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!

Advertisements

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.

022

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

025

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.

032

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.

009

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

2012 – A Brief Review – Part 1

Aside

The intention, as ever, was good. A regular series of postings after various battlefield trips detailing anything special that might have occurred and acting as a catalyst for those wishing to find out more.

However, in practice, what has happened is that the guiding season has ended, and I have been engaged with other things, so for this first blog, I think it would be prudent to review the year from my perspective. It seems a bit self indulgent and it will test the memory banks a bit, but here goes.

The first trip this year was back in February, with a group of students from Farnham Sixth Form College. Most of these students were approaching their learning about the Great War via the medium of literature; no great surprise there. In fact, the history students that also came on the trip were studying a completely different period, but that didn’t prevent their quest for knowledge about the Western Front. We had one major enemy on the trip, the intense cold, which made our outdoor walks a bit of an ordeal for some. Teenagers always know best, and despite being told to prepare for cold wet weather, not all had taken it to heart. Nevertheless, the highlight of the trip, as it was throughout the year was a visit to the archaeological work which was being carried out at La Boisselle on the Somme. This was particularly interesting for the students, as one of their set texts was Birdsong, which conveniently had just been screened on the BBC.

For further information on this evolving project, see the Project Team’s regularly updated website www.laboisselleproject.com

Richard Porter explains the significance of the ground

Just a few months before, the main actors, Eddie Redmayne and Joseph Mawle had also visited the site to get an idea of the environment in which their characters would have had to operate, so there were plenty of connections to be made whilst out on the battlefields. For me, the most telling stop was the final one of the two day tour. It was, I must remind you, very, very cold. We had spent a good bit of time outside and it was starting to tell on one or two students. However, the two teaching staff were adamant that we should visit the Sheffield Memorial Park and the Accrington Pals Memorial, as Peter Wheelan’s play on the same subject was on the syllabus for the next part of the course. Those of you who know of the location will appreciate that a coach can’t get up there, so it meant a walk in a bitter wind to one of the Somme’s most poignant spots. However, once there, and in the shelter of the copse, it was heartening to see some wander off and pay their own respects at Railway Hollow Cemetery while others took in the enormity of the losses here on that one fateful day, 1st July 1916.

Walking up to the Sheffield Memorial Park

I think my favourite type of trip is one centred on a specific soldier and a family pilgrimage to find out what happened. That was my good fortune in early April, as I guided a local family to a rarely visited part of the Somme battlefields to follow one small action that occurred in March 1917. Around Bouchavesnes in the early part of the month there was a localised attack in order to advance the front a few hundred yards to gain important ground overlooking the adjoining village of Moislains. The 1st Worcester were among three battalions to advance early in the morning. Initially things went fairly well and the troops managed to gain the crest of the ridge where, as the War Diary states, ‘From Fritz Trench excellent observation was obtained over country near Moislains and excellent observation for own artillery was obtained. Enemy shelling was very heavy and a barrage was kept up on captured lines and lines of communication all day.’ What it doesn’t say is that the enemy shelling almost certainly did for Samuel Salter, my guests grandfather and great grandfather, respectively. In one of life’s ironies, it was known that his best mate who had joined the battalion at the same time was buried at Fins New British Cemetery, and the next grave was an unknown from the Worcestershire Regiment. We’ll never know for sure if this was Samuel’s final resting place, and his name is listed on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, along with over 73,000 others.

Is this the grave of Samuel Salter, lost on 4th March 1917?

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme from the Authuille Road

                  Finding the name at Thiepval

The next trip was centred around the commemorations for ANZAC Day in April. Since 2008 the Australian Embassy in Paris has taken on the job of arranging and liaising with the Somme Tourist Board the arrangements for the Dawn Service which is held at the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. This year the arrangements were, as ever, flawless and my group was among many who braved a cold pre-dawn start for a wonderful service which ended at about 7.00 am, with the raising of the flags and the emergence of a weak sun to herald a new day. I was in charge of a group of around 30 or so, mostly Australians but a few New Zealanders as well. We’d travelled out two days before and spent some time around Ypres, Fromelles and Bullecourt.

Pre Dawn at Villers-Bretonneux

After the Dawn Service, and with a decent bit of breakfast inside us, we ventured back to the Somme. The weather had turned, it was wet as well as cold, but this failed to dampen anyone’s spirits. An oft heard comment when the weather goes against us is often along the lines of, ‘Well, they had it far worse’, which is probably true. It also suggests to me that those who visit the battlefields, in the main, don’t see it as a holiday, they see it as an enriching experience at many levels, even if that means getting wet.

Standing proud at the 1st Australian Division Memorial, Pozieres

Not long after this trip, I enjoyed the company of a smaller group of Australians, this time on one of my regular three day battlefield trips. These smaller groups can be much more intimate and rewarding and as the group gels, their own family stories are often discussed. On this occasion, we happened to be in the exact spot in Polygon Wood where a relative of one of my guests had been awarded the Military Medal for his part in the advances in this area in September 1917. Brian asked if he could read some letters sent home not long after the action, and how could I say no. There were two contrasting written documents he wanted to share with us. One was a letter written home from his great uncle, describing how things weren’t too bad and how he had been caught up in the successful advance. The usual reassurances to family on the other side of the world were all included, and one can assume that when read back in Australia, the effect would have been one of relief and perhaps a certain amount of pride that ‘our Boy’ was doing his bit. By contrast, the other document read out was the citation for the Military Medal, which, in its typical official style made it very clear that the action for which it was awarded was brave and brutal, particularly for the enemy soldiers who happened to be in the way at the time. All of this specific action was happening right next to the butte in Polygon Wood, which now is the focal point of the Buttes New British Cemetery and the 5th Australian Division Memorial which stands on top of it. Hard to get a greater sense of place than that.

Buttes New British Cemetery and the 5th Australian Division Memorial

I’ll carry on with a round up of later trips shortly. Thanks for reading this far.