Our Head Battlefield Guide, Paul Reed has lived in the South Yorkshire former mining village of Elsecar for the past couple of years. In this blog he documents his experience of guiding a dedicated group tour, taking patrons of his local to the battlefields to discover the stories of the Barnsley Pals.
Elsecar is situated on the edge of Barnsley, close to the countryside, and near the impressive Wentworth Woodhouse stately home, whose owners built the local colliery and many of the houses here.
The Milton Arms pub, in the heart of Elsecar, is my local and I was delighted when the landlord, Phil, approached me to organise a tour to the battlefields. Having travelled with a few friends on a battlefield tour on one of our Luxuria coaches, he wanted to return and do his own thing with a group from the pub.
One of the great advantages of bringing a group booking to Leger is that you don’t have to book a brochure tour. With our help and advice you can discuss what you’d like to do and we offer our expertise and make it possible. Phil wanted to remember some local heroes from both World Wars, so it was decided that we would travel direct from Elsecar to the Somme, have a night in Northern France, and then move on to Normandy to look at D-Day and the battles of 1944.
We started early from Elsecar with a good supply of pork pies and plenty of drinks stock on the Luxuria coach, with drivers, Adam and Paul looking after us. Getting across to France early, we made our way down to the Somme and made our first stop at the Thiepval Memorial where several members of the group had relatives commemorated on the panels dedicated to the Missing of the Somme. From here we went on to Serre and had a gentle stroll up onto the battlefield where the Northern Pals battalions were all but wiped out on 1st July 1916: the First Day of the Somme.
Our own village had many men from the Barnsley Pals who were here that day and the group assembled around the memorial to the Barnsley lads, which was rededicated on the centenary of the battle in 2016. Elsecar to Serre in a day – so simple now, but a centenary ago, the gulf between those at home and those at the front was immeasurable.
After an excellent night staying in Arras, with its amazing main square and great restaurants and bars, we headed down to Normandy to look at the story of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Over the course of the next few days we visited all five D-Day beaches, saw where American and British Airborne dropped in, and for many, the highlights were seeing ‘Bloody Omaha’ where so many GIs were killed on 6th June 1944, and walking across the original Pegasus Bridge. You can see these on the screen, but there is nothing like being there and seeing it for yourself.
As part of the D-Day tour we made a special visit to two Elsecar men killed in Normandy: one at Ranville, who was killed as a tank crewman and another at Ryes, who was an Assault Engineer. Again, it was great to have that local connection, and we were probably the first people from the village to ever stand at their graves and remember. The highlight of the week, for many, was at Hill 112 where Phil, and Chaplain Andy, led a Service of Remembrance. A veteran of the battle here had visited Phil in the pub and asked if we could remember his mates when we came, and it was a special pleasure and honour for us all to do this.
Group tours like this are unique: from planning to visiting the battlefields, those who organise are in total control over what they do and where they go, and have our years of knowledge to fall back on to make it a tour to remember.
Enquire today about taking your own group on a visit to the battlefields of WW1 or WW2 by visiting our website or by calling our team on 01709 787 403
2017 marks the penultimate centenary year of the end of World War One, and whilst next year will bring a whole host of important anniversaries surrounding the end of the conflict, 2017 itself still has many prominent centenaries including the battle of Passchendaele and the battle of Arras.
We’ve put together a timeline of all WWI anniversaries coming up in 2017, take a look below to see the significant dates we’ll remember this year.
Aside from working as Head Battlefield Guide for Leger Holidays I have also been involved as an advisor and contributor to television documentaries for the past fifteen years.
I work regularly with former BBC Producer John Hayes Fisher, and together we have made documentaries like Last Day of WW1 with Michael Palin, Dig WW2 with Dan Snow and WW1 Tunnels of Death about battlefield archaeology in Flanders.
My job as part of this is make sure the history is right, find John some good locations to film, some interesting stories to tell, and source interesting contributors to work with. John then does the hard work of turning it all into a television programme, and we are also lucky to work with first class crews who also help make that possible; the hard work and professionalism of cameramen and sound crews are often overlooked.
The current project, which will be broadcast at 7pm on Channel 4 on 13th November, is entitled Last Heroes of the Somme. Much of the TV coverage of Somme100 this year focussed on the beginning of the battle and 1st July, when so many died. But we thought it would be interesting to look at the end of the battle in November 1916 especially as Remembrance Sunday fell on the centenary of the Battle of the Ancre.
