The Front Line Walk – October 2016

It’s been three weeks since I returned from the Front Line Walk and I am only just getting my thoughts together on it. It was the most powerful, emotional, exhausting thing I have ever done. And I suspect that it is for those reasons that the experience will live with me for such a long time.

Reasons Why?!

It all began – and I blame Jo entirely for this – when we met on the pavement after she had finished running the London Marathon in 2015. She had managed to raise a fantastic £2,690 for ABF The Soldier’s Charity and challenged me to do likewise.

Run a Marathon!? Me?! You have got to be joking. I don’t run. I’ve tried to get the ‘Couch to 5km’ done and dusted but gave up after week 3 ’cause of shin splits..! I’m not good with pain – being a delicate old soul. So – the notion of running was out. BUT at the post race reception at Wellington Barracks, whilst Jo was receiving a well earned leg massage, I saw some advertising for something called ‘The Front Line Walk’,  met Amy Kenyon who enthused about it and decided that the prospect of walking 100km was a better one that running 26 miles. Sorry – 26 POINT 2 miles. I know that the POINT 2 is of the utmost importance… So that was my first reason for walking the Western Front.

The second reason – if I needed one – was down to my involvement in a collaborative project with the Diocese of Blackburn and the Lancashire Methodist District. The project was called ‘Brothers in Arms’ – a multi-media presentation telling the story of the faith, lives and service of Noel and Christopher Chavasse.

Noel and Christopher both served in the First World War; Noel as a Medic and Christopher as a Chaplain. The involvement in the retelling of their story and the overarching narrative of the First World War really caught my attention – so again, ‘The Front Line Walk’ seemed to be a natural fit. An opportunity to pay tribute to the brothers.

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So – two reasons. A challenge and an opportunity to pay tribute to two outstanding gentlemen. But shortly before the walk – and after approximately 200 miles of training – another reason arrived with the request to bless a reinstated plaque at Poulton-le-Fylde Methodist Church in honour of a soldier called Lt Geoffrey Potts.

I had no idea about this soldier – other than the name on the plaque and the date of his death. Fortunately a church member had done some work uncovering details of his service, but after posting a photograph on the Facebook Group page I am indebted to Terry for his detailed work in uncovering more of Lt. Potts’ story. More of that a little later…

Day One – Embarkation: 5/10/16.

The morning of Tuesday 4th October dawned a little too early for my taste as the alarm roused me out of sleep at 6.00am. I had spent the night in the tiniest of rooms at an easyHotel in Earls Court, in the uppermost corner of the building. I showered, got my bags packed again and headed out of the door at 6.50am thinking that I had all the time in the world to get there before 7.30am… Got to the tube and on it in in perfect time, only for the wretched thing to sit outside the station for 5 minutes… Time was rapidly running away from me, especially as I dithered at St James’ Park Underground Station for a while deciding what to have for breakfast..!

The dithering resulted in a phone message from Amy asking if I were alright and how far away I was… I didn’t reply, for the incredibly good reason that I was in France when I picked up the message. However, I made it to the Barracks at 7.35am and I wasn’t the last! And by no means was I the first! A quick check into registration then jumping into the back of the group photograph, choosing the sandwich and off onto the coach for the journey to France.

Our first port of call in Arras – our base for three days – was to the Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery and the Arras Memorial to the Missing. I think it was here, in this place where 2,650 marked graves and the names of nearly 35,000 missing servicemen that the full weight of what I was about to embark on became clear.

You see – you hear all about the figures of casualties in documentaries, numbers banded about during the Somme 100 celebrations and in the history books, but, there is a sense by which none of that really sinks in… “2,650 graves, you say” And the response is almost “Wow. That’s amazing.” And I am sure that it is because that number cannot be imagined in the mind. And then you find yourself in that place, with 2,650 headstones stretched out in front of you. You walk beside the wall where there are 35,000 names etched into stone – each headstone, each etching representing the life of a son, a father, a brother, an uncle – and you suddenly become aware of the vast loss of potential in the lives of those who fell.

