A bright autumn morning greeted me as I left my billet to rendez-vous with the others of the reconnaissance party at a convenient roadside hostelry. A none too subtle communication from the Commandant confirming their arrival hastened my steps and I was soon greeted by the sight of Major Trevor (Commandant, 1st Skinner’s), Captain Smerdon (Officer Commanding A Squadron), Lieutenant Dobie (Commandant protection and transportation) and Mr Harrison, our political officer, for the venture in to hostile territory. I was attending in my role as innocent bystander. Having just transferred into the regiment from the infantry I was intrigued to witness a cavalry style CO’s recce.
Having completed the correspondence part of his staff college training Captain Smerdon was tasked with the organisational and logistical requirements. I took the minimal O group and orders to indicate that this was a highly efficient unit well used to operating together with almost telepathic understanding and strict adherence to standard operating procedures. Either that or for security reasons Captain Smerdon was keeping his cards close to his chest. I did contemplate a third reason, this being that he was making it up as he went along, but soon dismissed this as simply not possible.
A simple journey to the port was soon behind us and rapid loading on to the sea transport soon saw us departing Blighty for the continent. The galley was soon located and still being of an infantry mind I determined that given there was the opportunity of food it should be grasped fully as you never know when you may get the chance again. The others, no doubt used to the more flexible approach to provisioning, satisfied themselves with toast and a cup of tea. I began to question the wisdom of my decision to have a full English breakfast – what did these cavalry types know that I didn’t !!!!! I was not aware of any planned stops for feeding but then again this bunch of hardened campaigners were surely impervious to minor distractions such as thirst and hunger. Maybe I should have had 2 breakfasts!
Following a quick commander’s O Group the remainder of the day’s activities were planned. Lieutenant Dobie and Mr Harrison (if that is his real name – can’t tell with these political types you know) excused themselves to visit the on-board bazaar where bargains were alleged to be had. Deciding that some travel rations may be in order I also availed myself of this facility.
After landing in France the agreed plan was rapidly discarded – and a swift relocation of the first stop to the British cemetery at Etaples was made. Like many of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites the cemetery was in immaculate condition and had an almost contradictory feeling of loss but also comradeship. The magnificent Lutyen’s architecture at the entrance was welcoming but also left you in no doubt that beyond was something of great reverence and importance. The scale was sobering, the range of units and countries amazing. You soon find yourself unconsciously regiment spotting, and realise quite soon that there not much point to it as every regiment and corps is represented. It was soon time to move on and head to the Meerut Military cemetery at St Martin-Les-Boulogne.
After some area reconnaissance (that is officer speak for “it took a bit of finding”!) we parked up and fortunately found that the gates were open as a notice on the gate post informed visitors that due to vandalism the gates have to be kept closed. What possible purpose vandalism to these monuments serves escapes me, though that is the very nature of vandalism I suppose. The register (along with the gate key) is available at the town hall. Given the location of the cemetery in the middle of a built up area the sense of peace and serenity was incredible. Again a bout of regiment spotting broke out and visit cards that Captain Smerdon had prepared were left. Regrouping at the transport we mounted and departed on our way to Auchonvillers (Ocean Villas) and our accommodation for our first night. At this point the travel snacks purchased on the boat were starting to run thin. We found a cafe and had a very passable lunch. Suitably revived we pressed on.
Another stop was made at a cemetery where there were 2 boys from 3rd Skinner’s – memorial cards were left for these brave men.
Arriving at Ocean Villas in good time we made use of the remaining light to visit Newfoundland Park, the site of an attack by the Newfoundland Regiment as part of the Somme Summer Offensive. The outline of the trenches can still be seen. The much used metaphor of a lunar surface is extremely apt when one looks over the heavily cratered ground. The visitor centre was very informative and well presented. . It was here that we began to really understand the scale of the battle – both in terms of the casualties (large) and the distances involved (small). When one looks at the distance between the Newfoundlander’s trenches and the German front line the fact that the troops could not get across not more than 100 yards of ground is astounding. It was not for lack of trying. The attacking troops keen to get to grips with the enemy actually left from the rear trenches because the front trenches (the proper departure point for the attack) were congested. This immediately “sky lined” them and made them easy targets for the German troops emerging from their reverse slope positions in a feature known as the Y-shaped Ravine. The geography and their deep, well constructed bunkers protected the enemy very well.
A walk around the positions, both friendly and enemy, eventually led us to the 51st Highland Division monument that marked the eventual capture of the position in November 1916.
Returning to the accommodation we had the opportunity to look around the museum opposite. A very considerable private collection is on display with some nice items.
After freshening up we headed into Albert to get dinner. A perfectly satisfactory restaurant in the square next to the church provided a convivial environment for some lively dinner conversation and next day planning.
