I wrote this back in 2006, and it remains close to my heart.
It’s funny what life throws at you. Not long ago, I found myself in a remote part of France, standing alone at the grave of a relative I never knew, with an entertaining 997 standing outside the cemetery gates, the ‘tick-ticking’ of its hot engine the only thing breaking the silence on this quiet, late summer day.
It was an emotional moment and it all started with a book. OK, plenty of novels are claimed to be ‘life-changing’ but Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong really did affect me. This beautifully written book tells the harrowing story of a young soldier’s experiences in the trenches of the First World War. Faulks goes into terrifying and disturbing detail, and I was left with a yearning to know more about this dark period of history.
But to call it history is perhaps to sanitise the war – we’re talking less than 100 years ago and most families in the UK were affected by it. Indeed, I was vaguely aware that a relative of mine was buried in France. A quick email to my mother confirmed that he was, in fact, William Charles Wise, her father’s brother and, therefore, my great uncle.
And it was to his grave in the Somme region of France that I travelled. Varennes Military Cemetery is only about an hour’s drive from Calais, so it had occurred to me that it was just a day trip from my home in southern England, via the Channel Tunnel, and an ideal opportunity to try out Porsche’s optional Sport suspension set-up.
Now, most 997s that I’ve experienced have been fitted with PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management) that very cleverly lets you select a harder, sportier ride at the touch of a button. It works very well and, I must confess, I wouldn’t previously have considered having a car without it. Yet this example dismissed such computerised trickery in favour of good old-fashioned firm springs and dampers, plus a 20mm lower ride height and a limited-slip differential. The car also boasted PCCB (Porsche Ceramic Composite Brakes), a Sports gearshift, Sport Chrono Package Plus and Sports seats.
In other words, this was a 911 set up for spirited driving rather than comfort. Just the thing, then, for winding, deserted French country lanes. The car would, of course, have been totally alien to my great uncle. He hailed from the railway city of York in northern England, at a time when the motorcar with still in its infancy and Ferdinand Porsche, far away in Vienna, was still experimenting with gas-turbines and novel, wheel-mounted electric motors.
When I began looking into William’s history, I didn’t expect to find out much but, in the event, I was amazed at what information there was. My first port of call was the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (www.cwgc.org), where it took only a few seconds to look up his details. Born in 1888, I was touched to see that his father, a schoolmaster, was called Philip and his mother’s middle name was Louisa – co-incidentally, my daughter’s name. William was in the West Yorkshire Regiment, 2nd/5th Battalion and died on 18th February 1917.
My mother filled in some more details, telling me the appalling fact that, the same week that William’s family was told of his death, his 18-year-old brother, Cecil (my grandfather) received his call-up papers. You can’t begin to imagine how their parents coped. She also dug out a tiny black-and-white photograph, showing a slight, pensive man with a dashing moustache.
I then contacted the West Yorkshire Regiment and a Major Nick Allbeury sent me the regimental war diaries for the period prior to William’s death. He also put me in touch with Fraser Skirrow, who was writing a history of the 2nd/5th. Both men were very helpful and gave me an astonishing amount of information about what was happening while William was in France.
I read through the diary while sipping – rather guiltily in the circumstances – a steaming cappuccino at the comfortable Channel Tunnel terminal in Dover. The surprisingly detailed document told me that William’s battalion had sailed overnight from Southampton to Le Havre on 5th January 1917. The sea was rough and many of the men were seasick during the freezing cold 13-hour voyage. This would surely have been the first time William had left England (and quite possibly York) and I wondered what was going through his mind as he boarded the ship. I listened to the call of the seagulls and realised that that timeless sound was probably one of the few things that our two journeys had in common. Indeed, my crossing was uneventful as I sat in the Porsche for the smooth 35-minute shuttle trip under the English Channel. The tunnel may not have the romance and excitement of a ship, but it’s undoubtedly quick, convenient and cheap.
