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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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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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