A Personal Reflection – Thirty Years On

Sometimes it’s good to spend time re-examining your roots and why it is you do such a thing. I have lost track of the number of people I have spent time with over the years on the battlefields of the Western Front. The overwhelming majority have been inspired by what they have seen, learnt and heard me share with them. But, working for a living as a Battlefield Guide is that something that some find hard to accept, in that it takes away an element of the purity of the battlefields, and certainly, in recent years, the increased number of visitors to some of the key locations has ensured that the original peace and tranquillity that a small number enjoyed in times past is no longer there; or perhaps, more often, rarely there. As a contributor to this, I accept all accusations levelled in my direction on that score and also feel an element of guilt in being part of the ‘tourist trail’, which many trips, out of pure necessity, have become. It’s as if you are destroying what makes you…..

When my brother suggested that he and I take my father to the battlefields for a birthday gift, it was and ideal opportunity to reflect on how the experiences of an individual who I never met, my grandfather, has helped shape my life.

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Many of my guests ask the inevitable question as to how I found myself in the job I do, and it always seems polite to tell them.

I’m not sure exactly when it all started, but when I was very young, I distinctly remember my dad telling me on more than one occasion that his father had fought in the trenches, that he’d been gassed, that he’d been taken as a prisoner of war and that, despite being born in Wiltshire, he had fought with the Canadians. This was quite sufficient information for a young mind to accept, and sometimes his medals would be shown, occasionally stories passed down would be shared and the reason for the Canadian side of our family was all wrapped up in this story of times past.

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In 1983, my father found a copy of Before Endeavours Fade. How he found it discarded on the quiet Hampshire lane where he lives is something we have never understood. We looked at it, and places that are now very familiar appeared for the first time. On one page there was a small black and white photo of the 1st Canadian Division Memorial at Vancouver Corner. It was probably taken, as were most of the photos, by Rose Coombes, the now sadly deceased author of what is still accredited as being the best guide book to the whole of the Western Front. This was the spark that ignited the interest. My dad and I decided that we would go over to Ypres for a few days the following April.

We went by ferry; there was no tunnel back then, in his Renault 5. I managed to persuade him to let me drive some of the way, the first time I had driven in Europe. I recall arriving in Ypres in the Spring sunshine. We sat in the Groote Markt, had a beer, marvelled at the architecture and the re-built Cloth Hall. Later, we booked into a room at Old Tom. It probably looks exactly the same today. We paid in Belgian Francs….you got a lot of those to the pound. It was all a bit strange and new.

Dad 1984 at Van Corner         2015-09-26 16.06.16

Using Before Endeavours Fade, we found Vancouver Corner and the Memorial. We took a few photos, as it cost to have them developed back then. We drove around the local area…we might have been looking in the right direction at times, but, I suspect, often, we weren’t. It didn’t matter, we were near where this deeply personal event had happened and at the time, that was good enough for me….and it was good enough for my dad too. It was quite an emotional time for him, as he recalled his father who, as a result of his wartime experiences, suffered with a terrible cough, never had the strength to kick a ball around with his sons or to take them swimming, but, who had, through hard work and a touch of luck, lived a good life, as he had taken the doctors words at face value on his return to Montreal in 1919 and had gone to live somewhere warm to help his damaged lungs. My father grew up in the West Indies, living his early years in Trinidad.

Whilst on this first trip we did other things too….we visited Hill 60 and the French Ossuary at Kemmel. We walked in Plugstreet Wood and found the location of John McCrae’s ADS when it was no more than a concrete structure in a field by the side of the road. We rocked up to the Last Post Ceremony at 7.55 pm and had no problem seeing anything…hardly anyone else was there.

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Essex Farm 1984

So, in the autumn of 2015, with the passing of over thirty years, what has remained constant is the sense of desperation that these young men must have felt at the time. Unable to respond to a series of enemy attacks due to jammed rifles, unable to breathe properly due to chlorine gas, the Canadians in the front line held on. No battalion was more in the open than the 13th (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion, who were forced to dig in along the St Julian/ Poelcappelle Road and protect the left flank of the whole of the BEF. Fighting was confused, the sister kilted battalion, the 15th (48th Highlanders of Canada), raised in Toronto, fought alongside them. The first award of a Victoria Cross to a Canadian in the Great War was posthumously awarded to a colleague of my grandfather, Lance Corporal Fred Fisher, who has no known grave.