From here we made the short journey to our hotel, unloaded and met our roommates! I had the pleasure of sharing with Neil Fox who I warned very early on that I am told that I snore very loudly. Fortunately, he was very gracious and pointed to his exceedingly good ear plugs!

I didn’t stay in the room for very long because Terry had told me to “hurry up” – through his research he had discovered where Lt Potts was buried and we were going to see if we could we find his grave. So I jumped into a taxi at the Gare d’Arras with Terry and Steve and we headed off to find Wancourt British Cemetary.

I can honestly say, that as I stood in front of Lt. Potts’ grave, I wasn’t prepared for the rush of emotion that I felt as I read his name. I knew him only from a plaque at church, back in Poulton-le-Fylde and yet as I stood there, the emotion of the moment took over. Terry invited me to say some words and for a moment I was speechless – I had the overwhelming sense that anything I might have said would have been wholly inadequate for the moment. So I prayed. I gave thanks for his life and for his service and him, once more, into God’s care and planted a poppy cross on behalf of his home church at his grave in this beautiful corner of the countryside of Northern France.

Following this we visited Heninel Croisilles Road Cemetery so that Steve could visit the grave of a relative of someone who had given an amazing sum to his fundraising.

Each of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Cemeteries has a Register holding the names of those who are buried there and, if known, information about the service of each Soldier commemorated. This details the exact location within the graveyard of where the individual is buried.

So – then we headed back to the taxi and into Arras and to the hotel bar unable to cope with numbers of people wanting alcohol! The evening meal followed, an inspirational talk by Andy Reid (a veteran of the Afghan War and beneficiary of the Charity) and then bed – because an earlier start beckoned the following morning!

Day Two – Walking: 6/10/16

“5.30am! 5.30am?! What sort of ungodly hour of the morning is this?”

My thoughts as I rolled out of bed, across the floor towards the sound of the alarm on my phone that was plugged into the nearest plug to the bed that I could find… Perhaps it was just as well that it was a roll away… Fortunately Neil’s alarm went off at the same time!

Breakfast was a most continental affair – cereals and croissants filled with ham and cheese and plenty of Orange Juice… The queue at the coffee machine was far too long! A quick stop at the gym on the way up to the room followed shortly after. I am delighted to announce that I visited the gym every morning whilst in that hotel albeit only to fill up my water bottle from the dispenser in the corner…water

On the way to the coach at 6.45am, a packed lunch of a baguette was picked up (a daily routine) and then settle into the seat for the short journey to our starting place for the walk at Lochnagar Crater.

Lochnagar Crater is the biggest man-made crater created during WW1 formed when a mine laid by the 179th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers was exploded underneath the German Stronghold of “Schwaben Hohe” at 7.28am on 1st July 1916, signalling the start of the Battle of the Somme. It was still dark when we arrived and as we left the coach, jackets were rapidly pulled out of bags as a biting wind swirled around us.

The Crater is a remarkable size – no picture can do it justice and after a prayer and a blessing from the Padre (Andy)  we took a moment to look around… I perhaps took too long to look around as when I turned from taking photographs I discovered that the majority of the walkers had walked! So I turned my back to the Crater and my face to the rising sun and set off…

5 miles later – and after Terry had presented me with a heavy piece of shrapnel he’d found at the side of a field (I carried it with me all the way that first day!) – we arrived at the next moment of reflection for our walk.

Mametz Wood is a hauntingly, beautiful place. Peaceful and serene and yet with a past so tragic and violent. A past that creeps up on you as you walk through it, for attached to trees along the way are tributes to men of the 38th (Welsh) Division who fell in 1916 during a battle with the Germans to gain control of the area and to drive them out of the wood. The Welsh first had to cross open fields to reach the wood and then engage in hand-to-hand warfare within the wood itself. The first attack on the 7th July failed and it would take another attack on the 10th July and a further two days fighting for the wood to come under Welsh control.

