Yesterday, after about eight months of excuses – both genuine and spurious – as to why I could not return to the continent in furtherance of my current WW1 research project, I finally made it under the Channel to northern France and Belgium. In many respects, given the frequency with which I and colleagues have done researching and/or guiding trips in the past ten years, my expedition had something of a ‘going home’ and/or ‘visiting an old friend’ feel about it.
In my experience, there are two ways of doing research trips. You can either book one or two nights in a cheap hotel or bed & breakfast joint and plan a schedule with built-in lunch and other pit-stops, or you take a deep breath and undertake a mad dash … start early, keep moving, restricting diversions and relaxations to a minimum … and attempt to achieve your goals in a single day.
Yesterday’s 12-hour round-trip was an example of the latter.
With Eurotunnel, there is a flexible aspect to your bookings. When you reach the terminal and your vehicle is ‘recognised’, the automatic system evaluates whether you are on time for your passage as booked, or have enough leeway, assuming spaces are available, to jump on an earlier departure. If you have, you are given the option.
Having left home at 0430 hours, I was able to take the 0650 train under the Channel, rather than my booked 0720 one. Gaining half an hour isn’t much but – on a ‘mad dash’ trip – you never know.
The passage – from driving on to driving off – takes approximately 35 minutes.
Once in Calais, I programmed my sat-nav and set off down the E15 – part of which was a péage – to locate the impressive Cabaret Rouge Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Souchez, a little town not far from Vimy Ridge.
I was looking for the grave of a 22-year-old Royal Flying Corps officer/observer, a Scottish rugby international, who was killed with his pilot when their plane was hit and ‘fell to the earth like a stone’ in August 1915.
On the gravestones in CWGC cemeteries the family of the deceased have (or had) the option to add a few commemorative words. Some did, some didn’t. In this instance, the family had added the words Patriae Gloriam Quaesivit Videt Dei. I’m no Latin scholar but, back home last night, I looked sought the English translation on Google and was offered ‘Asked to see the glory of the nation’.
No disrespect intended, but that’s the trouble with stuff you look up on the internet. My own, first stab, interpretation is that the family were effectively seeking to say to any cemetery visitors ‘If you wish to see the glory of the nation, look around you …’, but I could be wildly wrong.
From there, I drove to Nieppe, close to the Belgian border, where I asked at the town hall if there was a recommended local historian. There was, but I then discovered that – on this day, it so happened – the lady concerned was away and unavailable. Maybe next time …
On to Ploegsteert (‘Plugstreet’ to the WW1 Tommies), only about four miles away, but in Belgium, where I was hoping to chat to the owner of a café near the CWGC Hyde Park Corner memorial and cemeteries. The café wasn’t open either!
As a result, I took the opportunity to walk among the graves in order to pay tribute to some old ‘friends’ I have researched, and then visit the new ‘1914-1918 Experience’ Ploegsteert Museum which had opened in the wood behind the memorial only five months ago. They’ve done it quite well, with local artefacts from WW1 in glass cases and various multi-media exhibits, all with multi-language translations available. I took out 40 minutes to walk around the museum and buy a couple of research-friendly books.
Emerging, I assessed my position. It was about noon (French time) and I was about 110 kilometres from Calais, with a Eurotunnel booking in four hours’ time. I could either travel up to the bookshops in Ypres and go back to England on my allotted train … or simply head straight for Calais now and see what was possible.
I opted for the latter and managed to get myself on the 2.50pm (French time) train, which also gave me the opportunity for half an hour in the terminal supermarket hall to buy some booze and grab a bite to eat.
Reaching home about 4.15pm (UK time), I felt a little weary but satisfied with my effort – all these little visits count.
I then relaxed, watched the first half of the Manchester United v Bayern Munich match on television before retiring to bed.