Bravely led by two officers, Major Norsworthy and Lt Guy Melfort Drummond, both of whom were lost on 22nd April 1915, the battalion hung on for two days, until relieved by more Canadian units from the shell shattered city of Ypres. The retiring battalions were but a shadow of their former selves; casualty figures were horrendous and the whereabouts of many men unknown. Some were out on the battlefields, dying a lingering death as their lungs filled with fluid, others were already dead and buried in hastily dug and marked field graves, and may suffered the ignominy of capture.

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I’ve always felt that my grandfather was fortunate in being captured at this stage. His period of captivity was long and increasingly harsh, but he survived, and from that, a family was able to move on after the war. Like every battle, as with every death, one can only wonder what might have been had that man survived. My brother and I are proof, as are many others alive today all over the world, of what becomes of those who survive.

What I also now know is so much more than on that first trip. Canadian books on the subject are understandably detailed, and Daniel Dancock’s account provides a wealth of detail. The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, especially in their revised online format allow for the precise location of the battlefield graves of Major Norsworthy and Lt Drummond to be identified, as indeed are a whole host of other 13th Battalion men who were buried close to their original place of death by the Germans, but who now lie in peace in many of the cemeteries around the Salient. War Diaries and hastily written notes between the company and battalion commanders back to Brigade give a tenor of the desperation at times of men not only fighting for their country, their King and their Empire, but predominately for their very essence of being.

A recently harvested potato field may not look very exciting, but with some knowledge and sympathetic appreciation, you can, if you so desire, attempt in your 21st Century head, to gain a small understanding of your past. And if, through doing so, you can also help others to do the same for their relatives, through much appreciated and skillful gathering of the facts from sources by those who able to provide this, sometimes while you are out in the field, then perhaps for some, the power of the battlefields is still there.

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In the footsteps…..

As a battlefield guide, you meet many people, most of whom have an initial interest in where you are taking them, otherwise they would have chosen to spend their hard earned money elsewhere. Ever conscious of ensuring all guests receive good value for what they have spent, I always endeavour to bend over backwards to ensure that personal requests are catered for, unless the actual geographical location totally precludes this. After six years, I have a perfect record, but sometimes things happen quite out of the blue that provide a real ‘special’ moment.

So, a week or so ago when Jane showed me a picture from the Australian War Memorial www.awm.gov.au which included her grandfather, it was clear that something important was afoot here. The AWM website clearly explains where this photograph was taken and identifies most of the stretcher bearers from the 9th Field Ambulance. That’s because Jane’s grandfather, Bob Mowbray was one of them, and he survived the whole affair, therefore enabling him to name most of the chaps who were with him at the time. Bob is the fellow on the right foreground, who looks only slightly more alert than the rest of his mates, who must have been absolutely shattered after over 2 days of gruelling work retrieving badly wounded mates from the Zonnebeke battlefield in October 1917.

Streacher Bearers resting on the Ypres-Zonnebeke railway line 10th October 1917

Streacher Bearers resting on the Ypres-Zonnebeke railway line 10th October 1917                     (Courtesy http://www.awm.gov.au)

The caption also explains that these exhausted chaps are asleep along the railway embankment in front of Thames House, a German pillbox which has been captured and turned into a RAP.

Now, as a birthday present a couple of years ago, I received a great present from Jeremy, a large scale laminated map of Ypres, produced by the Ypres League post war, which has all significant places marked upon it. I knew you could walk along the old Ypres – Zonnebeke railway line, so while some guests had a wander in Tyne Cot Military Cemetery, Jane and her husband, as well as a few other guests followed me to see what we could see.

