On Tuesday 15th October the annual branch tour left from Lincoln towards Eurotunnel, the main theme being the events of 1914 and 1915, primarily in the often overlooked sector of the Western Front between the Ypres Salient and the Somme.
After checking into the Hotel Notre Dame in Valenciennes the intrepid band of brothers paid a first nocturnal visit to the estaminets on offer. A long standing tradition that our forefathers would have approved of.
Wednesday dawned with heavy rain, a rare occurrence, as we have often been blessed with tee-shirt weather in the past. However, on arrival at our first port of call, the Hohenzollern Redoubt, the clouds cleared and we had a warm welcome and guided walking tour from local historian, Jean Luc Gloriant and branch member, Mike Credland, who designed and had built, the 46th (North Midland) Divisional memorial that now stands at the site.
A good discussion ensued as we followed in the footsteps of the Lincolns and Leicesters who attacked on the left side of the divisional front on 13th October 1915 and suffered heavily from machine gun fire from Mad Point. We then looked at the supporting actions of the Sherwood Foresters of 139th Brigade and Jonathan told of the heroic action which resulted in the award of the VC for Captain Geoffrey Vickers of the 7/Sherwood Foresters (The Robin Hoods).
Waving goodbye to Jean Luc and Mike, we then made short stops at Quarry Cemetery to pay our respects to Captain Fergus Bowes Lyons, then at the 46th divisional memorial at Vermelles and at St Mary’s ADS Cemetery, where lies Lieutenant John Kipling, son of Rudyard.
Following a warming coffee and lunch in Loos en Gohelle, we stopped at Dud Corner Cemetery where Ian and John used the vantage point of height available at the cemetery to give a clear overview of the events of 25th September 1915 and in particular, the actions of 47th division.
There then followed a very worthwhile visit to the Loos Museum (14/18 Alexandre Villedieu), where we were given a short talk by the curator and were very impressed by the array of artefacts on show. A short drive together with the return of the rain, saw us arrive at the new Hill 70 memorial and park which combines with a visit to the Loos town CWGC cemetery. Again, Ian talked us through the events at Hill 70 in September 1915.
Thursday’s weather was much improved as we drove from the hotel to Annouellin to visit the grave and crash site of Captain Albert Ball VC. From Annouellin we headed for Neuve Chappelle and the very emotive and superb Indian memorial at Port Arthur. Here, Jonathan gave a short talk on the events of 10th March 1915 and drew several conclusions as to the differences between the British Army of 1915 and the largely Kitchener New Army that we had studied on tour in 2018.
After a visit to the adjacent Portuguese cemetery we headed to the southern pincer area of the Aubers Ridge battlefield. Stopping at Chocolat Menier Corner, Jonathan gave the party an account of the events of 9th May 1915, the scale of losses suffered by the BEF and a closer look at the attack by 1/Black Watch at this location.
Following a picnic lunch on the hoof, a short drive took us to Stafford Corner where John regaled us with an account of the battle of Festubert, 15th – 25th May 1915. This battle, essentially a second phase of the recently failed attack on Aubers Ridge cost the British some 16,000 casualties in support of the much larger French offensive further south near Vimy Ridge. It was after Festubert that the ‘shell scandal’ broke in the British press which ultimately led to the downfall of the Asquith government and the appointment of David Lloyd George as Minister for Munitions.
The party then headed to the Fromelles sector of the front, where Jonathan explained the actions of 61st Division and the AIF’s 5th Division on 19th and 20th July 1916. Although not officially a part of the battle of the Somme, this action was fought to draw away German reserves from the Somme but led to the bloody repulse of both attacking divisions.
The group then made the short journey to the new Pheasant Wood cemetery and visitor centre, which is well worth a visit, before stopping at the Australian Memorial Park and the Cobbers Statue.
Friday saw a return to more inclement weather as we left Valenciennes for Mons and the events of August 1914. First stop was at Casteau, the site of the firing of the first shots by the BEF where Peter and Jonathan explained how the first clashes of the war were carried out by cavalry skirmishers scouting ahead of the infantry which was, by the 22nd of August, digging in along the southern bank of the Mons-Conde canal.
After a visit to the canal, we laid a wreath at the Nimy railway bridge, the site of the award of the first two Victoria Crosses, to Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sidney Godley of 4/Royal Fusiliers. Jonathan then explained how the retreat of the BEF led to I Corps and II Corps losing touch with each other as they retreated to the east and to the west of the Forest De Mormal respectively.
After a drive to the Forest De Mormal, Steve narrated the story of the retreat around the forest and after a further short hop on the bus, we arrived in Landrecies where Steve told of the actions of the 3/Coldstream Guards and the award of the VC to Lance Corporal George Wyatt. We then held a good discussion at the Coldstream Guards memorial as to whether Douglas Haig had fought a good retreat at this point or whether he had actually panicked and lost control of events.
Following a visit to the Landrecies Communal cemetery, we travelled to Suffolk Hill outside Le Cateau where Robin, an ex-gunner, narrated the story of the events surrounding Smith-Dorrien’s decision to stand and fight and in particular, the role played by the Royal Field Artillery in this action of 26th August, which culminated in the award of three VC’s to Captain Douglas Reynolds and Drivers Job Drain and Frederick Luke of 37th Battery RFA. The day concluded with a visit to Le Cateau Military cemetery which was undergoing substantial repair and renewal by the CWGC.
Saturday saw a change from the main theme of the tour as we looked at the events that took place at Valenciennes, and Mons in the final days of the war in November 1918.
First stop was Vertigneul Churchyard where one small, poignant section really is a ‘….a corner of a foreign field, that is forever England’. Here lies Henry Nicholas VC a New Zealander killed at nearby Beaudignies on 23rd October 1918 after winning his VC in 1917 near Passchendaele. There is a very good explanation board outside the church and it was here that John gave a very good talk about the liberation of Valenciennes.
After a drive that took in a visit to Beaudignies we headed for Le Quesnoy where stands the most wonderful memorial to the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade who liberated the town on 4th November 1918. Le Quesnoy is a fortified town and the New Zealanders, led by Lieutenant Leslie Averill scaled the ramparts on ladders in a manner that our mediaeval ancestors would have recognised. Although the German garrison quickly surrendered, some 80 men died liberating the town on this same day that Wilfred Owen was killed a little further south crossing the Oise-Sambre canal. We then paid a visit to the town cemetery where many of these brave New Zealanders now lie, not forgotten by the local populace.
After very nearly getting the bus stuck under a low bridge, we drove back to Mons where John and Ian gave a good talk about the final fighting in Mons from 9th to 11th November. We then paid a visit to the Mons Memorial Museum and after a good pub lunch we visited St Symphorien cemetery where we finished off the tour by laying poppy crosses at the headstones of Parr and Ellison, reputedly the first and last British fatalities of the fighting.
I would just like to record my thanks to all of the tourists for a wonderful trip, especially those who volunteered to research and contribute a stand or two, and also to our drivers, Peter and John R. A special mention also to Steve who unbeknownst to most was recording the trip and a ten minute film of the tour can be found below.