May Guest Feature

My guest for this month is Joachim ‘Jocke’ Hallberg, a serving Officer in the Swedish Armed Forces who currently holds the rank of Major. As well as being an avid biker Jocke is a fellow Amateur Historian and has done some incredibly interesting research on Swedes who served in the Great War and those particulary who fell in the battles on the Western Front and whom are now buried in cemeteries or remembered on memorials in Belgium and France . So it’s over to Joachim with the details of how he got started & the detailed process of how he carries out his research. (For clarity English isn’t Joachim’s first language , although he speaks more & better English than I do Swedish!, so i have with his permission edited some of his original text where required ).

Jocke Hallberg

My name is Joacim Hallberg, but no one says Joacim anymore, therefore I am mostly called Jocke. I am currently working as an Army officer, my rank is Major, in the Swedish Armed Forces. My background is in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), but my current task is to coordinate battle training and exercises for the units in my Regiment, Swedish Engineer regiment ´Göta Ingenjörregemente´.

I have served on several missions abroad in Bosnia, Afghanistan and in Mali, both in the Infantry and EOD branches. I am 53 years old later this year, I have two kids, one daughter who is 19 and a son who is 13. You can easily see by looking at them now that the life goes too fast! As soon as this years winter snow is gone, and when the roads are dry again, I will be out on my motorbike, which is my other great passion in life.

During the last few years I have developed a huge passion for The Great War and I have visited the battlefields of Belgium and France many times. When I attended the Swedish Staff Officer Course at the Swedish National Defence College, I wrote a small essay about the South African units in the battle of Delville Wood and of their courage and moral sense of duty both in their offensive and defensive operations.

I consider this to have been the starting point for my great passion for the Great War.

One evening, some years ago whilst in Ypres in West Flanders, Belgium, I discovered some Swedish names on the Menin Gate Memorial, and from this I decided to highlight their service & sacrifices to fellow Swedish citizens as this is a kind of a blind spot in our own history. I did not realize back then that I would find so many more soldiers with a Swedish background.

The core purpose of my project is what connects these people to their homeland as well as to discover their history by connecting them to the villages, towns & cities in Sweden where they originally came from and if possible, also to find some of their personal stories.  If everything goes well, you may one day be able to find a guidebook that makes it possible to follow in the footsteps of the Swedes who fought in the Great War on the Western Front. You can follow my development on my project page www.westernfront.se.

Angle of attack to my research

In these times when it may not be possible to visit archives in person, partly due to the pandemic that currently prevails, but also because some of the archives are some distance from where you live, a lot of research is done through online digital archives. The information you find in these digital archives is largely sufficient to find the basic information that you are looking for.

In my own project, I have therefore used online archives to try to find information about the Swedish individuals who were wounded or killed during the battles on the Western Front.

Most Swedes who fought in the First World War did so for the new countries to which they had emigrated to before the war. I consider this to be the case for those who emigrated to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Cautiously, I consider right now that most Swedes who fought in World War I on the Western Front did so for the American forces followed by the Canadian and Australian forces.

From the information I have found so far, I believe that the Swedes who chose to fight for Germany or France did so more as volunteers, although there were certainly those who also voluntarily joined the Canadian and American forces. In my research, I have found a few Swedes, born in Sweden, who fought in British forces, but my assessment is that they were British citizens at the time they joined the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). So far, I have not found anyone who fought for any other countries on the Western Front and who are buried on the Western Front. Although there were Swedish individuals who, for example, were part of South African forces, and one of these cases is actually buried in the UK.


One method to find information about the Swedes who fought in the Great War is to start with the archives from The Commonwealth Grave Commission, and search for “Sweden”. You will get quite a lot of hits, but you must sort the individuals out from those who belonged to the Navy, most of them commemorated at Tower Hill Memorial in London, but also those Swedes who are buried at home in their new countries. You also must sort out those who for example has ´sweden´ as a word in their address, like ´Sweden Grove´ or ´Sweden Street´ in Liverpool, UK.

I then continue to search amongst those casualty cards that you can find in some archives. I began to search in the Library and Archives of Canada, among their circumstances of death collection. They are sorted in alphabetical order, but only to the letter S, as the other parts has been destroyed for some reason. I then must search through their other search engine in the same archive, but then I get all those who fought, even those who survived.

My next avenue is to start to find the common Swedish surnames like Anderson, Svenson, Johansson and so on, but of course I have to look through all the cards to really find the others who do not have these common names but are from Sweden as well. It is a huge workload, but remarkably interesting at the same time.

One key word to look for in these cards is also the religion, most of Scandinavian individuals were stated as Lutherans, but not everyone.

Canadian Archives

The next source to search in is the National Archives of Australia (NAA). This approach is a bit harder, but I have found a method where I use the search text ´POB Sweden´ which gives me quite a number of hits, but the results are different from time to time for some reason which makes it harder to sort it out and to really find everyone you are looking for.

Australian Archives

When searching the American archives such as the National Archives Catalogue, I also use the method of searching through casualty cards, which are also sorted in alphabetical order. I have not yet been able to find a method to search this archive by entering keywords, but again I proceed in the same way as in the Canadian archives, which is extremely time consuming, but at the same time remarkably interesting. Who said it would be easy?

Here the cards are revised gradually, when new information has been found, e.g., clearer address to Next of Kin (NOK) which helps me along the way. However, sometimes I must go through all the “Anderson” and so on, to even find those who do not have a clear NOK, to really find the ones I am looking for. Another help in this search is to look at stamps found on the cards. If it says “Over”, they are buried in the USA, and are not included in my project, even if they are Swedes. Here I have concentrated on those who were born in Sweden and had or have relatives left in Sweden.

American Archives

When I search for Swedes who fought for Britain, I use Ancestry which gives me some names to look through, but they are quite few. As I mentioned earlier, I think those individuals already lived in GB when they went out on the battlefields. I will try to find another angle of approach and search for those again, to see if the results reflect how it was, or if there is anymore information out there.

I have also tried to investigate the German Archives, as well as the French. I have investigated the German Volksbund archives but as we know a huge part of those archives were destroyed in the Second World War. It makes it harder to find Swedes from that database. Those that I have found, I have found through books and other literature, and then I’ve been able to search more about them from there. When it comes to those who were fighting for France, most of the Swedes were connected to the French Foreign Legion at that time. Right now, I have 14 Swedes who fought and fell on the Western Front for France in my database.

French Archives

There are other ways to find information about the Swedes who fought in the Great War, like searching in old newspaper archives especially from the USA and Canada. At that time, they had columns with names of those who fell in the Great War, and these finds can also lead me to individuals that I have not found before. It was through twitter that I received this tip to search through old, digitized newspapers, so I am grateful for the network you build up through different types of social media.

The next step is to verify the information that I have about all those individuals that I have found, by finding information in other sources like war diaries. Then I’m able to connect these individuals to correct units and locations. The most developed archives to find diaries in are the Canadian, Australian and the British ones. There are also diaries to be found in the French archives as well, but as I only speak English and German besides Swedish, it is a bit harder for me to search in those archives.

Australian War Diary 28th Bn A.I.F

It is especially important for me to verify that the Swedes that I have in my project were born in Sweden. I do this through the eminent Swedish archive Riksarkivet. In this archive I also find a lot more information about where and how they lived, how they moved around and finally when they emigrated. This will later be the source when developing my guidebook, whenever that will be finished.

Another American Archive
Swedish Archive (Riksarkivet)

The Great Challenge

The most challenging aspect of my research is to find the correct individuals in the archives, due to fact that they changed their names for some reason when they emigrated to their new countries. Anders became Andrew, Johan became John, Carl became Charlie and so on. Gustaf becomes often Gust. At least it seems to be consistent. Due to this it takes time to really find the correct individual in the Swedish archives especially when they call themselves Andrew Johnson, that can be Anders Jonsson, Jönsson, Johansson, Jansson and so on. Quite common names at that time, and they still are, in Sweden. I however have now learnt how to search with these parameters in mind.

The Scandinavian countries often use the same surnames and common names in both Sweden, Norway and Denmark is Olson, that becomes Olsen in Norway and Denmark. Common forenames in these times in Sweden were Arthur and Alfred, but it does not mean that you have found a Swede if you find Arthur Anderson, it was also quite common names in UK at that time, and maybe further back in time is related to Sweden?

Putting all the pieces together

When I put things together in documents and in geographical tools such as Google Earth Project, I can see that some patterns occur, for example Swedes who fought for Canada seem to have been in the area of Lens in France, and they fell during specific periods which makes me able to draw conclusions that I did not see before, when the information was just there by itself. That makes it possible to look more deeper into specific things and to develop new conclusions.

It is also possible to find group information together, such as those Swedes who fought in the Meuse Argonne Offensive, that makes it possible to do a specific research about that.

Below are a few of the stories of the men who I have researched during this whole project

The story of Carl I Johanson – American Expeditionary Force

Sometimes in my research I find information about different awards which were awarded for different actions to Swedish soldiers. In my research I have around five soldiers that has been awarded different kind of awards for their actions but one of them stands out in this case.

The Swedish born soldier Carl Ivar Johanson, Johanson taken from his father’s name Johan, was born 1887 in Roera Perish in the western part of Sweden, north of Gothenburg, on the island of Orust. From the church book I can see that he is mentioned in 1910 with a small text about him becoming a sailor in 1906.

I have right now no information about when he went over to USA. But I have a document that mentions a Carl Johanson leaving Liverpool in 1906, but the information is not confirmed as the correct Carl. As with many other soldiers I have found his registration card for the US Army dated May 1917. In the same church book as above, it is also mentioned that he died on October 4th, 1918, and that is also the same date stated on the casualty card.

There is also a page from another Swedish church book that mentions that he is killed in France, being a soldier in the American Army. His mother told the parish about his death on August 5th, 1919, after receiving a letter from the unit that he belonged to.

He became inducted into the US Army on September 20th, 1917 and served overseas from April 1918 until his death on October 4th, 1918, age 30.

He was fighting in the Meuse-Argonne offensive for his unit B Coy 306th Inf 77th Division. He did not belong to any of those units who became the “Lost Battalion” but he fought in the same area at the same period. The casualty card states that he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the US version of the Distinguished Service Cross for his action in the battle. See text below regarding D.S.C.

Distinguished Service Cross (US)

“The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Carl I. Johanson, Private First Class, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action in the Forest of Argonne, France, September 27, 1918. Private Johanson displayed exceptional bravery in volunteering to cut the enemy’s wire and thereby make it possible for his company to advance upon the enemy. In performing this invaluable service, he repeatedly exposed himself to heavy fire from enemy machine guns and was severely wounded.
General Orders No. 21, W.D., 1919
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY”.

I do not know if he was awarded The Croix de Guerre in person or as a soldier in a specific unit that received the award as a whole but nevertheless, it does not take away the value of his actions.

Croix de Guerre

In my project I have verified that around 45 Swedish soldiers took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and I will probably fin a few more. They are all put out on a map in my Google Earth project, where they are supposed to have been where they fell. It will be interesting to follow up all of these, together with all the other Swedes that I have in my research. Carl is one of them.

The story of Karl A G Karlson (Karl Anders Gunnar Karlsson) -AEF

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-3.png
Karl Karlson ( Photo from the Roll Of Honor of the state of New York.)

Karl was born in Mofalla perish near the town of Hjo on the western side of lake Vaettern in the southern part of Sweden. Later, the family moved to the farm Karlero near the town Falkoeping, west of Hjo and the town of Skoevde, where he lived until April 1913. I live quite near these places and I will continue my research to find more information about the area where he lived before he left Sweden for the US.

In the U.S Karl was employed at GARY Industries, N.Y until he enlisted in the regular U.S Army in 1917. He was sent to Fort Thomas in Kentucky and was attached to A Battery,18th Field Artillery. He went overseas in May 1918. A few months later Karl was involved in the battles in the Aisne-Marne region in France in July 1918.

During my research I found some information about another individual who had served with Karl in the same unit. His name was Morris Polsky and from his diary I found this text (I have permission from James Taub to use this text)

“July 15, 1918

German shell hits top of tree, about 30 feet to west of where Dougherty and I are laying. Kills Carlson and Hall out of my section. They are still alive when they are carried to dressing station, but they are in bad shape. Both are filled with shrapnel and are unconscious. Hall thrashed and kicked around for a few seconds then passed out. As this is war. Hall is only a kid, about 17 years old. “Swede” Carlson is about 25. They were Buddies, always together. Ammunition dump blown up about 2 a.m. Wear gas masks all night. Ordered to dismantle gun, in case Germans break through. Terrific fire continues nearly all night. One “C” Battery gun destroyed by direct hit. Few of the fellows wounded by shrapnel, but none very bad.”

Carlson mentioned in the text above is Karl. He had just been in France a few months before getting killed in action in July in 1918.

Karl is buried in Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France. It is great to find this kind of information which contributes to the story of the specific individual.

Casualty Card from The US National Archive
Extract from the church book of Falkoping Parish that states when he left for USA.

The story of Fredin and Johnson – Canadian Expeditionary Force

When searching for more information about the Sapper August Fredin who served with the 8th Canadian Railway Troops, I found another name in the diary of that month when August was injured and later died of his wounds.