Thames House marked next to the railway

Thames House marked next to the railway

9th Brigade AIF HQ 12th October 1917

9th Brigade AIF HQ (Thames House)                   12th October 1917                                               (Picture courtesy Mary Ellen Freeman)

This is where sometimes the gut instinct pays off. A short walk along the disused railway track revealed out in the field, a large ugly German Pillbox. This was Thames House. Nearer to the track, there was evidence of other German concrete emplacements; it was pretty clear that on a mildish Spring day in 2013, we were standing exactly where Bob Mowbray and exhausted mates had been getting some well-deserved kip in October 1917. Jane knew her grandfather as an old man and it was clear that this was a very powerful moment for her and totally unexpected. Amazing what a picture and bit of additional knowledge can do.

96 years apart. Jane where her grandfather was, in October 1917

96 years apart. Jane where her grandfather was,     in October 1917

Arras and Vimy Ridge – Anniversary of the Battle

Today is the anniversary of the opening day of what we now call the Battle of Arras. Of the major battles fought by the BEF, it is probably the least understood, having been eclipsed by the Somme and Third Ypres, certainly in its study, but some authors have done their best to redress this anomaly in recent years. Jonathan Nicholls wrote ‘Cheerful Sacrifice’ back in 1990, and had the pleasure of taking veterans of that battle back to the areas in which they fought. His style of explanation is very much from the heart, and although these men have now passed away, Jonathan still takes guests to these areas and shares his love of the veterans with them.

More recently, Paul Reed’s ‘Walking Arras’ and Peter Barton and Jeremy Banning’s ‘Arras – The spring 1917 offensive in panoramas including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt’ have brought this battle to a wider audience, through detailed pictures, maps and personal testimony, but the battlefields around Arras still remain somewhat down the pecking order for battlefield visitors – a shame.

The Wellington Tunnels have provided the casual visitor with another point of view and the experience has been set in the wider context of the battle, so that the importance of what was carried out there is more fully understood.

However, there is one section of the 1917 battlefield that is seen by some as a separate part of the battle, perhaps without even being aware of what was going on elsewhere; this is the area around Vimy Ridge. Although an essential part of the overall plan, the successful capture of the Ridge has taken on a wider significance.

This area of ground has all sorts of important references. It was fought over by all four of the Canadian Divisions simultaneously, it was successful, in that the objectives set were achieved within the timeframe allocated, (baring the actions around The Pimple, which took a little longer to acquire) and since the land was given to Canada in the 1920’s it has become one of the few easily publicly accessible places where visitors can see what it might have been like for soldiers who were there.

Battlefield visitors in the 1930's at Vimy.

                  Battlefield visitors in the 1930’s at Vimy.

Time has softened the raw edges and the steady stream of visitors provide plenty of opportunity for the student guides there to tell the story in a modern sense, although I think the colloquial use of ‘these guys’ on a recent visit, when referring to incoming shells was a little too liberal in the use of language. However, I have been impressed with many of the guides at Vimy, who obviously take it upon themselves to find out as much as they can about the battle and its wider ramifications.

Modern story telling styles for a modern audience

Modern story telling styles for a modern audience

This guide really knew his stuff - in the Grange Subway at Vimy

This guide really knew his stuff – in the Grange Subway at Vimy

The Vimy Memorial is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of all the great Memorials across the Western Front. Full of symbolism, it is of its time, and now looks as good as it ever did, after a massive renovation, paid for by the Canadian government in 2006. The number of visitors to the site increases, and the new $20 bill has an image of it on the reverse. A timely reminder to all citizens of Canada of what was done in their name.

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Perhaps it is best left to two of Canada’s own to explain the significance of the Vimy Memorial.

Firstly, in a brief extract by Greg Clark, who fought with the Canadian Mounted Rifles during the Great War, and, in 1940, found himself reporting on the unfolding conflict as a reporter of the Toronto Star as once again, German forces again invaded France,

‘Well now, I forgot to mention that in a previous old war, of which you young soldiers may not have heard much, I was a fighting man. And only five miles north of Arras….there rose in the night a glorious monument, a double pylon, lonely in the fields: not a Beethoven, but a Tchaikovsky symphony, in stone: to the memory of 58,000 of my comrades who had died in that old war.’