Once in France, my drive began with a blast down the autoroute which, with its smooth Tarmac surface gave little clue to the Porsche’s tough suspension. My 80-mile journey took me less than an hour, which contrasted strongly with William’s train ride from Le Havre to Frevent, which took 22 hours to travel a similar distance and, being a private, he was in a truck, not a carriage. Once at Frevent, he slept in a dirty, dilapidated, over-crowded farm building and received training in anti-gas procedures, bayonet fighting and basic first aid. The weather remained freezing cold, with snow and sleeting falling for much of the time.
With this in mind, I felt almost guilty, ensconced in the Porsche’s supportive, leather-clad seat, the electronically controlled climate protecting me from the heat outside.
I could have taken the autoroute for most of the journey, but I wanted to get off and experience the real French countryside, so I set the sat-nav to steer me the shortest route, through the peage and off down some fabulous winding lanes. Here, the 911’s Sports suspension really came into its own.
With PCM switched off, I found myself enjoying the car more than any other 997 I’d driven. Why? Because the simple, firm suspension gave more feedback than the active set-up. Certainly, the ride was hard and, if I’m honest, more compliance would have been faster on the bumpy rural roads – I was having to wrestle with the wheel to keep the car on track as it kept bouncing off-line mid-corner. For me, though, that’s part of the fun of sports cars. And this 997 really was a sports car. Driving it brought back memories of the great 993 RS, it really was that good.
That similarity was heightened by the presence of the limited-slip differential. OK, it’s maybe not the best option for road use, but the LSD certainly made the 997 even more involving to drive, with the back-end more willing to step out when I accelerated out of corners.
All too soon, though, the fun was over as I reached my first destination. I was at Beaumont Hamel, a small village that William’s battalion was based at from the start of February. This was described as “a vile place, being little more than a line of posts and shell-holes. A horrible and loathsome place in which to live and work.”
Now, though, it’s a quiet and rather charming farming community. However, it’s not the village itself I was interested in, but rather the countryside nearby. For it was probably there that William was fatally wounded. It appears that a post from his battalion was not relieved, as it should have been, because the replacement garrison got lost in the fog and dark.
The post was then raided by a group of about ten German soldiers, who threw bombs, wounding and killing some of the men. The next few days was a mass of confusion, as the battalion struggled to reform and to find the lost men.
It’s hard to believe that such a pretty, peaceful place was the scene of such terrible battles. In fact, the rolling hills and rippling wheat fields probably look very much as they did before the war, albeit now punctuated by military cemeteries. It’s also amazing that men got lost within such a small area – I was able to walk across it in about 30 minutes. What’s more, the 911’s sat-nav allowed me to pinpoint, to within a few metres, exactly the place I wanted to go to. In those days, the height of technology was the laying of telephone lines from one trench to another.
It’s not clear exactly how or when William was wounded, because it was not the policy of regimental war diarists to name private soldiers. What is known, though, is that he was taken to a dressing station at nearby Varennes, where he died of his injuries.
As I drove the short distance from Beaumont Hamel to Varennes, along a narrow lane, I was struck by the horrific thought that I could well be travelling the same route that William would have been taken after he was injured. How he was carried, I don’t know, but it was probably by horse and cart, or on a stretcher.
Varennes was another sleepy, nondescript village, with nothing to hint of its part in the war, save a small sign directing me to the cemetery. These signs, put up by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission are an established part of the landscape in this part of France – there are almost 1000 such cemeteries in northern France and Belgium. And they’re just the Commonwealth ones.
The cemetery was located outside the village, beside a little-used country lane and surrounded by swaying maize fields. I drew the Porsche up quietly at the entrance and got out, surprised at its grandiose appearance, dominated by the Cross of Sacrifice. This striking, yet tasteful, monument is a feature of many Commonwealth war cemeteries. Before the First World War, the bodies of ordinary soldiers were buried in mass graves and not given any recognition. It was Sir Fabian Ware, a Red Cross commander, who initiated a system of war graves in 1914, to ensure that the casualties would not be forgotten.
