Battlefield Tour Diary

Adrian White, Tom Welsh, Gordon Millar and Alastair Donald at Etaples
Adrian White, Tom Welsh, Gordon Millar and Alastair Donald at Etaples

Over the past few years I have been travelling down to France and Belgium on a regular occurrence with two of my friends Gordon Millar and Adrian White from Forfar to visit the World War One graves and battle sites, writes Alastair Donald.

On this occasion we also took another friend of mine - 86-year-old Tom Welsh who had a desire to visit his late wife’s uncle’s grave at Etaples in Northern France near Bolougne.

So, along with another friend from North Berwick, Mike Marshall, we set off on another adventure.

Friday

We flew in to a regional airport just north of Paris called Beauvais on early Friday morning and then headed straight to a town called Albert which is in The Somme area of France.

Once there we found a prominent landmark called Lochnagar Crater (most landmarks and cemeteries have British names). The crater is huge and was caused by tunnellers planting large deposits of explosives below a strategic point and when deemed necessary igniting the charge which resulted in the huge crater. This particular explosion was so powerful that it blasted the soil 4,000 feet in the air and the tremors were said to be felt in Britain.

After this we travelled the short journey to Thiepval Cemetery. This cemetery is renowned for being such a grand monument that is visible from miles around. Sadly it is also home to approximately 74,000 names and graves of British soldiers.

Here we laid a cross for a W. Butchart, we were asked to do this by a Forfar man who is a relative of the First World War soldier who perished in the Great War.

Saturday

We were now in Ypres, a small Belgian town which happened to bear the brunt of the damage during the conflict and is also home to the Menin gate.

The town is stunning and within a 10-minute drive you will find any number of historic battle sites. On this day we went to Essex Farm Cemetery which is close to the spot where the Canadian, Major John McRae penned ‘In Flanders Fields’.

We also did Passchendaele and Tyne Cot Cemetery which is vast and quite humbling.

In the evening we attended The Menin Gate ceremony, I have done this 18 times and it still amazes me yet. Every evening hundreds of people attend to witness the Last Post being played to commemorate the dead. The walls hold the names of 54,000 victims. Quite often you will see people just standing alone looking at the toll of dead engraved on the wall, these are soldiers with no known grave.

Sunday

Today is a long drive day up to North France to Etaples, however before this we stop in a small Belgian town called Poperinge to visit Talbot House. This establishment is a townhouse acquired by the church during the First World War and run by a padre called Tubby Clayton who offered all ranks a chance of respite from the hell of the trenches. Here they could relax, read and attend church in peace.

As is often the case there is quite a lot of irony in this town because less than 500 metres away is the condemned cell where those who were to be shot at dawn for desertion etc were kept the night before their execution. The cells are hellish and in view of the firing post that the unfortunate soldier was to be tied to, blindfolded and shot. There is a quite terrible atmosphere surrounding the place as you can imagine.

From there it was into Etaples, nothing compares to this. A beautiful cemetery with fine monument at the head of it as the manicured grass spreads away from it, the fine setting on a glorious day seduced you before awakening you to the view of 11,000 dead.

I have never seen anything like it in all the years I have been doing this. After a fashion we found the two graves we were searching for (thanks mainly to Gordon Millar who cracked the cemetery codes for the headstones).

It was at last time for Tom to lay a cross, the culmination of the trip. It was a nice moment as we all reflected in a tranquil setting that was able to hide the enormity of the casualty rate.

Monday

We set off for home via Beauvais but first we stopped off at Vimy Ridge to witness the magnificent underground tunnel network that brought thousands of Canadians from the reserve trenches to the front line which was at some points only meters from the German front line.

After that it was now homeward bound but not before reflecting that everyone should make this journey at least once in their lifetime just like the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who only got to make the journey once...