He goes on to explain how, with a bit of bribery and collusion, he acquired a car, a driver and a bushel of mimosa, the only fresh flowers he could find.

‘And at 4 am, my corrupted driver and I stole out of Arras in the mists of May; and tooled our way amidst the sleepless throngs of refugees and British and French military vehicles and units on foot, and went north through Neuville St Vaast to the great memorial, rising out of the mist to meet the dawn. And over its foot, I spread the mimosa.’

And the final comment has to go to Will Bird, from his personal odyssey, Thirteen Years After, written in 1931, before the Memorial was unveiled.

‘The memorial has the finest site of any memorial in France or Belgium. There may be sites that provide a  more dominating position, a more commanding view, but they are few and when found have far lesser military importance. Vimy has the importance, and the commanding view as well. Vimy was our Verdun, our French Ypres, one of the key positions of the Western Front.

Add the fact that the Canadian Corps served longer as a Corps in the Vimy area than elsewhere along the front, and you can see how peculiarly fitting it is to have the finest memorial of all on such a site. Very few places can excel the view obtained there, over the wide sweep of the Douai plain and all that famed Lens mining region. And from the plain, looking up at the Ridge, the view is magnificent, sublime: the memorial fitting there with a beauty and harmony that will never be forgotten.’

Vimy Memorial

                                 Vimy Memorial

Book References

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Arras-Offensive-Panoramas-Including-Bullecourt/dp/1845294211/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1365505969&sr=1-1&keywords=arras+peter+barton

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Walking-Arras-Battleground-Paul-Reed/dp/1844156192/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1365506008&sr=1-1&keywords=arras+paul+reed

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cheerful-Sacrifice-Jonathan-Nicholls/dp/1844153266/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1365506055&sr=1-1&keywords=jonathan+nicholls+cheerful+sacrifice

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The Calgary Highlanders Return

Battlefield guiding is immensely satisfying, but when a group wants to come back for a return visit, you know you must be doing something right. So, no one was happier than me to see the Calgary Highlanders Army Cadet Corps arrive at Heathrow Airport on a cold and snowy London day at the end of March.

Any trip of this nature requires a great deal of planning and preparation, and I was grateful for the assistance of my colleagues at Backroads Touring for supplying the vital logistical support necessary to ensure a successful trip. Having looked after this group in 2010, I knew it would be an interesting few days and this time we were venturing into new areas, not only for the group but for myself as well.

We started in Normandy, looking at the role the 3rd Canadian Division had played in the D-Day landings as well as considering some of the German opposition at the preserved gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer. Another essential Normandy visit is to the Pegasus Bridge Museum, which offered its usual warm welcome. Canadian sacrifice was not forgotten, with visits to the Commonweath War Graves Commission cemeteries at Beny-sur-Mer and Bretteville-sur-Laize and the sad location of the Abbie d’Ardennes, where Canadian prisoners were murdered by the SS.

Getting wet feet at Juno Beach

Getting wet feet at Juno Beach

Remembering at Beny-sur -Mer

Remembering at Beny-sur -Mer

As we left Normandy, we headed for the first of our two personal visits, to the vast cemetery at St Sever in Rouen, where Stanley Morton Cooper was buried on 21st November 1917. Stanley was wounded on 30th October 1917, as his battalion, 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles were involved in the first of two assaults by the Canadian Corps on the village of Passchendaele. This was one of Canada’s costliest actions of the Great War, but his burial, many miles from his place of wounding, shows how well the medical evacuation process had developed by this stage of the war. Michael and Douglas Cooper, great, great and great, great, great nephews respectively of Stanley, placed their own tributes on the grave, whilst Pipe Major, Ian Miles played ‘Amazing Grace’. It was a moving visit for the whole group and an eye opener for some. ‘There’s so many of them’ was one comment I heard was we walked back from the grave and the eyes were moist, there is no doubt.

Michael and Douglas Cooper at the grave of Stanley Morton Cooper.

Michael and Douglas Cooper at the grave of Stanley Morton Cooper.

