly damaged.

Delville Wood

Just behind the South African Museum is the sole surviving original Hornbeam tree of “Devils Wood”

Soldiers used to call the place Devils Wood due to the carnage here but after the war the tree became a point of pilgrimage and it remains that way a century on.   Incidentally just across the road lies a beautiful cemetery though the fact that most of the burials are British rather than South African illustrate just how different parts of the front line were manned by different men and with different goals even if just a short walk apart.

South African Memorial

Memorial plaque to some of the Commonwealth nations that sacrificed so much in WW1.

Beaumont Hamel is another place well worth visiting with its iconic Caribou statue for the Newfoundlanders which until the end of the 1940’s was still not a part of Canada.  Here you can see trenches, shell holes and a number of cemeteries ant memorials.

Newfoundland Memorial

The iconic memorial at Beaumont Hamel for Newfoundland. A really interesting place to visit.

When you are driving around this area, it is hard not to notice all the WW1 cemeteries.  We lost count of how many we drove past even though we must have visited several dozen.  No where does there seem to be a greater concentration than The Somme area, particularly in the Serre Road district.  It seems particularly strange as the area is so rural and quiet.  Some of the cemeteries are unimaginably big whilst others are small and isolated but all are looked after and immaculate.

In some areas, bullets and artillery shells are easy to find with at least one house having their boundary wall made out of WW1 shells.  With a little knowledge you can virtually follow the progress of the The Somme by the locations of the cemeteries and they are so so close together than you can often see half a dozen from one spot.

Cemetery Signs

There are so many cemeteries there are even signs for walkers to visit them. These three are just feet away from the Pals Battalion Memorial Park seen in the background.

On my previous visits I have come across barbed wire, hand grenades, bullets and artillery shells but this time have come home with a British WW1 bayonet from The Somme. Generally in good condition except for some decay in the wooden handle which must have been underground for most of a century.   Incidentally, it being the end of September, most of the fields were being harvested and whilst I was looking around for relics, my wife was picking up some potatoes which the farmers machines had left behind.  Very nice chips we had that night too.

We spent a lot of time visiting cemeteries and we spent a lot of time in them, reading the names and coming across unusual stories.  Much time was spent sitting on benches and in the classical style domes and shelters and just thinking.   All the cemeteries seemed to get visitors though the coaches could only ever hope to visit the main ones.

New Munich Trench Cemetery

New Munich Trench Cemetery is so named after the German trench that ran across here before being captured by the British. It is one of dozens within a few minutes drive.

Perhaps one of the most interestingly located war cemeteries at least at that time of year was the Munich Trench cemetery.  A long way up a track with old war munitions lying around for anyone to examine of accidentally blow themselves up by.  This cemetery was surrounded by tall mature sweetcorn and involved a 5 minute walk surrounded by the sweetcorn before you could even see it.  Once there we were lost to the world.  It was all very interesting and all very sad but I can’t think of any places that I have visited that have been more special.

In the future I will do a post about Ypres and Paschendaele but for now if you’re interested you can take a look at either my Lest We Forget WW1 history book or my new In The Footsteps of Heroes photo guide book.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

If you’re interested in a private, bespoke and unhurried tour of the WW1 Western Front then do contact me at http://yeoldeenglandtours.co.uk/our-tours-2/ww1-tour-to-ypres-and-the-somme/

Do check my blog out on next  Tuesday as I have a very special post about my ongoing effort to track down my relation who fought the Red Baron.

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.

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Paying homage at the Thiepval Memorial to family and strangers alike.

During my trip to the WW1 battlefields in September there were a number of places I wanted to visit for the first time and just as many as I wanted to revisit after a gap of several years. Thiepval though is one of the must-sees for the area, if there can be such a thing in this subject.

It is a memorial with nearly 73,000 British and some South African names on it for those who died at the Battle of The Somme.  Sadly this isn’t the total casualty list for the battle for this memorial is just for those whose bodies were never recovered.

Originally built between 1928 and 1932, it was immediately opened and dedicated on 1st August 1932 in a ceremony which included the future King Edward VIII.  It is 160 feet or 49 metres in height and composed of a number of giant connected arches with 48 large sides of Portland stone on which the names of the missing are inscribed.

In the centre is the inscription

Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme battlefields between July 1915 and March 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.

Over the past century, if any bodies are discovered by engineers, farmers or archaeologists then they are given a funeral at the nearest war cemetery with full military honours and their names are then removed from the Thiepval memorial.  I must say given the immense size of the memorial and despite spending over an hour there, I don’t remember seeing a single name crossed out.

Since I visited the last time, there is now a visitor centre at Thiepval which confirmed my feeling that more people are visiting the area than ever and for a wide range of age  groups.  I get the feeling that this place and many others will be just as sacred and visited in 100 years time as they are today.

The Thiepval Memorial

The Thiepval Memorial commemorating nearly 73,000 British missing from The Battle of The Somme.