We spent the first few months of working on the programme out on the battlefields; walking and driving around the area associated with the attack on 13th November; from Serre in the north to near Thiepval in the south. This gave some ideas of how it would be filmed and also valuable time to think about potential stories, which soon lead us to contact our extensive network of WW1 experts.
We knew tanks had been used in the battle and thanks to WW1 Tank expert Stephen Pope we were able to trace the story of a tank that helped save the day at St Pierre Divion on 13th November, and find a relative of one of the crew who died. Using modern mapping technology, we were even able to work out where the tank had come to grief having broken through the German trenches.
Back in the 1990s I had carried out a lot of research on the Hull Pals, and following some trips back to the city we quickly realised that their attack at Serre on 13th November 1916 had been as deadly for them as for the Accrington, Barnsley, Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield lads on the same spot on 1st July. Incredibly we found 100-year-old Muriel in Hull, whose father had died at Serre in that very attack; one of the last handful of children whose father had died in the Great War. Her part of the story is very moving indeed.
We filmed the programme in some of the hottest weather this summer but it made the Somme battlefields look stunning, and the drone footage we took as part of the filming certainly does some justice to how the battlefields look today. It was good to work with so many old friends on the project too, such as contributors and researchers like Professor Peter Doyle and Rob Schaefer (who guides our Fritz and Tommy tours). I was also able to bring in the Stockdale family from Kent; Frank Stockdale is a former tank driver who I have known for many years and his great uncle was killed in the 13th November 1916 battle at Hamel. He brought his young family over and as part of the film we were able to shed new light on what had actually happened to him; showing that we still really do have new things to learn about the Great War.
Making television programmes is not as easy as it may appear to some (just like battlefield guiding!), but in Last Heroes of the Somme I hope we have done justice to the often-forgotten end of the Battle of the Somme and shown that you can make a family history programme involving ordinary people without having to use celebrities; after all the Great War was in essence about ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances, and honouring that legacy is as important on the screen as when we do it on battlefield tours.
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Paul Reed, our Head Battlefield Guide, will publish regular blogs including personal stories, new tour updates and plenty of interesting and factual information about the Battlefields of Europe and beyond. Sign up below and receive email alerts keeping you up to date with Paul’s blogs.
Early on 9 January 1916 the last British troops withdrew under cover of darkness from the beaches of Helles; the Gallipoli campaign was over.
As in the previous month when ANZAC Cove and Suvla Bay areas were silently emptied of troops, the operation was a tactical success with no loss of life suffered.
What had started as a bold and imaginative Allied plan to eliminate the Ottoman Empire’s threat to Russia had over the previous ten months been conducted with almost unrelenting incompetence at the command level.
Of the half a million Allied troops deployed around half had become casualties of enemy action, disease and extremes of weather. The Turks had suffered even more but had won a decisive victory.
The main reasons for failure were quite clear, even at the time. There was no element of surprise as the Royal Navy had been trying to force the passage of the Dardanelles to attack Istanbul long before it was admitted that a land force would have to play a major role by deploying onto a hostile shore.
The fighting ability of the Turks and their Ottoman subjects was also severely underestimated. They had faltered as our allies in the Crimea and in more recent showings against Greece and Russia they had come off badly. However in all these previous encounters they had been outnumbered and badly administered. This time they were fighting on their own soil.
The Turks had some professional German support in the field. They also had an outstanding divisional commander in Mustafa Kemal who later, as Kemal Ataturk, led his country to a political revival the results of which can still be seen today.
On the other hand the Allies had a largely overage and indecisive command structure, which wasted the bravery of its troops, from Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and India.
In previous editions of Salute magazine I have extolled the benefits of taking part in a professionally run battlefield tour, something I had not been able to do myself for several years. The hundredth anniversary of Gallipoli seemed the right time to change all this and for some very good reasons.
My grandfather had been to Gallipoli as a young gunner with the Royal Field Artillery; he had never been inclined to speak about it, nor the following years in Salonika, on the Western Front and in Russia.