Stanley Morton Cooper

Stanley Morton Cooper

Returning to World War 2, we headed towards Dieppe, where we were welcomed at the Memorial Museum with its moving film, explaining the disaster that was the raid of August 1942. The cadets spent some time on the beach, and realised how difficult it was to run up the pebbles; they weren’t being shot at or shelled either!

The Somme was the next of our series of stops. Lochnagar Crater, The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Newfoundland Park and Courcelette were all visited, including the grave of Piper Richardson VC at Adanac Cemetery. I was also grateful to Don from the Ulster Tower for giving us a tour of the trenches in Thiepval Wood, as I had forgotten that this had been included in the previous trip. Fortunately, the OC, Major Chris Morris hadn’t and we were entertained and informed in that typically warm Ulster manner that Teddy cultivated and Don has continued almost without a break.

Don delivering his usual  high standard of commentary.

Don delivering his usual high standard of commentary.

No trip to the battlefields for Canadians can be considered complete without spending time at Canada’s National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. Those of you who have visited this most beautiful of war memorials will know why it is so special, and the Corps had been given special dispensation from Ottawa to parade in full kit and lay a wreath on behalf of the Regiment. The behaviour of all concerned during this formal section of the trip was beyond reproach. The officers and cadets looked magnificent in their kilts and both pipers played as the Corps marched to and from the Memorial.

Forming up in front of the Vimy Memorial

Forming up in front of the Vimy Memorial

Ypres was next, with some down time for shopping, before a full day and the second of our personal visits. Sergeant John Henry Thomson had enlisted with the 13th Battalion, (Royal Highlanders of Canada) before the end of August 1914 and had undergone all the privations that my own grandfather had suffered before they arrived up in the front lines in mid April 1915. That my grandfather and John would have known each other is beyond all doubt, at least as far as I am concerned, so I hit it off very well with his great nephew, Tom O’Sullivan, who was accompanying his son Michael on the trip. Michael was the youngest of the cadets and also a piper; he had been drawn to the story and had expressed a desire to play his pipes at the grave of his great, great uncle, who was killed as a result of the German attack after the release of chlorine gas on 22nd April 1915. John is buried in Poelcappele British Cemetery, along with a number of 5th CMR men that Stanley would have known, including the fabulous Lieutenant Allen Otty. I was happy to help ensure this happened.

Tom and Michael at the grave of John Henry Thomson, KIA 23.4.15

Tom and Michael at the grave of John Henry  Thomson, KIA 23.4.15

We also crossed the ground where Stanley Cooper would have been injured over two years later as well as covering all the major Canadian locations in the Salient. Another surprise awaited at Essex Farm, where Maddy McCrae calmly told me that John McCrae was her three times great uncle. She knew about him as she had had to do a school project about him.

The Last Post Ceremony is always a highlight of any Ypres battlefield trip and when your group are laying a wreath, providing an honour guard, speaking the exhortation and piping a lament, you can rest assured that it will be one that will remain in the memory for some time. As a finale, the officers and cadets marched into Ypres to the sound of Black Bear, with the traditional Canadian vocal additions to this splendid marching tune.

Major Chris Morris, OC 2137 Calgary Highlanders Army Cadet Corps speaks the exhortation under the Menin Gate.

Major Chris Morris, OC 2137 Calgary Highlanders Army Cadet Corps speaks the exhortation under the Menin Gate.

An additional request for this years trip was a visit to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. This required a long drive into Germany, broken up by following some of the route of XXX Corps as they tried to get to Arnhem Bridge. We had ‘A Bridge Too Far’ playing on the bus as well to give things a more realistic approach and had a brief stop at Holten Canadian War Cemetery, where we were met by Paul Hilferink, a Twitter friend who I have now met. Paul kindly gave us some of his time and explained what Canadian forces were doing in this part of the Netherlands towards the wars end. A good German meal rounded off a long day.

