Journey's End: The Dugout Experience

With the JOURNEY’S END film released this year, there now comes a rare chance to see it LIVE on the very battlefields which inspired it a century ago.

MESH Theatre’s 5 Star production opened at Ypres’ Gunpowder Store (Het Kruitmagazijn) in Belgium last Autumn to universal acclaim and returns to Ypres to bring Armistice events to a close, 10 October to 12 November.
Writer R C Sherriff fought on the Western Front and was wounded at Passchendaele in 1917. He sets the play in March 1918 over three days leading up to the German launch of the battle of St Quentin (Operation Michael) on the Somme.  Men he fought with in the trenches are clearly recognisable in his colourful cast of characters holed up in a dugout on the front line, anticipating the attack. Lead character Captain Stanhope, first played by a young Laurence Olivier in 1928, is troubled by the arrival of his boyhood pal 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh. The resulting story is, the Telegraph said “ever-enthralling, good-humoured and finally heart-rending.” 
Gunpowder Store (Het Kruitmagazijn) in Belgium

Audience after audience in Ypres gave it standing ovations. The play’s director Sally Woodcock discusses why it had such impact: “It’s a combination of factors. They say good directing is 90 per cent casting: we had superb actors who brought a passion for the subject which took it to a new level. It’s a much-loved play, we received  1300 submissions for just 10 parts, so favoured those who wrote to us personally and this paid off. I felt the magic happening in the rehearsal room from day one. These guys knew exactly where to hang their packs, what was in them, when to take off their helmets, so we had time to dig around in the text for every ounce of meaning.

Gunpowder Store (Het Kruitmagazijn) in Belgium

Secondly, the play is a classic for a reason: it’s a brilliantly-crafted story with characters who strike real chords for people, especially soldiers, because it was written by a soldier and that authenticity is unmistakable. One ex-serviceman who’s been Battlefield-guiding for 25 years said, ‘I’ll never walk past a 2nd Lieutenant’s headstone again without seeing what I’ve just seen in there..’  Add to that a momentous point in time – the Great War Centenary – and iconic place – the 200-year old munitions store a ten minute walk from the Menin Gate – and you have something unforgettable. But that’s what live theatre does: it gives you a direct line to lived experience – the ‘whiff of cordite’ – which has a potency like nothing else.”

Woodcock’s favourite tributes are what she calls “the sublime and the ridiculous”. “The ‘sublime’ in a hand-written letter from General Sir James Everard KCB CBE, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe: ‘We saw Journey’s End last Saturday. It captured the atmosphere, tensions, humour and tragedies of trench life brilliantly.

Gunpowder Store (Het Kruitmagazijn) in Belgium

We teach all young officers that war is a trial or moral and physical strength, shaped by human nature and subject to the complexities, inconsistencies and peculiarities which characterise human behaviour. We also tell them – and they learn – that any view of the nature of war is incomplete without the consideration of the effects of danger, fear, exhaustion and privation on the men and women who do the fighting. For me this is what Journey’s End captures so well.’

See the Journey’s End play performed at Ypres and visit real locations connected with Journey’s End with Leger Holidays.

The ‘ridiculous’ (and delightful) was from a school girl, ‘Thank you for the amazing play. And sorry for crying so much at the end.’

But our favourite was, of course from Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph: ‘It might sound like the height of extravagance to recommend crossing the Channel for a few hours of theatre, but it honestly feels like paying the bare-minimum tribute… See it, then, and weep.’ “  

***** THIS PRODUCTION IS WORTH A TRIP TO BELGIUM
The Daily Telegraph

Barnsley Pals: Following in the Footsteps of Local Heroes

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.

Leger Battlefields Tour Group

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.

Leger Holidays Luxuria Coach

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.

Pegasus Bridge

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

ANZAC by Scott Brand

On the 25th April 1915, Australian and New Zealand forces stepped ashore onto the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsular, Turkey. They were part of a large expeditionary force comprising of British, Indian, Newfoundland and French forces, with the aim of fighting their way into Turkey and capturing Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

An ambitious plan, and what could have been a bold strike that might well have changed the course of the war, very quickly deteriorated into stalemate of trench warfare only a short distance inland from the landing sites. A variety of reasons contributed to this impasse, but primarily the fighting ability of the Turks was severely underestimated, putting up a fierce and unrelenting defence.