Above August, in the list of men who became injured December 14th, 1917 there was also a soldier named Johnson. I looked him up and it turned out to be another Swede born in Stockholm.

August Fredin was born in 1873 in Hellefors, Sweden, just north of the larger town Karlstad. His parents were Johannes Jonsson and Anna-Stina Fredriksdotter. When looking into the church book of Hellefors Parish it seems that his name was August Froeding, which I assume later becomes Fredin when he is leaving Sweden for Canada.

As far I can see he is noted to do his military conscript period in Sweden in 1895, but there is a note under that text that states “absent”, and he is later noted to be “non-existent” in the parish in 1905.

I have not found any information about when he went over to Canada or United States, but I know he became Sapper August Fredin in the 8th battalion Canadian Railway troops after having been registered in the Canadian Army on June 6th, 1916. He arrived in France April 20th, 1917.

On December 14th, 1917 they were near Voormezele, Ieper, in Belgium and they are making a small fire to heat up some water at the place where they are at that moment. They do not know that under the fire there are an Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), and the fire makes the grenade detonate which injures three of the soldiers that are standing around the fire. Two of those soldiers are Fredin and Johnson.

Fredin is taken to 2nd Casualty Clearing Station but dies from his wounds two days later, on December 16th. On December 19th he is buried at Outtersteene Communal Cemetery Extension, east of Hazebrouck in France.

What happened to Johnson? Johnson suffers similar wounds as Fredin but he survives and he rejoins the unit on December 23 1917. He is later awarded the Good Conduct badge on May 11th, 1918 and was sent back to Canada in February 1919.

We will never know what they talked about that day in December 1917, or how much they knew about each other, but probably they were friends from the same country and August became one of those Swedes who gave all in The Great War.

From Library and Archives Canada – War Diary shows the two names marked by a red line.
From Library and Archives Canada – Diary shows when Fredin was buried


From Library and Archives Canada – Report of accident for Fredin.
From Library and Archives Canada – report of accident for Johnson

The project continues

The next step after my fact-finding phase at home is to travel down to the battlefields of France & Flanders to visit those places where the individuals fell and are buried. I take photos of these places, in order to make the project complete as it was thought of in the beginning.

At this moment, February 2021, I am working on the information of about 195 Swedes that were born in Sweden and right now 164 of those I have found in church books in the Swedish archives.

I am sure this project will continue for a long time as this piece of history is a kind of forgotten part of Swedish history as we tend to focus more on the Second World War as well as our specific history connected to 16th Century and our battles against Denmark and Germany, which are important as well of course.

Even if we as a country did not participate in either the First or Second World Wars, we had citizens from our country who ended up in those hard battles, either for their new country or for the cause they believed in at that time, or a combination of both.

I have as a person decided to take on the role, to emphasize what our Swedish ancestors did back at this time,fighting in the Great War on the Western Front. We will remember them.


Picture 1 – Authors private photo

Picture 2 – Library and Archives Canada https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/

Picture 3 – National Archives of Australia https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/

Picture 4 – National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov

Picture 5 – https://www.memoiredeshommes.sga.defense.gouv.fr

Picture 6 – National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov

Picture 7 – Riksarkivet https://sok.riksarkivet.se/

Editors Notes:Well what a brilliant feature that was, and an aspect of the Great War that was something completely different and most probably new to many people but still with familiar challenges & aspects of Research that many of us face. Again do have a look at Joachim’s webpage & Research at https://www.westernfront.se/ or follow him on twitter @milvet_se


A distant dream?

This week should have seen myself, my partner Stacey and our friends Andy & Helen,their daughter Ella & father Brian over on the Somme. Around this Easter period is when we usually visit each year as a group and I have done so for the last 20+ years. So being honest it’s been a really difficult week to get motivated. Like almost everyone lockdown has become difficult with a mix up of emotions on a daily basis. Being stuck at home or restricted to where we can go is hard for us all I know.

It’s difficult for those without a Great War connection to understand the pull of this place. It’s somehow like the landscape, it’s features and those who rest there or were witness to events have become a part of oneself. It and they seem to call to us. When you talk about it with people that don’t have an interest they’re like “Why do you keep going to the same place & doing the same things?”. And as much as I try to explain why they just don’t seem to get it.

One good thing that’s come about from lockdown is so many more individuals seem to be sharing photos of their own visits to the Somme or the Salient over the years as well as those who are lucky enough to live out there sharing their daily walks & visits etc. It provides us all with some kind of valuable connection and whilst it can never supplement actually being there it reminds us of all the wonderful ( if it’s appropriate to call them that) places that we’re so longing to visit and will do again one day.

For me though it’s not just about the pilgrimages to the cemeteries or walking the old front lines that makes for a good trip but it’s the whole experience that’s even better when shared with friends. From that moment when you arrive in France and see the now familiar places as you head down the A26 & A1 to that feeling of coming home when turning off the Peronne- Albert Road and heading to Hardecourt aux Bois to stay with Richard & Michelle at Chavasse Ferme.

Chavasse Ferme (Author’s Own Photo)

The experience of going to the local bakery in nearby Fricourt in the morning & evening to purchase fresh baguettes, opening the door and being greeted by the smell of fresh bread and then using my pigeon French to order is something that I strangely miss. The aroma of the rapeseed & crops blossoming in the fields filling the air ,which we’ve nicknamed frite plants since my friends daughter was young, is a weird but familiar thing that I miss.

Rapeseed at Bernafay Wood ( Authors Own Photos)

The sound of farmers on their tractors in the distance going about their daily routine in the fields that once were covered in miles of trenches & littered with battle debris & in many places of course the fallen many of whom still lay beneath the sacred soil . The incredible silence & calm & peace of the cemeteries is also an element of this whole sensory experience that has become such a huge part of many of our lives.

But as well as the reverence of these visits they can also be full of joy and laughter as well. Would the lads who gave their all want it any other way? Personally I don’t think so, they were just like us and I’m sure wouldn’t want us to be all wandering around miserable or solemn. We often share a joke or two especially when a bee is spotted, apparently they pop out of my arse! Buzz Buzz! Or we have a laugh because one of us is wearing a weird hat or something or I’ll get ribbed as I’ve got mud on my boots or wellies so I will have to wash them again! ( I have OCD)

Somme Mud ( Author’s Own Photo)

Having a few beers or whatever your poison is on an evening and relaxing & reflecting on the day you’ve had is also part of the whole experience. When in Ypres little things like going for a burger & refreshing Jupiler before heading to the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate is part of the day. A hot brew at the Ulster Tower or lunch at the Old Blighty Tearooms in La Boiselle is also most welcome especially on a chilly day.

Whatever it is that makes your visits special or having your own routine is of course a personal thing and what works for one person doesn’t necessary work for someone else but I do hope that we are all able to get back out there as soon as it’s safe to do so.

My next visit is planned for October, whether we’ll get there or not is still open to debate but whenever we return it is going to be so emotional. Until then I’m sure that many of us will still experience days when the pain of not being there can feel overwhelming but we will all return and those individual feelings we have when we’re over there will come over us again. If we all continue to share our photos, stories, blogs & podcasts we can keep a connection going until then.

I know this blog is a personal reflection and not my usual kind of post but I thought I’d share with you my thoughts and I hope that you’ve got something out of it and appreciate you taking the time to read it. And I can’t believe I told you the story of the bees!!


April Guest Feature

Welcome to this month’s Guest Feature where this time I am happily joined by Becky Bishop who many of you will know from twitter where she regularly shares her self penned poems as well as being a published author, blogger, fellow amateur historian & yes even a Strictly Come Dancing fan but we won’t hold that against her!

Becky Bishop

Thank you Wayne for having me on your blog. I always enjoy reading your articles and features.

My name is Becky Bishop and I was born in Windsor but currently live near the New Forest in Hampshire. After studying Criminology and Psychology at university and working in admin I now write books and poetry and particularly WW1/2 themed poetry inspired a lot by my war relatives stories or notable war anniversaries.

My interest in military and family history began when I was about eight or nine when I was doing a school project on my grandfather and great grandfather’s war service.  Since then I have been researching my family history for over twenty-three years during which time I have uncovered numerous interesting people and stories. For the last five years I have concentrated my research on my war relatives and have found distant links to many well known people who served in the wars, including several war poets, war artists, VC holders, sons of nobility as well as many women who contributed to the war effort.

One such notable relative I have discovered through my research is Lieutenant Maurice James Dease who was the very first winner of the Victoria Cross in the Great War.

Lt Maurice Dease VC

Maurice was born in 1889 and was the only son of Edmund and Katherine Dease and as a child attended St Basils Prep School and Frognal Prep School, both in Hampstead, before going to Stonyhurst College, Clitheroe in 1903, where he remained for four years. His connection to Stonyhurst goes back to his great great great grandfather Charles Waterton, the famous Victorian naturalist who attended Stonyhurst in 1796. It was whilst at Stonyhurst that Maurice developed a passion for birds and was appointed Aviary Boy and in 1906 and 1907 he wrote articles on ornithology for the Stonyhurst Magazine. He became a cadet in the Officer Training Corps and after leaving Stonyhurst attended the Army department of Wimbledon College for just over a year, before moving on to Sandhurst. On 20th April 1910 at Aldershot, he was commissioned into the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, being promoted to Lieutenant almost exactly two years later – his choice of regiment may have been influenced by his uncle who had previously served with the regiment.

When war broke out, Maurice and his battalion were stationed at Parkhurst, Isle of Wight, and four days after war was declared, they were mobilised and arrived in Le Havre, France on 13th August, with Maurice being a machine gun officer.

The battalion was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel NR McMahon and was part of the 9th brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. The division was concentrated in the Amiens area before being transported by train to the France- Belgium border. The battalion arrived at Landrecies early on the morning of the 17th August before marching on to Noyelle and by the evening of the 22nd August had reached the village of Nimy.

The following day, 23rd August,  the Battle of Mons began.  The British were in positions in the Nimy area, with Y Company having two platoons at each bridge and Company HQ positioned at the railway bridge, when the German infantry started to advance at around 9am.

Maurice had set up two machine guns both sides of the railway bridge, planning to control them from a trench 50 metres away. However, the machine gun crews suffered many casualties and Maurice had to keep going forward to sort out the problems. It was whilst doing so, when attending the left gun, around 9am, that he was first shot below the knee but managed to crawl to the right gun, where he was shot again, this time in the side. He was persuaded to take cover for a while by his platoon commander but subsequently returned to check on his men and replace any wounded gunners and in full view of the enemy he carried on controlling their fire.  The Germans had continued to advance and by midday were close to the canal, from where they opened fire onto the machine gun positions. By this time Maurice had already been hit several more times, including in the neck but despite his injuries continued to control his guns. he was then shot a fifth time, after which he was removed from the action and died a short while later. He is buried in ST Symphorien Military cemetery in Belgium.

He was due to be mentioned in despatches, but this was soon changed to a recommendation for the Victoria Cross for his actions at Nimy Bridge that day, and on 16th November 1914 was formally granted the VC posthumously.

The official grounds for his VC read as

It was the first VC to be awarded in World War One and he was the first scholar from Stonyhurst to have died in the war. A poem written by an old friend of Maurice which was included in the 1927 volume of the Stonyhurst War Record.

Another relative who’s story I’ve discovered is Lady Louise Paget.

Lady Paget

Lady Louise Margaret Leila Paget known as Leila was born in 1881 the only daughter of Sir Arthur Henry Fitzroy Paget and Mary Fiske Stevens. In 1907 she married her third cousin Ralph Paget who was a diplomat and Leila first became active during the First Balkan war when after encouraging her husband to accept a transfer to Serbia, she helped to set up a military hospital in Belgrade.

In 1914 and just three days after war broke out she came up with the idea of setting up a group to help those hurt in the war and thus became president of the American Women’s war relief fund and was also involved in the Serbian relief fund. In October 1914 the first Serbian relief fund unit of four doctors and sixteen nurses, and with Leila in charge, sailed from Southampton destined for Northern Serbia but upon reaching Skopje the Serbian Red Cross invited them to take over a reserve hospital which they did and they looked after wounded Serbians as well as Austro Hungarian prisoners. 

The following year 1915 she set up an isolation hospital in Skopje due to an epidemic of typhus and it was whilst treating soldiers with typhus that she herself contracted it. After recovering in England she returned to the hospital where she continued to look after wounded soldiers. In October 1915 Austria Hungary along with Bulgaria relaunched its invasion of Serbia and despite being told to evacuate Leila and her units decided to remain with their patients and face being taken prisoner.

Skopje was captured by the Bulgarians on 22 October but the hospital remained open looking after refugees and those of all nationalities. However her determination to supply aid to all those in need impressed the Bulgarians who helped her prevent German plans to take over the hospital. Leila refused to leave the soldiers until the last one had left the hospital and eventually the international Red Cross arranges their repatriation. She returned to England in April 1916 and subsequently lived in Copenhagen and Rio De Janeiro during her husbands postings. They returned to England during World War 2 and she set up a hospital at her home which after the war became a meeting place for Serbian political refugees.