Our time at Bergen-Belsen was an interesting part of the whole experience. Our group was met by our English speaking guide, Jakob Ruhe, who was truthful, honest, compassionate and understanding as he explained how Bergen-Belsen evolved from a camp to house workers building the nearby army barracks in the pre war period to one of the most appalling examples of Nazi human denigration by 1945. We were all allowed the necessary time to absorb what we had seen and read and to think our own thoughts as we walked around the communal mass graves.

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The group left for Calgary on the Monday morning, vowing to return again. I hope they do. We hear much of the bad behaviour of young people, but this group was a shining example at all times of how teamwork, compassion, understanding, and a sense of humour can pay great dividends. They were a credit to themselves, their Regiment, their parents, their officers and their country, which gave so much in two World Wars and whose sacrifice then allows these young Canadians to live in peace and prosperity.

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The Centenary Approaches

Yesterday, I found myself being involved, in a small way, to assist in plans for the forthcoming centenary of The Great War. I couldn’t help but notice that, in line with this, my Twitter feed has been full of opinions and comments on this same subject over the past few days, so I felt it would be an opportunity to make my thoughts known on this.

Whilst I admit a certain bias here, The Great War is something that should be remembered  everyday, as its effects are still with us.  Centenary events are important and I have noticed the debate on what will and will not be commemorated. The Prime Minister has pronounced, the Imperial War Museum is undergoing extensive renovation and interest in the battlefields is increasing. However, picking certain dates, important though they are, and assuming that nothing happened outside of these dates is the trap that I feel many may well fall into.

For me, it’s not just about an individual day or and set piece action. I often tell my guests that whilst the Official History tells us that the Somme battle finished on 20th November 1916, had you been up on the Transloy Ridges on 21st November, that fact wouldn’t have necessarily been apparent to you. The point is, for a full aspect of remembrance, you should remember each and every day. There are those that I know who do. One, who will be nameless, told me that it is the defining thought on waking up and the final thought on retiring for the night that these men should always be remembered. I would suggest that is a pretty good mantra. And, as I wandered around London yesterday, there is plenty of evidence about to remind us, if we look closely.IMAG1661IMAG1667        War Memorials to Railway staff at Waterloo Station, above and Euston, below.

So what may be the outcome of what is planned. Many, I know, and I have to say I share this point of view, strongly believe that the key opportunity to further educate the wider British public into the ultimate success of what was achieved will be squandered. We like a good defeat and failure, so the Retreat from Mons, Gallipoli, the Somme, (and read for that, 1st July 1916 only) and Third Ypres will be given plenty of coverage. The role of the Royal Navy will probably be relegated to a sideshow, the emergence of the RAF will likewise probably be glossed over. The final success of the Hundred Days will scarcely get a mention.

The efforts of the Commonwealth Forces will, I hope, be recalled in the correct way, as an integral part of the BEF on the Western Front, and not some glorious ‘strike force’ that came and sorted out the mess the British had got themselves into. It’s something I try very hard to ensure that my guests take away with them, bearing in mind that over the years the vast majority have been from Australia; I think I have achieved that by the simple expedient of stating the truth and not allowing stereotypes to be confirmed.

We live in a different society now, with different values and a much wider cultural hegemony than the generation who marched off to war in 1914 would believe possible. This has to be reflected in how the Centenary is approached for a new generation, who possibly consider it to be irrelevant to their lives today, especially if they are from a background which has little to identify itself with Edwardian England. That is the job for others, who have a broader and wider remit. Educational organisations do a pretty good job, and the number of school groups that I see on the Western Front each year shows that at least it is being taught in schools, which not a luxury that I had. If only one of each coach group visiting Thiepval or the Last Post at the Menin Gate is ‘converted’ then I would say that is job done.

I’m not advocating that everyone becomes a historian or develops a fuller understanding: it is a colossal topic and no one I know would realistically profess to know everything about it, although I admit there are many who have far greater knowledge and specialist skills than I do.

Will the British public have a better understanding of what the Great War was all about come November 2018? Sadly, I suspect not. That old and discredited phrase, which I dare not even state here, will have been trotted out many times, serious academics will have looked skyward and wondered why they weren’t properly asked and the men who fought on the Western Front and elsewhere, in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Italy and across the seas will be seen as relics from a previous era.