For my wife Durga the rationale for going there was stronger still. Her great grandfather had enlisted in the Gurkhas in Burma and fell at Gallipoli. When her mother’s family fled from the invading Japanese in the next war all their family records were lost, thus information for more detailed research was not available.
It was almost certain that he died with 2/10GR, the battalion I joined in 1967. We added another, local angle for our visit as a villager remembered on our Kingussie War Memorial had died there with the ANZAC forces, having emigrated to Australia in 1907.
After a long deliberation we chose Leger Battlefield Tours and had no reason to regret this, as they had well rehearsed schedules and provided excellent value for money. We had British Airways flights and a night in Istanbul at each end of the trip.
The five nights on the peninsula were at the pleasant Kum Hotel, on the beach on the west, facing the Aegean Sea, whereas most other groups stayed in the towns of Eceabat or Canakkale. We had three and a half days covering the battlefields at a sensible pace, then a day at Eceabat, Canakkale and Troy.
Finally we had an afternoon and the following morning before the flight home to explore Istanbul. The friendly people, fascinating historical sites and the superb tram service made us wish we had had more time there.
Because of summer heat and centenary crowds we went at the end of September and in our week there progressed from cool tee shirts to warm fleeces. There were 27 in our group, all of whom had either been with Leger before or had a family reason to visit Gallipoli.
Our tour guides, Gary Ashley and Erdem Keseli, were outstanding in every way, taking on a large number of personal requests to visit particular graves and memorials as well as providing detailed commentary and assistance throughout.
The Turkish authorities have taken great care to preserve the battlefields though the growth of trees and shrubs now make it difficult in some areas to relate to photographs and accounts of the time.
In a straight line it’s only twenty miles from Helles in the south to Suvla Bay at the northern limit of the landings but there is plenty to see in between. In particular the Canakkale Destani is an ambitious museum project, which makes you feel you were there, sometimes very forcefully. It’s largely unsubtle propaganda, of course, but in my opinion none the worse for that.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission continues to do a magnificent job. As on the Western Front there are many more names on memorials, 27,000 plus, than on individual graves, 6,000 plus, interestingly about the same figures as for the whole of the Burma campaign, excluding prisoners of war.
Due to local religious sensitivities the Cross of Sacrifice is replaced by a plainer one embedded onto a memorial wall, which also incorporates the Stone of Remembrance. Due to the soggy ground Individual graves are pedestal shaped and without regimental badges.
As ever some of the individual family epitaphs are heart breaking to read even a century on. Most of the cemeteries and memorials were designed by the Scottish architect Sir John Burnet. There were many casualties from Scotland, mainly from the 52nd Lowland Division and two brigades of dismounted Scottish Yeomanry.
The French have a separate cemetery with their unidentified dead in four ossuaries. They held the right flank with great gallantry throughout and their artillery supported the whole Helles front. The Turks had no individually identified graves but have erected symbolic, named headstones instead, as well as some striking sculptures of a stridently patriotic nature.
As the Indian and Gurkha dead were cremated after the war, the only individual 2/10GR Gurkha grave is for Havildar Punahang Limbu whose remains were found quite recently on Chunuk Bair, towards the limit of the Allied advance.
His marker is of Bulgarian granite, which is now being used as the earlier Portland stone discolours in the salty air. For us he symbolized all the Gurkhas who had died so far from home.
On our last evening on the peninsula we visited Shell Green Cemetery, one of many in ANZAC Cove, where we laid a poppy on the grave of Trooper Sydney Brown of the 1st Australian Light Horse. He had come a long way too, from Kingussie via Australia, to his final resting place overlooking the Aegean Sea.
ThisÂ GallipoliÂ article was originally written for Salute Magazine,Â a free magazine for the ex Service community in Scotland. Find out more, here.
On a Battlefield tour, it’s not unusual to come across group members with personal connections to the tour they are on. Whether it be through a distant relative, great-grandparents or even a parent.
On one of our recent Battlefield tours, D-Day Landings in Normandy, a passenger of ours had set out on a truly personal trip. Ruth Bettle was on the tour following the footsteps of her late husband, Sergeant Vic Bettle.
Sergeant Bettle was part of the 7th Parachute Battalion, would have jumped in or around the Pegasus Bridge area of Normandy on D-Day, 6th June, 1944, as part of Operation Tonga. The Parachute Battalion were tasked with giving support to the D Coy of 2nd (Airborne) Battalion Ox & Bucks Light Infantry led by Major John Howard.
