View of the Kemmelberg, two miles away to the east, from a ruined Loker. It’s time we rejoined our French corporal, Jean Parnin, who, when last heard of, had managed to regain the French lines, somewhere around where this photo was taken, after his heroics on the hill itself.
When we first met Jean, and unbeknownst to you lot, he had recently met a jeune femme, a refugee called Sylvie Delvalle, with whom he had become quite enamoured.
Sylvie was born in Locre, as it was at the time (pictured above before the war), which is about all you need to know before we continue, apart from a reminder that this is a deliberately liberal translation from the original French, and that any text in italics has been added by me.
The Fight for Locre
During the bloody day when the defenders of Mont-Kemmel had held in check the enemy masses beyond even human strength, the village of Locre itself had been the scene of a bitter struggle. First lost by our troops, they had reconquered it with a fierce struggle and were occupying its edges when Jean Parnin and his comrades, exhausted, haggard, mad, regained our positions. Jean was therefore in the very village where Sylvie was born, and he would be responsible for defending it, no longer indirectly as in the previous days, but literally. To tell the truth, at first he didn’t think about it. He was in a feverish state which prevented him from thinking. They had to lead him to the first aid station in a cellar, with the rough companions who had attempted and succeeded at the same time as him in the senseless trek through the enemy troops. In this cellar, he gradually resumed a normal mentality and two days later, on April 28th, with the handful of men who had accompanied him, he joined the regiment which held Locre. The day of April 27th was marked only by a local and failed attempt by the Germans against Vormezeele, where the enemy had penetrated, but from which an immediate counterattack had immediately driven him out. That of April 28th consisted only of artillery actions. Jean, however, felt that this calm would be short-lived, and that the Germans were gathering for a new and gigantic effort.
‘That of April 28th consisted only of artillery actions.’ This is a French artillery map from July 1918, on which I have marked Loker (mauve), Dranouter (red) & Mont Kemmel (green) – anything else is nowt but ancient stainage (!). The blue lines signify the flight of shells from either individual guns or batteries of French artillery (top) to target (bottom right), and if you bear in mind that you could overlay a similar map over this one with German shells going from bottom right to top left, you get an idea of an average day above the heads of the average infantryman during the summer of 1918.
And this was often the result; the consequences of a British shell on a German horse-drawn ambulance (above), and a German first aid post (below), a dead soldier laid out beneath a blanket to the side of the entrance, both photographs taken somewhere in the Kemmel area.
Back to our story……
At five o’clock in the afternoon, in fact, the bombardment with large shells and toxic abuses suddenly intensified and soon became unheard of in violence. Jean Parnin, lying face down in the bottom of the trench, heard a voice say near him, ‘I saw the Somme, I saw Verdun, but this goes beyond anything I have seen…’ The man who spoke like this was a Poilu like Jean, and Jean thought he was right, the bombardment was so formidable. Once again, this rampage of projectiles lasted all night. Once again, the French troops experienced the nameless nightmare of passively bowing their shoulders under the deadly hail of the shells. Their masks, which had to be put on due to the poison gas, hampered breathing, prevented the men from talking to each other, and muffled the moans of the wounded, adding to the horror of the situation.
Map showing German gas attacks in April 1918 – Yellow Cross was mustard gas by any other name, Green Cross was a chlorine-phosgene mixture, and Blue Cross included all sorts of unpleasant stuff, but file under ‘pesticides’ and you won’t be far wrong. And this nightmare lasted until the morning of April 29th, at seven o’clock, when the enemy infantry attacked. The phenomenon, described previously, of invincible anger succeeding nervous breakdown recurred, and the German assault waves, confident in the effectiveness of their artillery preparation, still found the French quick to retaliate. In accordance with the orders they had received, the machine guns allowed the enemy to approach three hundred metres from our lines, and there, finding him at a range where the grapeshot was terrible, they made their machines spit sheaves of bullets. Heaps of corpses piled up in front of our lines. This resistance disconcerted the enemy for a moment, who, however, after a few minutes of hesitation, came on fiercely again. At the same time, to the right of Locre, he managed to infiltrate Mont-Rouge and this restored his confidence. But the defenders of this mountain soon drove him back. However, the Germans were approaching Locre; they came within range of grenades and our grenadiers did a good and terrible job.
Despite French valour, the ever-increasing number of assailants allowed the Germans, in the morning, to occupy the southern edge of the village, whose defenders had to fall back, rage in their hearts, to settle in the ruins of the houses, which became so many improvised forts. It was thus that the company to which Jean Parnin had been assigned was brought to occupy a farm where the fire had caused irreparable devastation. Sheltered behind blackened walls and debris of all kinds, our soldiers continued to shoot relentlessly at the enemy who had to advance step by step, paying dearly for every metre of land.
