Those of you following my blogs will remember that I visited some World War Two sites last year and that the plan was to visit some Great War sites this year. History was my favourite subject at school and we covered a lot of WW1 material, but the desire to visit was also connected to our family.
I have no memory of my maternal grandfather John MacQueen, who died when I was less than two years old. His wife Helen Campbell had died in the 50s before I was born. However our family have a number of items which link in to their connection with the Great War. My grandfather enlisted as a private in the 2/4th Gordon Highlanders in January 1915 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Cameron Highlanders on 20th July of that year. He was eventually transferred to the 33rd Battalion Machine Gun Corps and we have a history and memoir of that battalion from 1916-18 where he is mentioned and photographed. The All Quiet on the Western Front tour that Graham and I signed up to with Leger Holidays would contain three places where he fought during the period covered by the memoir, Arras, Passchendaele and the Somme.
My grandmother served as a nurse in Macclesfield General Infirmary during the war and this involved taking care of wounded men. An autograph book given to her by soldiers is still in my possession and contains poems, drawings and dedications giving insights into the minds of the wounded. More needs to be done with this material but where appropriate I have posted a photo or autograph page to fit in with the trip.
We left Glasgow on Saturday 20th September and enjoyed great hospitality in Birchington with Graham's friend Doreen. I also received a warm welcome in Broadstairs the following Lord's Day in the company of the Martin family. Travelling via Canterbury and Folkestone (Channel Tunnel) on the Monday we arrived at Menen in Belgium in the evening. I have divided the trip and photos into the three separate days. As usual I am not writing the history but merely using the blog as a script to accompany the photos. If however I have made any historical errors be sure to let me know!
Tuesday 23rd September - Ypres
Our guide Vic took us to Sanctuary Wood where there is a museum and well preserved British trenches. British troops used the wood as a shelter during the First Battle of Ypres hence its name. You immediately notice the shell holes everywhere. We visited the cemetery there, but that was just a preamble to our next stop at Tyne Cot Cemetery, a sombre experience indeed. This is the largest British Military cemetery in the world. There are 11,956 burials, over 70% of which are unidentified. The memorial wall at the rear of the cemetery lists the names of the 34,888 missing. We were less than a kilometre from the village of Passchendaele which gave its name to the battle. I have included a copy of the page in the 33rd Battalion memoir which lists my grandfather as Transport Officer at Passchendaele. You will also see a photo of one of the German pill boxes which make up part of the cemetery. The VC graves are marked differently and particularly poignant was the message on one stone which read 'sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war.'
The whole area is littered with monuments and small and large graveyards. We stopped at 'The Brooding Soldier' (a Canadian Memorial) and a dragon themed statue representing the Welsh fallen.
After lunch at Hoodge, which has an excellent museum we went onto the Messines Ridge and viewed the New Zealand Memorial with the Maori symbols on it being pointed out to us. Vic told us of the New Zealanders exploits in taking the hill in an uphill attack following mining explosions. I was unaware of the stories of miners on both sides and their tunnelling exploits, so was fascinated to be given an insight into this.
From Messines Ridge we could see Ploegsteert Wood, which is in the area where the famous Xmas 1914 truce took place. One of the most moving parts of the tour was a visit to the Ploegsteert Memorial where Vic took us through a number of personal stories based on the tombstones. We saw twins laid side by side, the grave of a 16 year old; a miner awarded the VC for his tunnelling exploits, the separate markings on gravestones of Jewish people and even the grave of a German Jew. Despite the vast numbers of graves everyone has a story and a family who would have mourned their loss.
Next stop was the Irish Peace Tower. The history of the Irish protestant and roman catholic soldiers who stood together in the Great War from all parts of the Emerald Isle was retold. A peace pledge marks the spot. One of our group was born in Londonderry so had an interesting chat with him.
