TRAVEL: Battlefields, bullets and bayonets

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WITH six Australian soldiers standing silently to attention with heads bowed beneath the Menin Gate, around 2,000 onlookers began to shuffle forward with cameras raised as they tried to snap the four accompanying Flemish buglers as they raised their instruments.

The strains of the Last Post then echoed eerily around the huge Ypres memorial as it has done every day at 8pm since the massive structure was completed in July 1928 after the guns finally fell silent to end what was said to be the war to end all wars almost a decade earlier on November 11, 1918.

Alan Wooding recently spent a four-day visit to some of the First World War’s historic battlefields in France and Belgium while trying to make sense of heavy price paid by the 1.7million young men and women, not only from the British and Commonwealth Allied forces, but of the German students and apprentices who were forced to spend four years involved in one of the bloodiest conflicts mankind has ever endured.

Having crossed into France via the usual 90 minute Dover-Calais crossing, our bed and breakfast ‘headquarters’ turned out to be the Comfort Inn Mons en Bareuil on the outskirts of the Lille.

While day one was mostly spent travelling, rather than eat a set evening meal at the hotel, a short 15 minute walk and a five-stop 1.40euro Metro trip took me and my travelling companion directly into Lille’s picturesque city centre where we enjoyed a traditional meal of moules and frites (accompanied by the usual mayonnaise dip!) at the historic Aux Moules restaurant situated just off the Grand Place.

Making an early 9am start, our battlefields tour started just across the border in Belgium however to get there we passed kilometre after kilometre of flat, featureless agricultural land that almost century earlier had been riddled with deep holes and craters littered with spent and unexploded shell cases.

While most of the fields today have been levelled, the Ypres Salient was the scene of heavy fighting and as we eventually made our way to the small town of Poperinge, our destination was the Talbot House Museum, better known today as ‘Toc H’.

Established some ten miles behind the horrors endured on the front line of the infamous Passchendaele Ridge, Toc H was a retreat for any Christian minded soldier. With rank and title left at the front door, it was a refuge from the terrible carnage of the Western Front and a place where the men could get a bath and a proper bed for the night.

Set up by Army Chaplain, the Rev Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton, he called it the ‘Every Man Club’ in opposition to the less solubrious establishments in the town which catered for a very different clientele!

Then it was on to Essex Farm and the cemetery in which around 1,000 British and Commonwealth troops (plus five German PoWs) were buried after failing to survive the underground operating tables of the adjacent field hospital.

Thousands of operations were carried out in dreadful conditions around the clock with the overworked doctors and nurses having to eat and drink alongside the blood and guts of disgarded limbs and piles of corpses.

With the skies now overcast, a visit to the nearby Langsmarsch cemetery denoted the final resting place of some 44,000 German casualties, the stark graveyard being overseen by the haunting ‘Four Watchmen’ memorial statue.

The three-and-a-half year battle for Passchendaele’s high ground resulted in by far the largest of the 3,000-plus British and Commonwealth cemeteries in the Flanders region, Tyne Cot.

The name was given to the area by the troops themselves after a northern battalion suggested the rounded German gun emplacements looked like Tyneside cottages. ‘Essex Farm’ was similarly named by the soldiers from the East Anglian regiments as it reminded them of farmhouses from that particular region.

Designed by top architect of the time, Sir Herbert Baker, Tyne Cot is the resting place of 11,954 British and Commonwealth dead (8,367 unnamed) plus

101 others whose origins are unknown.

Stopping off at several other sites of special interest, including the Yorkshire trenches, Hooge Crater and Hellfire Corner (it’s now a roundabout), it was the latter which claimed the lives of hundreds of ‘Tommys’ as the raced across open country under a barrage of machine gun fire in a bid to seek refuge in nearby Sanctuary Wood.

Making our way back along the Menin Road to Ypres for an early evening dinner (Flemish stew followed by Belgian waffles in our case!), at the appointed hour we assembled beneath the Menin Gate. And as it was Anzac Day in memory of the thousands of Australian and New Zealander troops who perished in the Great War and at Gallipoli where they fought the Ottomans

(Turks) a total of seven wreaths were laid in a solemn and moving ceremony.

Then it was back to our Lille hotel for the night before embarking on an unforgettable Sunday spent on the infamous Somme battlefields where 14 divisions of British and Newfoundlanders launched a 23 kilometre offensive against the Germans. And while the ‘Hun’ had had time It was with supreme confidence that the British effort kicked off with the biggest explosion immaginable.

With South Wales miners having dug several 1.5 kilometre long tunnels through the soft chalk rock (several of the tunnels being dummies), they were to reach beneath the German defences above. The ends of the tunnels were packed 60,000 tonnes of explosives positioned in key areas in readiness to be detonated at 7.30am on the morning of July 1, 1916.

But after one set of explosives went off ten minutes earlier than planned, the enemy were alerted and hundreds of German troops managed to retreat before all hell let lose. The result of the main explosion still left hundreds dead and today all that remains is the 100ft deep, 300ft wide Locknagar Crater.

But fully expecting that the explosion would have wiped out the forward German lines, 120,000 British soldiers came under heavy fire from the second line of defences which resulted in more than 19,000 losing their lives while thousands more were so badly injured that their war was over.

The British had attacked with bayonets fixed and it also resulted in them losing 60 per cent of their officers. It had easily been the single most catastrophic day in the history of the British army as well over half of the men were casualties.

As for the Newfoundlanders, they had already suffered 86 per cent casualties at Beaumont-Hamel after being sprayed by German machine gun crossfire and while now yet a Canadian province, the Newfoundland troops were also at Vimy Ridge where some 950 men came out of another set of tunnels to bravely hold their position. They found themselves occupying deep mud-filled trenches located just metres from the enemy front line.

In the many thousands of cemetaries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, so many nationalities lost men. Besides the British and Canadians, soldiers from India and South Africans plus a surprising amount of Chinese, all suffered appalling casualties while the Notre Dame graveyard near the village of Poziere is a French national memorial to the thousands who perished both on the Somme and at Verdun.

An imposing 45 metre high Thiepval Memorial has the names of 54,000 missing British soldiers on its walls along with 72,000 dead. The Commonwealth suffered around 420,000 casualties while 600,000 Germans also perished.

The conditions the First World War was fought in is almost unimaginable thick oozing mud or baking hot sun, then in the freezing cold of winter or in torrential rain. Lice and rats were commonplace while trench foot and other dibilitating illnesses were too awful to mention ... and on top of that was the constant thud, thud, thud of the mortars day and night which made it a living hell.

My own grandfather was probably one of the ‘lucky’ ones. He came home in September 1915, but only after having been shot, hit by shrapnel and gassed by his own side after a change of wind direction.

With the Brits using chemicals for the first time at the Battle of Loos, some of the 140 tonnes of poisonous chlorine gas blew back into the British trenches on what was the very first day of that particular action and it happened a mere stone’s throw from our Lille hotel.

The Battlefields Tour is something that will remain me forever, the conditions so horrendous that nobody should ever see the likes again. My own father returned uninjured from the Second World War in 1945 having served in the Eight Army on the desert, out troops are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan while more threats are coming from Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falklands. So the phrase ‘Lest We Forget’ seems even more poignant today as we continue to send troops to ‘defend’ nations who would rather we were not there!

Special thanks to our guide Mike Marriott and driver Andy and to all those who travelled to the Flanders region on Newmarket Travel’s Battlefields Tour in mid-April.

For more travel information, see www.newmarketholidays.co.uk or to learn more about the Battle of the Somme, log onto www.somme-battlefields.com