The Memorial to the 38th (Welsh) Division is a remarkable red dragon atop a plinth of stone quarried from a Welsh mine. It stands proud above the fields the Welsh Division will have had to cross in order to reach the wood and where so many fell in the haze of machine gun fire coming from the wood itself.

The road running past Flatiron Copse Cemetery was the location for our first drinks and snack stop of the walk! The team had done an excellent job of setting up hot and cold drinks and a wide variety of snacky treats – a sign-in sheet also recorded all our arrivals. It was that I first really began to be aware of the number of headstones dedicated to ‘A Soldier of the Great War Known unto God’. Within the headstones of those names were these tribute to those whose remains were found but who could not be identified. I don’t know why I found this such an emotionally challenging moment, but I suspect it was the thought that these ‘unknowns’ may never have had anyone pay tribute to them at their resting place. I cried. And I resolved that at each cemetery we visited, I would knee beside such a headstone and give thanks for the life and service of whoever was buried here, knowing and trusting that God knew exactly who it was. In the midst of such numbers of headstones and tributes where one could become so easily overwhelmed, I found it a moment in which I could spend simply a moment in reflection and gratitude.

From here, our journey took us to Thiepval and the Memorial to the Missing. The Memorial first came into view over a ridge as it rose, majestically into the skyline – the top only in view, the est hidden by trees. A wave of emotion came over me as I saw it – a place I saw during the television coverage of the Somme 100 Memorial – knowing that I was walking to that place where so many are remembered.

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On first arriving at Thiepval, the main opportunity was the chance to remove boots and let feet breathe as we sat and enjoyed our lunch in the sunshine. Thiepval was a busy place, with coach tours arriving and departing all day. Lunch today – as was lunch every day – consisted of a filled baguette, fruit and a fizzy drink. Thankfully, the coffee station had been set up as well!

Once lunch was eaten, there was the opportunity to walk around the memorial. It is an incredibly impressive structure, sitting proud atop Thiepval Ridge and is the largest British battle memorial in the world, taking 4 years to construct. Each of the 16 legs are covered with the names of those who fell in the Battle of the Somme before 20th March 1918 and “to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”. 72,000 names. 72,000. Names of soldiers, officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African Forace. 72,000 names.

And it was here that I was struck again with a stark contrast in the theatre of war. The missing named and the nameless found. 

A remarkable memorial to the missing is produced by the British Royal Legion in the form of a Somme 1916 Poppy Pin. Jo had purchased one to give me when I arrived home at the end of the walk. However, as I had been updating  my journey for those following on FaceBook, she had been able to discover that I was at Thiepval. The pin had arrived that day and Jo had opened it to have a look and she discovered that the soldier my pin whose life it commemorates was remembered at Thiepval Memorial. So she sent me a photograh of the card and I was able to find the name of Lance Corporal H Miller of the Essex Regiment, who died on the 26th September 1916 and pay a tribute to him whilst I was there.

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Steve, our most excellent historian, told us as we were preparing to leave of the battle that took place where we stood. Of how the British had to make their way up a hill, under a hail of German machine gun fire. Of the diary of a German Machine Gunner who fired thousands of rounds and saw hundreds of men fall. Once again, our walk set off in silence. We passed Connaught British Military Cemetery and Mill Road Cemetery and the exquisite ‘Ulster Tower’. The Ulster Tower is a replica of Helen’s Tower in the Clandeboye Estate in Northern Ireland where many of the men of the Ulster Division would have trained before arriving in France in 1916. Nine men are remembered here who won the Victoria Cross during the Battle of the Somme.

As well as receiving a piece of shrapnel, it was possible to see shells laid out alongside the fields – discovered by farmers as they plough their fields. 30 tons of 100 year old metal is found every year which, given that in the preliminary bombardment of the Battle of the Somme and in the week afterwards 5,350 tons of shells were fired by the British Expeditionary Force alone.

