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  • Claire Jordan

"Trusting this may find you, where'er thou art"

This beautiful wall of wisteria at Lijssenthoek guards the 10,000 men (and their nurse Nellie Spindler) who died of their wounds at the nearby casualty clearing stations to which the injured of the Ypres Salient were taken.

The Germans tried for four endless years to take the little Flanders town and had it surrounded for most of that time from the high ground on three sides; they knew they had to take it to win the War.

But we knew that too, and we held it, no matter what they did to us.

Today, there are small, easily-missed markers along the modern roads into the town, showing the high watermarks of how far, in places, the enemy made it in, before we drove them back.

Ypres never fell and at Lijssenthoek, some of what that cost us is evident.

Every #CWGC cemetery, so carefully and lovingly kept, is special in its own way, but as you stand at the entrance of Lijssenthoek, you see before you 10,000 men who did NOT die instantly, killed in action, but 10,000 men who had time enough to register their wounds, their pain, what they had lost and still might lose, the dulling edge of morphine, their regret to never again see home, their hope that they might yet survive if they could just hold on.

And their final understanding that they could not, after all, get past this.

Even among special places, this is a special place. It seems to hold its breath, waiting, hoping. There is weight here, and lightness, like your ears need to pop.

And it’s almost as if the clouds rolling past high above the cemetery on their ceaseless cloud-business are induced, without knowing why, to pause and cast an unreadable glance down at the rows of white specks far below them, before hurrying on again.

One of those white specks belongs to thirty-year-old 2nd Lt Clarence Grosvenor Ridout, whose humble beginnings perhaps belie his grand name.

He was the youngest son of a successful Willesden builder, and had enlisted at the start of the War as a Private into the Infantry, wanting, despite his deeply-loved wife Elfreda and their little boy Alan, to do his bit, to stand up and be counted.

Before he got anywhere close to the enemy, Clarence’s intelligence and strength of character was recognised and he was commissioned into the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (sorely in need of Officers) in the spring of 1915.

Six months of further training to lead, and he was granted a brief embarkation leave which coincided with Elfreda’s bitter-sweet 29th birthday on 1st December.

He landed at last in France to join his Battalion a week later.

And so, the newly-minted 2nd Lt Ridout is there on 19th December, in the trenches defending Ypres at La Brique, when something new and straight out of hell comes creeping unseen across No Man’s Land towards them in the deep dark before dawn.

“At 5.15am,” writes the Adjutant keeping the war diary, “the enemy makes a gas attack on our trenches with what is evidently a new form of gas.

The gassing lasts for about an hour, after which the enemy assaults our line in small bodies. One party of ten and another of about thirty attack… but are quickly driven back by our rifle fire…

At the same time, there is a heavy bombardment on our support trenches and all communications, which continues throughout the day.

After the gas clouds have blown over, the eagerness of the men for the Germans to attack in force is shown by the fact that A Company were heard to be singing:

“We whacked them on the Marne,

We whacked them on the Aisne,

Let them come,

Let them come,

And they won’t come here again.”

Our casualties on this day are: 2 killed, 14 wounded, 4 died of gas poisoning and 39 are suffering from gas poisoning.

Lt C.G. Ridout is also suffering from the effects of the gas and goes to Field Ambulance.”

And that is Elfreda’s Clarence, not even two weeks at War.

“A Company were more affected by the gas,” continues the Adjutant, “than the other Companies, owing to their close proximity to the German lines which gave them little time to adjust the tube helmets [gas masks].”

As a young officer, fresh out from England, eager to do his very best and in action now for the first time, Clarence would have instinctively rushed to help his men into their primitive gas helmets, as panic and confusion came on.

He had been taught how to lead his men over the top, revolver in hand, into shell and shrapnel, but this was something new against which there was next to no defence.

Putting on his own mask was probably not his priority; his courage and his humanity were what made him the sort of chap to lead men into battle and, with the heaviest of ironies, the qualities that would so soon cost him his life.

Elfreda’s Clarence was indeed taken to the Field Ambulance, which took him on to Lijssenthoek, but there was little they could do.

Phosgene pretty much melts the lining of the lungs and drowns you from the inside out.

Clarence fought it with all his might; it took him three days to die.

He is buried at Lijssenthoek, behind that lovely wisteria wall, which perfumes the air so sweetly when the sun warms it, that it is hard to imagine a more different scene in which now to lay at rest than the one which overtook him just before Christmas a century ago.

“Trusting This May Find You,” Elfreda had engraved upon his headstone, “Where’er Thou Art in God’s Great Universe.”

He is there, and not there, with so many others, and We Will Remember Them All.

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