One of the few joys remaining to me in my declining years is my very-definitely amateur hobby of researching Western Front cemeteries in northern France and Belgium.
As with most avenues of life, expertise in WW1 matters exists along a broad spectrum.
At one end is the depth of knowledge available to a nervous class teacher who has been handed responsibility for a new subject this school term and – as yet – is only about a chapter and a half ahead of his pupils.
At the other, and you might be surprised at how many and varied in their backgrounds and careers these people are, sits the kind of character who, by simply looking at a faded photograph of a Tommy found in an attic, can tell you which regiment he was in; what year the photograph was taken and possibly where; what rank he was; whether he had been wounded; whether he had any special expertise (e.g. bombardier, machine gunner); whether he had been awarded any medals. He could tell you all this by careful examination of his uniform and cap – and any stripes or badges he is sporting, and perhaps the alignment of the buttons upon his tunic.
If anyone wishes to have proof of the degree of detail some of this WW1 hobbyists can go to, please follow this link to an excellent website on the subject and see for yourself – GREAT WAR FORUM
I have two brothers. One has visited the WW1 battlefields on a family trip and since adopted the attitude ‘been there, done that – and I have no need ever to repeat the experience’ and the other (along with myself) has acquired a fascination for the subject.
Yesterday the two of us made one of our irregular trips across the Channel – or, to be entirely accurate, under it via Eurotunnel, one of the great facilitators of the modern age – in order to conduct some research.
In my travelling brother’s case, also (partly as his reason for being granted domestic permission to make the expedition at all) in order buy up to 1,000 Marlboro Light cigarettes … his wife, for the smoking of.
There is a scheme to making these trips, acquired over the course of several years of experience and a mix of thought-out conclusions, received advice and opinion, and complete happenchance.
Not long after we had begun making them, a work colleague of mine who possessed a deal of experience in logistics advised that most importantly, in preparing to take anyone on a guided tour, ‘scouting’ (or, if you like, rehearsing) your trip is a vital task that contributes greatly to any successful outcome.
It was the best piece of advice I think I have ever received in my life.
It can be slow work. You arrive on location – say, Ypres in Belgium – with a rough itinerary of monuments and cemeteries you intend to visit.
With a notebook and watch, you then ‘rehearse’ your progress between them. By this method, you can record the rough time it will take you to get from one place to the next and also identify new road works, layouts, practical problems that have sprung up since you last visited. There’s nothing worse on a guided tour than you (as the guide) getting lost in the Flanders countryside … or being stuck halfway along some muddy track by a new housing estate now being constructed slap bang in the middle of what has been your favourite short-cut for the past three or four years.
I have lost count of the times in the past two decades that I have blessed the day that my work colleague first counselled us to ‘do a recce’.
Other planning ruses have been picked up over the years.
Yesterday, for example, I picked my brother up from his home in Putney at 0330 hours and drove straight to the Folkestone Eurotunnel terminal to catch the 0550 hours train. This is the first one that travels every morning. As usual, we just had time to stop off and collect a Starbucks coffee and a newspaper to consume on the 25 minute trip under the Channel.
By 0900 hours continental [don’t forget Europe is one hour ahead] we were sitting having breakfast in an Ypres hotel, already having purchased my brother’s 1,000 cigarettes at exactly half the price they’d cost in the UK.
By the time we caught the return train from Calais at 1450 hours (continental time), we had done our recce, visited a couple of graves, established that our favourite restaurant in Armentieres had not moved but closed down, met the mayor of Nieppe and basically done everything we had set out to do.
I was back home by 5.00pm, exhausted but highly satisfied with my day’s efforts.