A wander through Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial followed – a Canadian National Historic site comprising of 74 acres of preserved battlefields on which the Newfoundland Regiment fought on 1st July 1916. Within this preserved battlefield there is also the ‘Danger Tree’ – the only tree to survive the Great War in this location. There is also a memorial to the men of the 51st (Highland) Division which captured the village of Beaumont Hamel on 13th November 1916.

On 1st July 1916, British cinematographer Geoffrey Malins was filming the 29th Division’s attack of the German lines for the official war film ‘The Battle of the Somme’. He had his camera set up to film a mine due to be detonated at 7.20am that morning. His camera captured one of the most famous pieces of footage of World War 1.

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Next to where Malins’ camera stood was ‘The Sunken Lane’ – a simple country lane situated in no man’s land between the two opposing armies. The men of the 1st Battalion The Lancashire Fusiliers were filmed here, moments before they went over the top and into a hail of machine gun fire.

Steve painted the events for us here in great detail; of how tunnellers had worked through from the British Front Line, emerging from the embankment where we stood in the lane; of how Malins filmed the men, hiding on the opposite side of the lane to avoid sniper fire from the Germans at Hawthorn Ridge; of how the call to ‘go over the top’ waited for 10 minutes after the mine was exploded, giving the Germans ample time to recover from the shock and surprise of the mine blast and man their guns. Pictures of stills from Malins’ film were place on the banks of the Sunken Lane and we stood in reverent silence as gazed upon their faces, hearing their story and looking at the point at which they scrambled over the embankment to attack the enemy.

Perhaps the most poignant story we heard here was of the Signaller charged with the task of getting a message back to the lines behind that all was not going well. This man, as he climbed the embankment to relay the message, must have known what the outcome of his task was to be. He was dead within 10 seconds of taking position. Such bravery. Such dedication to duty. And again, we set off in silence.

Our final 10kms took us across some beautiful countryside, skirting by many more cemeteries, by the famous Accrington Pals Memorial (built with Accrington Red Brick) and ending at Gommecourt Wood Military Cemetery.

I must admit to walking this portion with much haste – we had been told that as soon as the first coach was full it would go straight back to the hotel… I was tired and cold and determined to be on that coach. I was. But I ached and knew that I’d overdone it.

Day Three – More walking… 7/10/16

If excitement and adrenaline got us through the 24 miles of Day One, it would be grit, determination and sheer bloodymindedness that got us through Day Two.

The Day began as the day before, 5.30am alarm, breakfast, gym visit, lunch pick up and the coach; except this day dawned grey and murky. Our start point was at the Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Military Cemetery.

I was surprised at the difference between the German and Commonwealth Cemeteries. No pristine, white headstones here. No lovingly tended flower borders.Simply row upon row of crosses. This is primarily because of the way in which the cemeteries are funded. Commonwealth cemeteries receive funding direct from the Governments concerned – Untied Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India who pay Pakistan’s share as Pakistan was formed in 1947. The German Cemeteries are funded entirely by donations to a charity, Volksbund Deutsche Kriesgsraberfursorge (VDK).

The constitutional aims of Volksbund are:

  • to construct and maintain cemeteries both abroad and in Germany.
  • to arrange for remembrance wreaths to be placed on behalf of next of kin.
  • to provide financial support for relatives’ pilgrimages to graves.
  • to offer help and advice to dependants concerning any matters relating to the soldier’s resting place.
  • to establish a constructive liaison with the appropriate authorities in whose land the German soldiers were buried, and to be the means to learn from the past, to build bridges of friendship and to spread the word of peace.

Each cross bears the name of four German Soldiers – there are 44,833 men buried here. Within that 44,833 are the headstones of 129 Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Germany and I was struck by how – in just 20 years – the inhumanity of man toward man took an increasingly sinister turn as the Jews (and other groups too) were systematically destroyed within Germany. This Great War, this War to end ALL Wars, shattered the lives and the hopes of people on all sides of the conflict.