As for me, well, I hope I will have had the pleasure of many more guests from wherever in the world to visit the Western Front, at all times, not just in July or November. And, if I have done things correctly, then they too will remember every day, not just for one day.

We will see.

Winter on the Western Front

The Great War on the Western Front was fought over 51 months, in all weathers, and in many instances, the weather came to dominate the way in which certain actions and offensives developed, indeed, it played a key part in the success or otherwise of more than one Offensive action.

Panorama PasschendaeleThe Bellevue Spur on the horizon, with Passchendaele on the right. Almost impassable ground in November 1917.

The modern visitor, often, although not always travelling with a commercial concern, naturally has other criteria that need to be fulfilled, and a warm day on the battlefields followed by a good meal, a few drinks and some reflection whilst sitting in the Grote Markt in Ypres or the Place des Heros in Arras has much to commend it. Blue skies, long evenings, roses looking sublime in immaculate CWGC cemeteries, fields of poppies….you get my drift. I’ve certainly enjoyed many such days over the past five years.

018A damp and misty Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner

However, having completed a trip to Ypres just before Christmas and two recent weekend trips to the Somme, where blue sky was conspicuous by its absence, it’s worth reminding yourself that the Boys were out here in all weathers, and therefore it does them the justice they deserve to experience their domain in all seasons as well.

Actually, whilst not wishing to get on a ‘high horse’ about this, some of my Twitter friends and followers have proved that the differing light, snow and frost can all add another dimension to that other favoured aspect of some battlefield pilgrims, the iconic photograph.  I always take my camera, but I’m not a photographer as such. Often my results stun me, but those that know about apertures, focal lengths and exposures have posted some wonderful images of late. Those of us with Instagram can create some superb images with a bit of digital trickery.

The point is, a visit to the battlefields is rewarding at any time. It’s different in the winter, but, properly attired, and bearing in mind the limitations in terms of daylight and the availability of refreshment stops, it can be equally as fulfilling as a high summers day on the Somme, the Salient or any where else of your choosing.

.Somme Recce Day 2 039From the 38th (Welsh) Division Memorial to Flat Iron Copse Cemetery

Image thanks to Peter Fensome

Many people expect to see mud, mist and when out walking, to get cold hands and ears. Fortunately, we don’t have to stay out in for days at a time. The other thing is that the absence of large groups, even at popular spots, lends to a greater intimacy with the surroundings. Last Saturday afternoon at Thiepval there was myself and my companion and two others visitors, being looked after by a fellow guide colleague. Perhaps the coach load of kids in the Visitors Centre had already visited the Memorial; perhaps they felt they’d already got cold enough and needn’t bother. Perhaps I shouldn’t pre-judge!

079The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Stunning at any time of year.

We know that certain places will almost certainly be empty, but if special for us, for whatever reason, then we’ll get there. A remote track on a wind and snow swept ridge between Guémappe and Chérisy may seem like an odd place to go for a walk, but when your research has confirmed that this was the place that ‘your’ man was waiting, not long before he went into action and to his ultimate fate, it makes it a bit more understandable. Then you feel that you need to linger a touch more, despite the numbing cold, just to be sure you have it correct, only leaving the spot slowly, and with a sense of reluctance, as you wonder if he is still out there in these big ploughed fields which will soon be so productive again.

And then there is the simple splendour of the cemeteries under a blanket of snow. I’d seen many pictures like this, but first experienced it for myself on a brief trip to the Salient last year. True to form, we had some snow last weekend. Not an Alpine blanket, it’s true, but enough to give things a different look.

109Unknown Soldiers headstones at Flat Iron Copse Cemetery

It would be great if commercial companies offered a winter battlefield trip for the more hardened visitor, and, school trips aside, I believe some do. It wouldn’t necessarily be a massive profit turner, but it would allow the real devotees to see things in a different light.

As for the likes of myself, as a self employed guide, whilst my major employer focuses on the Spring, Summer and Autumn, for the reasons outlined at the beginning of this article, I’ll take you anytime. Except Christmas – I want to come back to my wife!