What we know is that 7 Para Bn advanced to the area of Putot-en-Auge in August 1944.
Ruth had received correspondence from a French national several years ago who had been staying in a chÃ¢teau in the town of Putot-en-Auge. The grounds of the chÃ¢teau played host to a barn, it was in this barn that he had come across something special.
He had found an inscription signed ‘Sgt Vic Bettle, 7th parachute Batallion, 19 August 1944’. The inscription simply read ‘We chased them out this morning’.
The tour was led by our Battlefield Guide, Fred Greenhow, who after speaking to Ruth, arranged for our drivers, Chris and Brenda, to take a drive out to the chÃ¢teau in the early evening of Sunday 5th April.
The owners were away at the time, however, with much persuasion and the use of Fred’s ‘Geordie Charm’, the young girl who lived in the ‘gate-keepers’ house allowed them access to the barn.
“It was an absolute ‘Condor Moment’” Said Fred. “When I was able to take the wife (Ruth Bettle) of a Veteran back to the place where her late husband wrote an inscription on the wall of a barn in the grounds of a Chateau / Manor House, and the inscription is still there and as clear as the day it was written over 70 years ago.”
“Ruth was absolutely overwhelmed when we found the Chateau in the village of Putot-en-Auge, approximately 30 km’s to the East of Caen. Her husband Sgt Vic Bettle who served with 7 Para Bn, wrote his message on the 19th August 1944, it was discovered by a Frenchman in 1998, who tracked down Vic by writing to Gen Napier Crockenden, 6 Airborne Division Association.”
On a Battlefield tour, you’re heading off on a journey of learning, understanding and appreciation, when we can reunite family and friends with a sense of their past, it’s something we are very proud of. Thanks to Fred, and to Ruth and her daughter Karen, we can share this story and keep the memory of Sgt Vic Bettle alive.
Interesting Fact: ‘The Longest Day’, a war film from 1962 featuring John Wayne, Richard Burton and Sean Connery, covers Operation Tonga. Â The actor Richard Todd OBE, who appeared in the film, served alongside Sgt Bettle in the 7 Para Bn and also played the role of Major John Howard. Another actor played Richard in the film.
Day 4 We set off on another misty day to visit Jerusalem Cemetery, a very small place with only 48 buried at the cemetery. I found a grave of J Banks DLI who died on the 21st July 1914Â aged just 16. How can a child die like that because he wanted to do the right thing for King and Country? We stopped to take some photographs of a memorial to the 49th West Riding Division and then onto the Scottish Corridor and Hill 112 to look at a Cromwell tank. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see much from the top of the hill due to the mist. We stopped off in a town called Falaise for lunch â€“ this town is famous for being the town where William the Conqueror was conceived â€“ before going to Mont Ormel, known as The Polish Battlefield. We also went to a small but fantastic museum which had great artifacts and also a fantastic view of where the German retreat took place. The group’s last stop was at a National French monument which is a tiger tank abandoned by its crew. We had a group photo taken by Bill.
The thoughts on my first Leger WW2 trip? Simply fantastic. Our guide, Bill McQuade’s knowledge was amazing and all our questions were answered. His passion for his subject is simply wonderful. Our drivers, Mark and Dave were safe drivers, always helpful and well turned out. With the 70th anniversary of D-Day fast approaching, I would recommend this trip without a doubt.
This was my second trip with Leger in under six months â€“ my first was All Quiet on the Western Front â€“ and I’ve enjoyed them both. Which one next? Verdun? Fritz? Tommy? Who knows, but whichever one I book, I know it will be great.
A new car cleaning kit, baking a cake or a matching shirt and tie set are all very nice ideas but are they a little predictable? Why not take a look at our ideas for Fathers Day.
Many dads across the country would be over the moon with a car cleaning kit, but I was thinking this year I’m going to look at something a little more exciting. This father’s day I’m thinking outside the box something like a Formula One Grand Prix Weekend.
If your dad is anything like mine, then there is nothing he enjoys more than a weekend packed full of sport. Especially when the Formula One season starts. A big ambition of his is to go to a Formula One Grand Prix Weekend. Around this time of year is when the annual comments like “Next year we are going to go to Monaco” or “I would love to of been there for that race” make an appearance.