Sources:- David Knight

Stonyhurst College Archives

Stonyhurst College

Stonyhurst War Record

The Stonyhurst Magazine


VC online.org.uk

John Mulholland

Victoria and George Cross Society

www. serbia.com


Editors Notes:- Thank you soo much Becky for sharing these family stories with us all and as ever if you’d like to follow Becky on twitter she can be found @Beckypoemsbooks or her own blog can be found at beckyspoemsandbooks.wordpress.com


A Stretcher Bearers tale

Welcome to another of my blogs and by now some of you will begin to notice a pattern in these lately as this is another story of one of the London Road memorial men. I make no apologies for it as it’s a project that was and still is very close to my heart. It is also a project that is going to take many years to fully research all the 87 men in depth, I’ve only just scratched the surface. It’ll be a retirement occupation at this rate!

Employed as a Carter for the London & North Western Railway Co at Manchester London Road Goods Department, Charles Doyle would go on to join the Royal Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer at the beginning of the war. Here below is Charles’s story.

Charles Doyle was born in Openshaw near Manchester around 1894 to parents Charles Edward, a Labourer ( Contractor) & Elizabeth, a Gents Tailoress. In 1901 the family live at 190 New Bank Street, Longsight which backed directly onto the trains sheds & railway depot of Longsight which is still there today. Charles now aged 7 has a older sister Nellie Aged 9, a brother James Henry Aged 5 & a young baby sister Annie just 11 months old. By 1911 the family has moved to Hulme and are living at 41 Cedar Street just off Stretford Road and 3 streets away from the Cavalry barracks where the 15th Hussars who charged the protesters at the infamous Peterloo massacre in 1819 were based. By 1911 the barracks was in use by various infantry units before being sold to Manchester Corporation in 1914. It’s possible that Charles and his father attended here and received some militray training Pre War.

On the 1911 census his sister Nellie is now known as Ellen, his brother drops the James but no record of Annie however there is an Annie Doyle staying in Liverpool with her Aunt & Uncle at the time of the census. There’s now also 2 more brothers for Charles, William Aged 5 & Ernest Aged 2. Charles is shown as working for a railway company as a clerk.

In August 1914 Charles, now aged 20, joins the Royal Army Medical Corps in the 18th Field Ambulance Unit as Private 20001. His father aged 42 would later join the 6th bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, but more on him later.

At the outbreak of war the 18th Field Ambulance was part of 6th Division, it had it’s headquarters in Manchester with the it’s sister units of the RAMC 16th & 17th F.A in Cork, Ireland. A Field Ambulance consisted at full strength of 10 Officers and around 224 men split into 3 sections. Chris Baker on his excellent website can detail it better than I here on this link Field Ambulances in the First World War – The Long, Long Trail

The 6th Division was an original BEF divison made up initially of 16th Infantry Brigade ( 1st Bn The Buffs,1st Bn Leicestershire,1st Bn King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, 2nd Bn Yorkshire & Lancashire Regiment) , 17th Infantry Brigade ( 1st Bn Royal Fusiliers, 1st Bn North Staffordshire Regiment, 2nd Bn Leinster Regiment, 3rd Bn The Rifle Brigade, 2nd Bn Manchester Regiment) 18th Infantry Brigade ( 1st Bn West Yorkshire Regiment, 1st Bn East Yorkshire Regiment, 2nd Bn Sherwood Foresters,2nd Bn Durham Light Infantry, 1/16th Bn London Regt) 19th Infantry Brigade (2nd Bn Royal Welsh Fusiliers,1st Bn Cameronians,1st Bn Middlesex Regt,2nd Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders). Other Regiments would come and go during 1915 & 1916 including the 17th Brigade who left to be replaced by 71st Brigade in October 1915.

Mobilisation orders were sent out on 4th August 1914 and the day after 9 Officers and more NCO’s and men than were required reported for duty. On the 7th the Quartermaster with 18 men were sent to Burscough to obtain supplies & uniforms for A & C sections, they returned later that day but received a wire to immediately return their supplies of 199 caps, jackets, trousers & boots.

A Sergeant & 39 men from the Army Service Corps arrived from York on 9th August followed by 2 further ASC Sergeants the day after from Bradford completing the units formation. An inspection found that many of the men had poor clothing. The next few days were spent still awaiting equipment, the only things to arrive were 15 neck collars for Heavy horses & 10 Officers saddles on 13th.

On 19th August 2 trains left Manchester at 6.45pm & 7.45pm with Charles and his comrades heading to Cambridge where they finally arrived at 4am & 5am the next day and marched to camp at what looks like Col Fen Camp. Training continued over the coming days including a night march with 18th Infantry Brigade as far as BARSTON, North of Peterborough where they set up a dressing station and dealt with 300 ‘wounded’ marching back in very good order the next morning.

They received various innoculations during their stay & continued training until on the 8th September they received orders to leave on trains at 6.45am & 7.45am destination unknown! The following evening they arrived at SOUTHAMPTON and embarked on the aptly named ship ‘Trafford Hall’ which must have raised a smile amongst the lads from Manchester as well boarding the Archimedes.

H.M.T Trafford Hall

Arriving at ST NAZIARE on the morning of the 10th September those on board the Trafford Hall were kept on board all day whilst those on the Archimedes disembarked and marched to Camp. The next day after leaving the troopship they all caught a train at 8pm travelling all the next day before detraining and marching to FAREMOUTIERS where they bivouaced for the night.

Over the next 2 days they were back marching again arriving in CHATEUA THIERRY at 1130pm on 15th September after a 29 mile march. The next day a 14 mile march lay ahead of them as they headed to HARTENNES where after staying the night they then moved on 17th to CHACRISE ,South West of SOISSONS, a shorter distance away. Much to Charles & his fellow pals relief i’m sure, the unit rested the following day. They certainly were getting to see the French countryside that’s for sure! It also highlights that at this early stage of the war it was still so fluid, trench warfare had yet to begin.

On 19th they were again on their feet marching this time to MONT NOTRE DAME where they bivouaced near to BRUYERES FARM. The next day they moved to BAZOCHES situated between SOISSONS & REIMS and in the AISNE region and set up a reception hospital in a house near to the railway station. For the next 2 weeks they stayed there and Charles’s daily duties consisted of route marches & general duties. All this was due to the fact that 18th Infantry Brigade had been attached to I Corps with 1st & 2nd Divisions and were taking part in the Battle of the Aisne Heights & Chemin des Dames.

Marching to a place called JURY that no longer appers on modern maps or it may have changed its name since the Great War. After moving further west they arrived in ESTREES- ST -DENIS, west of COMPIEGNE on the 10th October.

At 4pm they entrained departing at 6.30pm and heading North arriving the next day at LANDRECQUES before marching down to WARDRECQUES then on 12th October arriving in HAZEBROUCK. Moving to PETIT SEC BOIS, South East of HAZEBROUCK they set up a dressing station there with A,B & C sections collecting wounded men from the 18th Infantry Brigade, (1st Bn West Yorkshire Regt, 1st Bn the East Yorkshire Regt and 2nd Bn Durham Light Infantry) as well as German wounded, in total 134 men. This was all during the action known as the Battle Of Armentieres.

HAUTE MAISON, STEENWERCK all visited before moving South East of BALLIEUL to SAILLY -SUR -LA- LYS then back Northwards to RUE DU BOIS setting up further dressing stations and treating the wounded. By the 18th October the fighting was reported as heavy and wonded were flooding in each day. On 21st October the unit managed to get out of the fire zone using wagons to evacuate 274 wounded and made it to FLEURBAIX at about 5.45am. Sudden orders were received to move and they made it North to ERQUINGHEM where they took over the Mairie & 2 schools and set up dressing stations to accomodate 250-300 casualities. In total for the month Charles and his fellow medics would deal with 1030 casualities most of which were succesfully evacuated by railhead.

The unit would remain where they were for several months, treating wounded & sick, setting up baths & laundry facilities which amazingly could accomodate 5000-6000 a week!

On Christmas Eve 1914 a concert was given for the men and over the festive period the men were extremely grateful to get a bath and to be able to wear clean & ironed clothes once again. Incidentally the 6th Division HQ war diary records that the Germans had begun celebrating and that battalions at the front had captured 2 drunken Germans after they had begun celebrating obviously a little too much and on Christmas Day itself an unofficial truce took place with no firing of guns.

1915 came and it wasn’t until 20th March that Charles and his unit would move this time to ARMENTIERES to take over the hospital established at the St Jude Catholic school and also an Advanced Dressing Station near the Mairie in HOUPLINES. This ADS was garrisoned by 1 Officer, an NCO and 2 squads with a ambulance wagon for emergency cases. The diary reports not much fighting during this month with most cases being as a result of hand grenades or sniping by the enemy. A total of 430 casualties were treated bringing the total so far treated by the 18th Field Ambulance up to 4228.

On 6th May the diary records that the Germans heavily shelled ARMENTIERES for over an hour & a half and whilst not many troops were wounded there were several civilians who were killed or wounded. By the end of the month they move to WIPPENHOEK, again somewhere that no longer exists but it was East of ABELE or South West of LIJSSENTHOEK.

On the 5th June they opened a large ADS at VLAMERTINGHE at the Hop Store, hence the name of a cemetery which is there now, with 6 Officers and 2 sections. At night motor ambulances brought back sick & wounded from the aid post at POTIJZE before then transferring them in the morning to a Casualty Clearing Station.

18th Field Ambulance Dressing Station in the old Hop Store at Vlamertinghe, June 1915. 6th Division. © IWM Q 50241

Shelling is now reported everyday in Ypres, Vlamertinghe & Poperinghe and some fell in a field close by so the next day dugouts began to be made to house several patients & staff. Battles raged to the right of their postion in the coming days and by the end of June they had treated 1471 Officers & Men, the whole total for the unit now at 6925.

On the 8th August 1915 information was received that the 18th Infantry Brigade was to lead an attack at HOOGE and therefore the 18th F.A would gain further medical supplies and they set up Regimental Aid Posts (R.A.P) for 1st East Yorkshires at Map ref I.24.b.2.5 and for 2nd D.L.I & 2nd Sherwood Foresters at I.24.b.7.7, ( SANCTUARY WOOD) each battalion allocated 10 Stretcher Bearers each, a total of 30 bearers. At MAPLE COPSE they set up a collecting station in dug outs that could accomodate 150 men with 1 Officer, 1 SGT and 30 Bearers who had 80 strechers, wheels for 7, dressings & medical comforts. A second at ZILLEBEKE DUMP with 1 Officer, an NCO and 20 Bearers with 12 stretchers & another at KRUISTRAAT with 1 Officer, an NCO & 25 Bearers as well as 10 motor ambulances and 7 horse ambulances. The Main Dressing Station would be on the Vlamertinghe- Poperinghe road at the Hop Store.

Trench map 28.NW

All medical units set up these intricate casualty evacuation chains and it’s worth looking at them. In this case at HOOGE all wounded during daylight were initally taken to MAPLE COPSE. Walking cases were sent via a communication trench back to ZILLEBEKE DUMP where bearers conducted them to waiting cars on the junction of the LILLE Road at SHRAPNEL CORNER. Some lying cases were also sent on wheeled carts from here as well.Two motor ambulances then ferried wounded back to the Dressing Station at Hop Store.

At night motor ambulances came as far as YEOMANRY POST I.23.b whilst horse drawn ones came a far as MAPLE COPSE itself. Generally evacuation seems to have gone well, just the communication trench is noted as that it could be larger in size. Between 800-900 casualites were sent to the Dressing station with the worst being sent back further to CCS nos 10 & 17 at REMY SIDINGS.

Horse ambulance at Ypres, by Sir D. Lindsay. (Wellcome Collection)

To date this would have been to the largest number of casualties that Charles had had to deal with and I wonder how he felt. He would however get some rest on the 16th August as the men were given 2 days rest. Back at VLAMERTINGHE they continued normal duties for the coming weeks and no major action took place except the usual trench bombing & artillery fire. Heavy guns during late September saw damage around the Dressing station but failed to cause any injuries.

On 13th October they moved the dressing station to the White Chateau at VLAMERTINGHE and on 1st November a Aid Post at the Prison in YPRES was set up. Routine work by the unit continued to be done on a daily basis.

On the 19th December 1915 the Germans launched a phosgene gas attack at WIELJTE which resulted in the unit treating over 500 casualties. This was the first time that the Germans had used this type of gas against British troops. The 6th Division were in the front line at the time next to the 49th West Riding Division who appear to have suffered the worst.

It’s now 1916 and on 14th January the unit moves to PROVEN to take over the Divisional Rest Station where they remained until 14th March before moving for training to CALAIS. By the end of the month they were moving again this time down to HERZEELE where they set up a hospital to treat sick & wounded from units in the area, then moved to WATOU before moving closer to the front on the ELVERDINGE Road and setting up a HQ and small hospital at a farm which is now where FERME-OLIVIER Cemetery now is.The men would spend 6 days at the ADS on the Canal bank whilst others were at R.A.P and dealt with the wounded of their brigade who were in the left sector.

Sadly but incredible, seeing as they had been out since September 1914, on 20th April 1916 the 18th F.A would suffer it’s first casualty since it arrived on the Western Front. Private 69494 Patrick Byrne,24 Years old from Dublin was hit in both lungs and died at the hospital at FERME-OLIVIER where he now rests in Plot 2. Row C. Grave 6.