2012 – A Brief Review – Part 2

There are many things I love about guiding people on the battlefields, but one of them is the excitement of the travel over to the Sacred Soil of the Western Front. Usually Eurotunnel do a pretty good job, and just driving off the train and on to a motorway network totally beyond the imagination of the soldiers of nearly one hundred years ago and seeing signs for places that they knew, or knew of – Boulogne, Arras, Rouen or even Reims on the overhead gantries is enough to get the emotion going. However, it’s only after about half an hour that you see the sign to the place so feared by so many – Ypres (with the Flemish Ieper in brackets).

Nowadays of course, Ypres is the right at the centre of the ‘battlefield tourism’ industry of which I am a part. I have to say, I find this a particularly hateful phrase, but it’s there and it won’t go away. I always stop in at Ypres on my way to my overnight accommodation in Lille. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? It can be any variety of reasons; the practical, to top up with fuel, both for the minicoach and myself and to purchase those things that Belgium is well know for. But, and this is the key thing, it’s really to have a bit of private time before meeting my guests for the weekend the following day.

I usually have a look at the map on the train and work out which way I’ll go and I might even find what I’m after first time. There is usually a reason – I have three ongoing photographic projects that I am helping people with, which sometimes means going a bit off the beaten track, but that means that delightful spots which are usually not on any ‘tour’ agenda can be visited. Is anyone else there? – almost certainly not. In the cool of an early evening, with the flowers looking their best, some of these smaller cemeteries away from the front line areas all have their stories to tell.

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Private Allan McQuillan, PPCLI at Dranouter. Not your conventional member of the Regiment.

And that’s another thing. Many years ago, when I was visiting the battlefields far less frequently, I only ever saw the Somme in its full summer glory and the Salient in is late autumn garb. To see the cemeteries around Ypres in full bloom was initially a shock to the system, but now it’s one of the many delights to see how Mother Nature, ably assisted by the work of the CWGC gardeners, can make the cemeteries the delightful oasis that they are, have always been and were intended to be.

The Huts Cemetery, Dikkebus on a bright June afternoon

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Oak Dump Cemetery – same day. However, it didn’t last!

But, the sun doesn’t always shine. This year was particularly wet right through June and July and only in August did the weather start to behave. By then, many of the roses had lost their individual battle with the elements, but that’s not to say things looked a mess, far from it. The other beauty, of course, is that in high summer you have an even longer period of light in the evenings, making evening visits to places south of Ypres on the way to Lille a real treat. I know most of the back roads from Messines to Ploegsteert now, via such places as Torreken Farm, Bethleem Farm East and West, Lancashire Cottage and countless other less well visited areas. However, on one damp warm evening in June, I discovered another rarely mentioned irritant which must have plagued the soldiers as they did me, and that was the midges of Ploegsteert Wood. They were so hungry that none of my photos of Ploegsteert Wood Cemetery on that occasion are in focus!

A wet and midge laden Ploegsteert Wood

A wet and midge laden Ploegsteert Wood

And then there are sometimes opportunities that present themselves. On 1st July this year, one of the most significant dates during the Great War, my group had been in Ypres. We’d been caught up in the crowds on the Somme the day before, but at the end of the day, with guests safely accommodated for the night, I made my way to my accommodation, a private house just next to Birr Cross Roads Cemetery. It had been a special day, the air was warm and it was dry. The moon was full and it seemed only right to go and say hello to the Boys in Sanctuary Wood Cemetery as the day closed.

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Fine roses at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, 10.00 pm, Sunday 1st July 2012

Some of the best photos I took all year, I think, came out of that short but necessary diversion. You sense it, they’re saying, ‘hey, don’t forget us lying here. We were doing our best up here as well you know’. And of course, I do know. As we get closer to the series of centenary anniversaries it’s right that we remember the soldiers that fought and endured during these big set piece actions, but also never forget those who were elsewhere, doing their stuff and far from home.

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A full moon looking down over Sanctuary Wood Cemetery

Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. A beautiful way to end the day

Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. A beautiful way to end the day