Now I was there, for some inexplicable reason, I was reluctant to enter the cemetery, so I wandered around outside, occupying my mind by looking at the 911. One useful side-effect of the Sports suspension was that the 20mm lower ride height made the car look much better, squatting down aggressively on its 19-inch Sport Design alloys. And through those rims peeped the bright yellow brake calipers that are a PCCB trademark.
Also, despite practically every other car on the road being silver, I have to concede that Arctic Silver Metallic suited the Porsche perfectly, as it gleamed in the midday sun.
Before long, though, my mind returned to the reason for being there – to visit my great uncle’s grave. But first I had to find it. At the entrance to the cemetery was a small metal door, behind which was a register and a visitors’ book. A quick glance through the register brought up William Wise’s details, along with a short code which related to the row and number of his gravestone.
Before long, I’d located the grave and stood for a moment of quiet reflection. Surrounded by roses and other plants, the well-tended place had a homely, rather than military, feel to it and the surrounding countryside was quite beautiful, with far-reaching views over gently undulating farmland. You couldn’t hope for a more perfect resting place.
And then it was time to leave. I turned away, glad that I’d made the visit, and vowed that I’d ensure my children will know William’s story, so that he’s not forgotten in future years. After leaving a comment in the visitors’ book, I returned to the Porsche, fired it up and drove steadily off; I was in no mood to drive fast.
I stopped just along the road to enjoy a picnic lunch at the edge of a field, and dug out the regimental war diary to read once again. While munching on a tasty cheese-filled baguette and sipping mineral water, an entry caught my eye that summed up the pathetic situation the soldiers were in. “Rations supplied were unsatisfactory… rice and raisins being issued in lieu of bread and jam. The former commodity was perfectly useless owing to the short supply of water which had to be carried five miles in petrol tins… Complaint was made as regards this…”
It was all desperately sad and, as I was driving north, glimpsing one war cemetery after another, the futility of it all hit me. Like many of my generation, I knew little about the lead-up to the First World War, other than it was something to do with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne. However, when I did some research I was surprised to discover that, even today, no one is really sure how a local conflict escalated into a worldwide, and apparently pointless, war. What is certain, though, is that it changed the world, both politically and socially, and over 15 million people were killed and 22 million wounded. Countless more, meanwhile, suffered untold trauma and hardship.
So, should I have felt guilty living a comfortable lifestyle and behind the wheel of a car worth over £70,000? That was a question at the forefront of my mind as I drove home. Then, as I arrived at the busy Channel Tunnel terminal, I realised that I was right to enjoy my life in the 21st century.
William grew up in a very different world, living what I hope was a happy childhood in a small terraced house in the centre of the historic city of York, with his parents, brother and two sisters. A life that was, tragically, destroyed through events that he had no control over, and probably little understanding of.
He would not have been able to comprehend today’s world. Here I was, at a high-tech rail terminal, in a car that could travel at up to 177mph, waiting to travel from one country to another through the world’s longest undersea tunnel. I like to think, though, that he’d be pleased to see that Europe is now at peace, and it’s acceptable for a Briton to drive a German car from England to France and back. People may moan about the European Union but surely it’s infinitely better then William’s generation had.
And what of the 911’s Sports suspension? At just £1030 in the UK, it’s a surprisingly affordable option for a 997 and, equally surprisingly, is exactly the same price as PASM, which puts buyers into a quandary. There’s no doubt that the Sports option makes for a purer, more fun, driving experience which, you could argue, is what 911s should be all about. The ride, though, will be too hard for many people and the lack of compliance isn’t ideal for hard cornering on uneven roads.
My heart tells me to go for the Sports suspension, but my brain says that PASM is the more practical and useable option for everyday use. It really depends on how you plan to use the car, and how important comfort is to you – the choice is yours.