April 1916 would also see another tragedy. Remember earlier I mentioned Charles’s father Charles Edward Doyle? Well he joined as I said the 6th Bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment as a Sergeant. This Regiment was part of 38th Brigade, 13th (Western) Division. They had sailed from AVONMOUTH on 18th June 1915, stopping off at MALTA 8 days later, then to ALEXANDRIA on 30th June arriving at MUDROS on 5th July and going into bivouacs. The following day they would land at 10pm at GALLIPOLI (CAPE HELLES) and again be bivouaced this time at GULLLY RAVINE. They would move around over the coming months including being posted to SUVLA BAY. On the 20th December 1915 they would leave the peninsula and land at MUDROS where they went to PORTIANOS CAMP and spent a month before moving to PORT SAID. They would take up forward positions at the SUEZ CANAL before moving in February 1916 to MESOPOTAMIA to boost the force that was to be involved in the relief of the garrison at KUT AL AMARA known as the Siege of Kut. The Division had assembled near SHEIK SA’AD by late March and came under orders of the Tigris Corps. It then took part in the attempts to relieve KUT. The relief attempt is usually known as the First battle of Kut. The British Empire’s forces numbered about 30,000 soldiers, which was roughly equal to the Ottomans.The Imperial War Museum have an incredible film here of the Kut relief force WITH THE KUT RELIEF FORCE IN MESOPOTAMIA [Main Title] | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk).

The battle began on 5 April and the British soon captured FALLAHIYEH but suffered heavy losses including Sgt Charles Edward Doyle who was shown in the battalion records as death presumed on or since 9th April 1916. His name is on the BASRA Memorial in IRAQ.

Basra Memorial,Iraq ( Image:Cwgc)

Charles at this point wouldn’t have known what had happened to his father, his mother may have written to him later once she received word from the War Office, we can only surmise of course.

At the end of July 1916 the 18th F.A marched to WORMHOUDT before on the 3rd August they entrained heading to DOULLENS and a few days later would arrive and play their part in the Battle of the Somme.

Arriving at ACHEUX they set up the hospital in a nearby building then the C.O on 6th August went to visit to A.D.S at MESNIL and the R.A.P at ‘The Cookers’ and at Knightsbridge,HAMEL after which he then detailed 2 Officers & 56 Other Ranks to take over these posts. At MESNIL the railway station being used to house the sick & wounded was deemed to be unsatisfactory and orders were given to evacuate the sick & wounded and move to dig outs cut into the hillside. This was delayed by enemy shelling of MESNIL. Over the coming days & weeks they would deal & move several casualities by motor ambulances back to the Divisional Collecting Station West of ENGLEBELMER and to a CCS ,all whilst MESNIL was continuing to be shelled by the Germans including by gas shells causing some damage & casualties.

An example of the bravery of the RAMC was reported by an Heavy Artillery Officer who had reported that he had men suffering from the effects of a gas attack. Immediately an Officer and 8 bearers volunteered to go assist and under heavy shelling of both gas & shells carried the wounded over a mile on stretchers.

On 26th August the Dressing station & posts were handed over to the 134th F.A and Charles & his comrades began a march back to VIGNACOURT during heavy rain, stopping to assist several wounded of the 18th Infantry Brigade on their way. Training began at 6am, 10am & 2pm for the stretcher bearers specifically in carrying wounded over long distances over bad country. This was to prove invaluable in the coming weeks.

Marching again they arrived on 7th September at SAILLY-LE-SEC on the NORTH banks of the River Somme. A few days later they moved to DIVE COPSE which was originally the Main Dressing Station and also a rest station for Field Ambulance units.

The Infantry brigades of the 6th Divison were ordered to take over from the 56th Division & a portion of 3rd Guards Brigade on a front of around 1200 yds from NW of LEUZE WOOD to the SW corner of GINCHY on the night of 11th/12th September. The enemy were still in postion in the area known as the Horseshoe.

At 6am on the 13th September 18th F.A bearers marched to the fighting lines and to the medical stations which were located at ARROW HEAD COPSE & GUILLEMONT CEMETERY.

At 6.20am on 15th September the 16th & 71st Infantry brigades attacked. 16th I.B with The Bedfords & Buffs leading were on the right with York & Lancs in Support and K.S.L.I in reserve and 71st I.B led by The Leicesters & Norfolks passed through The Suffolks & Sherwood Foresters who had attacked 2 days earlier. 18th I.B was the Divisional Reserve back at ARROW HEAD COPSE and CHIMPANZEE TRENCH. On the left of 6th Division were the Guards Division and on their right 56th Divison. Supported by tanks, some of these which broke down before coming into service, their objective was the German Trench system known to the British as the QUADRILATERAL. By 10am however it became apparent that the 6th Division attack had failed.

Charles was kept busy all day and night with bearers and horse drawn ambulances collecting the wounded and ferrying them back to BRONFAY FARM or DIVE COPSE. The unit itself suffered 6 casualties during this action.

Paul Reed in his recent OldFrontLine podcast covered this landscape and battle much better than I can so please do go have a listen.

Over the coming days further attacks were made and due to the atrocious weather conditions the bearers soon became exhausted carrying the wounded some distance from the fornt line back to GUILLEMONT & ARROW HEAD COPSE, this is where that previous training came into being.

On 19th September the 18th F.A were relieved and went back for rest at MEAULTE but only 2 days later were back at the front. This time on 23rd September the 6th Division, supported on their left by Guards Division and on their right by 5th Division, would be attacking LESBOUEFS and MORVAL. The 18th Infantry Brigade had the objective of LESBOUEFS itself. The bearers move to GINCHY POST which was an Advanced Collecting Post on the 22nd and then squads of bearers are then attached to the battalions in the trenches in preparation for the forthcoming attack.

Trench Map 6th Division War Diary 16th September 1916

The 18th F.A relieve the 16th F.A and continue to prepare for another attack scheduled for 25th. On the 24th September the war diary reports that one of it’s bearers is wounded and that another is killed by a shell. The man killed would be Pvt Charles Doyle. His body would be buried in a small plot just North of the village of GINCHY, possibly where the post referred to above was located, at map ref 57c.T.13.b. On 19th August 1919 the 3rd Labour Company moved his body to GUARDS CEMETERY, LESBOUFS where he now lays in Plot XIII.R.8

Grave of Pvt Charles Doyle ( Author’s Own Photo)

On Wednesday 18th October 1916 his Mother & family posted touching notices in the Manchester Evening News. One can barely imagine Elizabeth’s grief at losing both her Husband & son

Family Notice Manchester Evening News (© British Library)

Thank you once again for taking the time to read Charles Doyle’s story, I know it may have been a little in depth for some ( Probably not enough for others! ) but it’s important to try and get the full details to build up a picture of his life & experiences during the Great War. The more research I do the more I begin to learn about the Ypres Salient. Those that know me will know that the Somme is still my main area of interest but it’s good to be able to learn so much more about the place names around Ypres that whilst they are familiar to me,as I’ve visited the area often,have been without knowing their full stories. These places are now being backed up with knowledge & facts so the next time I’m able to be there I’ll have a much better and deeper understanding.


The Long, Long Trail website

National Archives War Diaries WO95/1603/1 18th Field Ambulance
Wellcome Collection.org

IWM Archives


March Guest Feature

This month I’m very pleased to be joined by Seb Neal, a History Teacher who’s led many guided school trips to the Western Front, A brave man indeed! So it’s over to you Seb with a fantastic feature on some of his experiences & why these trips are so important for young people. Trust me you’ll learn something new and he may just change your point of view for next time that you see that coach load of pesky kids show up!

Seb Neal (Own Photo)

A history teacher for longer than I care to remember, I was introduced to the battlefields by my first head of department from whom I learnt much about battlefield trips, not the least of which was the hazards of being the first off the coach to check the girls into the hostel, only to find the girls were expected to share a mixed dorm! I’ve been leading school battlefields trips to the Western Front and elsewhere since the 1990s, and have guided friends, family, colleagues, and adult groups. Pupils’ names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

School First World War Battlefield Trips: Switching on the Light

It was a scene that will be familiar to any teacher who has ever taken a school trip to the battlefields of the Western Front. After a brief talk at the Thiepval Memorial, I sent my students off to explore the panels for themselves, encouraging them to search for particular names, perhaps their own surname. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, they headed off, a few lads suspecting that rather than a fun school trip this was just a history lesson in disguise. Before long a small group of these sceptics rushed back, its leader breathlessly saying that he’d found a panel bearing line after line of his own surname among the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. I asked him if he had any connection with that part of the world. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘my dad comes from there.’ ‘Well, Brendan, some of those names may well be your relatives.’ That was it: Brendan’s lightbulb moment, when he realised that all this history that I’d been banging on about was his history.

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (Seb Neal)

This happened in the 1990s, when there was no CWGC website on which names could be looked up ahead of a trip; but, whilst the passing from an analogue to a digital age might have made such epiphanies rarer, they still happen, and they remain for me a prime reason for taking my school groups to the battlefields. Much about these trips has changed since I started going on them about thirty years ago, but what has emphatically not changed is their core purpose: to bridge the generations, to connect today’s young people with history – to catch the torch, as it were, and ‘pass it on’. Like all those for whom the battlefields are a second spiritual home, I have spent the past ten months dreaming of a return. Part coping mechanism, part solace, as a teacher there is also the constant inner drive to ‘pass it on’. Naturally, I was disappointed not to visit the battlefields myself last summer, but it was nothing to waking up on the first morning of the October half term and not having a school trip to go on. For the first time in seventeen years there was no getting up at silly o’clock, after a night of fitful sleep fearful that I would oversleep. No checking my mobile phone for last-minute messages. No triple checking that I’d remembered poppy wreaths, paperwork, passport. Instead, cold turkey for the school battlefield trip addict.

Somme view: From the tower at Villers-Bretonneux (Seb Neal)

School trips always begin at an ungodly hour. The parental handover at the school gate is always the same. Foil-wrapped sandwiches are thrust into reluctant teenage hands, a parent pushes forward their reluctant offspring who tells you that she has been looking into her great-great uncle’s history and he is buried in a cemetery somewhere in France or Belgium that may or may not be close to where you are going. You say you will squeeze in a visit if possible but can’t promise and secretly curse that you were not told this months ago – when you asked. Still, as parents can contact their children (and you) by smart phone at any time during trips these days, you tell yourself that you should be grateful to have this much notice. You make further checks that there are the right numbers of pupils – and teachers – and then, after making sure that the driver(s) – on whom the success of the trip can depend – is within earshot, you warn the pupils for the umpteenth time that anyone found with chewing gum on the coach will suffer Field Punishment No.1. As the coach heads towards France, excitement builds – a little too quickly for seasoned colleagues who try to doze off, knowing that sleep is about to be rationed. Just as they do, the driver announces that a service-station stop looms. Teachers are ‘on’, reassuring pupils that they don’t need Euros to buy things as they’re still in the UK and subbing those who have ‘forgotten’ to bring pounds and pence. Returning to the coach, and without so much as a morsel of hot food making it across the threshold (which earns an approving nod from the driver), we’re all aboard once more and heading for the port. Going over the Dartford Crossing, the coach driver joshes with the pupils that we’re about to enter France, a joke which in the light of recent events might be too close to the bone. As border control officers check passports on the coach, teachers’ hearts beat ten to the dozen in case one of our charges departs from the script to make an inappropriate ‘joke’. After this, the Channel crossing is, in every sense, a breeze. No one is sea-sick and, even more importantly, no one gets anything illicit past the hard-as-nails teacher posted by the duty-free check-out.

The twin pylons of the impressive Vimy Ridge Memorial just visible aganst a grey sky ( Seb Neal)

Once on French soil, the mood changes. Maybe it’s tiredness, but I like to think instead it’s a deeper connection with those who went before. At any rate, the strange seriousness which becalms the group is probably entirely in keeping with the feelings of so many soldiers, nurses and the rest who arrived in France during the Great War. Such a transformation is encouraged by a cemetery visit. As day one’s timings are always changeable, dependent on everything from the weather to a ferry-loader’s whim, cemeteries make an ideal opener to a trip because no fixed arrival time is necessary and most of them don’t close. The only constraint is daylight, although, armed with torches as if on night patrol, we have visited in the dark before now. For me, choosing a cemetery or memorial to visit on day one comes down to answering three questions. Is there a former pupil there? Have any of the pupils on the trip visited before? Is there a story to tell? As hundreds of former pupils from my school fought in the Great War and nearly sixty didn’t return, I’m sadly spoilt for choice, and there is almost always somewhere to visit that even return trippers have not been to before. As for their stories, I have learnt more over the years. They are the gateways to unlocking a wider history and are always a principal focus for my school trips. Of course, we visit cemeteries and memorials with no known connection to the school. Yet when there is that connection it is especially poignant. It is a powerful thing to say to a pupil, ‘He once wore the school uniform you do’ and to show a photograph of the man wearing it when he was a boy, or that ‘He lived in your village. Have you seen his name on the local memorial?

