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

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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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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