We continued our walk past the Military Cemetery at Ecoivers to the evocative ruins of Mont-Saint-Eloi. The once powerful Abbey was established in the 7th Century, but fell into ruin during the Revolution – the white stones of it’s walls stolen for other uses. The French used the towers that remained to spy on German positions, but realised that the birds nesting in the towers were giving away their positions. Shell fire further destroyed the tops of the ruins.

Our stop at Mont-Saint-Eloi brought welcome relief in the form of biscuits and hot drinks, before a warning that the next leg of the journey – the leg towards lunch and baguettes – was a long and difficult one. And it was. This section had the habit of making you think you were nearly there and then throwing you off the scent. A gorgeous walk through a small ravine with a babbling stream to a road – ‘the coach must be nearby then… No? OK…’. A walk uphill and then a scramble uphill. I remember hoping at the point of the scramble that God really loved those who had put the route together ’cause at that particular moment in time I was thinking some increasingly murderous thoughts. All that turned to shame when we were informed after lunch that the French Army had climbed that very same hill, wearing their uniform and carrying all their kit whilst being fired at by the Germans above. And when the French got to the top, those that could still had to fight the Germans back in order to win the ridge. Perspective is a great leveller and that certainly levelled me.

Notre Dame de Lorette is the largest French military cemetery in the world – a total of 39,985 burials.

It is here at Notre Dame de Lorette where there is one of the most moving tributes to those who fell in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais region between 1914 and 1918. 580,000 names listed without any reference to rank or nationality, friends and enemies named side by side. 580,000 names. I successfully found Lt. Geoffrey Potts and Lance Corporal H. Miller within that 580,000.

From here, we could just about see our final destination of the day, but there was an awful lot of walking to do between here and Vimy Ridge.

Vimy Ridge is a remarkable place – a network of preserved trenches remain showing, in places, how close opposing sides were to each other in this form of trench warfare. If only I had walked faster to get here – I could have spent all day amongst the trenches imagining, remembering and reflecting on the events that took place here 100 years ago. The landscape still marked by shell and mine craters, the grass – too dangerous to walk upon – kept short by the grazing of sheep oblivious to the risks involved!

 

The monument at Vimy Ridge is truly remarkable. It is situated at the highest point of the ridge overlooking the Douai Plain and is dedicated to the all Canadians who served during WW1 – particularly to the 60,000 who died in France. It bears the names of 11,000 Canadian soldiers – many of whom died in the fight for Vimy Ridge – who have no known grave.

A photograph of the collected walkers at Vimy Ridge was taken and then we all headed back to the coaches for the trip back to the hotel. Whilst on the coach, Terry sat next to me – he’d been catching me all day saying, “I’ve got something that I need to ask you, but it can wait until later!” I’d spent much of the day wondering what it might be and it turned out to be something utterly amazing.

The Soldiers’ Charity, perhaps in order to encourage rabid fundraising(!), offer the opportunity for the top three fundraisers to form the wreath laying party on behalf of the charity at the Last Post Ceremony at The Menin Gate in Ypres. That incentive certainly worked for me in my fundraising activity but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be! At best guess I came fourth – but that’s OK – you don’t, as they say, win ’em all! So it was with the greatest of surprise when Terry offered me the opportunity to take his place at the Menin Gate. And I am forever grateful for that amazing moment – but more of that later…

On arrival back at the hotel, it was back up to the room to check out the damage on the old (and I use that word hesitatingly) heels. Throughout my 200 miles of training walks, I’d always ended up with a blister in exactly the same place on either heel. No matter what strapping, socks, boots or speed I walk, they were my ever present companions. So instead of being frustrated by them, I decided to embrace them, welcome them and name them! Meet Eric and Ernie.

Day Four – Still walking…. 8/10/16

You know the routine by now… 5.30am alarm, breakfast, the all important gym visit, lunch pick up and coach… But this time, pack the case and remember to take it to the coach for we left Arras behind and headed up into Belgium.