German trenches at Bayernwald (Seb Neal)

As well as similarities, the differences between them and us can be an equally important way of understanding their lives and reflecting on our own. Their backgrounds were wide and various and, while there are the sons of architects and accountants, there are also those of stationmasters and railway engineers, drapers and decorators, brick manufacturers and coal merchants. Some had started out on similar paths before the war, others went ‘from classroom to battlefield’. They speak of a different age, as do those who had left Britain before the war to start their lives abroad. These men’s stories offer a way in to discussing the role of Empire forces. Pupils are often puzzled when we pause in Tyne Cot Cemetery at a grave bearing a New Zealand fern. Surely, this man cannot have gone to our school. But, of course, he did. By the time of his death his parents had moved to Burley in Yorkshire. So in a sense, as Alan Bennett might say, he didn’t come ‘From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth’; he came from Leeds. Remembrance is universal and, for comparison and contrast, most school itineraries also feature other nations’ cemeteries. Our itineraries are no different. Over the years we have visited, among others, French, Belgian, American (an old boy lies at Meuse-Argonne – another reminder of the adopted nationality of many soldiers) and, importantly, German cemeteries, Langemark being a particular favourite.

Langemark German Cemetery (Seb Neal)

How different nations chose to commemorate their dead after the war tells us much about them just as today’s multi-national Ring of Remembrance, which lists names arranged purely alphabetically and without rank, nationality, gender, or religion, says much about our own time. Here too there have been several lightbulb moments as pupils find their surname and begin their own personal journeys into the past.

Some of the names on the Ring of Remembrance , the Notre Dame de Lorette lantern tower behind (Seb Neal)

Important as remembrance is, it also essential to contextualise the circumstances in which men ended up as names on a memorial or a headstone. They are called battlefield trips for a reason. Narrowing the focus to a particular battle or action through the prism of an old boy or his unit helps pupils to understand the wider picture. Sometimes this can be done from the cemetery or memorial itself, for example at Tyne Cot, the New Zealand Memorial at Messines, or St Mary’s ADS or Dud Corner at Loos. But pupils, like us, usually want to walk the ground if they can and need opportunities to do so. Whilst increased footfall has put a stop to wandering freely at Newfoundland Park or Hill 60, such visits are still of enormous value for understanding the nature of conflict in the Great War. Where better than Sheffield Memorial Park to tell the moving story of the Pals’ Battalions, ‘two years in the making, ten minutes in the destroying’? Or to survey Mametz Wood from the natural amphitheatre behind the defiant Welsh dragon and mentally follow the advance of the 38th (Welsh) Division, among their number one former pupil whose life ended there?

The Welsh Dragon facing Mametz Wood (Seb Neal)

Visits to battlefields and to trench systems such as Sanctuary Wood, Bayernwald or the Trenches of Death, or to mine craters such as Spanbroekmolen, Lochnagar and Hawthorn, or to tunnel systems such as those in Arras or at Vimy Ridge, help pupils visualise what they are learning about and, even more than that, they build lasting memories in pupils’ minds. Often, they want to return with their families. Museums, coming in many forms these days from the traditional ‘dioramas-and-detritus’ type to the bells-and-whistles virtual experience and everything in between, also contextualise what pupils see. Viewing the photographs on the what-the-butler-saw machines at Sanctuary Wood or the Otto Dix prints, Der Krieg, at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne, pupils are exposed to a grim, unsanitized version of the war on which school textbooks seldom dwell. This is also true of the medical treatment of the wounded. For the instruments used by medical teams, artificial limbs and photographs of pioneering cosmetic surgery, again the Historial is a good bet as is the Mémorial ‘14-18 Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.

The grim consequence of industrial warfare on display at the Historial, Peronne (Seb Neal)

Just as those caught up in the war often responded creatively to what they experienced, so too do pupils: sometimes writing prose or poetry, drawing or photographing, even film making. All this is welcome, as is pupil participation during the trips themselves so that trips are not simply done to them but things that they are part of. Reciting a poem at a graveside, laying a poppy cross or wreath, or participating in the Last Post ceremony all help to achieve this. And, like any school trips, battlefields trips provide those bonding and socialising opportunities that provide balance and relief – visits to the chocolate shop, for example, from which pupils (and teachers, let’s be honest) emerge with armfuls of pralines, games of pool and ‘chilling’ in the hostel. Everyone needs to unwind a little at the end of the day and, at the end of the trip, there is no better place for this than Toc H (Talbot House) in Poperinge (or Pops). For soldiers in the war a sanctuary from its horrors, today it performs a similar function for battlefield tourists and pilgrims. Seeing the pupils gathered around the piano, cups of tea in hand, taking it in turns to play and the bravest ones singing solo, is a great and most appropriate way to end a trip. As a fellow visitor said to me on our last visit: it’s exactly what it’s all about.

View from the window of the General’s Room taken at Talbot House, Toc H, when staying (Seb Neal)

Many things make up a good school history trip, and I make no claim to always get things right. Clearly, I don’t. After speaking to one group at Bourlon Wood in France, I was asked by a pupil in which direction France is. With another group at Vimy Ridge, I was asked where the ridge is. And at the Brooding Soldier I’ve been asked why he’s brooding. (Sites associated with the Canadians seem to be jinxed for me.) Such facepalm moments stop me from taking myself too seriously and I resolve to do better next time. And really the point of this blog post is to express the hope that there is a next time, and as soon as possible. In such dark times as these, school trips to the battlefields are not a priority, I know. But, while there is no denying that there are more important things in life – if nothing else, the pandemic has reminded us of this – it has also, I believe, confirmed the truth of Danton’s dictum that ‘After bread, education is the first need of the people’. For now, then, though school battlefields trips are not possible, I will return to planning my next one, hoping that at some point during it another Brendan will experience his lightbulb moment.

Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner (Seb Neal)

Editors Notes: An incredible insight into school trips with its many challenges but with so much hope & inspiration for our future generations to continue to remember when us older buggers are gone. We certainly should all give more respect & admiration to not only the pupils we see on these trips but of all the hardworking teachers as well. The article was written before the government published it’s roadmap out of Covid restrictions so let’s hope we can all return soon! Many Thanks Seb and if you’d like to give Seb a follow on twitter he can be found @snealspace . Don’t forget any feedback is always welcome to hear whether you’ve enjoyed it or it share your own experiences


A Young Mancunian

In a previous blog I shared with you the story of the memorial to the Railwaymen of Manchester employed by the LNWR at London Road Station ( Piccadilly). I mentioned that our youngest man to fall, James Alfred Connolly, was only 17 years old when he was killed.

So I thought I would research James some more and share his story with you.

James Alfred Connolly was born in Salford in the period October-December 1897 to parents James Connolly Aged 30, a Railway Goods Porter and Amelia Connolly Aged 27 a Housewife. His father had been born in the Ancoats area of Manchester in 1871 & his mother in Hulme in 1874 and they had married in the period May-July 1897, spot why they had to get married!

In the census of 1901 the family were living at 2 Croydon Street, Salford & James has been joined by a brother William born in 1900. The family would grow over the next few years adding Vincent in 1902, Agnes 1904, John 1906 & Francis 1908.

Sadly James’s mother Agnes dies in 1909 leaving James Senior a widower & holding down a job as a Railway Inspector, to look after 6 children so by 1911 the family have moved in with James’s Snr brother Anthony Connolly & his wife Lucy at 22 Clay Street Gorton, Manchester.

At some point after he leaves school and, most probably because of his father, James gets a job in the Goods Department at London Road station as a Clerk. He must have done well at school and certainly be very articulate for a job such as this.

Manchester London Road Station ( National Railway Museum)

With a name like Connolly there must be some Irish connection in the family so this may have influenced James’s decision to enlist in the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles in Manchester as Rifleman 3/1665. Like so many James’s service record sadly doesn’t survive & his medal indexes don’t state the exact date that he went abroad. But we can follow the Regiments story during 1915 from the War Diary and try to piece his story together.

The 2nd bn Royal Irish Rifles was a regular battalion of the British Army and they were at this point part of 7th Brigade 3rd Division. At the outbreak of war they were at Tidworth Barracks in Wiltshire close to Salisbury Plain. They shipped out to France over 2 days and n August 14th the first troops landed in France and mover to ROUEN before being billeted at MARBAIX. A few days later the battalion moved to HARMIGNIES but were relieved just as they were about to go into the lines. They moved around over the next few weeks & months and in September 1914 would become involved in the Battle of the Aisne around NEUVE CHAPELLE. I won’t go into detail here about this battle as to be honest with you I personally know very little about the era of the Great War but there are plenty of folks out there who have written excellent websites, blogs & books about it so it’s worth looking around yourself and getting the details.

November sees them transferred to the Ypres Salient arriving as many did at LOCRE before taking up positions in & around HOOGE, about 4 miles east of YPRES. They spend their days in the front line trenches, in support lines & as Brigade reserve, basically the average daily routine that most infantry Tommies experienced. Moving to billets at WESTOUTRE & again LOCRE after being taken out of the lines they dipped in & out of trenches at KEMMEL over the next few months. By April 1915 they are in the trenches at ELZENWALLE or in billets at LA CLYTTE. Interestingly the battalion records the loss of its 41 year old C.O Lt.Col (War Diary shows as Major) J.W Alston on 15th April. At 3.30pm he was visiting the trenches close to DICKEBUSCH and began observing the enemy’s positions through a telescope. A German sniper spotted him, fired but missed the telescope glass, however the bullet hit a sandbag on the parapet and deflected hitting Colonel Alston on his head above his left ear. He never recovered consciousness & died at 5.15pm. Lt. Col James William Alston is buried in DICKEBUSCH New Military Cemetery.

Lt. Col Alston grave (International Wargraves Photography Project)

The battalion suffered further losses & casualties over the coming weeks & months in everyday trench life whilst in & around YPRES, DICKEBUSCH, HILL 60 & VIERSTRAAT. Reinforcements arrived every few weeks. Was James Connolly was amongst these men? (Update thanks to Dave O’Mara, James is recorded as disembarking on 29th April 1915)

On 16th June 1915 the battalion of 21 Officers & 650 Other Ranks would see itself involved in an attack around BELLEWAARDE FARM. Originally due to support 9th Brigade the battalion found itself called forward to an area around CAMBRIDGE ROAD. They suffered heavy shelling throughout this time yet the war diary proudly states that “The Non Commissioned Officers & Men of all companies distinguished themselves by their discipline, coolness & steadiness under most trying circumstances. At no time during the day could it be said that they were in anyway shaken by their ordeal” 13 Officers and about 300 other Ranks were recorded as killed, wounded or missing. They were relieved at 1.29am on 17th and retuned to bivouacs located on the VLAMERTINGHE-POPERINGHE road.

A few days later on 25th June another batch of 142 reinforcements arrived including 18 machine gunners & 12 signallers. Again

Let’s now fast forward to September 1915 and on 5th we find James in the trenches at HOOGE. By this time he has been promoted to Lance Corporal which given the fact he is only 17 years old shows he must have had something about him. The weather is heavy rain all day made even more miserable by the Germans shelling the battalions dugouts which had been set up in the CRATER. By 9th they had been relieved by 1st bn Wiltshire Regiment and moved a few miles back to the ramparts at YPRES. They seemed to incur casualties most days whilst there before being relieved on 12th Sept by 4th Middlesex Regiment. Heading back to Bivouacs they remained there until moving on 23rd to KRUISTRAAT where the 650 men & 96 others (Orderlies, Signallers & Servants) were put into bivouacs again.

The day after the battalion received operational orders and plans were discussed for an impending attack the following day, the 25th September.

The orders were as follows ” V corps with XIV Division attached will attack an occupy the front J 19 a 6.8 to I.12.a.0.4. The front allotted to 2nd Royal Irish Rifles is from I.12.d.4.1 to point of BELLEWARDE LAKE due East from I.12.d.0.4. B & D Companies will carry out the assault and assemble in trenches C5, C6 & C7 “( See below)

Trench map from Battalion War Diary ( WO95/1415/1 Ancestry.com)

A bombardment would take place and 5 minutes before this the companies would leave their trenches and move into place opposite their front of attack. B company their right would be directed on I.18.b.2.9 to I.12.d.2.0, points 31 -41, and they were to keep in touch with 2nd South Lancs Regt. As for D Company their left was to be directed on I.12.c.9.3 to I.12.d.0.4 BELLEWARDE LAKE and keep in touch with the 5th Shropshire L.I of 14th Division.

The final line to be consolidated would be I.12.d.4.1 at point 31 on BELLEWARDE LAKE. C Company would be in support and 4 platoons would move forward and take the places vacated by B & D companies at C5,C6 & C7 points. A Company would be reserve and move up to assembly trenches left by C Company.

Trench Map although from Jan 1917 gives an idea of BELLEWAARDE & HOOGE area (Great War Digital)

The battalion paraded at 7.30pm and moved forward to HOOGE to relieve H.A.C of which they did this by 11.30pm.

At 3.50am on the 25th the artillery began a half hourly bombardment of the German Front Line gradually moving their focus to the Support Lines.

At 4.19am the British detonated 4 mines, 2 mines at 4.19am at J.19.6.8a which the 2nd bn Royal Scots immediately seized and 2 mines at 4.19 1/2am. This second detonation was the 7th Brigades signal to attack. At 4.14am the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles had moved as instructed across the parapet and deployed approx 30 yards in front on the blind end of point C6. They were accompanied by 6 sections of bombers and 2 machine gun teams.

The 1st & 2nd Royal Scots together with 4th Gordon Highlanders of 8th Brigade to the far right of the Royal Irish Rifles & South Lancs were tasked with the capture of the Fort south of the Menin Road which they initially successfully did. The 1st Gordon Highlanders immediately next to the South Lancs were tasked with capturing the Almshouses or Wall along the Menin Road before linking up with their 4th bn and forming a front across the road by joining with 7th Brigade on their left.

