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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.