Australians in WW1

 
The end result was eight months of horrific trench warfare, which claimed the lives of thousands of men from both sides as a result of combat and disease.  When it was acknowledged that the Gallipoli campaign was untenable, the decision was made to leave the peninsular and on the 20th December 1915, The Australians and New Zealanders under secrecy and the cover of darkness were evacuated from Gallipoli. In those eight months, 28,150 Australians became casualties, which includes 8,709 killed and 7,473 New Zealanders with 2,721 killed in action.
Rewinding sixteen months to the outbreak of war in August 1914, Australia had only been a federated nation for thirteen years and New Zealand seven, and though contingents of militia from both Australia and New Zealand had been sent to fight in South Africa during the Boer War, both countries had not fought in any major conflicts as nations. Keen to play their part, both Governments went about recruiting men, and thousands of men rallied to the call. Late 1914, the first wave of Australians and New Zealanders set off destined for the Western Front in Europe, but were diverted to Egypt and subsequently Gallipoli. This contingent of antipodeans were known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, but more commonly ANZAC’s, and it was the 25th April 1915 that the ANZAC’s wrote themselves into history and into the psyche of the Australian and New Zealand Nations.
 
Gallipoli Battlefields

The 25th April soon became a day of remembrance, with the first ANZAC day in 1916. There were commemoration ceremonies throughout the two countries and 2000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers marched through the streets of London. However, Gallipoli would be the last time the two nations would fight side by side for some time and it wouldn’t be until June 1917 at the Battle of Messines in Belgium, before they fought alongside each other again Throughout the remainder of the war ANZAC day continued to be a day of commemoration with marches in major cities, but it was used for recruitment rallies also.
At the end of hostilities in November 1918, over 60,000 Australian and over 18,000 New Zealanders had been killed, the majority on the Western Front. ANZAC day commemorations continued after the war, though there was no formal organisation, commemorations took on many different forms throughout Australia, with a morning vigil being popular amongst veterans as they most likely found peace in the quite solitude of the dawn. It was these vigils that formed the basis of the Dawn Service, which is a regular part of the ANZAC commemorations we know today.
Dawn ANZAC Day Service on the Somme

ANZAC day continued to be popular and following Word War 2, there became a new generation of ANZAC’s to commemorate. In the 1960’s with Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the popularity of ANZAC Day declined with many commemoration services marred by anti-war protests. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that they regained the popularity and attendance they had seen post World War 2.
As a young soldier in the Australian Army in the 1980’s, I participated in many ANZAC day commemorations and I have strong memories of marching along George Street in Sydney and the pavements were lined with thousands of people. As far as the eye could see along George Street it was a sea of khaki, white and blue, with the men and woman of the Army, Navy and Airforce, marching alongside veterans of three wars. The day always started with the dawn service at a war memorial local to our barracks and then it was back to the RSL (Returned Service League) for a rum with the veterans, before heading into the city for the main march. ANZAC day always ended back at an RSL for the biggest game of two-up, with the calls of “come in spinner” ringing around the room. Incidentally the only time it’s legal to play.
Villers-Bretonneux

In my younger years, I always associated ANZAC day with the remembrance of the dead and missing in the mud of France and Flanders, the beaches of Gallipoli and the sands of Mesopotamia, however as I become more involved in military history it became more than that for me.  ANZAC day for me now is not only commemorating the ultimate sacrifice so many of those men made, but it is also remembering the ones that came back. So many returned from war changed men, whether physically or mentally and the war would have a profound impact on them for the rest of their lives. It’s also reflecting on the impact war has on those left behind, whether grieving for the loss of a loved one or caring for the injured. Seeing the veterans turned out in their best bib and tucker, proudly wearing their medals, smiling and joking amongst their mates, it was easy for me to forget the painful memories so many would have had.
ANZAC day is for commemorating the fallen and celebrating the achievements of the Australian forces in all the wars it has been involved in, but also reflecting on and remembering as it has been so eloquently said to me so many times “Just ordinary men doing extraordinary things”
Join us for our Centenary of ANZAC at Villers-Bretonneaux on this 5-day tour from £399pp.

2017 Battlefield Anniversary Timeline – WWI

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. 

 

Take a look at our Battlefield tours covering WW1 heading out in 2017 on our website, www.visitbattlefields.co.uk or on our main website www.leger.co.uk/battlefields.

Beer and Battlefields: The Man Behind the Concept

Looking ahead into 2017, we’ve got big events coming up. From the Centenary of Passchendaele to the 75th anniversary of Dieppe, there’s an interesting year ahead on our Battlefield tours. Yet, there’s one itinerary that really stands out. New for 2017, this tour isn’t focused on a big anniversary, neither is it visiting new ground, it’s just a whole new concept that has really got people talking. Beer and Battlefields.