Our final sightseeing stop of the day was at the Menin Gate in Ypres. The structure itself is a memorial to British and Empire troops missing from the Ypres battles. 55,000 are listed on the memorial with the other 34,000 on the Tyne Cot memorial wall. The last post is played every night here by the buglers of the Ypres Fire Brigade. This has happened every day since 1928 except during German occupation in World War Two. It is a moving ceremony and was well attended. A group of four men sang the hymn 'Abide with me' unaccompanied, as well as another hymn which I did not recognize. A busy and memorable first day.
Wednesday 24th September - Arras
My grandfather had fought at Arras and I have included a photo of him and his fellow officers taken in that area in March 1917. Vic reminded us that casualties of this 39 day battle cost 4,000 lives per day but that due to the even larger losses elsewhere the battle does not feature prominently. This gives a grim perspective on the four year war.
We started the day with a fascinating tour of the Wellington tunnels. The chalk deposits under Arras had been used for mining stone since mediaeval times. During the Great War New Zealand miners were brought in to create 12 miles of tunnels which were used to shelter up to 24,000 men surreptitiously preceding the offensive and could be used as a shelter from German shelling. New Zealand names like Blenheim, Nelson and Waitomo (a famous set of kiwi caves) appear as part of the graffiti.
At Monchy le Preax we saw a caribou statue memorial to the Newfoundland troops as well as a monument to the 37th English Division. Lunch was taken in Arras itself before moving on to the Arras memorial. The empire connection was highlighted with the inclusion of Indian soldier's graves in this cemetery. To get a balanced perspective we also visited a German cemetery. As nowadays we have our World War Two hat on, it was striking to see the grave of a German Jewish soldier
The last stop of the day was at the stunning Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge. This part of the Battle of Arras was the first time all four Canadian divisions had acted together cohesively and their success against the Germans is viewed by some as an event that 'came to symbolize Canada's coming of age as a nation.' (Taken from Wikipedia).
Thursday 25th September - the Somme
Our day started at the Historical museum in Peronne. We spent one and a half hours there but could have been there for much longer. Highly recommended. The building is housed in a restored medieval chateau.
We visited Lochnagar crater, the largest on the Western Front. It was formed by an explosion following tunnelling under a German strongpoint. The photos will give you some idea of the scale. There are a number of moving plaques. A soldier 'shot at dawn' and one to Edith Cavell. Another was to a soldier who was found this century, identified and reburied with his family being informed.
There are 400 or so graveyards littering the whole area of the Somme, giving you an idea of the scale of the fighting. One of the advantages of the Somme area is that you get a good impression of the layout of the battlefields, whereas in many other places the original battle area has been superseded by building and memorials.
We visited the Ulster Tower, on the site of the action carried out by the 36th Ulster Division on 1st July 1916. There are many touching tributes at this site; not unsurprisingly, many have a religious element. Well worth a visit.
After lunch we drove to Newfoundland Park. The original Allied and German trenches can be seen in close proximity which is part of the uniqueness of this venue. The area was purchased by the people of Newfoundland and is the largest memorial on the Western Front. There is a statue to the 51st (Highland) Division who also fought in this area and we had our photo taken there.
There are a number of cemeteries along the Serre Road. When our bus stopped at a British cemetery I went next door to the French one. The graves are shaped differently and of course the flag varied, but the death of young men is the constant theme.
Our final stop was at Thiepval which commemorates the 73,000 plus names of British and Allied soldiers who died on the Somme but have no known grave. The French and British cemeteries at the back symbolise the unity of the two nations.
This was the 'war to end all wars' and for our own country it changed our world for ever without ending war. I am still reflecting on everything I have seen and would like to go back and see some more places in this vast story. My grandfather was gassed in 1918 but made it through the war otherwise you would not be reading this. Many did not make it back. I hope these photos give you a small insight into what took place on what is just a small part of the Western Front. I may add to this blog as I explore the family history in more detail.
P.s. The company on the tour was great. Special mention of Dave and Pat who were great company along with my old mucker Mr Graham Crombie!