Another trip to the Western Front for my son Alan and myself. The main purpose of the visit was to be on the Somme for the 100th anniversary commemoration.
We left Plymouth on the 28 June and headed for our hotel in Kent. We called in at Battle Abbey on the way. Two years ago we arrived on the way back to find the Abbey closed! This is the site of the Battle of Hastings. Perhaps the battle that has left the greatest impression on the way our country is governed. William the Conqueror did not lay waste to England but decided to improve it. We walked the battlefield in the company of one or two herds of sheep! A great sense of history about the place.
The Leger coach picked us up from the hotel the following day and we headed to France via Eurotunnel. An interesting experience sitting in a coach on board a train with millions of gallons of water above our heads!
A damp few days ensued but the sun came out for the last day. On the 30 June we visited Poziers and the Tank Corp memorial and the Australian memorial on the opposite side of the road. We stopped in Albert for lunch. I had a look around the beautiful Basilica which had to be rebuilt after the war. Lots of visitors and re-enactors in the town. Visited the underground ‘Shelter Museum’ which displays a lot of artifacts and memorabilia, Could have spent another hour down there!
On 1 July three hundred of us gathered in a cinema in Peronne to watch the ceremony at Theipval. On this day at 7:28am 100 years ago tens of thousands of mainly young men went over the top. 60,00 of them became casualties in just one day of fighting.
We were all expecting to see and hear French coverage…. When Huw Edwards appeared before us and the BBC transmission was shown! An emotional moment as we felt part of the commemoration despite being a few miles away from Theipval. The whole experience of visiting the Western Front conjures up a variety of emotions. It is sad to see the ages on the gravestones but at the same time the cemeteries are immaculate and beautiful places. From Peronne we went to Serre and listened to the guide describing the fighting in that area. Then to Delville Wood for our last stop of the day. Delville Wood is a beautiful place and its beauty belies the horrendous battle which took place there a hundred years ago. If you walk to the centre of the wood and are fortunate enough to be there alone it is a magical feeling to close your eyes and listen.
A sunny 2 July dawned as we headed for the Lochnagar Crater. The crater on the 1916 Somme battlefields in France is the largest man-made mine crater created in the First World War on the Western Front. It was laid by the British Army’s 179th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers underneath a German strongpoint called “Schwaben Höhe”. The mine was exploded two minutes before 07.30 am Zero Hour at the launch of the British offensive against the German lines on the morning of 1 July 1916. I first visited in 1997 when it was more or less untouched. Now it is very much a tourist attraction. Still impressive despite this.
From Lochnagar we visited the German cemetery at Fricourt. A different kind of cemetery with relatively small black crosses. The one thing in common with the allied cemeteries is the very young ages shown against those who died. From there to the Devonshires cemetery. Nearly every time I drive across the Devon border it starts to rain. Just to make us feel at home as we entered the cemetery…it started to rain! This is one of the few cemeteries on the Western Front where the soldiers are buried where they fell. A stone at the entrance proclaims, ‘The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still!’
From this poignant cemetery we made our way to Beaumont Hamel and Newfoundland Park. The trench lines are still visible and two small cemeteries are there to visit. The Canadians had held a big ceremony there the day before and the place was being cleared. Despite this there were many visitors, probably the highest density of our tour.
Up at 6am on 3 July. Early breakfast and a 7:45 departure for Calais. We arrived in Dover around 11:30. Dropped off at the hotel we picked up the car and headed for Capel-le-Ferne.
Since we were last there a new visitor centre had been built. We arrived at the gate to find a security guard pointing further down the road to another entrance. It turned out there was a commemoration ceremony due to take place. (The first day of the Battle of Britain) Various dignitaries, a band, cadets and people everywhere. And the Visitor Centre was closed! To compensate a few minutes after we arrived a Spitfire and Hurricane flew over and did a couple of circuits. Always impressive listening to those engines. Back to the car and time to head west!
Overnight at Ringwood and then a visit to the Tank Museum. This is a great museum and takes you through the history of the tank in an interesting and informative way. Most impressive. Pointed the car in the direction of Devon and it found its way home! Thus ended ‘Magical History Tour Part Two!’ RMP 3 July 2016