Six men in a Mini Bus - WW1 Western Front Battlefield Tour.
I left Bury with our decked up mini bus, Fusilier flags flying and badges on, picking up Alan Stott in Manchester, Ray Cunningham and Des Sinclair in Leicester.
After breakfast on Monday (Day 1) it was off to the Channel tunnel, passports checked then on to customs, where they checked us for drugs (but we’d sold them all to fund the trip!) they then spotted we had a wheel chair with us so we were sent to the front of the queue so we were first on and first off the train; we were then on our way.
We checked in at our hotel for the week in Mouscron in the mid-afternoon, had a wash and brush up and then dressed in our ‘finery’, and with the standard stowed safely in the back, we set off for our first call, the daily Menin Gate ceremony.
This was an experience I will never forget. During the ceremony they read out the name and told the story of a soldier that had died 100 years ago that day and as fate would have it was that of a Royal Northumberland Fusilier, Henry Knott. http://knott-trust.co.uk/knott-family-history What a coincidence; it couldn’t have been scripted better and certainly added an extra poignancy to the event for the six of us.
After the parade people from all over the world came up to us thanking us for the part we played in the service. This was a great humbling start to our week. Then a quick drink in the Ypres Inn (quick drink???) We had to prise Joe and Ray out of the bar from their ever expanding crowd of (female admirers) and back to Mouscron for dinner.
Leaving the Church Joe decided he wanted fish and chips for lunch, having seen a sign over the road, big mistake!! It was then on to the In Flanders Field Museum and Cathedral, buttocks clenched, to see what had been achieved to restore the Cathedral after it had been almost totally destroyed by shelling in WW1. The museum is very high tech and you need a good day to visit this town to see everything.
After breakfast on Wednesday (Day 3) we set off for Péronne, the issues with the Sat-Nav having been resolved by the “Navigator” when we’d returned to the hotel the previous evening. Our first stop was an emergency one, at a fortunately very convenient service station on the motorway where we had use the vehicle to screen someone’s modesty as they squatted by a hedge! Suitably relieved we headed off once more and arrived in Péronne where after a coffee, or beer for some, it was off to the town’s museum housed in an old castle/fort. One of the first things we came across, amongst the very spacious and impressive displays, was a scarlet uniform tunic labelled the ‘Coldstream Guards’ but an eagle eyed Joe and Ray had spotted that it was wrong as it had yellow/cream collar and cuffs. Taking a closer look showed that it had Leicester Regiment collar dogs and buttons on it; so in true Ray fashion he was off to tell them of their mistake!
We then set off for were off Albert for lunch, in the Town square (after some impromptu clothes shopping, and haggling over prices, at the local market!) and then on to the Town’s Somme museum, house some 100 feet below ground in old WW1 tunnels and which tuned out to be a truly realistic exhibition. Leaving Albert we now headed towards Beaumont-Hamel and on to where I have always wanted to go, the famous ‘Sunken’ road where my Granddad won his DCM.
What a moment for me to stand near to where he was on the dirt track. I moved to the bushes and placed a cross where I thought he might have been. To my astonishment I saw that someone had already placed a cross and poppy there, it was from the Sunderland Branch of the RRF! I placed mine next to theirs, a very proud moment.
Thursday (Day 4) David wanted to walk some of the route his great, great uncle had taken a few days before being killed in action with the Royal Scots, and we had yet to visit the Thiepval Memorial, so we headed back to the Albert area, stopping in Potières to visit the memorial to 1st Australian Div, before heading on to drop David in Montauban. Being fit young lads we dropped him off and arranged to pick him up an hour or so later! Another one of the things on our ‘to do’ list ticked off.
While David was having a wander down ‘memory lane’ the rest of us went off to the Lochnagar crater, a massive hole in the ground caused by one of the 17 mines which were exploded beneath the German lines on 1st July 1916. A number of the Fusilier Bantam Battalions helped to dig them, an absolutely stunning piece of human endeavour, long tunnels beneath enemy lines, dug mainly using bayonets so as not to alert the enemy.
Having collected David we headed back to Albert for lunch before going on the Thiepval Memorial, again another moving place to see so many names on it. Despite being partially covered in scaffolding, it is being cleaned ready for next year's 100th anniversary it was still an impressive site to see. [The Fusiliers Museum in Bury is to link up with the Thiepval museum for a temporary exhibition next year.]
Friday (Day 5) was to have been our final day in France before returning home on the Saturday but circumstances dictated that we cut short our trip and return home a day early. We’d been to and seen 95% of the places we’d wanted to, so hadn’t missed out on anything (and it was unlikely we’d have been able to do everything anyway), and so I would like to thank Joe, Ray, Alan, Dave and Des for taking me along as their driver, a truly wonderful experience, one I will never forget.
P.S. On each day we took the opportunity to stop at and walk amongst the headstones at some of the smaller cemeteries we came across, taking photos of Fusilier headstones but soon found it an impossible task as there were far too many and they were not altogether. We did leave messages in the condolence books at each Cemetery.
by Dennis Laverick