Mark Hope: Beer and Battlefield creator
Marc Hope

Designed by our very own Battlefield Guide Marc Hope, our Beer and Battlefields tour combines battlefield sites from both World Wars with visits to a selection of the best breweries in Belgium. And, who better to give us the inside scoop than Marc himself? In this exclusive interview, find out just why this tour is going to take 2017 by storm.
Q: Beer and Battlefields, it’s certainly an interesting concept. How did it first come about?
A: It came about several years ago when I used to do Brewery Tours around Belgium and France. Originally we concentrated on the Trappist Breweries and then onto various other establishments which took us over the Battlefields of WW1 &WW2. People then started to look at the Battlefield side of things as I used to give a running commentary as we passed through these sites. It snowballed from there with us doing the Battlefields in the morning and Breweries in the afternoon as; believe it or not, people didn’t want to spend all day in Breweries. It’s a more relaxed kind of Battlefield tour where we can digest the Battlefields over a great beer.
Q: What significance does beer have to the stories of World War I and World War II? Is it something that is often overlooked?
A:  A Medical Officer once said “Had it not been for the rum ration, I do not think we should have won the War.” Winston Churchill would acknowledge alcohol by saying “It saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the Doctors in the Empire.” Therefore alcohol and the role it played are very much overlooked, as it played a significant part in Soldiers and Civilian lives during both Wars.
Alcohol, particularly Rum was administered as a treatment for everything from Shellshock, wounds, hypothermia, flu right through to exhaustion! Most commanders issued double rations when men were going ‘over the top.’ Alcohol was also used as a motivational tool, a reward and a cure. It was a great way for men to unwind behind the lines in the local Estaminets and cafe’s.
On the downside it led men to be Court Martialed and imprisoned for drunkenness. It could also lead to forfeit of pay up to 28 days. Officers could also be forced to give up their commission or ‘Cashiering’ as it’s known.
The British Government became very concerned that drunkenness was affecting War production back at home so they introduced the Defence of the Realm Act. This meant that licensed premises could only open between certain hours and this wasn’t overturned until 2005, so affected us up until quite recently.
Q: How did you choose the breweries that are featured in the tour? Are there any that really stand out?
A: I picked these Breweries as they represent the Battles of WW1, WW2 and what the troops, and civilians, got up to behind the Lines. These Breweries are all establishments I’ve visited in the past. They are connected to the War by either producing alcohol for the troops or being associated on the Battlefield themselves.  For instance the Kazematten Brewery in Ypres is housed in the old Ramparts where once upon a time they used to produce the ‘trench gazette’ for the troops. It still produces the Wipers Times, but now in a form of a beer. It still retains the medicinal Saint Mary’s Thistle (blessed thistle) on the label of the beer which was originally found on the front page of the newspaper. They all have something unique.
Q: Compared to the other Leger Holidays Battlefield tours you have guided, how will Beer and Battlefields stand out to you?
A: It gives a different concept to the Battlefields themselves. It gives an insight as to how alcohol, food and tobacco influenced and shaped these soldiers in their everyday lives. It’s not all about Battles but rather what the troops did to relax and how they integrated with the civilians behind the lines. It’s also a look into how alcohol got a lot of Soldiers into trouble and also how many won Bravery Awards whilst under the influence.
Q: Whilst researching the tour, did you come across any interesting stories that you can give us as a sneak peek into?
A: As with Alcohol in general, it leads to some very bizarre stories and circumstances. All I can say it led to one particular soldier nearly marrying a cow to another nearly winning the Victoria Cross! These and many more stories will be told on the tour.
Q: Do you think the premise of the tour will attract people to the battlefields, who may not have considered it previously?
A: Yes indeed as not everyone wants to do a full day Battlefield Touring. We’ve had it many a time on tours where ‘the other half’s’ have bought a Battlefield Tour, as a present, and they feel obliged to come along. This way they get the best of both worlds. Supporting their partner’s and then going for drinks and guided brewery tours after. They can even chuck in a bit of shopping! It’s far more relaxed. It will also, hopefully, attract people who like their beer but would like a bit of culture and history to go alongside it. They complement each other very nicely.
Q: What is your favourite beer sampled on the tour?
A: I can’t remember! That’s a very tough question. As Belgium alone has over a 1000 beers it’s hard to narrow it down to one particular beer. Can I just say it’s still ongoing research?
Q: You’re quite active on social media, have you had any interesting comments or questions regarding the Beer and Battlefields tour?
A: It certainly seems to be going down very well, just like beers I expect! It’s very much straight forward as the title does what it says on the tin, or bottle in this case. I think a few people were concerned how this itinerary was going to pan out. Once I told them it’s going to be Battlefields in the morning, followed by the Brewery tours in the afternoon, it seemed to put their minds at ease. We didn’t want it getting too messy doing it the other way round! You can’t go wrong with Battlefields and then beer after.
Q: What are you most looking forward to when the tour gets on the road?
A: Meeting old and new faces. It’s great to be going to new places and the Hop Museum is a fantastic place to visit. All the Breweries offer something different with their own regional beers. It certainly gives a very different aspect to the two Great Wars from both sides.
Q: What three words would you use to describe this tour?
A: ‘Hoppy’ times ahead.
Our Beer and Battlefields tour will be hitting the road from June 2017 on either a 4 or 5 day break with executive and Silver Service travel Available. Staying at the 3* Novotel in the heart of Ypres, join us from just £399pp.
Follow Marc on Twitter: @Thegr8war
 

