I have always had a great interest in the events of the First World War. As a child, I grew up with the culture of it all. My grandfather served in the British army and fought at Vimy Ridge, northern France, during the conflict. He was poisoned by gas, left totally deaf but somehow survived it all. He was discharged in 1918 and went on to run a successful business. He drove his car almost every day until he died in 1964. We were a close family but could only communicate with my grandparent by writing everything down for him.
2014 marks the centenary of the commencement of World War One and many of the historical features are being commemorated in northern France where most of the fighting took place. A visit to the key sites is a great opportunity to remember relatives who served in that war. I took a splendid coach tour spread over three days travelling to a number of the prime locations.
Joining a specially prepared and organized coach trip for such a visit is certainly a good plan. A number of the war sites and memorials are located in fairly obscure locations amongst the rural French outback, the coach driver is the expert and knows exactly where to find them all. Your seat is confirmed and you can just relax and enjoy the view as you speed effortlessly through the countryside between the visit points. I travelled with Galloway European Coaches based in Suffolk, and our driver, Derek Stringer, was an authority on all aspects of the Great War. Travelling to some of the off the beaten track locations would not have been so easy without his expertise and he was able to answer all our questions about the history and events that took place where ever we stopped.
With my fellow passengers, I joined the coach in London. We drove to Dover and sailed across the channel to Calais with P&O Ferries. We set off to Mons first of all, a town in Belgium, and the site of the first Great War engagement between the British forces and Germany. The first two Victoria Cross medals were awarded for action in the battle that took place. We visited the memorial to Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sidney Godley, the recipients. We also visited the beautifully presented St. Symphorien Cemetery on the edge of Mons city. This provides a resting place for both allied and German soldiers killed in the war. The cemetery is also home for the bodies of the first and last commonwealth soldiers killed in the war. The first was Private John Parr killed right at the start after war was declared. The last was George Price, a Canadian, killed by German fire just moments before the armistice was declared. Visitors can track their headstones down; they are compelling.
From Mons, we headed back into France. We visited La Cateau Cambresis, the spot where British forces first clashed with the Germans on French soil, 26th August, 1914. British soldiers were heavily outnumbered by the German army. Loss of life and injury was wholesale. Nearly 9000 British troops were killed or injured in a battle that lasted three quarters of the day.
The last battle of the Great War took place on the 4th November, 1918. This also raged close to Cambresis and involved the celebrated English war poet Wilfred Owen who is remembered in France as a literary icon. The cellar where he spent some time sheltering from shelling is preserved as a monument to him. The words of his poetry are projected on to the walls of the building for all to read and the language has translated beautifully into French. Gallic society loves the artistic symbolism and the poetry demonstrates such maturity from a person so young. Owen was killed in the battle on the 4th November 1918, just a week before the end – he was 25 years old. His headstone can be found in the commonwealth war grave in the village of Ors, about 30 kilometres south east of Cambrai. I have little interest in poetry generally but, as I read his words, I could sense the acute poignancy. We in our group spent that night in a comfortable hotel back in Cambrai, organised by the coach company.
The next day began in a more light hearted style. We visited Deborah, the preserved British D51 tank that was discovered by Philippe Gorczynski, a local hotelier; it was buried on the edge of the village of Flesquiers. He provided a fascinating insight into her history and the war in general. Deborah was given her name by her five crew members whose remains were taken from the wreckage; they were given a full military funeral in 1998. The invention and use of the British tank was instrumental in eventual victory for the allied forces.
Later that day, we travelled on to Arras, where we visited the Wellington Quarries and were reminded once more about the appalling living conditions that faced all soldiers.
These limestone caves and tunnels under the streets of the town of Arras were used by the British Commonwealth forces to secretly hide over 20,000 troops for many weeks. The soldiers participated in a secret and successful attack right under the toes of the enemy just above in the Battle of Arras, April 1917. Allied soldiers would certainly have looked forward to seeing the sunshine again despite the heavy slaughter. It was an interesting tour and I thought about the sort of experiences that my grandfather had to endure.
We travelled on to nearby Vimy Ridge and the Canadian war memorial. As we approached, we could clearly see undulations in the fields, the visible remains of trenches and craters.
The memorial to the allied Canadian troops, 11,285 of them who died on French soil, is vast, tall and eternally permanent, an imposing reminder of what happened a century ago. Our last night was spent in a very comfortable, modern hotel with a truly excellent dinner.
We returned to London the next day and on the way stopped at Fromelles, a little village not far from Lille, to visit a new museum (opened July 2014). Fromelles was the site of a battle created deliberately by the allied forces that was supposed to divert enemy action away from fresh conflict in the Somme basin. About 5000 Australian soldiers, 1500 British and 2000 German troops were killed on the edge of the village. The British and Australians were buried in Pheasant Wood, nearby, by the Germans to prevent the spread of disease. It was a hot summer in 1916 and the bodies were treated with great dignity.
The mass grave was only discovered in 2008 and many of the soldiers have now been identified and given individual burials in a cemetery on the edge of the village. The museum displays many articles of uniform, weaponry and personal possessions and photographs of some of the dead are displayed with great reverence. The Fromelles battle museum now attracts many tourists from Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere across the world. All of the artefacts are skilfully exhibited.
If you wish to remember the Great War in France, consider taking a coach tour. There are many companies in Britain and across Europe providing the service especially this year. No need to worry about parking your car or locating obscure sites. No need to find your own accommodation or filling up the petrol tank, plus the costs are very competitive. The coach will become your temporary home on which you may make many friends with others who share your passion for history.