Thiepval can be seen from miles around, it’s an extremely imposing structure compared to the undulating French landscape and tiny scenic villages.  Thiepval itself used to have a large château which had only just been rebuilt from the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870’s when it was totally destroyed in WW1 and unlike some other places, it was not rebuilt to suffer a similar fait in WW2.

Inside Thiepval

Inside part of the massive Thiepval memorial. The Cross of Sacrifice of a nearby cemetery can just be seen in the distance.

Visiting the war graves and memorials is always an intensely moving experience and it is hard to imagine how Thiepval must have been 100 years ago.  It is now a serene, peaceful place surrounded by trees.  As we went in September, the sun was still warm and yet the breeze frequently rustled through the branches.

The names aren’t just listed in alphabetical order by in regimental order too.  You can clearly see how the different regions of the country used to have their very traditional surnames.  I found many Liddells from regiments in northern England and lots of other familial names too.

It is a funny thing seeing your own name on a WW1 memorial and sadly due to the hundreds of thousands of casualties, it is not that a rare occurrence.

It is a funny thing seeing your own name on a WW1 memorial and sadly due to the hundreds of thousands of casualties, it is not that a rare occurrence.  It may well have been me here if I were born 100 years earlier.

Just a few metres away is a relatively small cemetery of a few hundred soldiers.  France gave the land on which the cemeteries sit to Britain and the Commonwealth nations in perpetuity though from time to time you do see French, American or even German graves.

There aren’t many German cemeteries around, many of their bodies were repatriated and after WW2 the locals understandably didn’t care to maintain them.

French graves are usually marked by a very simple cross with a simple phrase such as ‘He died for France’.  When you see thousands of them together they look rather stark and to my eyes at least a little impersonal.

Obviously I am a little biased but if a war grave or cemetery can be both beautiful, graceful and romantically mournful then I think the Commonwealth ones simply fit my taste better.  Rather than a simple cross you get a headstone made from limestone with details of the fallen soldier including their name, rank, regiment, date of death but also an engraved regimental badge and a mournful inscription, often penned by the writer Kipling.  You can also tell the religion of the soldier as it will have a symbol carefully engraved such as a cross or star of David.

Just a mile or so from Thiepval as the crow or artillery shell flies is the small Connaught Cemetery.  It is bounded by a minor country road on one side and on far side a dense wood in which many an action was fought and which great care must be taken even now for the threat of live ammunition laying underfoot.

The Ulster Tower

The Ulster Tower commemorating the sacrifices of the men from what is now Northern Ireland.

Just a few hundred yards away is the Ulster Tower which commemorates the men of Northern Ireland whilst if you stand in one corner of the Connaught Cemetery you can see the massive Thiepval Memorial towering over the woodland.

I had been here before and remember seeing the graves with inscriptions of “Here lies 10 soldiers of The Great War known only unto God”.

Ten soldiers of The Great War

If the number of graves aren’t staggering enough, many of them contain more than one soldier. If the graves are touching then it means they died together in the same trench.

When I was here last time, just beneath the base of the Cross of Sacrifice I am sure I had seen the grave of a Liddell.  I can’t remember but I almost certain I had and I remember wondering if I were related to me.  I had forgotten all about this in the intervening years and in September visited here to find the grave of George Hardy Liddell.  He was my Great Great Uncle if I am correct.  I didn’t get the chance to meet any of my Great Grandparents or Great Uncles and WW1 was largely to blame.  Of course they might not have lived until the 1970’s but there is every reason to assume they would have done.

I had a look around the cemetery and found the plot on the official records book, there he was right next to the Cross of Sacrifice at the far end of the cemetery from the road.  I was sure that I had been here before.  The Commonwealth War Graves look after and maintain all the British and Commonwealth cemeteries around the world to an impeccable standard and in all of them we visited we didn’t see a single weed in the lawns or damaged flower, bush or tree.

George Hardy Liddell

Paying respects to Corporal George Hardy Liddell who died at The Somme.

Nevertheless I had brought a little flowering bush in a pot from England in which I left a small message to George and planted a cross and poppy which I had just bought from Thiepval.

Most deaths around Thiepval occurred in the summer of 1916 but a small number died in the August of 1918 which is when George died.  Such a shame that he had survived 4 years of war only to perish less than 3 months before the end of the fighting.

I am pretty certain that I will come and visit my brave ancestor again one day.

Their name liveth for evermore

Their name liveth for evermore

Many readers will know that in the summer I had a WW1 history book published by Endeavour Press in Paperback and Kindle formats, Lest We Forget.  Last week I decided to compile some of the 700 photos I took in September into a Kindle and paperback book entitled In The Footsteps of Heroes.  I don’t claim it to be a photographic masterpiece but it gives an idea of what the Western Front is like now for those who are interested but unable to visit themselves.  From January 2015 I will also be taking visitors on private guided tours to the battlefields with my company Ye Olde England Tours

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

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