Paul Reed: Making Last Heroes of the Somme

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.

the-crew-on-location
The crew on location

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.
filming-graves-on-the-somme-2
Filming graves on the Somme

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.
filming-at-thiepval
Filming at Theipval

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.
martin-miles-his-ancestor-died-with-the-tanks-in-1916
Martin Miles whose ancestor died with the tanks in 1916

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.
filming-graves-on-the-somme
Filming the graves on the Somme

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.
the-stockdale-family-at-thiepval
The Stockdale family at Theipval

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: Being a Battlefield Guide

In my capacity as Head Battlefield Guide for Leger, every year I get dozens of letters and emails from people asking how they can become battlefield guides, or could they come to work for us.

However, what is clear is that often few of these prospective guides have any real idea of what is involved, or what we really do. So what is a battlefield guide, and what do we do?!
I did my first paid job as a battlefield guide in April 1987 when I took members of the Henry Williamson Society around the WW1 battlefields, and I am lucky to have been working pretty much continuously ever since.

early-days-with-leger-on-the-somme
Early Days with Leger on the Somme

How did I get into it?

It was simple, living in the south-east I had been in a good position to visit battlefields since the late 1970s and I had a good knowledge of the ground. First friends asked me to take them, then groups like this.
How I guided then was very different to how I do it now but certain things never change: it is not all about baffling groups with military terminology, rattling off lists of units, dates and commander’s names… it’s about people – and as I often say, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Most groups want to hear about the experience of war: what it was like, what people went through, how long they were there, what the conditions were like, what did they eat, where did they go to the toilet?
In that respect battlefield guiding is like story-telling, and that is not a bad analogy. I find that the most successful tours are ones that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Groups like to see a logical and understandable sequence to their visits, they like to understand how they are connected, they enjoy big themes, with some micro-detail to lighten the dark corners or blurred edges.
What they generally don’t want are ‘stands’ – a military style of battlefield tour that is fine for staff-rides but not for civilians, especially when discussing World Wars when the average British soldier was a civvie in Khaki themselves.

paul-reed-talking-to-ww2-veteran-in-italy
Paul Reed Talking to WW2 Veteran in Italy

Reading, Talking and Knowing your Roads

Reading, reading and more reading is always the best approach for battlefield guides. Read everything, read the new books because people will ask about them, read the old books, the ones by those who were there – those are very important, because they give the ground-up viewpoint. But don’t ignore the historians: battlefield tours can be a way of educating a wider public, so being aware of recent historiography, new thoughts on your period: that is very important too. It also means you can never have enough books, which is a bonus as well.
Talking, talking and more talking is also the best approach too. If you are shy, or not good at public speaking, this is not a job for you. Don’t just talk when you are on the ground, either. That is what the microphone on your vehicle is for: tell people what they are seeing as you travel, link these places with stories from the books you have read. Which means you have to know your ground: perhaps the thing new guides invest the least in, is knowledge of the battlefield as it is today.
You need to know the roads, the tracks, the best routes and the worst ones too: and more importantly how this terrain fits into the picture of the conflict you are guiding. Without that, you could just be driving around in circles and no-one would really be the wiser. And with the technology we have now, there is no excuse: a far cry from the days when I poured over paper maps and tried to re-imagine the places I had been on the last trip over.

