It’s not entirely quiet on the Western Front….
Firstly, we very much hope that our readers have come through the pandemic thus far with a minimum of distress and difficulties; to those who, to our knowledge, have suffered loss and hardship, we offer our condolences and sympathy.
You will be well aware that, in the business community, the travel industry has been among the hardest hit. Since our last completed tour in September 2019, the inaugural edition of the 1914 Retreat from Mons, Great War Battlefields has inevitably come close to a state of suspended animation. In the meantime, however, both Peter Rolington and Roger Joye have been actively maintaining various contacts at home and abroad (see below), and looking ahead to resuming tours to France and Belgium once everyone feels it is safe to do so. At the time of writing, the UK leads the way in terms of European nations’ vaccination programmes, but it will take a while before (a) the others catch up and (b) all nations are confident that no further waves of Covid are in prospect.
Realistically, 2022 looks like being the year when we get back into serious action. Our first priorities will be to visit Mons and Verdun with the main tours we had planned for 2020 but sadly had to postpone. At this early stage we can only indicate tentative dates of May for Mons and September for Verdun.
The 1914 Retreat from Mons tour will be offered to newcomers and to those who were willing but unable to join us back in September 2019. This four-day tour starts in Mons itself, a vibrant and attractive town in the French-speaking part of Belgium with its architecture unspoilt by war, where we cover urban battle scenes, the new Memorial Museum, the hilltop belfry and – something completely different – Van Gogh’s house. After two nights in Mons, and sorties to include rearguard actions by Smith-Dorrien’s Corps at Elouges and Audregnies and by Haig’s Corps at Maroilles and Landrecies, we move on to tour the battlefield of Le Cateau. The final stages cover the remarkable “Twelve Men of Iron”, actions at Etreux and Cérizy, the Guards’ Grave Cemetery, and the Affair at Néry (including three VCs and Goudhurst’s first fatality).
If you’ve been to the British sectors of the Western Front before, you’ll find during our four-day tour around Verdun that the atmosphere and landscapes of its battlefields are startlingly different. Whereas the Somme, Ypres and Arras have been re-populated over the last 100 years and returned to gentle farmland, large areas of the scarred landscape around Verdun remain untouched apart from re-forestation, leaving an indelible impression on the mind of the visitor. Verdun has been of special significance to the French nation ever since the events of the Great War. The peak of its notoriety came in 1916 when the Germans specifically aimed to “bleed the French army white” by attrition in this hilly salient with its strong fortifications, many of which survive and can be visited. In 1918, the Americans played a major role here. To tell the stories of heroism and attrition around Verdun in the Great War, we visit numerous locations, among them the forts at Douaumont, Souville and Vaux, the citadel in Verdun with its museum and underground train, the trenches and tunnels beneath the fearsome Butte de Vauquois, and the largest American war cemetery in Europe.
Some Other Trips Planned for 2022
We hope to achieve our longest-held ambition, a group visit to the unique Talbot House at Poperinge. This institution was established in 1915 as a place of rest and relaxation for soldiers, just a few short (but safe) miles west of the Ypres Salient. Over the next three years, any soldier – regardless of rank – might sit here in an armchair to read a magazine, play chess, have a natter, daydream in the garden, take advantage of the chapel on the top floor: plentiful options for a crucial break from the stresses of life in the front line. Even today, the atmosphere of calm is palpable. Although much of the interior is museum-like, Talbot House is a living organisation, providing guesthouse facilities; you can even get tea and buns!
We hope to enable a private family group to follow in the footsteps of a grandfather who saw action at Ypres and the Somme. We are also keen to organise group tours to specific new sites in those and other areas familiar from previous tours; and if you have any suggestions for future events, we’ll be delighted to hear from you.
Meanwhile, before getting the official Great War Battlefields show back on the road, Peter is hoping to guide a trip to the Somme for a group of Kent Police Cadets, something he has done on several previous occasions. They can be quite lively and demanding affairs, but very rewarding. Roger regularly helps the Loos battlefield museum by producing the English translation of their newsletters, and last summer got his ‘dream job’ when a contact there asked him to translate a fascinating book he had written about his wife’s grandfather, a “Tommy” who was killed in October 1917, less than three weeks after attending the baptism of his only child, a girl born to his French fiancée.
We will post the dates and prices of the trips on our website, www.greatwarbattlefields.com as soon as they are available.
In the meantime, keep safe and we look forward to seeing you soon.
Peter and Roger