After a late night engaged in the traditional activity of “putting the world to rights” followed by discussion about shows for the following year, as well as polishing off what appeared to be the host’s total supply of cheeses, the weary travellers retired to bed. The Commandant, Lieutenant Dobie and Mr Harrison sharing one room and myself and Captain Smerdon in the other.
Come the morning a very grumpy Commandant was observed stalking around the living area. Apparently there was an issue with some snoring requiring the Major to relocate to one of the sofas. Being gentlemen it was improper to apportion responsibility but subsequent billeting arrangements would reveal the guilty.
Breakfast consumed we boarded the Beast and headed for Pascal’s stables at Engelbelmer. Having made a quick recce the previous evening the journey was easy. Suitable mounts for each rider were selected and allocated. Having mounted we spent a few minutes in the outdoor school getting familiar with our new friends, adjusting stirrups and in some cases, OK mine, making it look like I knew what I was doing! I did mention the infantry thing didn’t I?
Suitably seated we headed out on our trek. Captain Smerdon had planned a route taking in many of the key areas relating to the July Somme Offensive of 1916 within the locale.
Having established an order of march we moved to our first stop near the village of Beaumont Hamel. Stopping at a monument to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders we had an excellent view of the area around Hawthorn Ridge where one of the huge mines emplaced to destroy the German positions at the start of the battle was detonated. The resulting cloud of debris being the subject of a very famous film. We continued on through the village and out into the countryside. This provided an excellent view of the rear of the Y Ravine. Continuing on we passed along the valley of the River Ancre eventually emerging onto the road to Thiepval. Apparently there is a photo of Captain Smerdon dressed a Light Horseman mounted on Mack (and leading Meg) coming up the hill from the valley. A very little known fact is that Captain Smerdon is the only person doing a mounted Australian Light Horse impression in the UK. It became a very well known fact the longer the ride and trip went on!
We stopped at the Ulster Tower memorial where we managed to get some water and give the horses a break.
Remounting we set off down the road towards Pozieres. Along the way we were able to take in the view towards Albert, where the Golden Virgin atop the Basilica is visible (just as it was throughout the battles), as well as visiting the site of a tough fight for the Australians at Mouquet Farm.
Pushing on we arrived in Pozieres and made our way via the 1st Australian Division monument to halt next to a deep bunker, the Gibraltar shelter, partially excavated and visible. Runners were despatched to return with provisions. Lunch consumed we set off over the Albert to Bapaume road. Picking up a cross country track we soon made it to La Boiselle and just outside the village we dismounted at the Lochnager Crater – the remnant of another of the large mines detonated under the enemy position. Even after over 90 years of erosion it is still an impressive sight.
Crossing back over the Albert – Bapaume road we made our way back to Engelbelmer to return the pones and get a cold drink. After de-tacking and washing the horses we piled back into the Beast and headed to the Thiepval memorial.
It had been visible for a large proportion of our route, so you knew it was a significant structure but the scale of it was humbling. Given that it only has names of the fallen with no known grave the numbers are staggering, over 72,000 names are recorded on the monument.
On our ride round the area it was shocking not to see the cemeteries , as this was a major offensive with the inevitable human cost, but the sheer number of them. Wherever you looked, from valley to horizon, you could spot one. And that was another aspect – the physical area was so small. It was hard to relate the current ground to the desolate landscapes one sees in the contemporary pictures but the subtle undulations and dead ground are still discernable. The now restored woods are unrecognisable from the shattered stumps of the well known sepia images.
We had relocated our base of operations to near Bernafay Wood . On arriving slightly later than planned we freshened up and once again headed into Albert. Assisted by Christine our host we headed to the town square again where much needed food was consumed and the world was started to be put to rights again. This was interspersed with recollections of the days 30Km ride. A very late night / early morning “and another thing…” session was held al fresco at the billet, helped along by hot drinks and/or beer. With the temperature dropping and a busy day ahead we all headed off to sleep. As the CO had his own room, as did Captain Smerdon, the perpetrators of the major’s previous sleep related annoyance were soon uncovered – you know who you are Messrs Dobie and Harrison!
After a sustaining breakfast we all piled into the transport for a very full day of visits. Various cemeteries were taken in as well as visiting the area around High Wood where the 20th Deccan Horse (with the 7th Dragoon Guards) carried out the only cavalry charge of the Somme Offensive. It was possible to identify the dead ground where the brigade formed up. The charge led the troops to the plateau between High Wood and Delville Wood. Unfortunately the opportunity to reinforce this success was not taken and the enemy managed to retain part of the objective.
