'Utter impossibility of conveying an adequate idea of the ruin' left by war

The party from the Fens that went to see war ravaged Europe in 1920

The party that went to see war ravaged Europe in 1920 comprised Messrs F.W. Seward (Chatteris), J.S. Fendick (Littleport), H.H. Truman (March), F.W. Manning (Soham), Rev J.W. Robson (Witcham) and W. Stock (March) - Credit: Archant

Go back 100 years – to be precise 102 years. It was two years after the Great War had ended.  

And, as will be the case in Ukraine, whenever that war comes to an end, the devastation in 1920 Europe was visible, heart-rending and to most incomprehensible. 

In 1920 the Cambridgeshire Times published an article of a journey made by a party of six from the Fens travelled to Europe to see the aftermath of war for themselves.  

Thanks to research kindly provided by Mike Petty, here part of the report that appeared in the Cambridgeshire Times in March of 1920.  

"Who says history does not repeat itself,” says Mike.  

Here’s the report:  

A party from March, Witcham, Sutton, Soham and Littleport toured a considerable portion of the devastated area of Northern France and Belgium. 

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They were to see for themselves the awful havoc bought by the war so that we could try and picture it to the people at home.  

The tour which was made in motor cars, filled five days taking us right down the battlefront from Ypres to Albert. 

Cambs Times from March 1920

Cambs Times from March 1920 - Credit: Archant

It revealed a scene of decimation which surpassed our wildest imagination. 

None of us realised what a spectacle of destruction awaited us, what a panorama of ruin was to unfold.  

Walking through ruined streets it was impossible not to feel that we were treading on ground rendered sacred by sacrifice … 

Virtually the whole area we found ravished and laid waste, towns and villages reduced to nothing more than heaps of bricks.  

The once fertile land, was rent and torn in a way which brought home the fury of the shellfire that had so completely swept everything from its path.  

Over great tracts of land, every bit of nature had been so completely blotted out that not a tree or bush remained alive, having been shattered or killed by shell fire, or by poison gas. 

Everything above ground was shattered … the earth itself had been literally churned by shell-fire … 

Not a building had escaped destruction … a heap of debris under which is buried half a regiment of soldiers 

Cambs Times from March 1920

Cambs Times from March 1920 - Credit: Archant

The town itself was in a state of complete ruin. Every building from the Church to the humblest cottage having been demolished.  

Portions of the walls stand but they only serve to emphasise the aspect of ruin … 

After all we saw we felt the utter impossibility of conveying an adequate idea of the ruin that has been wrought.  

In towns and villages razed to the ground we were informed that some of the pre-war populations had returned and were living in cellars beneath the heap of rubble that had been their home.  

The conditions of life of these people can be better imagined than described 

Cambs Times from March 1920

Cambs Times from March 1920 - Credit: Archant

Reaching St Omer, we learned that in the cemetery was interred the body of the first March soldier to make the supreme sacrifice in the war.  

We found a cross on which was described inscribed ‘2026 Lance Corporal E. Vawser, First Cambridge, 16 March 1915’. It was one of the earliest graves 

Mike Petty comments

Mike Petty wrote in a previous article in his Fenland History on Facebook: “Throughout the Great War local newspapers such as the Ely Standard and Cambridgeshire Times reported on the impact of the Great War on the local communities.  

Cambs Times from March 1916

Cambs Times from March 1916 - Credit: Archant

“They recorded visits of recruiting parties, deserters, conscientious objectors; on those who fought, fell or were wounded and on those who fought the war at home. 

“Some of the most poignant reports are of the Exemption Tribunals where farmers appealed for men to continue to feed the country and mothers begged for sons to be allowed to help run their shops.  

“One lady was told she could not keep both her sons - she could decide which one would stay.” 
He added: “Letters describe experienced in the trenches, of lads wounded, patched-up and sent back - only to be wounded again. 

“And when the war finally bled to death communities were split on the erection of war memorials.” 

This index guides you to reports in the Ely Standard. The papers are housed in the Cambridgeshire Collection at Cambridge Central Library and on microfilm at Ely and March libraries. 


Link to archives for Ely Standard here