Jean, with his squad reduced to a few men, was ambushed behind a broken down cart, which offered only illusory shelter, but from which he fired at the Boches all he had in ammunition. Mechanically, while firing, he looked at the side of the cart. Capital letters struck his gaze: DELVALLE.
Suddenly he understood: he was on the very farm of Sylvie’s parents, this farm that the invader of 1914 had set fire to and to which he was returning, to complete the sinister task of destruction. This circumstance increased Jean’s courage and his resolve. He refused to leave this house, where Sylvie was born, and when the farm was overwhelmed and the company methodically retreated to settle a little further away, it was almost necessary to force away Corporal Parnin, who was obstinate in defense of this ruined hut.
Gradually the enemy occupied the village. At noon he had captured it all. Our men, clinging on near the northern edges of the village could only prevent him from emerging to continue his progression. However, the possession of Locre was important. If the Boches settled there permanently, Mont-Rouge in turn would soon fall into their hands. The line of the hills of Flanders, already cut by the loss of Mont-Kemmel, would be further threatened. The enemy could intensify its advance towards Poperinghe, turn Mont-des-Cats, and overwhelm Ypres to the west. The French command understood this and gave the troops the mission to retake Locre at any cost. So with Jean Parnin, in a trench hastily dug north of Locre, weeping with rage, thinking that the native village of the one he loved was lost to us, a regiment of fresh troops came to reinforce the one that had just lost the position, and the order to counterattack was given. Immediately, Jean took off. We had to hold him back; he was going too fast.
The thin line of French tirailleurs surrounded the village on three sides, the assault was made everywhere at once. The enemy, who was far from expecting such a rapid counter-attack, nevertheless put on a good countenance, and the places we had just lost had to be redone in the opposite direction, gaining ground from house to house, fighting for a long time for the possession of a collapsed wall, besieging every ruin. When Jean reached the farm which he had recognized to be Sylvie’s, he leapt up, dragging his platoon comrades with him. The momentum was so fierce that the farm was quickly cleared. Throughout the village, our troops progressed at the same time, and in the evening, the Boches were definitively driven out. Mont-Rouge escaped the threat of encirclement. Despite their prodigious expenditure of men and material, the Germans, on this day of April 29th, did not gain an inch of ground. The road to Calais is closed. Didja spot that the three postcards of the wrecked cart are all the same wrecked cart from different angles? Bet you did. Churn out those souvenir postcards, chaps, we’ll make a fortune.
General Six von Arnim, who commanded the German army in Flanders, said, the day after the capture of Kemmel; “The biggest chunk is in our hands; the rest will come by itself ”. But the rest did not come. The other five mountains remained untouched, thanks to the British who maintained themselves at Vormezeele, thanks to the French who were able to retake and keep Locre (in ruins, above), thanks also no doubt to the defenders of Mont-Kemmel who held the enemy in check long enough to allow resistance to be organized at the back. In reality, the capture of the Kemmeberg did not seem to bring good luck to the Kaiser’s soldiers. Until this conquest, they had made daily progress in Flanders; from the day they held the hill that seemed to be the key to the whole system, they took no further steps forward, despite their repeated efforts.
Jean Parnin and the new regiment into which he had been sent took part in new actions in this region, less violent perhaps than the previous ones, but during which the enemy was always immediately driven back. On May 7th, in the evening, artillery of all calibres sprayed the junction point of the Franco-British armies, not far from Mont-Noir. After an incredible riot of projectiles, on the morning of May 8th, two enemy divisions attempted to crack the link between the two armies.
From an artillery observatory, the general in command of a British brigade saw the Bavarian troops, who, in small groups in the manner now adopted by the enemy, attempted to take the lake south of Dickebusch. In the rear, large troops were massing, which were later known to be two supporting divisions. This rear rally being well spotted, our artillery in turn came into action, mowing down the regiments which retreated in disorder. However, the attacking troops had reached the ruins of a house at the crossroads of three paths known as the ‘Cabaret Klein-Vierstraat’*, suitable for launching an assault. Our artillery was still right at this point of concentration, and the enemy infantry could not approach our lines. On May 12th, the French, in a local attack, improved their lines near the Kemmelberg and took about a hundred prisoners. On May 21st, in Locre itself, Jean Parnin’s regiment was gaining ground, on a front of three kilometers, north and north-east of the village. Our soldiers thus occupied the place called the ‘Fireman’, held by the enemy and which greatly annoyed us, and the farm called by the English ‘Butterfly’. This advance resulted in completely freeing Locre and driving away the German lines which had still been trying to advance their limits in the direction of Mont-Rouge. We took four hundred prisoners. The Germans hardly reacted. Once again they had given up taking Calais. The road was solidly and definitively blocked.
