No matter how many years have passed since the two world wars took place – remembrance of those tragic times, of the people lost and the sacrifices made, remains an important part of our lives today. Though for those of us born in peacetime, those wars may seem far removed from our lives, by remembering, we recognise the freedom that those who fought, sought to preserve, and the peace that prevailed.
We talk to Sophie Shrubsole, a historian and guide to the battlefields of France…
How did you become interested in battlefield history?
I first made my way to the battlefields of the Somme at the tender age of just five months old! My parents had taken me with them for the 1st July commemorations. I grew up with a Dad who was passionate about all things First World War. And, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been in wellies exploring the famous fields and paying my respects to soldiers in the beautiful Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries.
There were 16 Shrubsoles killed in the Great War. Eight of them on the Somme. Five of them have their names engraved at Thiepval, the memorial to the missing of the Somme, and two can be found on the Menin Gate in Ypres. Whenever I’m in Ypres, I always make my way to the Hooge Crater Cemetery, as there lies Walter Frederick Shrubsole. He was killed in March 1918 and he came from the village in which I grew up.
What grabbed me when I first started visiting the battlefields, was just how easy it was to stand in exact spots where history happened. Some of the most infamous moments in world history are right in front of us and we can explore them. We can stand and imagine the landing craft coming into Omaha Beach. Or stand in the spot where a relative won a medal for gallantry in the First World War. In many places, there are original trenches to walk through, German bunkers to explore and even relics of war still coming to the surface. When you can conjure the images of history, history is never that far from you.
Can you tell us about a memorable tour you’ve taken
One of my previous clients sent me a photo of her Grandfather walking down a road in France in April 1918. It was her dream to walk in his footsteps exactly 100 years later. He had survived the war and spent many nights giving snippets of information of his service to his granddaughter. But his memories and stories were not complete. My client wanted to piece together his service and finally get a full picture of what his time in the British Army would have been like. After much research, I was able to take her to the precise location at which that photograph was taken. For the rest of the day, I sat with her and explained month by month what her Grandfather had done in the Great War. It was an incredibly special opportunity to share history with a relative. We are still in touch and meet to reminisce about a very special tour.
How do you help people find out more about the history of their ancestors in World War I/World War II
I use a combination of resources to put together the service of a soldier. This includes enlistmentment records and official military files. I may research pension records and crucially, the Battalion War Diaries. It takes a lot of patience – and deciphering 100-year-old handwriting isn’t always easy! What’s really important is to check and double-check every fact. As with any large organisation, clerical errors creep into record keeping.
Thankfully I learnt to be patient while completing my degree in history at The University of Birmingham.
What areas do you cover with your tours?
Sophie’s Great War Tours delivers memorable tours across the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. From the English Civil Wars to Waterloo and the battles of 1945, and the sites of the Second World War, where we tour the well known places as well as places that are special to individual visitors. My team of guides and I can help guests get under the skin of historical events, the characters that shaped events and the locations we are exploring. As a bespoke tour operator, we can react to almost any special request from customers. And we truly relish creating special moments and memories for customers.
Why do you feel it’s important that the battles, those who took part and those who were lost are remembered?
The biggest dishonour we can give servicemen and women is to forget. We must never forget what they endured to keep others safe and to liberate countries so that we may be free.
Owner, Sophie’s Great War Tours