Yesterday I had occasion to join my fellow Rusters Henry Elkins and Guy Danaway on what they had described in advance as “one of their raids into Occupied France …”.
As I understand it, these are effectively reconnaissance trips undertaken in advance of one of their guided tours of the WW1 battlefields and Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries.
These guys are not professional tour guides, but they regularly go out to what is described as the Western Front in order to conduct hobby WW1 research and sometimes – when the opportunity presents itself and/or they are approached – they take with them individuals or small groups who are generally interested or otherwise wish to visit the places that perhaps an ancestor-relative visited during WW1 and/or may have his last resting place.
Having deliberately gone to bed early on Monday evening because I was being picked up at ungodly hour of 0300 hours yesterday, there was plenty of opportunity on the drive down to the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone to learn a little more of their modus operandi.
In advance of one of their earliest ‘group’ tours, by chance they took a pal to France with them on a research trip. In a previous life Charlie had been a television director who did much location filming and he had passed on his tips for touring based upon that experience. They have been following that advice ever since.
Some if it was simple logic, bordering upon the obvious, e.g. move at the pace that suits the slowest member of your party.
Allow time for regular stops – and when you stop, refuel if you need to, encourage everyone to visit the ‘facilities’ and advise everyone to take on food and drink. You never know how long it will be before your next opportunity .., unless, of course, there is a planned stop for a lunch or dinner coming up next.
As with ‘operational trips’ or big ‘events’ in all walks of life, the key is preparation.
Put in the hard yards of the right sort beforehand and the subsequent tour will take care of itself. The most important form of hard yard is reconnaissance, reconnaissance, reconnaissance.
Where are you going and what is your intended schedule?
How long will it take to get from point A to point B … and then point C?
By rehearsing the route not too long before the actual tour itself, you can identify potential problems – e.g. a serious new set of road works that have just begun and will foul up your previously-favoured route from A to B; a restaurant that has gone bust; or a local seasonal festival you didn’t know about that will hinder access to one of the sites you intend to visit.
Having planned your route, whatever it may be, go and time how long it will takes to get from each stop-off place to the next.
The boys told me numerous tales of successes that had occurred from following this advice. They also stressed the importance of keeping flexibility in mind at all times when on tour.
On the most recent group trip they had supervised, taking in part of the Somme, they had been thundering along a trunk road when they happened to notice in the distance the site of the famous Devonshires cemetery at Mametz. It was not on the tour schedule, but its passing proximity was mentioned to the party and they were asked if they would like to see it. The answer came back “Why not?” …
So they pulled up and stopped. It is a small, now leafy, cemetery on the downward slope of a hill, the site of a 9th Devonshires’ trench in advance of the first day of the Somme. The landscape – their position and the layout of the armies generally – was such that everyone involved knew that their objective that day would be hard, almost impossible, to achieve. Feedback to that effect had been passed back up the military chain but the message had come back that the attack must proceed as planned.
Suffice it to say, a large number of Devonshires became casualties that dreadful morning. Afterwards the regimental survivors, in burying their dead, placed a simple inscription on a wooden cross nearby.
When the Commonwealth War Graves Commission later established its impressive, understated cemetery on the site for the benefit of future generations it used that inscription at the entrance. It speaks for itself:
‘The Devonshires held this trench. They hold it still.’
Yesterday’s schedule was intensive and crowded. Having emerged at Calais at 7.20am continental time, we drove straight down to Loos (French pronunciation ‘Luuush’) in order to recce a tour taking place in September on the centenary of that battle. We found the grave of a particular soldier my companions were looking for some eight miles further away, partly by chance. We then travelled to Ploegsteert and Nieppe and then, mid-afternoon, we returned to Calais to catch our scheduled Eurotunnel train back to Blighty.
It was exhausting but both rewarding and fun.
It is also constantly amazing what the human body can do.
I was due to go out for dinner upon my return last night and – given how long I’d been up already and what we’d been doing – as I feared would be the case, I was barely in the mood when the moment arrived. However, by the time I got home again, a stiff gin and tonic and a Greek meal later, I was buzzing despite it being more than two hours beyond my normal bedtime.