Falling at Flanders

PUBLISHED: 10:25 04 June 2008 | UPDATED: 21:54 15 June 2010

THE stench of death was all around as thick mud and belts of barbed wire enveloped the horizon from trenches that encompassed the poppy fields of Flanders. On three fronts, south of Ypres, in northern France, Allied troops were under attack. Their trench

THE stench of death was all around as thick mud and belts of barbed wire enveloped the horizon from trenches that encompassed the poppy fields of Flanders. On three fronts, south of Ypres, in northern France, Allied troops were under attack. Their trenches, fortified with sandbags, jutted out into enemy territory and were hard to defend. No Man's Land barely existed. Trenches were dug following the first battle, in October and November of 1914, when the British drove German troops back. They were defended till the bitter end, four years later, but not without horrific casualties.Almost 90 years after the First World War ended, the Herald looks back to the underground war of tunneller Sapper James Morris, of the Royal Engineers.HIS heavy family commitments meant little in the harsh throes of war that saw him live in the same mud that stole lives.Men are said to have sunk into the sodden earth, never to be seen again - let alone be killed by a sniper's bullet.Sapper James Morris had a wife, Florence, and six children, and they preyed heavily on his mind as he defended the Western Front at the age of 42. His comrades comprised teenagers and even children.A former career soldier, he was recruited in 1916 and quickly became the Father of the Trench. As his grandson, Tony Simpson, told Honiton Townswomen's Guild during a recent meeting, Sapper Morris's job was to forge great tunnels in a bid to fortify the trenches."This was one of the most dangerous duties of front line soldiering," he said. "In the unstable conditions of Flanders many were buried alive or risked violent confrontation with German tunnellers."Tunnellers also had to maintain fortifications in No Man's Land, a job done at night due to the threat of enemy snipers, which James would succumb to."Propaganda, compelling men to contribute to the war effort, including a poster that said "Women say Go", was shown to Guild members, along with four letters written by Sapper Morris from the trenches to his wife.Eyewitness statements from his commanding officer and chaplain were exhibited. War Office and regiment announcements were also on display, along with a medallion.Just months after being sent to the killing fields, Sapper Morris fell in the line of duty. On August 8, 1916, described as a summer's day, he was working on a crater in No Man's Land when, at dawn, he was shot by a sniper from the 6th German Army.Company commander Captain Stanley De Le Mare witnessed what happened and, within 48 hours, wrote to Florence."I was beside your husband when he was killed. It happened at 5.15am, whilst he was assisting to consolidate the edge of a crater," he wrote. He was shot by an enemy sniper and was hit in the head and instantly killed, and suffered no pain."It is now known that it was standard practice for officers to refer to "no pain" in an effort to minimise the grief of families.Captain Le Mare added: "He was loved and respected by all his comrades and his section commander had already recommended him for promotion."On August 11, 1916, Chaplain Charles White, of the 257 Tunnelling Company, also wrote to Florence. He told her: "All his comrades who were present asked me to express their sincere sympathy with you in your sorrow. You have not lost him. He has only gone before."Sapper Morris was buried with 10 others from his sector. They also fell on August 8. Their remains lie in the British cemetery at Pont Du Hem.Chaplain White described the cemetery as "a sweet, green spot, which has been made from part of an orchard". He said it was beautifully-kept by the men in charge, with flowers planted on graves.In 1922, four years after the Great War ended, Florence made the difficult trip to Flanders, to see for herself her husband's grave. She kept a diary of her visit and described great piles of barbed wire and sandbags, stacked high.Florence never re-married.n DOES your family have a story about the Great War? Contact Herald editor Belinda Bennett on (01392) 888488.


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