Luckily we were able to visit a couple of personal favourite locations of some of the group. I was particularly pleased that we had time to visit the Welsh Division memorial at Mametz Wood. A fantastic statue of a red dragon (“Y ddraig goch”as we say back home) roaring at the woods to its front whilst ripping through barbed wire sits atop a raised feature giving excellent views of the division’s target (the largest wood on the Somme). The valley across which the Welsh were to attack was known at first as Happy Valley, soon its name was changed to Death Valley. The attacking troops were subject to a highly effective enfilade fire from well trained and determined German troops in positions on their right at Flat Iron Copse, as well as the Guard regiment in the wood itself.
We also took in Devonshire Cemetery where 163 men are buried. All but 2 of these are members of the Devonshire Regiment killed during their attack towards Fricourt on 1st July 1916. A large proportion of the casualties were caused by a machine gun post dug into a shrine in the Mametz cemetery. Among them Captain Martin who had predicted the effect of the machine gun on his attacking company if it was not knocked out in the initial bombardment. It was not. The shrine is visible still, across the valley from the original Allied front line trench in Mansell Copse. It is within this trench line that the 8th and 9th Bn’s of the Devosnhire Regiment buried their dead. As the moving inscription at the entrance to the cemetery states “The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still.”
After an afternoon exploring the area we ended at the Australian memorial. This is an amazing memorial and magnificent views are available at the top of the tower. The tower itself shows battle scars from the Second World War with various calibre bullet scars much in evidence.
After having eaten out in 2 very nice establishments in a row we decided to head to the Corner Pub where we had lunch earlier in the day. A perfectly acceptable meal and beverages revived the weary travellers and within minutes we had already sorted out the sovereign debt crisis, world poverty, hunger, the Iranian problem, the Palestinian Problem – well any problem you could care to mention! And that was all before got back to the accommodation to carry on the discussion, diatribe, monologues, rants and tea drinking!
Thankfully common sense prevailed and we retired at a nearly reasonable hour. Messrs Dobie and Harrison continued in their efforts to test my resistance to sleep deprivation. The morning arrived all too soon. This was our last day and we had a lot to pack in. Up and off early we went to the South African memorial was stunning. From there we pushed on to find the grave of Lieutenant Colonel Raban, who whilst a Yellow Boy, was commanding an infantry battalion (the 13th Bn Royal Scots). He was killed when a German shell entered his HQ bunker. We left a wreath at his grave in Vermelles British Cemetery. Our next stop was the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle. The monument itself is beautiful and even though it is near a major roundabout there is an air of calmness and quiet. We found the names of the Yellow Boys commemorated here and left a wreath. The memorial is in the north of the area we were exploring and after a quick O Group / consultation we decided to head off up to visit the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge – again one of my favourite monuments. It is a truly inspiring site and the view from the memorial over the valley below shows why the position was so important. Given we were so far up, and figuring we had time before the ferry back, we pushed on up across the battlefields of the Battles for Passchendale. These battles were fought to gain the high ground that surrounded the British held city of Ypres (Wipers to the troops). Ypres was the only British held city in Belgium and in addition to that political significance there was the requirement to relieve the pressure on the French on the Aisne, protect the approaches to the channel and if the offensive was successful allow the Allies to push past the German flank and into the Ruhr.
As any schoolboy used to know the main fact about the Passchendale battles was the mud. Ypres and the surrounding area are very low lying and farming was only practicable due to drainage systems – which had been destroyed by the fighting. Entrenching was not a viable option, and the Germans knew that it was reasonably easy for the Allies to take a first line trench given the artillery support that was available. Around Ypres they constructed their defences around mutually supporting breastworks and concrete blockhouses. Evidence of these defences is still visible amongst the fields.
The main reason for our visit to Ypres was to visit the Menin Gate. Like the Thiepval memorial the Menin Gate is a memorial to those who have no known grave. Nearly 55,000 names are recorded on the panels of the memorial. Even after spending a lot of our trip visiting cemeteries, monuments and memorials you are still shocked by the scale. As at each of the sites we visited the group split up and lost in our own thoughts moved numbly around the plaques containing the names of the missing. It was a slightly subdued group that reconvened. You cannot spend any amount of time on the Somme or in Flanders and not be affected by what went on there nearly 100 years ago.
Lunch was hunted out and duly devoured and it was then time to make for the coast and the boat back to the UK. Other than a slight diversion we arrived back at Calais in good time for our ferry. Once we were boarded we headed for the lounge, and over coffee talked about the next trip.
In summary it was an excellent trip, with never a dull moment. The understanding of the conflict in the areas we visited made this a very thought provoking journey and one that I think anyone with even a passing interest in military matters should make.
There are obviously some “thanks” due and the 2 biggest must go to Captain Smerdon for his tour guide par excellence performance and navigation, and to Lieutenant Dobie for his unstinting work in driving the group around Northern France and Belgium. Thanks must go to the whole group for making me welcome and only slightly mercilessly trying to push me to see where my buttons were!
Looking forward to the next one already.