guides-recces-at-waterloo
Guide’s Recce at Waterloo

In the end, your work as a battlefield guide should always be an evolving process. Never be afraid to change, or listen to advice from others. Most working guides are happy to share knowledge and contacts, and help people out. As guides we should have a common bond, and we have a duty to share what we have learned not just with groups but with fellow guides, too.
I often get asked do I get fed up with it: doing the same thing, visiting the same places? But how could I, when you consider what these places are and what they stand for. I consider myself blessed being able to be among them so often. Fortunate to have spent so many days in the company of veterans of both World Wars on the ground where they fought as young men. Honoured to have helped relatives visit a family grave, and shed a few tears with them over it.
taking-a-family-back-to-a-wargave-in-flanders
Taking a Family Back to a Wargrave in Flanders

And lucky, so lucky, that what has driven me for most of my life is also my job: a job where I have watched the ashes of a last veteran scattered across a Somme field, seen an old man weep over the grave of the man who saved his life, and experienced the comradeship of common experience as I’ve walked the ground with groups where so much took place: a landscape which in itself is a last witness that speaks to us if we care to listen.
Because, finally, the joy of battlefield guiding is not what the guide gets from it, but what the group experiences, sees and understands. None of us are bigger than the subject; perhaps one of the best mantras any perspective guide should always bear in mind. Be true to your passion, and never forget the debt we owe the men and women we discuss: with that approach, you can never go wrong.
leger-coach-on-the-battlefields
Leger Coach on the Battlefields

 
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Paul Reed: What The Somme Means to Me

I grew up on stories of the First World War from my grandmother: in 1916 she was a young girl in Colchester and remembered the wounded at the local station still with Somme mud on their uniforms, and recalled, often with tears, her own lost generation of cousins who never came home.

On the Somme 1988After years of reading about it, one summer more than 35 years ago I found myself walking the dusty tracks out from the town of Albert onto the fields and through the woods where this momentous battle took place. Walking the ground added a new dimension to my understanding not just of the Somme, but the whole First World War.
The ridges and the woods, and how they dominated the battlefield all made perfect sense and as I visited the area more and more it was clear the Somme was like many battlefields: it was a huge jigsaw of many pieces and gradually through visiting and researching, it’s story unfolded, the pieces came together, and it all made sense.
So many places on the Somme hold special memories for me during these early years of visiting: at Gommecourt I got access to a wood where one of the Great War veterans I knew had been dropping shells from his siege guns. Incredibly I found shell holes among the trees caused by his very guns!

Serre

the killing fields of Serre
The Killing Fields of Serre

Serre was always a special place to walk the ground, as I had interviewed veterans from Accrington, Barnsley, and Sheffield who had fought there. One thing they all recalled just before the whistles blew were the sound of skylarks singing high in the summer sky above the carnage that was about to unfold: and skylarks still sing at Serre, evoking those memories even a century later.
With veterans on the Somme 1985
With Veterans on the Somme 1985

Delville Wood

The woods of the Somme are incredibly atmospheric. In Delville Wood nature has triumphed after the place known as Devil’s Wood to the troops was reduced to mere matchsticks by the bombardments.
One tree from the original wood survived, but today the wood has regrown and is alive with flowers in the spring, and deer walk the rides where once battalion after battalion was destroyed. Somehow it all seems incredibly appropriate: that the return of the land to what it once was makes the sacrifice bearable, if not worthwhile.
Delville Wood 1916Among the trees of Delville Wood today
 

Newfoundland

Few trenches remain on the Somme, but at the Newfoundland Park a whole battlefield landscape was preserved not only making it possible to understand the static nature of WW1 but it is a place where you can sit and imagine the whistles blowing and men walking into machine-gun oblivion on the black day of 1st July 1916.
Here I think of my grandmother’s brother: shot through the legs as he went Over the Top that day.

trenches Newfoundland Park
The Trenches at Newfoundland Park

I’ve walked the Somme a thousand times, and I hope to continue to walk and visit it for many years to come, whether for television, with a Leger group or just on my own. It is a place that haunts you, and along its dusty lanes, and under the trees of its many woods, the voices of a generation of men still resonate.
The Somme will stand for so much to so many: sacrifice, tragedy or sheer bloody murder. But for me, it will always be a place where I can focus on the essence of the Great War: ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances, doing their bit in something they knew was bigger than them, and which defined the deaths of those who fell and the lives of the majority who came home. The Somme changed them all, and a hundred years later it can change us.
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In search of Great Uncle Sidney by Catherine Miles

A battlefield tour can mean many different things to many different people, whether they’re on a journey of discovery, or something slightly more personal, what you take from an emotive experiences such as these tours will differ from person to person.