Our starting point was Ploegsteert – otherwise known as ‘Plugstreet’ by those who served during WW1 – and the Memorial to the Missing  holding the names of over 11,000 soldiers from the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in this sector. It was here the Steve told us about the life of the only tunneller to have ever received the Victoria Cross.

“On the morning of 22 June 1916, Sapper William Hackett and four other miners of 254 Tunnelling Company were driving a tunnel towards the enemy lines below the cratered surface of the Givenchy sector of northern France. At about one-quarter of the way towards the German trenches at a depth of about 35 feet, the timbered gallery 4’3” high by 2’6” wide was still in the early stages of development; it was served by a single shaft – the Shaftesbury Shaft. At 2.50am the explosion of a heavy German mine (the Red Dragon) blew in 25 feet of the tunnel, cutting the five men off from the shaft and safety. On the surface, a rescue party was immediately organised. After two days of digging an escape hole was formed through the fallen earth and broken timbers, and the tunnellers contacted. William Hackett helped three men to safety. However, with sanctuary beckoning, and although himself apparently unhurt, he refused to leave until the last man, seriously injured 22 year-old Thomas Collins of the Swansea Pals (14th Battalion, the Welsh Regiment), was rescued. His words were said to be, “I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first”. The rescuers worked on, but were frequently immobilized by German shelling and mortaring of the shaft-head. Conditions above and below ground became more treacherous by the minute. Eventually the gallery collapsed again, entombing the two men. Both still lie beneath the fields of Givenchy today… For his act of selfless valour William Hackett was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.” (http://www.tunnellersmemorial.com/william-hackett-vc/)

Hackett is named on the Ploegsteert Memorial whilst Collins is named at Thiepval.

Our walk took us through Ploegsteert Wood and the opportunity to visit some smaller cemeteries hidden between the trees. It was at Rifle House Cemetery that we saw the a headstone commemorating one of the youngest serving soldiers. Raphael Glitzenstien was born on 25th June 1899 in London, son of Barnett and Esther Glitzenstein. After a family argument, he left home and, having lied about his age, he joined the army. Being a Jew, he thought it was to change his name, taking up the name of his father as his new surname, he became Rifleman Robert Barnett. He had been in France and Belgium since 9th October 1914 and was killed in action 19th December that same year. He was 15 when he died.

Prowse Point Military Cemetery was our next visit – uniquely named after an individual instead of a location or nearby feature, the cemetery is located on the site of a stand made by the 1st Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment and the Somerset Light Infantry in October 1914. It is named after Brigadier Charles Prowse, commemorating his heroic actions during this stand.

Here Steve showed us the grave of an Australian soldier – Private A.J. Mather, whose remains were discovered during an archaeological dig nearby. Through DNA testing his remains were identified and his family travelled from Australia to be present at his internment.

Somehow, I missed visiting the Khaki Chums 1914 Christmas Truce Memorial – I will have to try and rectify that at some point in the future! I did, however, have my breath taken away by the beautiful simplicity of the Island of Island Peace Park, full of poetry with the ‘Irish Peace Tower’ at it’s heart. The tower is beautiful, with the inside – due to its design – only being illumined by the light of the sun at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. There are a number of stone tablets at the park, holding the words from poems and letters of Irish Servicemen…

“It is too late now to retrieve a fallen dream, too late to grieve a name unmade, but not too late to thank the Gods for what is great. A keen edged sword, a soldier’s heart is greater than a poet’s art. And greater than a poet’s fame a little grave that has no name.” Francis Ledwidge, 5th Inniskilling Fusiliers.

“Spent all night trying to console, aid and remove the wounded. It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretchers with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs.” Chaplain Francis Gleeson, Royal Munster Fusiliers.