I know not all dads are the same. If a sporting weekend is not your dads’ cup of tea, maybe a Battlefield Tour would be more suitable? Our Battlefield tours are very popular amongst Leger customers. Especially in the build up to Fathers Day, a favourite amongst our customers is the All Quiet on the western front tour.
The Formula One Race Weekends and Battlefield tours are just a couple of ideas we suggest as ideas for Fathers Day gifts. Our website houses a variety of alternatives that maybe more suitable. There are tours that include city breaks, cruises, and many other live events including the Andrea Bocelli in Tuscany.
For more information on any of our tours or for more ideas for Fathers Day please visit our website. Alternatively you can contact our friendly reservations team on 01709 787 463.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user: Jim, the Photographer
My great great uncle, Ernest Edward Ford, a Rifleman in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, was killed at Passchendaele on 31st July 1917. For his efforts in the war, he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field. In December 2011, I tracked down his campaign medals and the military medal. This brought to an end to the 60 year search involving both my father and I. Here is the full story.
The 60 year search started in the early 1950’s. My father, Douglas Ford was taken to Bawdsey Parish Church near Woodbridge in Suffolk, by his father, my grandfather. Whilst at the church he was shown a plaque on the wall commemorating those from the village who were killed in the First World War. One of those names was Ernest Edward Ford. My grandfather told my father that Ernest was his great uncle. My father was fascinated by this and wanted to find out more, so he talked to his Uncle, his father’s brother who had some information on the family history. He explained to my father that Ernest Edward had been awarded the Military Medal, however he did not know the whereabouts of the medals. He said to my father “perhaps you will find out one day what happened to the medals”.
My father was also interested to know whether Ernest Edward had a grave, and where it was. However, nobody in the family seemed to know. My father’sÂ uncle did, however, state that he believed Ernest Edward had moved to Goole, and it was there where he had enlisted.
In the mid 1950’s, dad started training as a carpenter and joiner, and finished his apprenticeship in 1960. He began to travel in the UK and overseas in the construction industry. He had never lost his curiosity about the medals, and everywhere he travelled with work, he would put notices in shop windows, enquiring on the off chance that somebody might read them, who knew of their whereabouts. He also never walked past an antiques shop without going in to see if they had any medals, and would always inspect any medals they had in stock to see if they were Ernest Edward’s.
In the late 60’s, Dad moved to Wakefield in West Yorkshire and settled there. He continued to search for the medals over the coming years. He also wrote to the war office however they did not seem very forthcoming in those days with giving information out.
The search continued, and in the 1980’s, dad was told that, if he knew Ernest Edward’s service number, he might be able to obtain more information from the war office on the whereabouts of the grave and the medals. He also found out that Military Medal recipients were mentioned in the London Gazette. By this time, I had joined my dad in the research of his family history. We went to the reference library in Leeds, where we were shown a collection of London Gazettes that had been catalogued into books. The series from 1914 to 1918 filled a shelf. We were told that, somewhere in those books, Ernest Edward would be cited, along with his service number, however there was no way of knowing which book it would be in. We set about the daunting task of going through each book in turn. Dad started at one end of the shelf, and I started at the other, to see if we could find the information. Luckily, I found the citation in the second book I picked up. This was our first real breakthrough, as we now had Ernest Edward’s service number.
Dad then wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, they confirmed that Ernest Edward had enlisted in Goole, and they told us that Ernest Edward was commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres. At last we knew where his memorial was and that he didn’t have a known grave. However we still didn’t know what had become of the medals, and even with the additional information, the War Office would not shed any more light on it, saying only that the medals would have been released to the next of kin. But there was no sign of the medals in the family.
Now that we knew the whereabouts of the grave, we decided to visit Ypres, and hoped that we might find out some more about the medals. Our first visit to Ypres was for Armistice Day 2001. We visited the Menin Gate, and also spoke to lots of people to see if we could get any more tips on how we might continue the search for the medals, however we didn’t really get any further.