Catherine Miles recently published an article on her blog following her visit to Tyne Cot cemetery, on our All Quiet on the Western Front tour, in which she writes to her Great Uncle Sidney, who was sadly lost during one the Ypres salient of World War I . Catherine has kindly let us share with you on our blog.

In Search Of Great Uncle Sidney

It’s a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon in the late 1970s and I’m about 8 years old. I’m standing in the back garden of my Grandmother’s house in Dagenham. I can hear the whirring of hand pushed lawnmowers as neighbours cut their grass. My Great Uncle Frank is with me and has just handed me a bronze medallion, about 5 inches in diameter.
The medallion has a relief of Britannia with a lion at her feet on one side. There is also a rectangular box with an embossed inscription. I trace my fingers over the letters.
Private Sidney Greaves
“He was my brother. He was killed in the First World War”. I look up. Great Uncle Frank is looking intently at me with his piercing blue eyes. The same eyes of my Grandmother and Dad.
“He was very young. Never forget him, Cath. It’s important. Never forget.”
Dear Great Uncle Sidney (can I call you Sid?)
We never knew each other, and this may seem a bizarre letter to write. I’m your Great Niece – your little sister Winnie was my Grandmother. I’m writing this in Belgium, just outside Ypres, in an area I guess you came to know all too well. I’ve come to see where you and your mates fought.
There’s lots we don’t know about you but we’ve pieced together the bald facts of your story. You were born in 1898, the fourth of 7 surviving children of Mary and Herbert Greaves. You lived in extreme poverty in Birmingham. Your Dad was an electrical light switch maker, then a labourer and the family lived in two rooms at the back of a shared house in Bacchus Road. I’d imagine it was a tough existence, which only became tougher as you grew up.
By the outbreak of war in 1914 both of your parents had died, along with the step-father who your mother married after your father’s death. Your elder brother Wallace had died aged 8. There clearly wasn’t a lot of money around as your mother died in the workhouse hospital. Your sister Winnie had been placed in an orphanage, and from there she went into service from the age of 14. Your youngest brother Frank had been adopted by a caring local couple who set him on a very different path in life: education, a decent job, a family. Your two older brothers, William and Herbert, had both joined the Army and were fighting in France.
We know you enlisted in your local regiment, the Warwickshires, in Birmingham. We don’t know exactly when. Did you join up under age in the surge of patriotic enlistment in 1914? Or were you conscripted in 1916, when compulsory military service was controversially introduced? This looks more likely – you’d have been 18 and eligible for service. We know that after you joined the Warwickshire Regiment you were transferred into the 6th Battalion, Royal Wiltshire Regiment. This suggests you were conscripted in 1916 – it was after this point the Army started to re-allocate new soldiers from their local Regiments to Regiments they had no geographical connection to. This was prompted by the horrendous losses on the Somme, particularly amongst Kitchener’s Pals Battalions. The huge losses incurred by full frontal infantry attacks against machine guns meant that entire communities were decimated when their local Battalions suffered severe casualties.
So let’s assume you were conscripted in 1916 and sent out to France to join the Wiltshires a few months later. How did you feel? Scared? A sense of patriotic duty to do your bit? Excited for the adventure? Was it better than the alternative of fending for yourself in Birmingham living a hand to mouth existence?
It’s October 1988. I’m 17 and on a 6th form trip to the World War One battlefields. I’m standing at a windswept Tyne Cot Cemetery under leaden skies, looking at the rows and rows of neat white gravestones. I scan name after name of the missing on the stone tablets arcing round one side of the cemetery. I try to imagine what it was like for these lads, many my own age, to stand in those trenches then climb out over the top when the whistle went at dawn. And I can’t imagine the mix of fear, adrenalin and dread they must have felt.
I turn to join my classmates getting back on our coach as the rain starts to fall, raindrops streaking the names on the stone. What I don’t realise is the significance of one of those names.
The Wiltshire Regiment you joined had seen significant fighting during the War. The 6th Battalion was formed in 1915 from the rush of volunteers responding to Kitchener’s call to join the Army. It fought at the Battle of Loos and at the Somme, taking large numbers of casualties each time. By 1917 when you were likely to have joined it, the Battalion was in Belgium preparing to take part in the next great Battle.
So now we come to the part of your story where we know a little bit more. In summer 1917 the British Army launched a new offensive against the Germans around Ypres in northern Belgium, aiming to push them back from the salient and away from their strategically important ports. The offensive was led by General Plumer, one of the more innovative WW1 Generals, and started in 7th June 1917 with the detonation of 19 massive mines under the German lines at Messiness ridge. The simultaneous explosion of the mines was so loud it was heard in England. As General Plumer told the Press before the mines detonated ‘Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography’.
God knows how loud it was for you Sid – it must have sounded as if the world was exploding.sidney-battlefield
The mines were a success, and the British gained ground, with your Battalion (including you, most likely) fighting in the thick of the action. There was then a pause before what became the Third Battle of Ypres began. During this time there was unseasonably high rainfall, turning the clay-based ground into a water-logged quagmire. Trenches flooded, the shell holes that pockmarked the landscape filled with water and if you fell in you could drown in them.
This was the battlefield which you were to fight in. After three years of total war the landscape was totally desolate, without a building and barely a tree left standing. Ypres and the fields around it had repeatedly been fought over since 1914, the ground being gained and lost by either side. Trenches snaked through the very slight inclines of the land.
It was in one of these trenches that you were standing on the morning of 20th September 1917, waiting for the order to attack. You would have looked out onto a wasteland of mud, shattered tree stumps, jumbles of barbed wire, and the remains of unburied men and horses. Your Battalion was to take part in what became known as the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, attacking parallel to the ridge line.
You were exactly here, about to attack up this slope.
I can’t imagine what you were feeling, standing in that trench with your mates. What I do know is that, according to the Battalion War Diary, at 5.40am the whistle blew and you climbed out of that trench and attacked the German lines. With artillery shells falling around you, machine guns firing in front of you and snipers taking aim at you. The Battalion war diary records:
At zero hour 5.40a.m Battalion advanced to the attack under a heavy creeping barrage by our artillery. Left front Company met with little opposition except for continuous Machine Gun Fire from the direction of CEMETERY EMBANKMENT. The machine guns appear to be located beyond the objective line and to fire through the Barrage. The dugouts in the wood at about O 6 a 7.7. were dealt with 3 Germans being killed and 19 taken prisoner. As ‘D’ Coy on the right seemed to meet with considerable resistance Capt. Williams (O.C. ‘C’ Coy) ordered his right front Lewis Gun to open a brisk fire on the dugouts in front of that Company.
The Company reached its objective O 6a 75.65 – O 6a 3.7 within 37 minutes of Zero and flares were lit in response to aeroplane calls at Zero plus 42. The consolidation was covered by Lewis Guns and the Company Snipers who were busily engaged endeavouring to pick off Germans moving down the railway embankment and also keeping down enemy sniping on the immediate front – one platoon sniper remained isolated in a forward position from the morning of the 20th until relieved on the night 21/22. Left Support Company consolidated its section of the intermediate line, several casualties were caused by sniping. The ground was very wet and water logged in places but firesteps were formed with sandbags.