“I wish the sea were not so wide that parts me from my love, I wish that things men do below were known to God above. I wish that I were back again in the Glens of Donegal; they’ll call me coward if I return, but a hero if I fall.” Patrick MacGill, London Irish Regiment.

A short and thoughtful walk from here led us to tea break at the New Zealand Messines Ridge Memorial.

There were many places along on the route of our walk where I could have spent many hours thinking and reflecting on the events, heroics, service and suffering of those who fought in the Great War. This was even more the case at Spanbroekmolen Mine Crater, now known as the Pool of Peace.

“The mine at Spanbroekmoelen was started by 171st Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, on 1st January. Six months later the mine was finished. To celebrate the mine’s completion two officers made their way into the chamber with four bottles of champagne and drinking glasses. The main charge for the mine was made up of 50lb boxes of ammonol, totalling 90,000 lbs. The main charge was finally completed on 28th June 1916 and officially completed, according to the War Diary, on 1st July 1916.

The dimensions and details of the Spanbroekmolen mine are as follows:

By virtue of the clay soil in the area combined with the high water table, the crater has filled with water. The site was purchased by Lord Wakefield in the 1920’s to be preserved as a memorial and symbol of peace. I had the briefest of moments to sit and reflect on the events, the sights, the statistics and the stories of the past four days – I wish I had had longer there, it was a beautiful. Amazing, I think, that such a place of beauty was born out of an act of horrendous violence and destruction. I am grateful to Jane for having caught – unknown to me – my moment of reflection.

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From here a walk past Caterpillar Trench and Hill 60 – again I need to return to visit these places properly and give them the time they deserve(!) – and tea break before heading on the final portion of the walk – via a well deserved break at a lake side pub! – to Ypres and the finish line at The Menin Gate.

Once we had all regrouped at the lakeside pub, we reorganised ourselves so that those who walked slowest, or were struggling with injury, walked at the front of the pack. This was significant as it meant that we arrived in Ypres as one. Well, as one as a group of 100 can be! We must have looked an incredible sight walking in either our red or black Soldier’s Charity tops along the road.

As we entered Ypres next to the Ramparts Cemetery and through the Lille Gate emotions at the enormity of our achievement began to set in and emotions became etched on our faces – none more so when we round a corner and saw The Menin Gate looming large as people in bars and cafes stood to applaud us as we walked out final footsteps. Emotions overflowed as we walked through the gate, to receive our medals – overawed at our achievements, thankful for friendships forged and aware of the history that had surrounded us every step of the way.

Arrival at our new hotel swiftly followed as did the first bath for days – the chance to soak aching limbs was a welcome change from a shower – and a change into smart clothes for The Last Post Ceremony at The Menin Gate. The sounding of The Last Post first took place at this location on 1st July 1928 and it has been sounded every night (except for during the four years of occupation during the Second World War) and in every kind of weather since 11th November 1929.

It was an honour and a great privilege to have been a member of the wreath laying party on behalf of all the amazing people of the Front Line Walk. I found it increasingly hard, as we waited for the ceremony to begin, to keep my emotions in check as we stood surrounded by the 54, 399 names of those who fell in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. It was also through here that many thousands of men marched to the battlefields – in the footsteps of the great we stood, remembered and paid our respects.

A celebration meal at a local restaurant followed and thanks were given to those who had done such an amazing job putting this incredible event together. At the end of the meal, I was invited to join John and Richard at their table – they are both, by ways of explanation, two of the most remarkable people I’ve had the privilege to meet – where I was presented with John’s walking stick with the words, “I don’t have a flock to look after when I get home, but you do”. Speechless. It accompanies me on most of my ministerial duties…

I returned to the hotel relatively early – I had plans for the following day in order to enable this amazing journey to come full circle. But for now – it was time for sleep.

Day Five – Full Circle and Back Home: 9/10/16.