The attack by the Royal Irish reached the German Second Line between points 29 & 91 with little opposition but none of the bombers made it. A counter bomb attack by the Germans forced these men back to the German Front Line where an Officer & a few men managed to hold out till dark.

Things elsewhere however weren’t going to plan (How many times have we read that!). Opposite Point 29 & between 91-93, barbed wire & machine gun fire was holding up the attack and the men had to take cover in shell holes close up to the German Lines. Only a few would make it back to their own lines later that night. C Company at 4.30am left their support lines to help reinforce B & D Companies but were met with heavy rifle & machine gun fire and few if any made it to the enemy trenches. From the reserve A Company then moved up into their own Front Line trench.

By 6am men of the battalion could still be seen occupying the German Lines but after that hour nothing further could be seen of them. Several parties volunteered to go forward to find out what was happening but all failed in getting definitive information and Headquarters remained in the dark about the situation until evening. None of the Signallers who had gone forward in the attack managed to get back any messages. As darkness fell some men from the attacking companies made it back to their own lines. Casualties were around 15 Officers & 350 Other Ranks.

One machine gun had made it to the German Front Line at about Point 00 but the team were either killed or captured. A Rifleman found it abandoned and stated that he had destroyed it using the butt of his rifle on his way back to his own lines that evening.

The War Diary states that the attack was carried out with the greatest determination & gallantry and mentions that A Company, the Reserves, despite knowing that the attack was unsuccessful were eager to be given a chance to go forward.

The attack by the Royal Scots & Gordon Highlanders had also failed as well as the attack on the left by 14th Division around BELLEWAARDE FARM. The fort had been lost, the battalions pushed back across the Menin Road and casualties were high.

The remains of the battalion was relieved by a company of 1st Wiltshire’s by 2.15am on 26th. The diary records 4 Officers Killed, 5 Wounded, 4 Wounded & Missing and 1 Missing. Other Ranks were 46 Killed, 140 Wounded, 150 missing, 26 Wounded & Missing and the 2 machine guns & their teams all lost.

One of those missing was Lance Corporal James Alfred Connolly Aged 17. He remains missing to this day and his name appears on Panel 40 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing in Ypres. He could still lie under the earth of Flanders around the area which is now part of the Bellewaarde Theme Park or possibly he may be one of the over 3,500 unknowns buried in the nearby Hooge Crater Cemetery.

Menin Gate,Ypres ( Authors Own Photo)

Back in Manchester James’s family would have received information that he was missing on or since 25th September and finally that he was presumed killed. His father James received £4 16s 11d on 30th November 1916 & a further £3 on 19th August 1919.

His name together with those of the other 86 men of the Goods Department was inscribed on the memorial that his fellow workers of the depot had paid for and unveiled at Manchester London Road after the war and again his name features on the replacement memorial currently at Manchester Piccadilly Station, Platform 10.

His name also appears on Ireland’s memorial records, again suggesting an Irish family connection ( It incorrectly records him as being killed in France)

Memorial Record ( Ancestry.com)

Once again I hope you’ve found this blog and story interesting and it inspires you to want to learn more. Any comments always greatly received

Sources: Ancestry Com
National Railway Museum
Great War Digital


February Guest Feature

Welcome to the first guest feature of 2021! These features have been overwhelmingly welcomed last year (must be far more interesting than my posts!) so I’ll be continuing with them but this year on a Bi-monthly basis. I have some willing victims… sorry I mean volunteers.. and I look forward to sharing their pieces with you over the coming months ahead. So without further ado I’m very pleased to introduce my first guest of 2021, renowned & respected Battlefield Guide & Researcher Mark Banning with a few tales of those who literally came from the other side of the world, the Australians.

Mark Banning

Just before Christmas, I was looking at Twitter, when I noticed a request for help from Wayne McDonald. He was inviting those who were interested, to write a piece for his blog. Now, I’ve never actually met Wayne, but like a lot of folk on Twitter, you get a sense that they are decent sorts by the things they post and how they comment, and having already read some of his own pieces I thought it only fair to help a chap out.

After some brief comms, we agreed that I would write a piece that reflects on some of the many Australian guests I have had the pleasure of guiding across key parts of the Western Front over many years; their thoughts, their experiences and in some instances, their memories of a few days in special places.

It’s been an abysmal year for battlefield guides, with no immediate end in sight to the current travel restrictions, so this will also perhaps provide a taster for the experiences that myself and all my guide colleague friends, whether they live in Britain, France or Belgium can’t wait to re-experience.

A little about myself: like many, my interest in the Great War started at quite an early age and was due to the service of a relation, in this instance, my paternal grandfather, who served with the 13th (Royal Highlanders of Canada) battalion, and was taken as a prisoner of war in April 1915 during the first successful use of poison gas on the Western Front. Through a long and slightly convoluted sequence of events, my father and I visited Ypres in April 1984. We visited the Canadian Memorial at Vancouver Corner, Hill 60, the museum at Hill 62, Kemmel and attended the Last Post ceremony where we may have been the only people present.

Move forward a number of years to the desperate need to move from a job that didn’t suit, an increasing interest in the battlefields, fuelled by further visits and it was time to take the plunge, and attempt to be a battlefield guide. This is not a job that you often see advertised, and at that time the whole aspect of guiding seemed to be a closed shop; the only qualifications for success being that you had published umpteen books or had served for years in the correct regiment and spoke in the correct manner. I hadn’t done either, but through good fortune, I found a small advert for a travel business that were looking for guides for their one day battlefield trips. I applied, was invited for an interview, which quickly turned into one of those pleasant conversations and ended by me being told, ‘if you want to work with us, you’ll have to pass your bus test’. The reason for this was that not only would I be guiding, I’d be driving the guests in a 16-seater Mercedes mini-coach. This required an additional classification on my driving licence, so the process was gone through and I got the necessary qualification.

Then, the day came: I was told I would be looking after my first guests on the Western Front. I was to pick them up from where they were staying, in Ashford, Middlesex and look after them for three days. I had to go to certain places on each of the three days, and I had money for food and diesel. Hotel accommodation was booked. That was it: what I said, exactly where we went and most importantly, how we got there was up to me. So, thank you to Caroline and Peter Dixon from Auckland, who were my first ever guests. They were, like most New Zealanders, quiet, reserved, thoughtful but, as we got to know each other a bit, I realised they were very overawed with what they saw and with what I told them. I felt I was off to a good start.

The company I was working with went through some re-structuring at the end of that year, but it worked well from a personal point of view, as the tours I had done had all been well received by the clients, and my status rose a good bit: ‘here’s a chap who may be new to us, but he seems to know his stuff and the clients like him’.

And so, the years went on, in the run up to the centenary of the Great War. One of my good pieces of fortune was that what had been a privately owned UK company had now become part of a much larger Australian based travel business, although it was still located in West London. With growth in all areas, there was clearly a desire from the marketing people to promote Western Front battlefield trips in Australia, and the number of trips we were running increased three fold between 2012 and 2014, remaining at about 20 trips a year throughout the centenary period. I should say at this point that I was one of a team of guides, all of whom are friends, and I didn’t guide every single tour, but I was fortunate enough to be allocated a good percentage of these tours over this period.

Before I share some of my experiences with you all, I’d like to give you a general overview of the Aussie psyche. This is based on the interaction with many clients over a number of years, but there are themes that you can pretty well guarantee will emerge with each group.

‘You know, Mark, they all speak French in Paris…no one spoke English…’ Surely not, the French speak French in their own country? How very rude of them.

Me: so then, the Western Front was, give or take, 700 km long. The BEF, including the Australian divisions held, give or take, 160 km of it. Who do you think held the rest?

One guest: the French, with a quizzical expression.

Hey, Mark, these beer measures are a bit small’…

Me: ‘Take it easy, that beer is 8%. You don’t need too many…’

But, in amongst it all, Australians are great people. They are intensely proud of what their forebears did, and what is wrong with that? They have trouble with distances, not believing that taking an hour to drive from Arras to Amiens is a ‘long way’ and realise, very often, that what they knew or were told, if they were told anything at all, was not necessarily the total truth when any history was taught at school or college. Of course, amongst some of my guests have been exceptionally well read and highly educated individuals who have, for the first time, seen the landscapes that they have read about; again, none can fully grasp the intimate nature of many of the most horrific Australian battlefields: Pozières, Broodseinde, Bullecourt and Fromelles.

However, the most rewarding guests to have on any trip are those who want to follow a relatives action and if, as is sadly often the case, he was killed, then to visit the cemetery where he is buried or visit the memorial where is name is commemorated. If you are very lucky, you have been notified about this in advance, and can do the necessary research as part of your tour preparation. For Australian soldiers, this is comparatively easy, as there are great online resources, all totally free, via the Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia websites. These enable you to extract relevant war diary excerpts as well as the personal records of the man involved.

Sometimes, the guest is so well prepared that he or she has all this information with them, but they need guidance as to where the places are that are mentioned; sometimes, the information you are presented with at the beginning of the trip can be vague in the extreme. It’s my proud boast that I always been able to take a guest to an area where their relative served and I have always been able to take them to the cemetery where they are buried.

I’d like to share with you three stories that cover elements of all of the above and how, in each case, the modern family was able to pay proper respect to their forebears. I will mention the soldiers concerned, but not the individual guests by name. Before I commence, I should also like to make one very obvious point clear: when you are guiding a group, your responsibility is to all members of the group, to ensure that their individual needs and personal requirements are attended to, so it’s important not to allow one individual to dominate the tour. Having said that, Australians being the sort of people they are, are almost universally fascinated in their nation’s history, so focusing on the tale of a relative of one guest often stands as a leitmotif for all Australians, and therefore the soldier’s story is taken up by the whole group. The other very obvious thing to say is that it is almost impossible to carry out research whilst leading a tour. I could not have delivered the three stories I am about to share with you had I not had the most wonderful, diligent and timely research being carried out at home by my partner, Mary Freeman, who would then send me chunks of information in bite sized pieces by text or email. I also have to thank the hotel we use for printing off, at a moments notice, maps and photos of soldiers or trench positions that I had been sent overnight from home.

Sergeant Billy Willmott, 21st Battalion AIF

This story is our greatest triumph, in my opinion. Having met my guests, my routine was always to ask them, once we had covered the basic introductions, if any of them had anywhere that they especially wished to go. On this trip in May 2016, the couple sitting near the front asked me if they could go to the place written on the piece of paper I was handed. On the piece of paper was written one word: Vignacourt. I was aware that there was a military cemetery in the town, so assumed they had a relative buried there they wished to visit. This was correct, so I asked them what his name was. There was then a certain amount of concern, as neither could remember the name, but they had it in their bag, which was along with 15 others in the boot. I asked them to let me have it as soon as we checked in, which would be much later that day, as we had the Last Post to attend prior to check in. Anyway, once checked in to our overnight accommodation, I was given the name of Billy Willmott. The guests just knew he was a family member, nothing more.

Later that evening, I had a call back home and gave Mary the name. She promised that she would have a look, and see what she could come up with, because, as already mentioned, it’s always nice to put a bit of background to why a particular soldier has a grave in a particular cemetery. This was on a Tuesday evening. Our itinerary and route dictated that a visit to Vignacourt would be on Friday, the last day of the trip, so I thought that would be sufficient time for anything interesting to emerge.

It soon became apparent that Billy Willmott was no ordinary soldier. He’d been wounded at Pozières, his hospital ship had been torpedoed while he was being brought back to England for treatment and by the spring of 1918 he was a highly capable and respected NCO. It was also clear to me that being buried at Vignacourt, he must have been wounded in some action, as the location was well behind allied lines and a known medical location.

As the trip went on, my phone was pinging away with great rapidity. I was receiving text after text, as Mary’s research revealed the events that had resulted in Billy’s death. The time period is April 1918, when Australian troops are part of the massive effort being expended to hold the German advance at bay.  Across the high ground running above the village of Dernancourt, the Australians had been given orders to dig in and hold on to ground that German troops would have needed to take to press on towards Amiens. Digging in is one thing, but by this stage of the war the Australian divisions had honed their skills, and were prone to taking part in small scale raids against the enemy at any opportunity. This was to be the case on the night of 13th April, when a small party, led by Lt Sibbison were to raid the enemy lines and bring back anything useful. Sadly, the raid was not the success it was hoped to be, resulting in the death of the officer, last seen very near the enemy trench, and ultimately two others, Billy and his mate Hec, who sustained mortal injuries. They were brought in by another corporal, Cyril Ingle who was subsequently promoted and decorated.

All this information was being conveyed to me by Mary – then, at a brief break whilst the group were visiting the Thiepval Memorial, a call. ‘You can take them to the spot on your way to Amiens, it’s just off the main road, turn left, go down this road and stop near the little copse on the left. It all happened there…’

Across this ground is where the raid occurred

This is where there is a massive advantage to having a small group in a small vehicle and being the driver as well – you can just do it, so, on Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours from being given Billy’s name, I was able to take the relatives to the exact spot in Northern France where he had been badly wounded on the night of 13th April 1918. I could explain to the group what the objective was, what happened, the loss of the officer, who has no known grave and that tomorrow we would be able to visit Billy’s grave, as well as his cobber, Hec, who is buried next to him. But, more was to come – overnight, I had pictures sent to me by email of Billy and others in the raiding party. For a short period, Mary and I knew more about Billy’s history than his family!!

