With a big trip ahead, an intrepid and excited group from VICTA came together through the hustle and bustle of Ashford International and quickly became acquainted. We hurried aboard our coach and waved ‘au revoir’ to England… France and Belgium here we come!
Our travels kicked off with a ‘treat’ for our taste buds as we sampled some of the foods that may have been consumed during the Great War including, corned beef, tinned sardines and canned fruit.
After speeding under the English Channel on the Eurotunnel, we emerged on the continent, saying ‘bonjour’ to France and after a short drive, ‘hallo’ to Belgium!
Arriving at the Bayernwald, a restored German trench system, we ventured on a ‘hands on’ learning experience and learnt how modern trench systems reflect the lines on our hands – winding in and out with smaller lines back and away from the front trench line. We were also able to get hands on with a large tactile map of the surrounding area which detailed the front lines of the Allied and German Forces throughout various stages of the war. After spending some time at Bayernwald, we headed off to settle into our hostel and get some rest after a busy first day.
Day two and we were on our way to the Sunken Lane on the outskirts of Auchonvillers in France. We listened to stories coming from young men stationed there, these detailed some of the extraordinary events from the field. These emotional stories were fresh in our minds when we visited the small cemetery in the field.
In the town of Auchonvillers, we were given an incredible opportunity to get hands on with World War I uniforms, helmets, weapons and artillery. This gave us a really good insight into how the soldiers were equipped.
We then travelled around the Somme for a poignant tour of the battlefields of Ulster Towe and Mansel Copse before listening to a touching reading of how St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK) was founded to help those who lost their sight during the battle at Lochnagar Crater. Our final visit on the Somme Battlefield was to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. We were able to explore the many names engraved onto the walls and payed our respects to the many graves situated around the memorial.
When we returned to our accommodation, the Mersey drum corps, who happened to be staying in the same place, treated us to a performance, as they would be present at the Last Post Ceremony the following day.
Day three centred around the advancements of the war. We began with a visit to Hill 60, which due to it being on an area of high ground, was a hotly fought over area of Belgium. Over time, this bunker was rebuilt numerous times, changing direction and being made taller to accommodate a greater number of soldiers in the area.
We then travelled to Essex Farm, home of the Advance Dressing Station. Here we also saw the Commonwealth grave of the youngest serviceman in World War I, V. J. Strudwick, aged just 15. This triggered an interesting discussion about how the war forced advancements in medicine and emergency care, as well as some of the many reasons why young servicemen were drawn into the war. Essex Farm is also believed to be where the poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ was written by Major John McCrae.
We then explored more of the Ypres Salient, this included visiting the Langemarck German Military Cemetery, where we compared the differences between the Allied grave sites and the German grave sites.
Our final stop for the day was the Menin Gate. One of our group found a family member on the Gate and they were able to leave a poppy in remembrance for them.
It had been arranged that three of our group would be able to take part in the Last Post Ceremony. They lay a wreath in the Menin Gate and following the playing of the Last Post by the bugles, we continued exploring the city.
Our final day in Belgium saw us travel once again to Ypres, and to the Passchendaele Museum. We were able to explore the forms of warfare used in the Battle of Passchendaele, and also went into some recreated underground trenches and then some real trenches outside the museum.
Before leaving we squeezed in time to buy some Belgian chocolates in Ypres town centre. Stocked with some chocolate, lots of memories and a cultural experience that would never be forgotten, we boarded our coach for the final time and headed back to the UK.
We would like to thank our volunteers for being on hand as always for what was a truly unique trip, and to Anglia Tours who helped put together this tour with us.
Written by John Smith
VICTA Activities and Volunteers Co-ordinator