MAY 2014      


Deane Parr offers an account of a trip made to the battlefields of the Great War

I apologise to Erich Maria Remarque for using the anglicised version of his book title for this piece, but that was the name of the tour that The Magnificent Seven from Stratton went on. Back in the cold dreary days of late January (I think we were in “The Royal Oak” at Bere Regis!) we thought that it would be appropriate to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 with a visit to the battlefields and associated cemeteries and memorials.

Fast forward to February 27th. (This time it was “The Springhead” at Sutton Poyntz) The Escape Officer had obtained details of what was available tour wise, a date was chosen and bookings made. We became the Magnificent Seven because two of our number were unable to attend, otherwise we could have been the “Nine something or other rather flattering that rhymes with nine.” Press “Fast Forward” again, to:

Day 1
. 0645hrs on 26th May. Having received travel clearance from the various SWMBOs – and persuaded them to drop us outside the County Museum we boarded the coach for Dover where we arrived some 6½ hours later – having followed the scenic route via Poole, Bournemouth, Fareham and Pease Pottage! In what seemed like the blink of an eye, albeit a very slowwww, longggg blink we arrived in Calais just after 5pm and set off for our hotel in Neuville en Ferrain. (I think this might be French for “just around the corner from Belgium) Anyway, billets were allocated and in short order we were quality testing Franco-Belgian beer/ale etc. and tucking into the Plat du jour.

Day 2. Reveille was at 0630 with petit dejeuner/le breakfast at 0700. Our tour guide, RSM Jon Wort – he wasn’t really a RSM but he looked as if he could have been – had us fallen-in for the coach departure at 0900 sharp. Now the narrative becomes serious and somewhat abbreviated since there was so much to see and experience, time and space limit descriptions to highlights only.

Our first stop was at Black Watch corner and The Black Watch memorial at Polygon Wood followed by a short journey to Sanctuary Wood where there is a museum and also many sections of a trench system which have been preserved.
Black Watch Memorial at Polygon Wood
Sanctuary Wood
Next on the itinerary was Tyne Cot cemetery where some of the fallen at Passchendale are buried and those still missing are remembered. It is a sobering thought that only about 20% of those lost in the conflict rest in marked graves. The morning ended at Hooge Crater museum and cemetery before moving on, after lunch, to the cemeteries at “Hyde Park Corner” and “The Strand” and then The Messines Ridge sector and the New Zealand Memorial park and the Irish Peace Tower.
Tyne Cot Cemetery

Hyde Park Corner Cemetery
Next, on to Ploegsteert where we paused at the site of the Christmas Truce where football was played in no-mans land. A wooden cross now marks the spot but this is adorned with football scarves and old footballs litter the surrounds – make of this what you will. Our final stop was in the beautiful town of Ypres, with the cathedral, cloth market (finally restored in 1962) and other medieval streets and buildings being reconstructed after the war to be indistinguishable from the originals. Appropriately, the haunting notes of the Fire Service buglers sounding the last post at the Menin Gate drew our day to a close. It was a very thoughtful crew that returned late that evening to the hotel.
Menin Gate - Last Post
Day 3. With a very busy schedule, we were on our way at 0845. The programme for the day was centered around Arras, Monchy le Preux and Vimy Ridge, lunch being taken in Arras. A.A.J. Godden is remembered on the Stratton War Memorial and we were able to locate his name inscribed at the Arras Memorial.
Arras Memorial
Also in Arras are the Wellington Quarries (named after the capital of New Zealand, not the famous Duke of) a massive system of tunnels where some 27,000 British troops were “hidden” for a week prior to an assault on the German front line. Suitably protected, we were taken on a tour of the tunnels and caves. I don’t think that any of us fancied spending the night there – let alone a week
Stratton Tin Hat Brigade
After the quarries we moved on to Vimy Ridge where the Canadian attack trenches are preserved. The area is now peaceful and green but the craters left by mines and artillery shells pock-mark the entire landscape. The front lines of the opposing forces were so close that it seemed possible to easily toss a stone from one side to the other. At the top of and dominating the ridge is the magnificent Memorial to the Canadian Corps who, on 9th April 1917, with four divisions in line along a four mile front, finally captured the ridge. It is worth noting that it took four years to clear the area of unexploded ordinance before the Memorial could be constructed and there are still signs warning of the dangers of leaving established pathways.
Vimy Ridge Memorial
Day 4. Another early start and a very full day, centred on The Somme battlefields. First stop was Peronne and the well maintained visitor centre and museum where artefacts and complete uniforms and kit of troops from both sides are laid out to view.

From here we went to Mametz Wood and the Welsh Memorial. Mametz Wood was the objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division during the First Battle of the Somme (France), between 7th and 12th July 1916. Predictably, the Memorial is in the form of a fiery red dragon facing the enemy lines.
Welsh Memorial, Marmetz Wood
About 800 metres to the south is the Devonshire Trench, a memorial to the Devonshire Regiment. A plaque outside the cemetery reads “The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still” The dead being buried in what was their forward trench. Within sight of this memorial is another battlefield cemetery, this one remembering The Gordons.

Also on the itinerary was a visit to the Lochnagar crater at La Boiselle. It is said that when this mine was detonated, the thump was heard in London! Looking into the crater, you can well imagine it!

With our tour drawing to a close, we made our way to Thiepval and The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave.
Theipval Memorial
This was followed by a short visit to the Ulster Memorial Tower. The tower is a copy of Helen's Tower in County Down, where the men of the 36th Division trained. Our penultimate stop was at Newfoundland Park. This park, located near Beaumont Hamel, is one of only a few sites on the Western Front where the ground remains largely untouched from when the First World War ended. The Newfoundland Regiment, which was part of the 88th Infantry Brigade within the 29th Division, attacked here on the 1st of July 1916, and suffered appalling losses. After the War, Newfoundland purchased this land in 1921, and first it and then the Canadian government (after 1949) have maintained it as a memorial. The statue of the Caribou was chosen for the Memorial, as it was the symbol of the Newfoundland Regiment. (The caribou is the good-looking one at the top of the picture).
Newfoundland Park
Ted Every, Colin Jackson, Alan Newton, Deane Parr, Tony O'Donnell, Malcolm Wilson, Rob Winsborough
Our last stop was at Serre Road where there are three further cemeteries. Serre Road No. 1 contains the grave of Private Horace Isles, of the Leeds Pals Brigade, killed at the age of just 16, having already been in the army for 2 years. It was his story that was used by the BBC in a programme aimed at educating school students about acts of remembrance. And so our whistle-stop tour of the battlefields came to a close. Back to the hotel to pack ready for departure and then a bit of a bash lasting well into the next morning!
  Day 5. Another 0900 departure. Back to Calais, via a shopping stop, across La Manche to Dover and then another sightseeing tour as we made our way back to Dorchester via all sorts of places, arriving back at our starting point and then home in time for “News at ten”. Since arriving back, we have all re-lived the parts of the tour that, I suppose, “got to us”, the sights that perhaps brought a lump in the throat, or maybe a moist eye. We were totally amazed by the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Every memorial, headstone and cemetery in absolutely perfect order – lovingly maintained. This was just a taster – so much to see in only 3 days. Trying to imagine what it was like to be there in 1916. It must have been of an order of magnitude worse than any movie could reproduce!