On the Friday morning, our first stop was at Vignacourt British Cemetery. This is a lovely location and Billy’s grave is just inside the entrance. My guests had poppies and we left an Australian flag as well as a copy of his picture at the headstone. My guests were quite overcome by how much we had been able to find out in such a short time and how this long dead relative had suddenly seemed to come alive.

Billy’s grave

I kept in touch for a bit after the trip and exchanged more detail with the family in Australia. They also sent me some further family detail. It must have made an impression, as three years later, the husband returned for another trip with his son, and yes, we replayed Billy’s story all over again.

Corporal Murray Elder MM, 23rd Battalion AIF

Corporal Murray Elder MM

Just a few weeks after the above story, I was leading another tour. On this occasion, there were fewer guests than usual, just five, but two of the five had direct family members that served, both sadly being killed, one at Bullecourt in 1917 and one in June 1918. This recollection concerns the soldier who is buried at Ribemont Communal Cemetery Extension on the Somme.

The guests concerned were both Australian by birth, but had met some many years ago whilst travelling in Canada and had decided that this was the place they wanted to live. Now officially Canadian by nationality, but with discernible Aussie undertones to their voices, it was an interesting accent!

Unlike Billy’s relatives, Murray Elder’s relative was aware of where he was buried and it would have been impossible not to visit the grave on the trip, but Mary was again to come up trumps in finding the back story which otherwise might never have been shared.

It’s all around that spring 1918 period, such a desperate time for the allies. We know that the Australians were instrumental in halting the German advance towards the end of April 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux (spoiler alert, the Poms were there too), but along the whole of the Somme frontage there were a series of ‘small scale’ operations which harassed the Germans and ensured that they were more than well aware that it was not over yet. One of these actions involved Murray Elder, the platoon Lewis gunner, as the Australians sent a small party out to investigate the German held village of Ville sur Ancre.

The Australian force numbered just less than 30, led by two officers. The village was fully occupied by recently arrived German troops. By a combination of surprise, good soldiering and the inevitable touch of luck, the majority of German troops were taken prisoner or killed very quickly. However, a small group had taken cover in a farmhouse in the village, and were determined to stay there. The Australians were determined they wouldn’t. After half an hour of vicious rifle and machine gun fire, the latter being skilfully aimed by Murray, the German troops surrendered. The white flag was raised, the firing stopped and an orderly procession started to emerge from the farm building, led by the German officer. He was approached by his Australian opposite number, when suddenly, he withdrew his revolver and aimed. Quick as a flash, Corporal William Flinn threw himself across his officer, taking the bullet which killed him, the only Australian death of the raid. Of the Germans taken prisoner post surrender, the war diary simply states that they were severely dealt with, following the ‘foul tactics’ perpetrated by the officer.

The Farmhouse where the German were held for half an hour

The farmhouse is still there, and therefore, after more assistance from Mary, we were able to park up and walk the approach route the advancing Murray would have taken. Although trespass would never be encouraged, we managed to get as close as we could to the farmhouse, by looking through the typical big wrought metal gates in the outer yard. We visited Corporal Flinn’s grave in nearby Mericourt-l’Abbe Communal Cemetery Extension. There was more to come from Mary, in the shape of articles written about the raid in the trench papers and the award to Murray of the Military Medal as a result of his solid performance on the Lewis gun that day, 19th May 1918.

Grave of William Flinn

It’s a strange fact of war that once a man has achieved some great feat on the field of battle, he often feels he is invincible. So, just three weeks later, in a similar operation a little further up the Ancre Valley towards Albert, Murray was involved; sadly, his luck had run out, and during this operation, he was killed. His body was taken back for burial and then subsequently reburied in 1919 at what is now Ribemont Communal Cemetery Extension, just a few kilometres north of where his mate, Corporal Flinn lies. Taking the family to the military cemetery, and allowing them time to leave a tribute is something many guides do as a matter of course: having the ability to provide the story where it is not known previously is a great honour, and gives all involved a greater sense of the wider impact that an individual had as part of this great conflict.

At Murrays Grave
Family at Murrays Grave

Lieutenant Cliff Burge, 24th Battalion AIF

Cliff Burge

My final story contains many of the themes already identified above, but there was an additional twist to proceedings. The guests had previously requested, and reconfirmed with me as soon as they met me that they had to be at Cliff’s grave on 14th August, which was the centenary of his death. The way the itinerary was written lead them to believe that they would have to break from the tour for a day, and get to Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery under their own power, as we weren’t supposed to visit this important Australian battlefield location until the 15th August. What they were not aware of is that I had already decided to swap the official itinerary about, meaning that the request they had made could be honoured with no inconvenience to themselves.

I had already done a small amount of research myself between my previous trip and this one, but again, Mary was able to provide a lot more detail to me whilst I was on the tour.

Cliff Burge had recently been commissioned, as the need for junior officers increased in the AIF throughout 1918. Many believe Australia’s finest hour during the Great War was in the period August to October 1918, as the Australian Corps under Lt General Monash scored decisive victory after decisive victory during what is commonly known as the 100 Days. This was not without loss of front line infantry, both officers and men, and replacements were not able to keep up with the casualties being inflicted. Promotion from the ranks was the only answer.

By all accounts, Cliff was a fine junior officer, but naturally looked up to fellow officer, Eric Edgerton for guidance in this challenging role. Eric had been decorated with the Military Medal twice and had also been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, unusual for a junior officer. Imagine Cliff’s shock when, on 11th August, Eric was killed during an attack. Now the responsibility for the whole platoon’s well-being rested on Cliff’s shoulders.

Australian forces were in the vanguard of the advance from east of Amiens towards Peronne. As the days went by, Australian troops were forcing the enemy back in great numbers but at cost, as we have seen. It was perhaps inevitable that Cliff would be killed. The battalion had set up forward company headquarters in a sheltered position in an old quarry. Even at this stage of the war, with so much going on, the battalion war diary contains a vast amount of information, including the exact map reference of the headquarters. This is important, as it was on the periphery of the HQ that Cliff was hit by rifle fire, dying almost immediately.

The forward HQ position
Found at the quarry
At Cliffs HQ location

Having visited the grave earlier, and allowed my guests the time they needed to remember Cliff, including leaving a handmade personal tribute, I was then able to take them and the rest of the group to the exact location of the HQ, and where Cliff had met his end. I very much doubt that any battlefield group has ever visited the location, and the look of surprise from the tractor driver we passed near the spot very much confirmed this. However, once there, it was immediately apparent why such a location had been chosen, and the debris of war was still in evidence on the ground. Needless to say, it was Mary’s interpretation of the evidence and ability to translate that into easily understandable directions that allowed me to achieve this.

At the grave 100 years on
From Home
Grave of Cliff Burge

Leading tour groups is not always as fulfilling as this: there are the occasional individuals who have travelled with me whose reasons for so doing are beyond my comprehension, but in the overwhelming majority of instances, Australian guests are very humbled by what they see and very appreciative of gaining an additional understanding of what I believe was the most defining period of their nation’s history. The current suspension on travel and tourism across the globe has been a disaster for so many, including every battlefield guide I know. Whether the business I have enjoyed working for since 2008 will be able to ride out the current storm, I don’t know, hence I haven’t mentioned the company by name. However, as soon as it is safe to do so I will be visiting the old Western Front battlefields, and would be happy to guide you.

You can contact me via email through www.bespokewesternfronttours.com or directly, through Twitter at @MGBTours

Battlefield Debris

Editor: Well I must thank Mark very much for sharing those incredible stories with us all and for giving us an insight into his life as a Battlefield Guide. I really hope going forward it’s a better year for all Guides out there & that we can all return to those hallowed grounds once more.


Private James Thomas Winder

In an earlier blog I told the story of the Memorial at Manchester to the fallen railwaymen of Manchester London Road & shared some of the stories of those men.

Original London Road Memorial (Author’s Collection)

A couple of years ago whilst attending a service of remembrance at the memorial I met a lady whose relative was named on the memorial. We got talking as you do and she told me it was a chap called James Thomas Winder and that he was her Grandfather. She knew little about him except that he’d died in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. So want that I am I offered to try and find some more information for her and contact her with anything I could find.

So what follows is James’s story that I could piece together & I hope by sharing with you that it helps to bring another lost soul into the fold & ensures that James Winder isn’t forgotten.

James Thomas Winder was born on the 9th February 1886 in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. The trail goes a little cold then I can’t seem to find the family in 1891 or 1901. However on 29th September 1898 a James Winder, 42 years old & a widower & employed as a Steel Dresser, marries a Jane Shepard, a 37 year old widow and they show their addresses as 67 & 70 Kendall Street, Openshaw, Manchester. Guessing this is how they met! This I believe to be James’s father & the Winder family next shows up in 1911 living at 8 Goole Street, Openshaw, Manchester. A Joseph Winder is shown as being born in 1897 in Bradford, Manchester so it’s a strong possibility that James’s mother died in childbirth giving birth to Joseph. ( Interestingly in April 1915 Joseph at only 5′ 2 1/2″ enlists in the 3rd Welch Regiment but is discharged 3 weeks later as unfit for service) James & a sister Elizabeth however don’t live with the family at this point.

In the 1911 census James is shown as living as a boarder at 212 Ridgway Street, Bradford, Manchester. This street still exists but the houses of old have been replaced in recent years by social housing. It’s still very much a working class area of Manchester to this day. James is shown working as a Capstanman for the Railway. He was employed by the London & North Western Railway Company at the nearby Manchester London Road, a 10 min walk away, in the Goods department which was under the station approximately where the Metrolink station now is. A capstan is a large revolving cylinder with a vertical axis used to wind rope/cable. He would have operated this most probably to lower railway wagons and/or goods to & from the tracks upstairs which sit now approximately where the DHL building and Upper Deck car park now are.

The next record I found for James was his marriage certificate for 18th November 1911 when he marries Sarah Harriet Acton at St Cross Church, Clayton, Manchester. James is shown Aged 24 & is employed as a Railway Porter and living at 8 Gamma Street, Clayton. Sarah is Aged 23, No employment & living at 95 Clayton Lane. His father is shown as James Winder, a steel dresser hence my link earlier.

James & Sarah’s Marriage certificate ( © Ancestry.com)

On 8th August 1913 they have a son, also named James Thomas, who is baptised on 7th September 1913 at St Cross Church where his father is shown as a Railway Man & 2 years later on 26th August 1915 another son ,Albert Edward, is born.

Like so many Thomas’s service record doesn’t survive but from his entry in SDGW ( Soldier’s Died in the Great War) it states that he was originally in the Royal Army Medical Corps as Pvt 70817 but I can find no other evidence of this as his medal index card & medal roll makes no mention of this previous service. Incidentally on his Pension records there are several transcription errors, for example on one he’s 25526 & 15516 on another.

At the time of his death he was a Private (25516) in the 17th Battalion ( 1st South East Lancashire) Lancashire Fusiliers. This battalion was one of the service or Pals battalion’s formed at the beginning of the war. This battalion originally had been formed in Bury in 1914 as a Bantam battalion, Men who were under the required height 5′ 3″for military service. This particular battalion was posted to the Western Front in January of 1916 as part of 35th Division. Originally in the Richebourg St Vaast area they would move to the Somme on 10th July at Aveluy Wood & over the next few months would be involved in various activities around Maricourt & Montauban (The Battle of Bazentin Ridge, The fighting for Arrow Head Copse, Maltz Horn Farm, and Falfemont Farm). In September the moved to Arras where they would stay till February of 1917. In early 1917 they ceased to be a purely Bantam battalion. From the War Diary of the 17th Bn it does appear that at the end of September 1917 they received 264 new reinforcements so it is quite possible that James only transferred to the battalion then .Reports by HQ suggest these were men from a variety of units many without infantry experience. Below is a link I found by Terry Dean of the North Lancashire branch of The Western Front Association with some more information on the 17th Bn if you’d like to read more.

17thBnLancsFus (lancs-fusiliers.co.uk)

In September 1917 the Battalion were at Templeux-La-Fosse in France before at the end of the month being billeted in Peronne on the Somme. They were then in training before being moved up to Proven by rail crossing into Belgium. At this time the battle officially known as Third Battle of Ypres but more commonly known today as Battle of Passchendaele had been going on since 31st July 1917.

They proceeded to Boesinghe on 13th October 1917 before relieving the front line in an area called Houthulst Forest , North East of Ypres on 16th October. At this stage it wasn’t trenches as we commonly see them depicted but mostly just a serious of shell holes surrounded by a quagmire of mud & water made worse by the awful weather conditions that had occurred. Men were waist deep in water in many of these shell holes. At this point they were only in the line for 2 days before being relieved & headed back to rest at ‘H’ Camp.

On the 20th at 11.30am they marched from camp to Boesinghe where they had dinner and were issued with 2 days rations, stores, extra grenades etc. After orders were received they moved at 4.00pm via Hunters Trench to the sector at Egypt House. They were shelled all the way & suffered 10 casualties before arriving at their sector and forming up with the 5 Chemins to Columbo House road on their left. ‘W’ & ‘X’ companies took a 400 yd front. ‘Y’ Company were in shell holes North of Egypt House with ‘Z’ Company in holes South West of Egypt House.

