MOST men of around my age have at least a passing interest in the First World War. The post-1945 babyboomers, the sons and daughters of those who endured the second great conflict, were surrounded by its echoes.

For if ever an event was to be turned into the British psyche, it was the slaughter years of 1914-18. The ghosts walked with us throughout our daily existence.

Even after four decades, the struggle was a subject never far from dinner table, pub, church or club. It punctuated conversations up and down the land. And for decades after the conflict, its ripples continued to ruffle even the calmer seas of the 1950s.

Without doubt, the First World War was a yardstick, milestone and marker that put everything into some kind of greater context. A defining era.

People talked about such-and-such having taken place just after, before or during the Great War", as those who had lived through this conflagration would invariably call it.

Grandfathers, great-uncles, fathers and uncles rarely went into detail but the evidence was all around. In those days of my childhood, a mere 35 years or so since the Armistice had been signed in that railway carriage in the forests of Compiegne, most working class and lower-middle class homes would openly display the relics of the Western Front. These grim trophies somehow seemed to confirm the survival of their owner.

There would be fire implements resting in shell cases of polished brass, occupying pride-of-place in the parlour. These shone like burnished gold as the reflection of the flames danced on their gleaming flanks, their grime long gone under the relentless rubbing of Auntie Ethel's polish and duster.

Or there might be a bayonet collecting dust in the loft, the prize from some battlefield across the water. Steel helmets were common, and we used to wear them for our childhood battles, choosing stones for bullets and potatoes as grenades when we attacked the pigsty bunker at the bottom of the garden.

Inside the house, a sepia photograph of a young man standing against a cloth backdrop depicting a rural scene might stare down from the mantlepiece. His name could be Jack, Walter, Frederick or Ernest. Impossibly young, the posed air would be one of almost aristocratic detachment.

Some of these men had returned from the nightmare. But many had not. Countless thousands lived on only in the memory of a maiden aunt who would not, could not contemplate forming another romantic attachment after her young man had been lost in Belgium or France.

These tragic, elderly women were by no means an unusual sight during my childhood, for the First World War produced a surplus of spinsters whose hearts had been broken beyond repair.

The sight of white-haired men, crippled, scarred or both was not uncommon. Just down the road from the grammar school, there was a hostel for these old chaps. Most lunchtimes, the same characters would pass and wave to the schoolboys in their blue uniforms on the playing fields and we would return the compliment.

One had a frightful limp, and we boys, both callow and callous at the same time, might start to giggle and stare at our feet. Another man had obviously suffered a dreadful wound, where it appeared half his face had gone.

On top of his head sat a huge flat cap, joined to his collar by a vivid splash of bright pink, freckled scar tissue. His wry grin would be followed by a gesture that was half wave, half salute.

Then there was old Bill the groundsman. He swore like the proverbial and had a face that resembled an over-ripe gooseberry. He put his limp down to a shell shard that had, over the years, moved around his body. The splinter had gone in his shoulder in 1915 and was now just above his knee.

We used to tap him for cigarette stubs and he would proudly tell us how he remembered "getting 50 Woods for a tanner back in France."

Bill Batchelor was quite a novelty, the only adult in the school to whom we could relate on a vital, baser level. He taught us a dirty song with a refrain that went "inky-pinky parly-voo" which I later discovered had a slightly cleaner version in the form of Mademoiselle From Armentieres.

There was slightly disrespectful air about him. He probably looked on the reprobates from 5b as his mates. It seemed the masters in their mortarboards and billowing gowns were to him some kind of officer class, always ready to order him around...

How rapidly goes this short life, the years gathering momentum as they increase, spinning ever-quicker. The revival of interest in the First World War has come relatively late in my working days, but as readers of this column will know, the last three years have more than made up for this late start. There is still no time to lose.

My tales of the rediscovery of a Kruger shilling in the bottom of a drawer has been well-chronicled in these columns, as has its further adventures across the English Channel. Four times it has journeyed to Belgium - but if there is a place in that little country it might call home then it's the town of Ypres.

I have come to know Ypres quite well and it would be no point in denying that it tugs on my heartstrings in a way that few places on this earth can. As soon as the coach has left Calais and passed Gravelines, I know that the border and Wipers cannot be far away. It is like greeting an old friend.

I honestly do not harbour any fantasies as to why this should be so. There are no dark daydreams of a reincarnated nature, neither would I make much of a case for ghosts at my shoulder.

I can only write of how it seems to me as I wander the Salient at dusk and watch a fat, harvest moon go down over Plugstreet Wood where poems were once composed as bullets buzzed like angry bees overhead.

To stand in Sanctuary Wood at midday as the sun dapples the leaves of late summer is to hear silence, such an ironic commodity in this former place of sudden, noisy death.

From Messines Ridge to Langemarck, from Gheluvelt to Hooge, by the field where the Christmas Truce took place in 1914 and all along the Menin Road, we walk in the footsteps of lost legions. And, incredibly, amid the sadness, there is still room for awe at the durability of the human spirit.

In this week of remembrance, I would like you to join me on a journey to the Ypres Salient courtesy of the Birmingham War Research Society. Tomorrow, Thursday and Friday I will show you the lands where your ancestors fought and died.

The poppies still wave here, just as they did when Col John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields. Believe me, there is no place on earth like it. Let me be your guide... all this week in your Evening News.

Walking in the steps of lost legions