The alarm went off relatively early, although I will admit that Neil’s alarm beat mine by about 10 minutes! A wash and breakfast, packing and storing and a request for a taxi. I was travelling to the village of Brandhoek, 6.5km West of the centre of Ypres. My reason for visiting was to find Branhoek New Military Cemetery and the grave of Capt Noel Godfrey Chavasse so that I may pay my respects to a man whose story I had had the privilege to tell for two years.

Again, I cannot describe the moment and the rush of emotion as I stood before his grave, etched with two Victoria Crosses and the words, “Greater love hath no man that this. That a man lay down his life for his friends.” A most remarkable man, one of only three soldiers to have ever received the VC twice and the only solider of the Great War to have done so. A man who went above and beyond in the course of his duty to care for and attend to those who needed his assistance. Capt Chavasse had received a wound to his head which gave him a fracture to his skull but he refused further treatment, leaving the dressing station in order to attend to those who needed him. He was sheltering in his first aid post on 2nd August 1917 with a group of other soldiers when it received a direct hit from a German shell. Despite a serious abdominal wound, he crawled for half a mile in order to get help for those who lay too injured too move. He received surgery on his wound which gave him the strength to dictate a letter to his fiancee and cousin Gladys Chavasse, explaining why he had carried on working despite his earlier injuries insisting that “duty called and called me to obey”. He died on the 4th August.

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His twin, Christopher, felt his death very keenly and gave a glimpse of his grief in a letter written in 1961; “I still mourn my Noel every day of my life, and have done so for 44 years, and shall do till I see him again – quite soon now.” Christopher died in March 1962 at the age of 77.

In all, four Chavasse brothers served during WW1 – Noel, Christopher, Aidan and Frances. Christopher and Fraces survived the war. Noel died at Brandhoek and Aidan was killed in action, his body never found. I am grateful to John for reminding me that his name is recorded in the stone of The Menin Gate.

A quick tour of St George’s Memorial church followed, where all the walls are covered with plaques of remembrance and the kneeler cushions bearing numerous images of Regimental Crests. I would never have known to have looked here if it weren’t for a walker who had given me his time so generously.

And then that was that. Back to the hotel for a quick glass of Pinot, pack the coach and travel home. Disembarking back at Wellington Barracks was a rush of ‘goodbyes’, ‘see you agains’ and ‘thank yous’ as we all dispersed to numerous London Terminals to begin our final journeys home.

I am truly thankful to so many people who made this experience so utterly remarkable. I don’t want to start naming names because I will undoubtedly miss someone out – entirely by accident – and I don’t want to be doing that. So a thank you – to you all; organisers, medics, photographer, walkers – thank you for the parts that each of played in this amazing, life changing experience.

Postscript – A Lasting Memory: 31/10/16.

It is now three weeks since the walk, 21 days since Jo surprised me by picking me up at Preston Station as I was about to change trains, 504 hours (or so) since the physical end of an incredible journey. To say that this experience will have a lasting emotional impact is somewhat of an understatement. I keep remembering moments and conversations, photographs raise the emotions.

I rededicated the plaque in memory of Lt. Geoffrey Potts on 23rd October after sharing his story and the photographs I took whilst there and my involvement in ‘Brothers in Arms’ continues but now with more meaning than ever before. The production ends with a reading of Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ with the music of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ playing in the background – I struggled to get through it without shedding a tear before the walk and now… Well now I find much more poignancy in the words:

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

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I am returning the Western Front next year as I take part in the Front Line Walk 2017. If you would like to donate to the amazing work of ABF The Soldier’s Charity in recognition of my ability to put one foot in front of the other for 100km it would be amazing if you could donate at justgiving.com/FrontlineWalk17 and support the incredibly work the charity undertakes.

I aim to complete the Front Line Walk 2017 in memory of the 179 Chaplains who died in service during the Great War.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Front Line Walk – October 2016

  1. Neil says:

    Excellent account of your ‘life changing’ experience. Hope you have an even better time in 2017!

  2. Andrew Volans says:

    A great description, I think we all had such an experience but few of us have the skill to explain it.

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