Throughout the 21st men lay in shell holes avoiding low flying enemy aircraft circling above the front line. Overnight Battalion HQ moved to Egypt House from Pascal Farm and in the early hours of the 22nd October the battalion moved forward approx 100yds ahead of the Front Line ready to attack the German 120th (2nd Württemberg) Regiment who were in the forest (or what remained of it) ahead with an objective of taking & holding a line from Marechal Farm & to the right of 400yds. On the 17th battalions left was the 105th Infantry Brigade with the 16th bn Cheshire Regiment directly next to them, 14th Gloucester to the Cheshires left, 15th Sherwood Foresters in close support & 15th Cheshires in Reserve, and on the 17th bn right, as part of the same 104th Infantry Brigade, the 18th Lancashire Fusiliers then 23rd bn Manchester Regiment. The support would be from the 20th bn Lancashire Fusiliers with 17th Royal Scots in Reserve. The 101st Brigade,34th Division would be to the right and were supposed to make contact with the Manchesters before Zero Hour but this wasn’t achieved. To the left of the Gloucesters would be French troops of the 201st regiment, 1st French Division. The whole Divisional front would be some 2,000 yds reaching 2,500 yds at the final objective.

Divisional map WO95/2469/1-6 (Ancestry.Com)

At 5.35am Zero Hour, British Artillery opened fire on the German lines and James and his comrades advanced forward. By 6am a message was received from Captain Heape M.C ,commanding ‘W’ Company ,that they had captured their objective, Columbo House, ” Have captured Columbo House. Best sport going- right in our own barrage” and by 6.45am all commanders reported that their objectives had been captured and that the battalion was starting to consolidate it’s positions.

Map taken from War Diary WO95/2484/1Ancestry.com)

An enemy machine gun and approx 20 German prisoners had been captured during their attack. They then advanced further and took Marechal Farm as there was no sign of the 16th Cheshire’s at that point on their left.

At around 8.30am Battalion HQ received a message from advance companies of the 17th Bn that they were uneasy at the situation on their flanks on both the right & left side as no contact had been made at all with Cheshire’s or Manchester’s. Indeed some elements of the Manchester’s & elements of the 16th Royal Scots from the 34th Division on the right had already retreated back towards the HQ from the direction of the Ypres-Staden railway line. These men were put into shell hole trenches in front of Egypt House & it was learnt form them that the left flank of the Division on the right had failed to come up for whatever reason thus exposing the right flank of the Manchesters who had then gone wide & lost contact with the 18th Lancashires who they themselves became disorientated and the gap got wider with added problems of enemy troops being left behind of which some Germans took advantage of. The reserve 20th battalion was ordered up to fill the gaps left by the Manchesters and the 18th bn then began to consolidate to the right flank of 17th bn. Eventually the 16th Cheshire’s caught up with the 17th on the left. The right flank however still remained very precarious.

All day the battalion came under fire from snipers & machine guns inside the woods as well as German Artillery fire once the Germans knew that the British had captured these new positions.

At 4.15pm a message was received at HQ from ‘Y’ Company of the 17th that the Germans were amassing troops in the wood on their right flank.

At 4.31pm an SOS flare was sent up by the 17th bn and messages were sent back that the enemy was attacking the Cheshire’s to their left flank and that artillery support was urgently needed. It appears that the Cheshire’s had lost most of their officer’s killed or wounded and they then began to retreat together with a company of Sherwood Foresters to Columbo House at 4.45pm. Only a score or so were able to be stopped by Captain Heape & officers of ‘Y’ company of 17th bn ,one of whom, 2nd Lt Crank, lost his life in trying to stop them.

Heavy Lewis gun & rifle fire as well as the artillery support managed to counter attack the Germans and pushed them back. ‘W’ & ‘Y’ Companies now held a line some 1000 yds deep & 300 yds wide! The men were exhausted due to the conditions and hard fighting, they had earlier failed to be able to keep up with the artillery barrage. But they had all fought with great courage & determination. By 6pm the decision was critical and the order to fall back to the support area around Columbo House and to maintain a line to the right to keep back the Germans was made.

This line was eventually consolidated during the night and the men issued with rations, water & fresh ammunition as well as a ration of rum which was brought up by men from HQ led by the Transport Officer. The rum was most welcome to those who had lain waist deep in shell holes all day.

Many wounded had lay out all due unable to be brought in due to snipers and also due to a shortage of stretcher bearer’s. Every effort however was made during the hours of darkness to try and bring as many in as possible.

British Artillery shelled all night and in the morning but no counter attack appeared until 4.30pm on the 23rd when the Germans attacked the left flank. This was eventually beaten back and the battalion was finally relieved by midnight by 17th Royal Scots.

Some men were so wet (It had been raining for 2 days) and weary struggled to make it back to Baboon camp not arriving back until 5am the next day.

The war diary for this battle states that the casualties sustained by the 17th bn were 4 Officers Killed, 8 Wounded, 32 Other Ranks Killed, 142 Wounded & 5 Missing.

James was one of those missing as his records show him as presumed killed. He could have lain out in no man’s land & died of his wounds there or his body, like so many, was lost to subsequent shell fire. Maybe he was hit by a shell and his death ,whilst dreadful, was instantaneous. We shall sadly never know. His wife Sarah would remarry by the time she & her 2 sons were awarded a pension in June 1918.

His name, along with 35,000 others who were lost in & around the area known as the Ypres Salient from 17th August 1917 and have no known grave, is inscribed on memorial panel 60 at Tyne Cot. A further 11900 are buried in the cemetery in front of the memorial with more than 8370 unknown. Just maybe one of these unknowns could be James.

Tyne Cot Memorial ( Authors Own Photo)

James is also named on the War memorial in Clayton Park, Manchester.

Clayton War Memorial (Manchester City Council)

Thank you as ever for taking the time to read James’s story. As ever if anyone can find any more info or a photo would be great then please do get in touch here or on twitter @Terriermcd

I must admit the Houlthurst Wood isn’t an area of the Salient that I haven’t really visited or for that matter know much about but once we can all return to the Salient it will certainly be a place on my list to visit.

Sources:- Ancestry.Com Census & War Diary records WO95/2484/1


@Fairylight on Twitter



Ghostly encounters

A subject that comes up every so often is one of people experiencing strange or supernatural goings on whilst visiting the battlefields.

Is it really the souls of the dead, many of whom still lay beneath our feet, reaching out to us? Are we transported back in time due to the events leaving behind like a piece of negative film that we then become a part of? Or is it simply because of our heightened emotions, of knowing what happened in these places, that then causes our minds to play tricks on us?

Whatever you think there’s no doubting that many of us have experienced things that can be difficult to explain or justify.

Of course supernatural links aren’t something new. Many of us have heard the story of the Angels of Mons. In 1914 faced with overwhelming German forces some British soldiers recounted seeing Angels appearing as Archers in the skies above or a cloud descend upon the battlefield keeping the German forces at bay & allowing the British to get away safely.

Angel of Mons by R.Crowhurst

Stories of mother’s & wives back home in blighty seeing their loved ones standing in front of them as clear as day, only days or weeks later receiving the telegram informing them of their sons or husbands death at more or less the same time as the vision had appeared.

Veterans & letters recount stories of men in the trenches before going ‘Over the top’ being overcome with a sense of doom. Somehow knowing that their time was up and that they wouldn’t be coming back. In letters men urging their families to look after the children or each other, to move on with their lives & not to grieve too much in the knowledge that they had died doing the right thing. Men sharing out their belongings or urging their pal to write to their mother’s or to look after their wives & children.

Spiritualism had been around since Victorian times, most notable of supporters being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes. Of course many would unscrupulously seek to make money out of all the grief & peoples losses by holding seances claiming to speak to those who had passed. Or then again were some of them just trying to provide some comfort to the bereaved?

Typical scene of a seance

Some modern day experiences that people recount are the feeling of bring watched, of seeing something in human form either clearly or as dark shadows. Other recount hearing voices,shouts or whispers in their ears when noone else is around. For some they experience overwhelming emotion and physically breakdown in tears or have an immense feeling of terror and they have to get away from the area right away.

Personally I have experienced a couple of things whilst out & about on the old front line that I can’t explain.

The first is at High Wood. I always park up outside London Cemetery & then decide which way to walk around the wood, either starting on the western side, round the back where the switch line came out before walking down the eastern side passing the craters & memorials or I’ll do it in reverse.

As soon as I pull up there always seems to be rooks flying above or in the trees making those distinctive haunting sounds. And there’s that constant feeling of being watched from inside the wood itself. It can be a glorious warm sunny day but the feeling I get is of cold & darkness as I look into the wood. Dark shadows seem to pass across the old trenches & shell holes that are still visible. Again it’s probably my senses & emotions knowing that hundreds if not thousands still lay beneath the ground as High Wood wasn’t cleared fully after the war so in fact it’s a mass grave containing men lost from both sides. My Great Grandfather served here as a Tunneller responsible for digging & laying the mines on the eastern side & was wounded here on 8th September 1916, so I have a connection with this place.But I’m definitely glad when I’m back in my car.

London Cemetery & Extension, High Wood ( Authors Own Photo)

My second experience is rather more a nicer one. A few years ago on a lads only trip myself, my best mate Andy & his dad Brian were at Sucerie Military Cemetery, Colincamps visiting one of our London Road memorial men Driver T.E Fitzgerald , C Bty 211th bde RFA. It was late March and a pleasantly warm day with sun shining and we had a wander as you do around the cemetery. We recounted the story of men marching down the tree lined avenue from Colincamps, which still exists to this day, on the eve of the Battle of the Somme and seeing grave pits being dug & piles of crosses in the cemetery in anticipation of expected losses.

After a while we left the cemetery and were walking back up the lane back to the car that we’d parked by the farm on the main road. The tune of ‘Pack up your troubles’ or ‘Its a long way to Tipperary’ , I can’t recall which, suddenly came into my head and I began to start whistling it. Trust me I’m far from musical at all so it was no Roger Whittaker rendition!

Almost immediately a beautiful red admiral butterfly appeared to my left and followed me as we walked up the path passing in front of me before taking its pamce at my side again. It was a goosebump moment but I didn’t feel any sense of dread or apprehension. As we neared the road it settled on some foilage. Again probably totally a coincidence but it felt so serene and peaceful.

Finally another occurrence was when on a visit to Talana Farm Cemetery with Andy & his family. We were there to visit Andy’s wife’s Great Uncle Herbert Sidebotham. His wife Helen was carrying their daughter Ellla,who was only 1 year old, when a field mouse ran across in front of us on the access path. Nothing unusual there I hear you say it is the middle of a field after all.

Fast forward to 2 years later, Ella is now 3 and of course can now walk herself and talk. As we walked along the familiar track she turned to her mum and said is the mouse still here? Helen and I just looked at each other and thought how on earth does she remember that when she was only 1 years old when she saw it!

Helen at her Great Uncles grave (Authors Own Photo)

Again those with far more knowledge about the human mind will most probably be able to explain it rationally. But how many times have many of us visited cemeteries and found ourselves drawn to a particular grave and found out it has a link to where we live or someone else we’ve researched. Or a family member visiting for the first time walks straight to the grave of their relative without any prior knowledge of where they lay.

I think there are things that we don’t know about that can’t be explained. Some moments can be chilling whilst others feel warming & are meant to be. Thanks for reading

I’d love to hear some of your own experiences so please feel free to share them on twitter @terriermcd


2021 Blog update

Happy New Year everyone!

Well what a year 2020 was and certainly one which many of us will try and forget. It’s been a difficult one on many levels.
But one good thing to come out of it was all the great podcasts, blogs and history groups that many people set up, kindly sharing their knowledge & some amazing images & interesting facts. They have all been a lifeline in 2020 that’s for certain.

I set up this blog back in July after a lot of uncertainty about whether I was up to the job or that anyone would be interested. I have to say the kind comments & support I’ve received have been truly overwhelming. I’m grateful to all the wonderful folk who have agreed to be Guests and for the excellent work they put in. Saying thank you to everyone just doesn’t seem enough.

However as time as progressed I’ve found it more difficult to manage the blog on a weekly basis whist juggling a full time job, spending time with those around me and dealing with the shitshow around Covid. I’ve had too many sleepless nights with ideas or self doubt swirling around in my head, ( I’m to much of a perfectionist & worrier that I’ve got things right) & I’ve spent far too many hours buried in books,on the computer searching out sources instead of spending quality time with loved ones & taking time to look after myself.

So I’ve made the hard decision that for the future I will post blogs on a less regular basis , when time permits basis. Don’t worry Guest Features, which have proved very popular, will continue (And thanks to all the volunteers who’ve stepped forward for 2021) but every couple of months rather than on a monthly basis. I realise that my decision may lose me followers or people will move onto other things but if I’m totally honest it has never been about the amount of followers or likes I get. It was simply about sharing my stories & information and encouraging others especially fellow Amateurs to go out there and to get involved in their own research & share their stories, discover even more through books & with their own visits to cemeteries & the old front line.

Thank you again for all the support and I look forward to sharing some more stuff & welcoming more guests with you during 2021