UBSA's specialist tour of World War 1 Battlefields makes you think

Members and friends of the University of Bath Staff Association (UBSA) recently spent four days on a specialist tour of World War 1 Battlefields, led by Lt Col (Retd) Tim Courtenay, RM.

Lt Col Courtenay's knowledge and expertise was greatly appreciated by our party, and, as we waited to board the ferry for the crossing to Calais, Tim set the scene describing how the British Expeditionary Force and subsequently troops from Lord Kitchener's appeal would have used the same route, albeit in more basic transport!

Before arriving at our hotel we stopped at the Havringhe Commonwealth War Graves (CWG) in Poperinge.  Here Tim explained the history of the CWG Commission and the cemetery layout and one of our party laid a commemorative cross at the grave of a relative - very moving.  After a short coffee/beer break in Poperinge Tim led us to the preserved Cell complex in the town where troops were held following trials for desertion, cowardice etc and the adjacent yard where they were executed by firing squad.  The post they were tied to is still in place and photographs of some of the prisoners displayed such very young faces - hardened deserters or very frightened young boys?

We then visited the Brandhoek CWG that contains the grave of Captain Noel Chavasse VC and Bar, MC, RAMC, and other graves of interest.  The young ages of the victims started to hit home on this second cemetery visit.

UBSA members pictured in front of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing Soldier

Saturday started with a visit to Polygon Wood, scene of many battles during the Great War and here Tim vividly brought to life the initial battles of the war.  Tim led us into the woods to create the atmosphere and the actions he described, aided by a battlefield map for us all to view, really set the scene for the rest of the tour.  We heard about the Von Schlieffen Plan - the German plan to penetrate and capture this area of Europe, the bravery of the Worcester Regiment when the front line was threatened and the fierce fighting and subsequent follow-on capturing of German occupied territory around Gheluvelt.

A visit to a German Command bunker at Zanvoorde followed where we viewed a fortified German bunker, the thick layers of concrete showing little evidence of dampness even now after nearly a hundred years.

Hill 60 was a truly emotional experience for us all as Tim explained the ferocious fighting that took place over several periods during the war and that beneath the Hill still lay the bodies of some 8,000 soldiers.  It seemed wrong somehow to walk over the area.  We were shown Caterpillar Crater and memorials to the Queen's Surreys and the Australian Mining Teams.

By mid-afternoon we were at the Passendale Museum at Zonnebecke, very interesting with an underground trench system layout for us to walk through.  We then visited the scene of the Passendale battles and Tyne Cot.  Tim led us to the battlefield area to explain the third battle of Passendale and the unbelievable figures of the casualties inflicted by these battles began to emerge.  The Tyne Cot cemetery visit, as with them all, was very emotional, particularly when reading the inscriptions on the gravestones.

Our last visit in the battlefields that day was to Essex Farm and the Advanced Dressing Station of Capt John McCrae, author of the famous war poem 'In Flanders Field'.  Tim led us into one of the 'underground' dressing stations, dark, wet and cramped, and, in the glow of a flickering light, created a very emotional atmosphere whilst reciting the poem 'In Flanders Field'.  A truly memorable experience and even more poignant when we viewed, in the adjacent cemetery, the grave of Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick, (born on St Valentine's Day) aged just 15 years old.

We all dined together in Ypres that evening, in the Den Anker restaurant, prior to the Menin Gate ceremony.  The ceremony was very moving, well attended and it was rewarding to see young soldiers from the UK lining the road in and around the Gate.  The silence observed during the playing of the Last Post was perfect and three members of UBSA, Eileen Barge, Margaret Pickering and John Roger, laid a Poppy wreath during the ceremony.

Sunday saw us heading for Sheffield Park and the Pals Battalions where the attack on 1st July 1916 took place.  Tim led us into the remains of the front line trench from where the troops went 'over the top'.  As we lined up in that trench it was difficult to imagine the feeling of the troops.  The bombardment had ceased, they had been told over and over again that there would be no resistance and it would be a walkover.  No need to run, just climb up over the trench and walk across to the German lines.  As we now know there was resistance in the form of many machine guns.  The heavily populated battlefield cemeteries display just how much of a walkover it was.  The talk of ammunition and shrapnel still being found after all these years was evident when one of our party picked up a complete hand grenade to add to two shells already deposited by the side of the trench, the 'Iron Harvest' as it is called!

The 'Sunken Road' was our next visit from where the Lancashire Fusiliers attacked the German lines, suffered numerous casualties in 'no man's land' and where their graves now lay.  The Sunken Road was where some of the first cine film of the war was taken, just prior to the Lancashire's' attack.  We also viewed the site of the Hawthorne Crater from the Sunken Road.

There were so many battlefield areas and cemeteries and Tim provided a running commentary as we drove past Newfoundland Park and Ulster Tower on our way to the Thiepval Memorial, commemorating the battle of the Somme.  Tim explained many scenarios surrounding the Somme, including the Royal Navy involvement in the area.

We then made short visits to the Tank Corps Memorial, with splendid models on display, and the Lochnagar Crater.

One of the most memorable visits was to Delville Wood, the South African Memorial.  The South Africans were told to go in, take and hold the Wood at all costs.  Some 3,500 men went in, took and held the Wood.  After five days only 143 came out, with many of this small remainder wounded.

The visit to the Devonshire Trench was very poignant.  The Devonshire's had suffered many casualties taking an area at Mametz.  The casualties were so many - some 160 - that they buried their dead in the trench where they fell and it has now become a CWG, with the inscription 'The Devonshire's held this trench, the Devonshire's hold it still' taking pride of place.

Our final day started with a visit to the Wellington Quarry at Arras.  The underground tour where 28,000 troops were billeted prior to battle was amazing.  Sixty feet below ground level and fully catered for.  The stepped route out into the battle area was particularly moving, with added sound effects of the battle raging outside.  The troops were sent out, not knowing the Germans had moved their defence back to the Hindenburg Line, and very fortified.  The troops now had to cover a much greater distance than they thought, and in sub-zero temperatures.  They were advised to remove their greatcoats prior to the battle in order to run faster.  Needless to say the increased distance and the cold resulted in another battle with heavy casualty figures, a trend established throughout the battlefields.

Before visiting the Vimy Ridge (Canadian Memorial and trenches) Tim took us to a German cemetery and a French cemetery.  The difference in layouts did not deter from the sad fact of so many lives lost.  Jewish headstones were viewed in the German cemetery.  Vimy Ridge commands a wide view across the area, such a strategic position for the troops holding it.  The front line trenches were visited and the remarkable closeness of the trenches was demonstrated by Tim manning the German position and easily communicating by talking loudly across to us in the Canadian trenches!

The tour was so comprehensive and informative (thank you Tim) and the unbelievable number of casualties, on both sides, remains the strongest memory.  Our party is only now reflecting on the sheer logistics of it all.  The troops required food, water and ammunition.  Particularly the ammunition as the bombardments were so heavy and almost continuous at times.  Medical supplies for post battle first-aid and evacuation facilities, by foot or horse drawn.  How did they cope with such primitive communications?  The atrocious field conditions causing casualties even before going into action.  So many facts to reflect on but the courage, determination and bravery of the troops remains evident in all areas, and on both sides.

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