80 years on, an ex-soldier remembers his friends and asks: `Was it worth it?'
Wednesday 11 November 1998
The scenery around is roll-ing green pastoral, the battle honours on the granite - from Palestine to the Somme - read like a history of the First World War. "Strike Sure" is the motto on the regimental badge.
The simple message on the wreath tells who the man is: "Harold Judd, Private, 516997, Second Batt. Aged 100 Years."
He can't remember how many times he has done this since he first revisited the battlefields near Ypres just eight years after the guns finally fell silent. But he always has the same thoughts. "I just think of the boys, friends that I lost," he says. This year, of course, is special, with today marking the 80th anniversary of the Armistice. There is also the particularly sad fact to be faced that Harold and the five other veterans on his trip may not all return.
Sometimes, he says, he also thinks about how his friends died. Like the man with whom he joined the Army, at 18, who was killed on his first day in action.
He has no difficulty remembering how the two were sent forward as wire- cutters when an ineffective artillery barrage had left the enemy's barbed wire intact. How they completed their task to allow the boys "to get through". How he had to leave his dead pal Fred in the rush forward.
"You just carry on and join in with it all. Once you're on the move you all go together," he says, speaking in the present tense as though it were still going on. "You mustn't stop."
He also still knows why he joined in 1917, as soon as he was 18. With conscription coming in he wanted to be a volunteer and to choose his regiment in line with his Scottish background.
"I do things willingly, but I hate to be forced," he says. There is still fierceness behind the old, glistening eyes.
While he jokes and describes himself as "still a bit of a fool", there is also just a hint of bitterness.
Yesterday, he was having another thought. "Was it all worthwhile?" he said, pointing out that this was not, after all, the war to end all wars.
"You'd think politicians would have learnt their lesson," he added. "They may have done if they'd had a basinful of it like we did."
Robbie Burns, 103 tomorrow and the last surviving member of the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, said he had no difficulty in remembering it all - from the day he joined in 1914 until he was demobbed five years later.
"I will never forget the other people that were with me. I have my leg to remind me every day," he said, referring to the wound he received on the Somme. He is also one of the last survivors of the Battle of Loos, in 1915, which he said, "was just as bad".
He was speaking from beneath the awe-inspiring Menin Gate at Ypres where the 54,800 dead, with no known grave, from that sector alone are commemorated.
"The more visits I make the more touching it seems to be. Because there are so few of us left. To see them now, on the way out ..." and then his voice trailed away.
Asked what he thought of it all now, Mr Burns replied only that as simple soldiers they just had to do what they were told. "We just lived from day to day - despite the cold and hunger and nightmares and everything else, just hoping to goodness it would be over any day."
As a Royal Signaller aged 20, Arthur Halestrap was listening in on the wireless when the Armistice announcement was made and the bells began to chime.
Serving with the 46th Midlands Division in their final battles for the Hindenberg Line and beyond, he reports a surprising reaction.
"Everything went quiet, eerily quiet. There was such a relaxation to the point where life seemed to be empty. There was nothing to do," he said. "We were completely lost, but it was only temporary."
His subsequent reactions to the war and to his own visits to the battlefields have been more predictable, and were just as eloquently expressed.
"When I come back here, all I can think of is the tens of thousands of men of my own generation who died in terrible, terrible circumstances - hanging off barbed wire for days in some cases with their pals being shot trying to rescue them," he said. "And I think that these young men had volunteered and died for an ideal - the preserving of our own country and the safety of loved ones at home."
Then he is interrupted by someone wanting him to sign a visitors' book. He simply records his name, number and unit.
"That's how I do that," he said.
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