And then at some point on that day you were killed. You were 19 years old. Your body was never found or identified.
Ironically, the action you were killed in was one of the more successful ones of the war. However, the battle that followed was one of the most attritional and horrific the British Army has fought. It’s name – Passchendaele – continues to epitomise the suffering, sacrifice and for some, the futility of the First World War. In your battle the British Army advanced five miles at a cost of 100,000 men killed. 1 man for every 35 metres gained. 1 of them being you.
It’s May 2016 and I’m standing again at Tyne Cot Cemetery. It’s a peaceful and beautiful place where 12,000 British servicemen are buried, the largest British Cemetery in the world. This time, however, I know who I’m looking for. I walk round the stone curved wall containing the names of 33,000 servicemen who were killed but their bodies never found or identified. These names are only those of servicemen killed after August 1917 in the Ypres salient. The original intention was for all of the missing to be inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. But despite its enormous size it could only take 55,000 names – which wasn’t enough. So Tyne Cot was expanded to take the rest.
The curved wall is a striking feature but within it are two circular rotundas with carved panels containing more names. I walk towards the left hand one. It’s a peaceful tranquil space.
And there you are Sid, on panel 120. The Royal Wiltshire Regiment, Private Greaves, S.
I stare at the panel for a long time. I read the names around you. Were any of these lads were your particular mates? Which of the 5 NCOs listed was the toughest on you? Lieutenant Adam Shapland appears and he was killed on the same day as you, aged 22. Was he one of your officers?
I place a remembrance cross at the bottom of your tablet. On it I’ve listed the names of your brothers and sister. Will and Herbert survived the war, but Will was gassed and never really recovered. He died in 1944 from the effects of the gas nearly 30 years earlier. It must have been tough knowing they survived the war but their younger brother didn’t.
Your little sister Winnie married a sailor from East London (a cockney, news which may not please you) and had two sons. One of them is my Dad. I call him now and tell him I’m standing in front of your name. He’s glad we’ve found you.
And I think of my Great Uncle Frank, who made sure we knew about you and inspired me to come and find you.
So why do thousands of British people visit the WW1 battlefields every year to find the names or graves of relatives they never knew? There are 34 people on my trip and many are searching for relatives. One has come to see her Uncle, Harry Anderson of the Staffordshire Regiment. It turns out Harry is on a plaque just two down from you so I go to see him as well. Another lays a wreath in remembrance of the grandfather she never met at the mighty Thiepval Memorial which has the names of a further 72,000 missing from the Somme. The losses of the First World War were so great they touched every family in the country. There were over 730,000 British servicemen killed – sons, fathers, brothers, uncles and friends.
I came to Tyne Cot because I wanted to honour your memory and pay tribute to the incredible bravery and sacrifice of you and your generation. I’m acutely aware and grateful that I have a life of comfort and opportunity which would have been unthinkable to you. I wanted to keep my promise to your brother Frank to remember you.
And I wanted to let you know that your family loved you, and cared enough to make sure that your great nieces and great nephews knew your story.
You have never been forgotten, Sid. For me, it’s so important that all of us who came after you remember you and remain eternally grateful that we have never found ourselves on the front line, being ordered to climb out of the trench.
With love from your great niece
Catherine