*which is where our Kemmel tour started.
Two photos (above & below), possibly taken on the same day, 2nd September 1918, of British troops repairing the road at Locre after the tide of war has moved away to the east.
A few months had passed since the events at Locre. Jean Parnin’s regiment, at rest, was quartered in a village in the rear, and it seemed delicious to these men to see real houses, which were not burned, streets which were not broken up, civilians, finally, who gave them a cordial welcome. The first days of rest were used to perk up the regiment, to distribute linen and effects, to let the soldiers bask on good fresh straw, in barns which – miracle! – still had their roofs. The assured and peaceful sleep, the hot and regular meals, soon made these exhausted men look good and martial. Those who had been seen arriving weary and dusty, haggard and shaggy, dragging their legs and grumbling against everything and against everyone, their backs hunched, their chests hollow, their eyes feverish, were now clean, fresh shaved and scrubbed meticulously, and curled their conquering moustaches past the village beauties of the country. Jean Parnin felt, coming out of the furnace where he had almost left his bones, an exquisite sense of well-being. We care more about life the more we have seen death up close. Life seemed good and beautiful to him, and he only wanted one thing in order to be perfectly happy: the coveted permission for leave. He enjoyed, moreover, among his comrades, a small celebrity of the most flattering: he was one of the heroes of Kemmel! ‘You see this ‘mutt’,’ said a Poilu to a young soldier recently arrived as a reinforcement. ‘He doesn’t look like much, but he is one of those who, surrounded on the Kemmel, managed to get through the Boche lines and get back into our lines!’ And the young soldier admired in silence the ‘mutt’. We arrived at the rest quarters on Wednesday, August 28th. On Saturday, at the report, a note announced that a take-up of arms would take place the next day, September 1st, and the Poilus protested strongly, Jean first. It’s not enough, they said, to be strafed when you’re in front; you still have to be ‘bearded’ when you come back. However, the ordered review took place, and Jean Parnin did not regret it. A moving surprise was in store for him. In front of the troops, the general presented him and the other escapees from Kemmel with the soldier’s finest reward, the military medal. During this ceremony, the survivors of the heroic hill learned that their dead comrades were avenged and that, the day before, our British allies had reconquered Mont-Kemmel.
The Locre-Bailleul Road, 6th November 1914 (left), and a post-war photo of the road from Locre to the Kemmelberg (right). Jean had yet another joy that day. His turn for leave had arrived. He was called to the office to issue him his twelve-day title, counting the two additional days of the glorious citation that earned him the military medal. It was too much happiness the same day, he, who had heroically resisted the most horrible pangs of the Flanders War, almost fainted when he received the blessed permission from the sergeant-major. The next day, installed in the train, he waited with feverish impatience until Paris was in sight. He cursed the slowness of the locomotive, the frequency of stops, would have liked to go faster, always faster. Finally, leaning out of the door, he let out a cry. The city appeared to him in a hazy distance. He had traveled all night, and in the coming day, the Butte Montmartre, crowned with its basilica, was surrounded by a light mist which gave it the appearance of a fantastic apparition. Paris! My dear Paris! Jean murmured, his eyes wet with tears of joy. The last half hour of the trip seemed even longer to him than the others. So this train would never arrive! Disembarked at the Gare du Nord, he walked quickly to his mother’s house. Which apparently brings us to NOW, the final paragraph changing tense……
He arrives, climbs the stairs four at a time, rings the doorbell which opens. Exclamations, kisses! As Madame Parnin hugs her son, Sylvie feels isolated, still and pensive. However, Jean comes to her, with a good smile, holds out his hands to her. ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘you have the military medal! You didn’t write it to us.’ ‘Pooh!’ he said, affecting a disdainful display that was far from his mind, it is especially pleasant for the extra two days. The conversation is lively. Sylvie, who wants to leave the mother and the son alone, is imperiously recalled. ‘Aren’t you family, darling?’ said Madame Parnin. ‘And don’t you serve me as a girl?’ At these words, Sylvie blushes prodigiously, and Jean imitates her immediately. Yet bravely, as befits a real French Poilu, the young corporal said ‘Family, mother? Do you know that it is up to her to be completely and become your daughter for good?’ A divine smile from Sylvie, a warm approval from the mother, and here is, for the hero of Kemmel, the sweetest reward: the engagement kiss of the little Belgian orphan refugee in a French family.
Thus ends the tale of Corporal Jean Parnin, and maybe he and Sylvie lived happily ever after. But more likely Hitler decided otherwise. And with that joyous thought, back to our tour, which continues here .