Photo: Brett Goodyear
The WFA has, in 2012, re-started a series of tours of the battlefields after a period of many years. The third and final of this year's newly-begun series of tours was fully booked almost as soon as the dates were announced, such was the enthusiasm from members. The level of interest was fully justified, when, over the weekend of 26-29 October 2012, a group of more than thirty WFA members, led by Clive Harris and Jack Sheldon, visited the battlefields around Arras and Cambrai.
It is difficult to pick out the highlights of the tour, as each of the day's visits and each story told is worth a detailed explanation in its own right.
Photo: Clive Harris and Jack Sheldon explain the battle from both the British and German perspectives (Brett Goodyear)
The very first port of call, before we had even reached our excellent hotel, the Beatus in Cambrai, was the Maison Blanche tunnels. These tunnels are on private land, so their location cannot be detailed. The tunnels, which are being excavated by the Durand Group, are an incredible site, with the evidence of hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers using them. They were probably connected to a larger network, which has yet to be fully explored, but there is a sense that they have only been recently abandonded. The tunnels were probably used simply for accommodation rather than for tactical purposes, but the graffiti and engravings will, when fully published, be a great source of interest for historians for years to come.
Photo: The descent to the Maison Blanche Tunnels (Brett Goodyear)
Photo: Just one of the hundreds of pieces of graffiti and engravings in the tunnels - a rich source of historical research for years to come (David Tattersfield)
The first full day of the tour concentrated on the events that took place around Arras in 1917. As important as Vimy Ridge and other ‘popular' sites are, the deliberate aim of the tour was to look at important actions at less well visited places, namely the Newfounlanders action at Monchy, the story of Corporal Alf Razzell, and the Royal Naval Division's storming of Gavrelle were all told in the fields where the actions happened. Clive Harris was, as usual, able to bring the pages of history alive with the stories of the personalities involved; these cameos were simultaneously funny and moving.
Photo: Clive Harris explains the features of the Vis en Artois Memorial - the tour covered everything from strategy to tactics, anecdotes to architecture (David Tattersfield)
Despite a flurry of snow, the momentum of the tour continued to build with visits to the sites of actions by the 12/Londons (Rangers) near Neuville Vitasse and to the commanding heights of the Hindenburg Line near Heninel where a number of German bunkers were inspected, one of which still bore the footprint of the German soldier who helped to build it.
The actions of 1918 were studied on the next day. An explanation of the architecture of the of the Vis en Artois Memorial was followed by a most interesting visit to the rarely visited Croisilles Railway Cemetery, where an superb analysis of the German attack on 21 March was provided. This was a day once again packed with highlights too numerous to list, but the story of 2/Lt Frank Young VC, as told by his relatives (who were also on the tour) next to his grave, was an incredible experience. The day ended with a visit to the rather ‘out of the way' 62nd Divisional Memorial at Havrincourt.
Photo: The irrepressible Philippe Gorczynski introduces Deborah to the tour (Brett Goodyear)
The final morning of the tour saw yet another highlight when the group visited "Deborah", the tank saved by M Philippe Gorczynski. Philippe provided an superbly entertaining account of the discovery and saving of Deborah.
The last visit of the tour was to Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery; this is always an interesting cemetery to visit, but was made even more so by the presence of Nigel Stevens and his team from the CWGC who were, despite the bitterly cold weather, tackling the job of re-engraving every headstone in the cemetery. With each stone taking between 30 and 45 minutes to re-engrave, there are some 5,000 man hours of work just on this one site to complete. The group stood in awe of the work of the CWGC.
Photo: With the threat of snow in the air, the CWGC carries on with the Herculean task of re-engraving the 7,650 headstones in the Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery (Brett Goodyear)
This weekend set a superb benchmark for the future of the WFA tours. The history that came to life at every turn was breathtaking, in no small part down to Jack Sheldon, whose explanation of the events from the perspective of the German Army added an angle all too often overlooked. The decision for the WFA to engage Clive Harris of Battle Honours Ltd to provide these WFA tours was justified ‘in spades'.
You can view a slide show of the many excellent images contributed by Brett and David in full screen. Set the slide show belwo running, and press the "expand" icon to enter the full screen mode. Press "Esc" on your keyboard or the "contract" icon to close and return.