Why go on a World War One tour? The question was at the forefront of my mind as I boarded the ferry from Dover to Calais. My trip had started at Victoria coach station in London, but seeing the English Channel made the reality of what I was about to do really sink in. A century ago, my Great-Grandfathers had embarked on a similar journey. How had they felt watching the British coastline drift away? Had they any idea about what they were soon to experience? How much did the ensuing months shape the men that they would become and the children they would raise?
Over the past year – perhaps because of the centenary – I have made a concerted effort read as much as I can about the First World War. It was this interest that saw me join a group of strangers on a Leger Holidays organised trip to northern France and Belgium. My four day tour was called All Quiet on the Western Front, and here’s what happened:
On the first day of the tour proper (the previous day having been spent travelling), we had an early (and substantial) breakfast and left our hotel at 8am to make our way by coach to Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. The land was given to the British in recognition of the 250,000 soldiers who fought and died at the battlefields of Ypres. I had never been to a cemetery of this type before and the impact of the tooth-like tombstones was, of course, substantial. Every stone has a different story to tell – from individual names and regional regiments to infrequent personal engravings and the painfully enigmatic ‘A Soldier of the Great War’.
From there we travelled to Langemark. The Germans suffered catastrophic losses too, and at Langemark Cemetery we visited the mass grave of 24,000 formally unknown German soldiers. In the 22 day battle of Yser and Ypres, the 4th Army – made up for the most part of poorly trained volunteers such as students, school pupils and apprentices – fought on the German side. Many of which lost their lives here. The day was capped by a poignant visit to Menin Gate where the missing and the dead are remembered in a small, but packed ceremony every evening. Approximately 55,000 names are etched onto the gate. All missing.
The next day we travelled to Somme battlefields. The journey from the hotel to the site was a couple of hours so we watched a documentary outlining the background en route. Alongside literature handed out at the beginning of the tour, the DVD prepared us, historically, for the day ahead. Driving through the green and yellow countryside it was hard to imagine the hell of war, but one doesn’t have to kick the soil too much to find shells, barbed wire, and sometimes more. Eating our lunch near Ulster Tower – a place that commemorates the fallen Ulster men who fought at the Somme – a few of us strolled through an adjoining field. We found things.
At least one of my Great-Grandfathers, Charles Ellis, fought at the Somme shortly after enlisting in 1916. I know from my Grandfather that Charles spoke very little of his experiences in France. We know he was the victim of mustard gas and there is a hazy story about how Charles had gone over the top with a friend only to be shelled. He never saw his friend again. While Charles survived the war, he died in 1950 from long-term problems with his lungs.
During this day we also visited the largest man made crater on the Western Front, Lochnager. We walked through the preserved trenches of Newfoundland Park where thousands of Newfoundlanders fought against the Germans – a tree that had once been encased with barbed wire causing the death of dozens of Canadians, still stands. The Historial Museum at Peronne was absolutely staggering in its scope. Here, we saw portraits of war widows, medical equipment and supplies, German, French, English, Scottish and many other uniforms, as well as propaganda and video footage.
The Museum at Sanctuary Wood made me feel uncomfortable. The building and the ‘preserved trenches’ it contains are an iconic part of the area so I am glad that we visited, but it was dirty and ill-kept. Packed to the rafters with war memorabilia (from shells and tinder boxes, to bullets, boots and barbed wire), it seemed a little awkward and almost uncouth to shuffle through this jumble sale of death. There are trenches to see, but are they genuine? I’m not so sure. Thankfully our visit here was only brief.
Our excellent guide was seasoned professional Peter Smith. Peter has been guiding groups for nearly two decades. Confident and approachable, Peter intelligently articulated the main themes and history at each location, without being too didactic. Through him we discovered that around 200,000 ‘boy soldiers’ fought, that New Zealand lost the highest proportion of men in the conflict (8 percent), and that, to many Commonwealth nations, the First World War became a kind of rite of passage in their path towards independence. A highlight was his telling of the story of Noel Chavasse, the only man during the war to have been awarded the Victoria Cross twice.
The tour-goers came from many different walks of life, but were united by ancestors who had fought, and often died during on the ground we trod. A lovely family from Wiltshire had taken the tour as they felt it was important for their sons to understand the First World War. A RAF veteran was on the tour to visit Thiepval – the place where his great-uncle was remembered. Neil Evans had taken the trip to visit his grandfather’s grave at Serre, where Wilfred Owen had also fought. One of the most poignant stories was that of Hugh O’Donnell who had taken the trip to reconnect with his recently deceased wife’s history – her grandfather having fought and died in the first months of the war.
Why take a World War One coach tour? On a practical level, truth being told, unless you know the area like the back of your hand and have a thorough knowledge of all the sites, a tour is the best way to explore all of these incredible locations. From the moment you board your coach on the first day until the moment you alight on the final day, everything is taken care of. The hotel is comfortable and pleasant, the company is varied and interesting and the expertise of the tour guide is invaluable. With notice, you can request to visit cemeteries of personal significance.
On a personal level, there is something rather haunting and deeply moving about following ones ancestors. I found the trip to be a cathartic experience, but it also brought clarity to the many myths and legends about the Great War. It is often hard to reconcile the images of horror that accompany the history of the Great War with the lush terrain and the sunny skies of northern France. Where thousands of soldiers fell, fertile rapeseed fields now grow. The Somme is beautiful, idyllic even.
Why do we feel the need to place ourselves in situations that engender sadness? Is it respect? Unique in the animal world, humans seem preoccupied with exploring the sorrow and pain of others. From the great religious pilgrimages of old, to the solemn minutes silence offered to the tragic victims of Hillsborough. It is a tradition that runs deep and, I’d like to think, has something to do with the very nature of what makes us human, what makes us feel different. The ability to empathize, understand, regret and perceive a shared experience.
A couple I spoke to on the return journey confessed to initially having reservations about going on a ‘bus tour’ as they hadn’t been on one for 25 years. The trip had completely changed their view. This was a trip that had changed something fundamental in their understanding of the past and for that it should be saluted. As they said, ‘you can watch the DVDs, you can read the books, but until you go there… well.’
All Quiet on the Western Front (Leger Holidays) is a four day tour of Ypres and Somme from £269 per person. The price includes three nights bed and breakfast, coach and ferry travel, excursions (though there is an extra 30 euro charge for museums & lunch) and the services of an experiences tour guide.
To book a trip call 0844 846 0808, or visit the website www.leger.co.uk