In around 2005, there was another breakthrough. One of dad’s cousins gave him a death plaque that had been issued to Ernest Edward’s mother . She had been in possession of it for some time and decided to give it to dad when she found out about his search for the medals. Dad decided to write to the war office again, stating that he was now in possession of the death plaque. He asked again if there was a record of who had received the medals after the war. The war office wrote back and said they would have been issued with the death plaque to the same person. We wondered if the medals had been in the family but maybe sold on.
At around the same time, we became aware that Leger Holidays ran trips to the Ypres Salient and heard of very good things about their battlefield tour guides. In 2006 we decided to return to Ypres, this time on a Leger Battlefield tour. It was then that we met Paul Reed and Keith Quibbell, who gave us lots of good advice on how we might move our search along, and also did some research on our behalf.
We continued searching for the medals over the next few years, but still could not find any trace.
In 2011, we visited Ypres again on a Leger tour, and one of the things that we learnt from that trip was how many war records were now being catalogued on the internet. On our return, I visited Ancestry.co.uk where I found some limited records for Ernest Edward. These records did not give us any more information though.
However, only a few weeks later, in December 2011, we had another big breakthrough. Another wave of war records had been loaded onto the internet site, including Ernest Edward’s. From those, we found lots more information, and, crucially, there was a document that stated that the beneficiary of Ernest Edward’s will was a Mrs Jackson in Goole. Not only that, but also there was a copy of a receipt, that confirmed these medals had been sent to Mrs Jackson, and not to the Ford family as the War Office had indicated. At last we knew where the medals had gone. My father and I discussed our next move, and decided that, in the New Year we would visit Goole, to see if we could track the Jackson family down, and to see if they had the medals.
Before that happened though, the last breakthrough came, and this one was the most astonishing. Over that preceding two years, I had periodically been doing internet searches on Ernest Edward Ford and Military Medals, to see if anything came up. Nothing ever had. However, just before Christmas I repeated the search, and there in front of me, on the computer screen, was a copy of an auction catalogue from Warwick and Warwick auction house. Within that catalogue was one lot, for E E Ford – Military Medal, Victory Medal and British War Medal. I had finally found the medals. There was one snag though, the auction had taken place that day, it seemed the medals had most probably been sold, and maybe lost forever. I spoke to dad about it, and undeterred, dad then phoned the auction house the next day. The auction house told us that the medals had been in a private collection for some 50 years; however the collection had recently been opened up, to be auctioned. They also told us that Ernest Edward’s medals had been sold to a dealer, Dixons medals in Bridlington. Dad then phoned Dixons, and spoke to the proprietor, Chris Dixon. On finding out that the medals had been awarded to our ancestor, and hearing the story of our search, Chris immediately agreed to sell them to us, for a discounted price, and without offering them to the open market. We were so relieved and so grateful at how sympathetic Chris had been towards us. On December 21st 2011, dad and I travelled to Bridlington, where we picked up the medals from Chris Dixon. Finally, the search had come to an end, and for the first time ever, the medals were in the possession of the family.
We could not believe that we had the medals, but what astonished us more, was some of the coincidences in the story. Firstly, Ernest Edward had grown up in East Anglia, and moved to Yorkshire before the war where he settled. Dad commented on how he had also grown up in East Anglia and settled in Yorkshire. Secondly, the medals had also made their way to Yorkshire after the auction. They seemed destined to come to us.
If there’s one message that we would like to give to other people who might be in the same position of not knowing where their ancestor’s medals are – that message would be to never give up. After nearly 60 years of a search which seemed like a search for a needle in a haystack, we have the medals back where we feelÂ they belong.
If you are interested in any of the battlefield tours we offer, please visit our website Leger Battlefield Tours.
There are a few National Lottery syndicates here at Leger HQ, as I’m sure there are at workplaces across the country. There’s many a happy conversation about what we’d do if we won, the trips we’d take and who would and who wouldn’t give up work.
Even though week after week we never hit the jackpot (£10 doesn’t go far between eight of you), one of the best things about the lottery is all the worthwhile causes it helps to support. A staggering £29bn has been raised since it launched almost 20 years ago.
One of the activities it helps to fund is particularly close to our heart the Heroes Return Grant, taking veterans back to the places where they fought during the Second World War.
