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A recce in France

Over the past three decades, as an amateur enthusiast without significant expert in the subject, I have done a good deal of military history research in all the usual places – not least in Belgium/France, Italy and Gallipoli (WW1) and in France, Belgium and Portugal (the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo and the 1808-1814 Peninsular War).

There are two key aspects to this sort of thing – the preparation and ‘going in the field’.

The former is all about researching the background, via general reading around a particular area or person of interest at any particular moment, delving into the official records in order either to trace aspects of a specific unit, serviceman or battle and then keeping your eyes and ears open, the better to come across perhaps little relevant items or indeed – happily but inevitably rarely – some extraordinary new breakthrough coincidence or fact that somehow joins up two parts of the overall metaphorical mosaic you had already registered but had not previously realised how in practice they actually related to each other’.

Arguably, one might suggest that your common or garden amateur military researcher spends most of his existence in a continual state of ‘preparation’ in the sense that generally – day by day, whatever else he is doing in ‘normal life’ – he is simultaneously somewhere on the scale between semi-comatose stupor and adrenalin-pumping high alert for relevant new developments upon all of the projects currently in his ‘to do’ portfolio.

‘Going into the field’ is a quite different proposition.

Plainly, in one sense that is a truism. There’s a world of difference, for example, between reading something, or looking at a map trying to make sense of the course of an action lasting either a few minutes or several hours, and physically going to that place and trying to relate that information to the landscape in front of you – the scale of it, the nature of the terrain, even its contours and high points, the valleys, dips and viewpoints.

When you’re not a military person, it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate how a landscape can affect strategy, tactics and outcome.

For years my brother Bryn and I studied aspects of area around the Ypres Salent – for most of WW1 semi-surrounded by the Germans – in which Hill 60 featured as a high point above the town over which numerous bitter battles were fought.

When we actually visited it Hill 60 turned about to be a slight pimple in the landscape no more than thirty feet high.

It was neither the first nor the last occasion that such surprises occurred as they will no doubt will continue to do in the future.

Despite it beginning barely twenty years after WW1 ended, hitherto for me WW2 has not been a particular source of fascination.

Which is why, when about six months ago a group of friends with whom I had visited WW1’s Verdun last year invited me to join them upon an expedition to Normandy, site of the D-Day Landings on 6th June 1944, I immediately accepted.

Brother Bryn being more heavily into the nitty-gritty of first hand research at the Public Records Office, Kew and elsewhere, when I mentioned my Normandy plans to him, he immediately expressed interest in tagging along. And so it was arranged.

Years of WW1 ‘campaigning’ has taught us that – as first recommended twenty years ago by a colleague and television director pal – 90% of any project is in the planning and most particularly a ‘recce’ of the territory in advance, the better to rehearse travelling routes and timings and locate suitable feeding/comfort break/refuelling stations along the way.

On our very first trip to Ypres, he having offered to accompany us to prove his point, said pal then gave us an intensive course in that which he was propounding, a lesson we learned well and have employed ever since to considerable effect whenever on our little ‘tours’.

All the above explains how and why I reached the sanctuary of Chez Nous last night having spent some forty hours driving to Caen – ten miles in from the Normandy Beaches – and the surrounding environs, in all a round trip of 748 miles. We spent our time touring the area in depth, visiting as many places as possible related to the specific subject de jour (a potential ‘show and tell’ contribution that Bryn and I shall potentially offer to our fellow travellers next month on our Normandy Tour) that we have worked up for the purpose.

Research-wise it was a 95% a resounding victory.

But – being family and knowing each other well – we have also honed our touring technique to a T. Bryn loves driving and is hopeless at maps, directions and multi-tasking. I can take or leave driving as a state of being, but am a copious taker of notes and possess a facility for keeping several balls in the air at once.

And thus he drove the bulk of the way there and back whilst I acted as navigator.

On the outward journey, with occasional mini-panics in practice – pre-armed with 50 euros’ worth of ‘shrapnel’ – we went through two major péage sections of motorway (8.60 euros each), one minor one (5.40 euros) and one ‘per use’ bridge (1.10 euros), as I duly noted down as we thundered westwards from Calais to Normandy.

Yesterday, on the return route, deploying my notes ‘backwards’ (if you get my drift) I duly had the required fistful of shrapnel in my left hand, ready to throw them into the bucket, or place successively in the designated slot at each péage station, and – hey presto! – the barrier sprang up and we were back on the road, rather (we thought) in the style of a pit crew changing all four tyres on a Formula One Mercedes before releasing it on its way.

Except once.

When Bryn, haring up to a péage station not far short of Honfleur and seeking the shortest-possible queue of cars, mistakenly joined one filtering to a station that only took debit or credit cards. Ours were lying haphazardly discarded somewhere in the back of the car! Pandemonium and confusion followed, with an increasingly frustrated queue of vehicles behind us.

Shortly afterwards, when scouting for a badly-needed refuelling stop at an Aire (a French motorway service station), Bryn then compounded his humiliation by mistakenly driving straight past the garage area, guided by a sign indicating where cars should go. This meant we could not refuel or ‘go back’ … and so we had to drive out back onto the motorway and on another 20 kilometres of flashing lights and a beeping car dashboard with me giving him gyp about having to navigate for a singularly incompetent driver!

About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts