Image: the symbolic broken-tipped propellor (Simon Gregor)
A series of remembrances of the WFA's commemorative journeys.
10 August 2014: Departure of the BEF Wreaths from Wellington Barracks
Today was the first stage of The Western Front Association’s commemoration of the deployment of the BEF to France. A hundred years ago, Guardsmen gathered at Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk before moving on to Waterloo to head for the south coast, and thence across the Channel. A little after 8.00 am, we left home for those same barracks, arriving around 8.40. The streets were eerily quiet – partly as it was so early, and also as the continuing cycling events meant that the roads round there were cordoned off.
Gradually, WFA members and journalists started to arrive, and the rain started to fall, gently at first and then more insistently. In the grey drizzle, we walked across in front of Buckingham Palace and took up a station on the Mall, looking past the Victoria memorial (still gleaming despite the grey sky) and up Constitution Hill. Just after 9.30, a silhouetted group of figures appeared at the top of the hill. At first they were hazy, almost merging into the grey stonework of Wellington Arch behind them, but gradually they took shape and found colour, and the deep blue and vermilion red of the Blues and Royals shone through the dull morning air.
As the cavalrymen swung in front of the Palace, as doubtless they would have done a century ago, another set of shapes became visible, a few hundred yards behind. Men on horseback, and behind them a horse-drawn tender, bearing aloft a towering red cascade of poppy wreaths mounted on a simple wooden frame: one wreath for each battalion of men which had left with the BEF for France in the hot August days of 1914. They too turned in front of us, past the curious eyes of a small gathering of early morning tourists, and the bemused look of cyclists gathering for the day’s racing.
We followed them into Birdcage Walk, and then into the parade ground of the barracks itself. There, the tender pulled up next to a Great War aircraft recovery truck, pulled behind a small motorised vehicle of the same era. The rain fell thicker and faster, but the troops accompanying the parade stood tall and quiet. Slowly, and with great dignity, the great mass of wreaths on their frame were lifted gently and moved from the tender to the recovery trailer, an intense burst of red against the pale white background of the barracks.
We waited, listening to the water drops fall from the leaves and the gentle humming of the motorised vehicles, as checks and preparations were made for the journey, and then the cavalcade which would accompany the wreaths to Dover formed up.
Finally, the great cortege moved off, headlights cutting through the grey haze of the stormy day, and wheels sluicing through the puddles of water at our feet. Just as those men one hundred years ago had begun their journey to France, so too had our little procession, albeit in happier times. And we were left in the vast expanse of the parade ground. The watery eyes of the barrack windows looked down on us, and the insistent drops of rain splashed off the cold, hard ground. And in the stark, empty silence those of us that remained paused, and remembered.
Simon Gregor, WFA Member and appointed photographer for the events.
1914-18 Vehicles Transporting the BEF Wreaths to France
For me the overriding memory of the commemoration was the visual contrast of the mass of vibrant red poppy wreaths against the green dullness of the waggon of war, a scene all the more poignant in the cleansing and quietening rain of Birdcage Walk and Wellington Barracks. The respectful professionalism of the Household Cavalry in the execution of their duty will also stay with me for a long time.
After experiencing unsettling weather bright sunlight in Arras closed the commemoration in a positive way, giving everyone a feeling that the memory of Great War soldiers past had been fittingly honoured.
Tom Fryars, who provided the Crossley Staff Car, Tender and Aircraft Recovery Trailer.
12 August: Commemorative Journey, services at Netheravon and Bulford
Standing in the original camp and viewed from military perspective, it is vitally important that we not only look forward to future and embrace technology, we must also consider those who faced the same challenges 100 years ago. Standing outside the officers’ mess and reflecting on the lives of two brave young men who were at the cutting edge of technology, a wholly new concept in the conduct of war in 1914.
It must have been exciting but, at the same time, viewed with the level of trepidation as they progressed into the unknown, with heads held high. It is this spirit that exemplifies not only the two airmen who were sadly lost, but all those who took part. “Lest we forget”
Major Chris Carling, WFA Member, Tidworth Garrison
12 August Commemorative Journey, service at Send, Surrey
Leonie and I, along with our Standard Bearer, arrived at the top of Church Lane expecting to be directed into a field. As we stopped for directions we were told we could park in the garden of the house right by the church. We did not argue. I think they thought we were dignitaries because I was wearing my uncle's medals. We were greeted with morning coffee, a very kind thought.
We gathered around the grave just before 12.00 and the Vicar asked if anyone thought anyone was missing. I had a word with him to say the ATC had not arrived. However, they immediately appeared, so all was well. The vicar gave an excellent pocket history of Lt Robin Skene. After the welcome, Sue Whitmore, a member of the Surrey Chapter UK Harley Davidson riders, read - very well - a moving poem.
The Vicar took the service in an extremely pleasing way and made everyone feel how fortunate they were to be there. Many photographs were taken and everyone was very co-operative.
The finger buffet in the church, after the service, was marvellous and we were indebted to those who looked after us. The Minister of Defence, Philip Hammond, now Foreign Secretary, played his part and stopped to talk to people over lunch.
Derek Holgate, Surrey Branch WFA
12 August commemorative journey: service at Swingate, Dover
The East Kent Branch was very pleased to be asked to assist with the commemoration of the deployment of the BEF at the site of Swingate airfield near Dover on 12 August 2014. The site is alongside a fairly narrow, but busy road, so it was a relief to us to learn that the farmer who owns the field by the memorial was going to allow us to park cars there– and the motorcyles of the Surrey Chapter.
The service was attended by the Lord Lieutenant of Kent, the Town Mayor of Dover and the RAF Association, as well as branch members and others. The arrival of the motorcycles was a memorable moment. We knew they had a Eurotunnel booking and needed to get away promptly afterwards.
The weather was dry but breezy and the site is on an exposed spot just behind the White Cliffs. Those attending grouped as closely as possible in front of the memorial, which was flanked by a Guard of Honour provided by the Dover and Deal Sea Cadets. Remarkably, during the short service, when the Rev Peter Gausden spoke the works of the Evocation, the wind dropped and everyone could hear his voice clearly in the stillness.
Altogether 6 tributes were laid at the memorial. The WFA wreath was laid on behalf of the East Kent Branch by the grandson and 8 year-old great, great grandson of a RFC air mechanic killed at Swingate in 1917. Ben Paterson had travelled from Ipswich to attend with his family and found it a memorable occasion.
Hazel Basford, Joint Chairman East Kent Branch WFA
Aircraft flying to France
While we were thwarted by the gale-force winds in the aftermath of Hurricane Bertha, our respect for the crews of 1914 grew with every hour we spent attempting to make the crossing. We had hoped the ‘Biggles Biplane’ 1914 BE-2c replica, two New Zealand-built BE-2e replicas and a flock of de Havilland Tiger Moths would make the channel crossing, to alight in Amiens 100 years to the day from the first arrivals.
Although our BE-2 managed to battle its way as far as Headcorn in Kent on the eve of the centennial and a dozen or so hardy souls in Tiger Moths did get to Amiens, faced with continuing stormy weather, the low speed, smaller fuel tank and poorer controllability of the BE-2 meant it would have been foolhardy to try to press on further. On Wednesday, 13 August 2014, we did however get within sight of France, as we made a flypast over Swingate Down where the aircraft departed 100 years ago. To put our aeroplane’s lack of pace into perspective, our return trip to Northampton into the teeth of the headwind took over three hours at an average groundspeed of less than 50 mph!
Steve Slater, pilot of the BE-2c
13 August 2014: from Thomas, who played an important role escorting the RFC Wreath which arrived from the UK with the Tiger Moths, and he assisted WFA President Prof Peter Simkins at the Arras ceremony
I arrived in France knowing something of what I would be doing but wasn't clear on some things. Luckily as I got to the airfield for the first ceremony in the morning Graham Parker was there to tell me what to do so for the first ceremony. This helped to put me at ease.
I was sat at the front row next to the President of the Western Front Association. I really enjoyed this first ceremony, even though the BE-2 could not come over as it was too windy. Luckily, however, we had 6 Tiger Moths which flew over so we could bring the wreath in them. I went with Graham Parker to the aircraft and accepted the wreath from the pilot. I knew that this was a special wreath which had come from London to be placed on the memorial in France. I was a bit nervous of doing this in front of a large crowd but I hope it did not show.
After lunch we then went to the second ceremony, this time in Arras which was bigger. We had a large number of young people there. We had the sea cadets as well as the air and the army cadets. So many turned up to this event which was very nice, I thought, especially the little children who were there to remember their families. I sat next to the Luftwaffe pilots and the RAF pilots. My job was to help the WFA President lay the wreath. I really enjoyed that ceremony as it was slightly longer and I did much more in helping out and laying wreaths. I was able to overcome my nerves in front of another large crowd. The ceremony was excellent and I really enjoyed it, especially in the end as the RAF's Tornado flew over. It was very nice to see the little children involved, especially the ones who did the readings and those who also laid a wreath.
I thought the ceremonies were excellent. It was very nice to see everyone turn up including all the children, the elderly, the middle aged and the cadets. All services were very well presented. I am sure that if the men of World War One were here today they would appreciate our respect.
Thomas Saunders, 14 years, Wessex Branch WFA
13 August 2014: memorial flight at Aerodrome d’Amiens-Glisy, Amiens, France
A century ago the RFC arrived in France. The deHavilland Moth Club (DHMC) was tasked with representing the squadrons that followed Harvey-Kelly’s arrival at Amiens and, despite Hurricane ‘Bertha’, 12 vintage aircraft reached France. As deHavilland also designed the BE-2 our aircraft were appropriate.
The planned centrepiece of the commemoration was a replica BE-2 delivering a wreath but weather prevented it flying and DHMC stepped into the breach making a timely delivery and filling the airfield with the sound of vintage engines.
Later in the day those same engines serenaded the commemoration service at Arras.
John Gilder, De Havilland Moth Club and WFA Member
13 August 2014: Lt Hubert 'Bay' Harvey-Kelly
We have all grown up with the legend of Bay Harvey-Kelly. The commemoration brought us that much closer to the reality. It also brought a new dimension, that of family man, as nearly 100 years after his death he united so many members of his family, some of whom had not previously met.
It was an extraordinary day. All the more so due to the unpredictable winds. We waited just as they had waited exactly 100 years earlier, not really sure if any planes would arrive. When they came they looked so flimsy and vulnerable that it was hard to believe that a relation of ours could have flown one, let alone the first one to land in France.
We are extremely grateful to The Western Front Association for including us in the commemoration.
Jennie Knight, Somme Branch WFA and relative of Major H D ‘Bay’ Harvey-Kelly, DSO
13 August 2014: service of remembrance at Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras
As a young WFA member I was honoured to be invited to take part in the WFA centenary commemoration as a reader at the service to commemorate the arrival of the BEF in France, August 1914. The service was held at the CWGC Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery, Arras, France. I had two parts in this service. Firstly, I read an extract from General Jack’s diary which described the mobilisation of the battalion and its arrival in France. The next part I had was to say the second half of the exhortation; the first part was spoken by a veteran. This was the first time I have done anything in front of such a large audience and it was very exciting for me to be a part of this tribute to my great, great grandads’ generation among nice people.
Sam Willoughby, 8 years, Wessex Branch WFA
I was asked by the WFA to do a reading at a service in Arras, of a soldier’s last letter to his mother. He was called Johnny Erskine and came from Scotland. I tried to search for his name on the cemetery walls but couldn't find him, although I did find the name of one of my relatives.
I was really excited to do this, but I was a little nervous when we arrived at the cemetery.
I felt honoured to be there, and was quite happy with my reading.
Thomas Bristow, 12 years, Wessex Branch WFA
13 August 2014: Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras, France
A number of family and county connections made our attendance at the WFA ceremony to commemorate the centenary of the arrival of the BEF in France in 1914 unquestionable. The choice of the venue, Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery, made the event all the more poignant as Steve’s great-uncle George Law is buried there, as are 7 local men.
The rain stopped just in time, participants assembled facing the stone of remembrance, and the sun came out. What followed was unforgettable.
Young children, mature beyond their years, read poignant letters home, male voices sang, echoing around the memorial, bringing tears to many an eye. A fly past, ancient and modern, bridged one hundred years and representatives of forces, once enemies, now sat side-by-side in remembrance of the fallen.
To lay a wreath to honour the fallen was a moment that will stay with us always.
The sound of a lone piper playing “Flowers of the Forest” brought a simple and dignified ceremony to a fitting end.
Sincere thanks to all who worked so hard to arrange the ceremony, those members fortunate enough to be there on the day are so very grateful to you, you did the men of the BEF and the WFA proud.
Karen and Steve Dennis, Essex Branch WFA
Above are just a few of the many superb photographs produced by Simon Gregor ro mark the WFA'sa commemorative journeys. You can see slideshows of them all, on this page.
There is also a short video record of the WFA's symbolic journey of commemoration.