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Road of Remembrance: First World War battlefield tour

By Lesley Bellew

 

HM Troop Ship Victoria leaving Folkestone harbour in 1918 with men heading for the Western Front.

HM Troop Ship Victoria leaving Folkestone harbour with men heading for the Western Front.

Standing on The Leas at Folkestone, between the stately Metropole Hotel and the English Channel, our tour guide explained how World War One poet Wilfred Owen had written to his mother about his stay at the hotel in 1917.

The imposing red-brick Edwardian property was just one of many huge cliff-top properties taken over by allied soldiers between 1914 and 1918 and it was from here soldiers walked down to the harbour and boarded troopships to take them to the Western Front.

In the letter to his mother, Owen described the contrast between the elegant hotel and the trenches.

“I arrived at Folkestone, and feet up at the best hotel.It was place of luxury – inconceivable now– carpets as deep as the mud here.”

It was a poignant start to our walk through Folkestone, on a Road of Remembrance tour offered by Saga Holidays,focusing on the Home Front before taking in France and Flanders.

It made perfect sense to begin this World War one-themed tour with a walk along The Leas to the Road of Remembrance, formerly known as Slope Road, where soldiers were ordered to’Step Short’ down the steep hill to the harbour. Here the new Memorial Arch to honour soldiers and civilians glistened in the sunshine and our group agreed it was, despite a difficult birth, a fitting tribute to the town.

We also viewed the fascinating Folkestone and the Great War exhibition in the library, lovingly curated by local historians; as well as walking through Tontine Street where more than 60 civilians were killed in May 25, 1917.

Part two of our tour took the group by P&O ferry from Dover to Calais and our heads were filled with a vision of the men who were saying goodbye to ‘Blighty’ – very often for the last time.

In Ypres, In Flanders Fields Museum offered the ‘gold star’ introduction to life on the front line during 1914-18. From here we walked up to the Menin Gate to attend the nightly remembrance ceremony.More than 1,000 visitors, from children to Second World War veterans, ex-Army biker clubs and armed forces cadets fell silent as four buglers played Last Post. And, as the band played Abide with Me, soldiers’ ancestors and representatives laid wreaths while onlookers unsuccessfully fought back tears.

Saga Tyne Cot RoR

Saga Tyne Cot RoR

The Menin Gate contains 53,000 names of the missing; soldiers lost in the liquid mud of the Salient. It was not big enough to accommodate every name and a further 35,000 soldiers are remembered on stone panels at Tyne Cot, a few miles from Ypres.

Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, with almost 12,000 graves marked by rows and rows of white headstones and planted with deep red roses.

King George V suggested thatA Cross of Sacrifice should be placed on top of the German bunker in the centre of the cemetery and from this viewpoint visitors can see Ypres and look out over land where the allies fought some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

'We donned tin hats to enter Wellington Quarry to see where 24,000 troops gathered in the cold, damp chalk tunnels before the Battle of Arras'

The Road of Remembrance tour included the Somme where we donned tin hats to enter Wellington Quarry to see where 24,000 troops gathered in the cold, damp chalk tunnels before the Battle of Arras. Losses were heavy and at nearby Faubourg Cemetery the sacrifice was all too evident.

At Beaumont-Hamel, a bronze caribou tops the memorial to the Canadian Newfoundlanders. On just one day 700 men went over the top and at the evening roll call just 68 soldiers had returned.

Now, nature’s beauty hides the story of death and destruction. Long grass softens the shell craters, tortoiseshell butterflies flutter on lilac-coloured scabious and sheep graze in the shade of trees. It was time to reflect in this now peaceful oasis.

Thiepval

Thiepval

Just a couple of miles away,the 45-metre Thiepval Memorial soars into the sky. It is an architectural masterpiece and commemorates the 73,367 men who went missing in The Somme. We were reminded that July 1, 1916 was the blackest day in British army history with 60,000 men lost in one day.

We stopped off at several smaller cemeteries along the Poppy Route before going north to Vimy Ridge,a 250-acre park with an art deco centrepiece of sublime beauty. Designed by Walter Seymour Allard, the Canadian memorial took 11 years to build and is a story in itself.

Vimy Ridge

Vimy Ridge

The 30m twin pylons, representing Canada and France, look like giant shards from a distance but up close they are decorated with 20 exquisitely carved figures.

Canada Bereft, a sculpture of sublime beauty, symbolises Canada mourning for her dead. Below the figure is a sarcophagus carrying a hat and laurels and an inscription commemorating 60,000 Canadians who died in the war while on the memorial’s panels 11,000 names of the missing are carved in the white Dalmatian stone.

Each cemetery and memorial has a layers of history and moving stories so a key point on this seven-night tour was the genealogy search by Short Step, the Folkestone-based World War One group. As part of the holiday price, passengers email brief details of a relative who fought in the war and the researchers provide a print-out of their findings when guests arrive in Folkestone.

 

The last three days of the tour are based in Bruges. From here, those who received new-found information about a relative’s final resting place could make private arrangements to visit a cemetery.

The flexibility to either continue a memorial route or take ‘downtime’ in picturesque Bruges was left to guests.

We took time out to visit an ‘iron harvest’ farm where the farmer Dirk Cardoen still finds unexploded shells on his land every week. He has turned a barn into a museum of rusting guns, bullets and aerial bombs – even a machine gun. He calls the bomb disposal team most weeks and they remove the shells and detonate them. In a way, we were glad it was a flying visit and made our way to Messines Ridge and Ploegsreert.

Down a single track we found the field where the Christmas 1914 football match was played.

Yes, it was just that, a field, marked by a wooden cross.

Yes, there is still speculation over whether the match was really played- but for a visitor overlooking the just-ploughed furrows, there was hope that the kick-about in the mud had been a joyful break from the unrelenting misery of trench warfare.

 

FACTFILE

Road of Remembrance tour from £699 for seven nights. Price includes travel insurance, return coach travel from Folkestone, all breakfasts and five dinners, Step Short genealogy service, porterage, Saga tour manager and expert local guides. Details on 0800 056 6099 or visit saga.co.uk/france

travel.saga.co.uk/destinations/europe/road-of-remembrance.aspx

The full letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother Susan, on 4 January 1917 can be read at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/education/tutorials/intro/owen/letters.html

 

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