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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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!