On one of our February D-Day Landings battlefield tours we were joined by a film crew from the BBC’s National Lottery Saturday night TV programme. They were following a lovely veteran called Ray Wilton, along with his daughter Debbie Cox and grandson Alex. Ray was a member of the Royal Navy in WWII, joining as a telegraphist in 1943. He took part in the D-Day landings at Gold Beach on 6th June 1944, where he served on a motor launch, leading the 50th Northumbrian Division on initial landing. This visit was the first time Ray had returned in almost 70 years. As well as Gold Beach he also visited Pegasus Bridge and other key sites in Normandy linked to the landings.
Ray explains what it was like returning. “It was very emotional,” he said. “Although it looked very different – it was a crisp, sunny February day as opposed to the fierce storm of June 1944 – the memories soon came flooding back. I could remember vividly those brave young men who died on that memorable day.
“The highlight of the tour for me was visiting the Arromanches Museum and signing their visitor book, being presented with a veteran’s medal and having a wonderful welcome from the French curator there. She was in tears as she gave me the medal and thanked me for ‘liberating her country’.”
Debbie Cox, Ray’s daughter, added: “It was an emotional but uplifting experience. With my son there too, it was wonderful to have the three generations sharing the experience together. It was a privilege to pay our respects to the fallen. The film crew were very sensitive and extremely professional and we thoroughly enjoyed their company, along with that of the coach drivers, tour guide and fellow passengers, who were a varied group of all ages. The tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and planned an excellent and varied tour which appealed to dad as a veteran, as well as people with an interest in the war.”
Tony Lea was the specialist battlefield guide on the tour. He commented: “It was obviously very emotional for Ray and his family, but something they felt it was extremely important to do. What people often don’t realise is that for those who fought, this visit back so many decades later can be like finding the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. My experience is that veterans often don’t know how the roles they played fit into the bigger picture of the war or the battle. They can be left with questions on why they were there and as part of a visit I will explain to them the wider story which can bring about a new understanding for them.
“Whenever we have a veteran on a tour, we will try and work around their personal experience, helping them to visit places which were important to them and weaving it into everything else that was happening at the same time. It’s fascinating to have the opportunity to speak to someone who was actually there and other visitors on the tour often find it invaluable and extremely moving to share their experience with someone who has that personal perspective.”
Ray’s story as shown on the ‘National Lottery: In it to win it’ programme can be seen on Youtube Part 1 and Part 2 .
In our magazine we’re always explaining to our readers that few experiences are as moving as visiting the fields on which family members fought and finding the grave or monument where they’re commemorated if they fell. To see the value of such an expedition for myself, I took a trip of the Western Front with Leger Holidays. ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ is a five-day introductory tour that includes meticulous visits of the Ypres Salient, Arras region and the Somme. It’s not only a must for any military history enthusiast, but also if you discover a family member who fought in these terrible battles of World War I.
Although there’s nothing stopping you visiting these places on your own, having an experienced tour guide with you makes the trip far more interesting, to add information on sites, facts and answer any questions that arise. Our expert Marc Hope gives colour to the history of the war, using maps, pointing out key positions and encouraging the attendees to take time to explore the cemeteries and monuments around every corner including going to “say hi to the Pals Battalions” who lay next to each other in Serre Road Cemetery no 2 on the Somme.
As well as the usual souvenirs, trips to battlefields can present a whole host of mementos. Any fan of programmes like Time Team will be aware of the priceless artefacts that can be uncovered in places such as battlefields and historic sites, in particular the Western Front with its high concentration of men taking part and unfathomable amounts of munitions used, many of which never exploded. Nearly a century later farmers on the Western Front are still digging up fragments of shells, clothes and, sadly, bodies. So it isn’t surprising when looking at the tower of the Ulster Division on the Somme that a farmer digs up two shells from WWI, undisturbed since they were fired in 1916, complete with heavy shrapnel balls that are shared out among our tour party.
The trip is both fascinating and incredibly moving, both for those who knew only patches of the history of the war or in my case, having read about it for 20 years. No matter how much you soak up from a book or watch in documentaries or dramatisations, the sheer scale of the loss and devastation wrought in this particular conflict is hard to fathom.
With preparations underway to commemorate the centenary of the war in 2014, with tours of the battlefields being booked up fast and events being planned across the country, there’s never been a better time to visit this scarred but fascinating corner of Europe, and discover the stories behind each name inscribed upon a wall or on a grave, for more information please visit the Battlefield Tours page