WW1: The Barnsley Pals by Edward Slater and Jill Morrison

A century ago, in August 1914, Great Britain plummeted into war. Involved in the battle were millions of soldiers and by 1916, conscripts. More than ¾ million men were never to return home. Hundreds of thousands more wounded or damaged mentally by what they had witnessed on the battlefield. Having been a professional soldier, and experienced active service, I can only comprehend in a minuscule way what these brave men must have endured.

My grandfather was a volunteer in the 14th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment – “The Barnsley Pals”. The “Pals” Battalions were a phenomenon of the Great War. The volunteers consisted of men from different social backgrounds, coal miners, office workers, young professional gentlemen. Mostly from the Barnsley area, designed to give them a common bond. Once recruited, they were trained and welded together to form a close knit
supportive unit called the 13th and 14th Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment and adopted the identity of the “Barnsley Pals”. They went into action for the first time at “Serre on the Somme” on the 1st of July 1916.
The only way for me to gain an insight into the conditions under which this war was waged in 1914/1918, was to take a specialised battlefield tour, using the expertise of a tour guide. Therefore, we chose Leger and we were fortunate in having available to us a well-known military historian, Paul Reed.
In both areas of conflict – Flanders and the Somme – battle conditions were almost identical. The futility of lives wasted in capturing a few yards of territory, at times costing hundreds of lives, sometimes only to be lost later in a counter attack. Existing in trenches, with constant shelling and sniper fire, sometimes knee deep in water and mud, with vermin ever present. Winter temperatures could be as low as -25â—¦C so keeping their circulation going to be able to fire their weapons was a constant problem. It is amazing how morale was maintained, they were also expected to go “over the top” when the order was given, knowing they faced near certain death. I can only assume that the comradeship of the “Pals” Battalion made this possible.
In Flanders, I could not see anything other than the stark reality of war; even in the villages which have been rebuilt there was an emptiness and chill in the atmosphere. The many military cemeteries maintained the aura and futility of war on both battlefronts. Because of this, I fear there can be no feeling of peace in either place.
The high point of the tour for me was when Paul Reed made an unexpected detour enabling me to visit my Grandfather’s grave at Hebuterne Communal Cemetery on the Somme, which fulfilled my desire of many years. A beautiful village cemetery with only twelve military headstones, my Grandfather’s head stone flanked on either side with two of his “Barnsley Pals”. The tribute to my Grandfather is written in the Book of Remembrance at Rotherham Minster. It reads as follows:
“ A Tribute to a Gallant Soldier and Leader of Men 14/396 L/CDL Edward Slater, 14th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment. On the 2nd of November 2014, I was privileged to visit your grave at Hebuterne Communal Cemetery, France, one day before the anniversary of your death on the 3rd of November 1916.
 Mr-Slater
On that day you led your Section into action, knowing that you were facing near certain death. Fearful, but determined, you paid the ultimate price with others of the “Barnsley Pals” who are buried either side of you. Grandad, I salute and admire your bravery. Your Grandson and proud bearer of your name – Edward James Slater – Army Veteran of 24 years’ service.”
I am most grateful to our Battlefield Guide Paul Reed for making the tour such a memorable and emotional experience.
 
 
Written by Edward Slater and Jill Morrison from Rotherham 
 
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