Saturday 1st June saw the third coach tour that I have run in conjunction with Stuart at Baxter’s Battlefield Tours, and yet again it was sold out. We don’t believe in filling the coach to capacity as it is not all about money, it’s making sure your clients have room to move about and I find it makes the group get along and form friendships. It was an honour again to have people travel down from Wigan and London to join us, each year there seems to more of them so we must be doing something right. Mario came down from London again and did some guiding next to me and told some stories about the cemeteries and more general bits. I really don’t like using the term ‘guide’, I like to just think I can pass on my passion and knowledge of the battlefields and the stories of the Portsmouth men who fought on them.
After an early start we headed off to Dover to catch the ferry across the channel, we always like to use the ferry on these trips as it gives everyone a chance to stretch their legs and get something to eat. After a pleasant crossing we headed across France to the first stop at Notre Dame de Lorette which is the largest French military cemetery in the world.
To understand the Great War, you need to look at all sides involved and that was one reason I included this as the first stop, I gave the group some facts and figures about the French during the war. Also, beside it, it has the Ring of Remembrance which was inaugurated by French president Francois Holland on 11th November 2014, Mario gave a general talk about the reason for the memorial and the design. The memorial honours the 576,606 soldiers of 40 nationalities who died during the Great War in battles in the Nord-Pas-De-Calais region. After looking round, we sat in the sun and had a packed lunch which Stuart had organised. At this point we gave out a welcome pack to everyone on the coach which included a new idea I had thought of. Every cemetery we visit on my tours nearly always has more lads from Portsmouth buried apart from the one I talk about, so I picked a different man for everyone with a little bit of background detail and the CWGC print out, also they had a cross each which they could place, the idea turned out to be popular and I think they will always remember the man they had laid the cross at.
The next stop was at Bac-Du-Sud British Cemetery, Bailleulval were I talked about Private George Alfred Clark, H Coy, 1st Royal Marine Battalion who died of his wounds on 3rd September 1918 at the 46th Casualty Clearing Station which was situated close by at the time along with the 45th Casualty Clearing Station. George was a hairdresser before joining up and it was nice to see he had had some visitors before as a comb was left at his headstone. I gave the group a brief understanding about the medical evacuation route from the front line back to Blighty. Onto the next stop at Berles New Military Cemetery which is a lovely small cemetery tucked out the way, and it would not surprise if we weren’t the first coach to visit it. Here we remembered Private Arthur William Bailey, 12th Battalion Tank Corps who had previously served with the Royal Engineers. We also paid are respects to Brigadier General Lumsden VC, who has a loose Portsmouth connection as he was married here.
The next stop was a bit of a drive as we headed down to Bancourt British Cemetery which is located on the edge of Arras battlefield next to the Somme. Corporal James Rees, 45th Battalion, Australian Infantry was the subject of this stop, a man who had originally joined the Royal Navy but jumped ship in Australia during 1912 and then enlisted with the Australians at the outbreak of war. Before his death on 22nd November 1916 he had seen action at Gallipoli and had been wounded on the Somme in July 1916. The last stop of the day was at the Vis-En-Artois Memorial and Cemetery, Haucourt, one of my personnel favourites and not often visited. Here we talked about the attack that Private Frank Burgoyne Baker, 2nd Battalion West Riding Regiment had been killed in, and it was a fitting end to the first day. We headed into Arras to the hotel Moderne, and got everyone to their rooms very easily as the staff at the hotel were very organised and had all the keys ready. The evening was free for everyone to do as they wanted and all headed out for something to eat and a beer which was deserved after a boiling hot day on the battlefields.
After a good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast, we boarded the coach for a short journey to the first stop of the day at the Arras Memorial which includes the Flying Memorial and the Faubourg-d’Amiens cemetery. The Arras Memorial has the names of 117 Pompey lads, the Flying Memorial 3 and the cemetery 6 so it’s a place I have visited many times to remember these lads. Mario first of all did a general bit about the memorial’s and cemetery, I then followed up about talking about the 3 lads on the Flying Memorial and 3 lads on the Memorial who had attended the Southern Grammar School. The heat was already beginning and it was going to be a very hot day on the battlefields. The next stop was Tilloy British Cemetery and a visit to Private Edward Didymus, 8th Battalion Middlesex Regiment which was made special by having his Granddaughter Maureen and Grandson Mark also Maureen’s husband Ron with us, so it was an honour for me to tell his story and fill in some of the gaps on Edward’s story. It was very moving and a fitting tribute to Edward. The next blog in a week or so will give the whole story of Edward after some fantastic research that Maureen had done.
We moved onto Dury Crucifix Cemetery next and paid our respects to Corporal Archie Curtis, born in Twyford Ave and had a career in London as a drapery window dresser on the Old Kent Road. Having been wounded in 1916 and recovered he was killed by a shell during a heavy bombardment on 1st September 1918. Next stop was Windmill British Cemetery to visit 4 Portsmouth lads who died on the 23rd April 1917 with the Hampshire Regiment, during an attack on Monchy le Preux, Privates Allwood, Mellish, Oliver and Andrews. A short trip took us too Monchy British Cemetery and time for our lunch break.
We always do a small walk on the Sunday afternoon and also offer for those who can’t walk far some more stops on the coach with Mario and they meet us at the end of the walk. This year we walked up to the village of Monchy le Preux over the ground fought over during the battle of Arras, April 1917. One of my favourite things is walking the battlefields and getting people out on the ground and it has always proved a success, even in this year’s heat it was only two who could not come with us and went off on the coach.
The walk was a fitting end to another successful tour but we had organised a stop at the Vimy memorial on the way back to Calais which nobody knew about so a little extra for those who put their faith in me to show them round the Western Front. Every year I have done this the groups have always been great and this year was no exception. I am already looking forward to next June and the “Pompey Remembers all Sides” tour.