Travel: touring the battlefields of World War One

Travel piece: Scottish troops marching through Arras in WW1
Travel piece: Scottish troops marching through Arras in WW1

One hundred years ago, young men were marching off to the battlefields of Europe from towns and cities like Sheffield, their heads full of glory, believing they’d be ‘home by Christmas’.

By August 21, 1914, the first British soldier, a diminutive 17-year-old Londoner called Private John Parr, had been shot dead as he cycled through the Belgian countryside on a reconnaissance trip to sight the enemy.

The Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke of Cambridge pay their respects at St Symphorien Military Cemetery as they attend a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of First World War.  PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday August 4, 2014. See PA story HISTORY Centenary Belgium. Photo credit should read: Chris Jackson/PA Wire

The Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke of Cambridge pay their respects at St Symphorien Military Cemetery as they attend a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of First World War. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday August 4, 2014. See PA story HISTORY Centenary Belgium. Photo credit should read: Chris Jackson/PA Wire

John is buried in the beautiful graveyard at St Symphorien in the city of Mons, which was on the news on July 4 when soldiers’ families and dignitaries including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry gathered there to mark the start of the conflict.

We had stood there just days before, watching workers put up the plastic marquees for the guests, and visiting the graves.

Just opposite John Parr’s grave lies Private George Edwin Ellison, a Leeds lad who died just 90 minutes before the Armistice in November 1918.

George, a miner and father of a small boy, was the last British soldier to be killed in action.

Nearby them, German soldiers they fought against lie in their own graves. All have identical white gravestones. So many say ‘A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God’ or ‘Unbekannter Soldat’ for Germans.

In between John and George the number of troops killed in four short years totalled more than nine million. At least seven million civilians died as a result of the conflict.

The war brought untold suffering and misery and saw a massive area of Europe laid waste.

Visiting France and Belgium a few weeks ago, as the sun shone and farmers worked to gather in the harvest in the peaceful fields, it was almost impossible to imagine huge areas reduced to a moonscape, a sea of mud, blood and misery, strewn with bodies and shells.

Our visit to the battlefields began in Mons, one of the first cities taken by the Germans which was retaken at the end of the war, which is why both the first and last British soldiers to die are buried at St Symphorien.

Mons is all set up for visits by the families of British and Commonwealth soldiers as so many died there.

On Saturdays until September 14, a red London bus will take visitors on a guided tour around the main locations of the Battle of Mons in August 1914.

This includes the spot where the first British VC was won, by machine gun platoon commander Lieut Maurice Dease. His grave is also in St Symphorien.

And every night this month a spectacular 3D outdoor cinema screening in the Grand Place will retell the legend of the Angel of Mons.

Rumours began that when British troops were cornered, angels appeared to help them by holding back the Germans.

For more information on events and places to visit, go to www.visitmons.be.

We continued our visit over the border in the Nord Pas de Calais area of France.

One of several Chemins de Memoire (‘paths of memory’) follows in the footsteps of war poet Wilfred Owen. We visited several spots by coach but there is also a 6.5km walk that visits the Forester’s House, where Owen and other members of the Manchester Regiment laid low in October 1918.

The house has been turned into a big artwork in Owen’s memory by Simon Patterson. Visitors can sit in the main part of the house and listen to Owen’s poems read by actor Kenneth Branagh and see them projected on the walls.

Contrast the righteous anger of his best-known work Dulce et Decorum Est in denouncing the glorification of war for patriotism with the gentle letter to his mum, which can be heard in the cellar where it was written.

He assures her: “There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.”

By November 4, 1918, he was dead, killed in battle at the Sambre-Oise Canal. His grave is in the little village cemetery at Ors nearby. The trail visits all three places.

We learned about the Battle of Cambrai, which began in November 1917, through an amazing man, Philippe Gorczynski, an amateur historian who has been fascinated by the battle that went through his village, Flesquieres.

The British deployed one of their newest weapons, the tank, to try to break through German lines. Only one tank, D51, nicknamed Deborah, got as far as the village.

Philippe discovered from an elderly villager that Deborah had been buried after the battle, when five of Deborah’s eight-man crew were killed after shells penetrated her armour.

He took years figuring out where Deborah was, having her excavated and finding out the crew’s stories.

He is an incredible enthusiast and it’s well worth visiting Deborah in the village. But beware, Phillipe’s enthusiasm means he can talk for hours!

The city of Arras is a good base to discover the area and also a beautiful place. Its two central squares had to be rebuilt after the war.

The Wellington Quarries are a fascinating place to visit. Old deep-mined stone quarries under the city were extended by mostly Maori miners from New Zealand and used to house 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers.

They were able to use the element of surprise to emerge from underground, close to the German lines.

The tour combines a knowledgable guide who explains points of interest with an evocative audio tour and film projections to build a picture of what was like for the soldiers and the people of Arras.

It’s a big favourite with youngsters and school groups.

Some of the memorials in the area range from the stunning and huge Canadian National Memorial, a white stone edifice soaring high above Vimy Ridge, to the touching Cobbers Memorial statue to the comradeship of Australian soldiers.

In the park around the Canadian memorial, it’s possible to see real trench networks and bombshell craters. Stick to the paths as there’s plenty of shells that aren’t exploded.

Sadly, the dead are still being buried. At Fromelles a new museum stands next to the newest war cemetery. Mass graves were found at nearby Pheasant Wood, 250 soldiers buried by the Germans after the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916.

The museum looks at the lives of those on both sides of the conflict, with trench reconstructions and artefacts found.

Scientific work to identify the bodies meant DNA testing of relatives and that gave the chance to tell the stories of some of the fallen.

It’s a touching place and also testament to the amazing work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

They have made sure that every single grave, whether in a tiny village graveyard or a huge war cemetery, looks immaculate.

Every cemetery has a book in a little metal box at the entrance, with maps of the graves so that families don’t have to spend hours searching for their loved ones.

Obviously, taking a coach trip to see the World War One battlefields of the Western Front could be seen as a strange way to spend a holiday, but the trip was absolutely fascinating.

It was also incredibly moving as you began to get an idea of the sheer scale of what happened, as well as learnign the stories of the soldiers and people of the area.

Many people have been prompted by the commemorations of the war this year to find out more about their relatives who fought, as I know only too well from writing The Star’s Saturday Retro supplement.

Lots of coach companies run a variety of tours looking at different aspects of the war, in response to this interest.

And doing a battlefield tour by coach means that you see a lot of the most interesting places with guides who know their stuff and can answer your questions.

Our coach driver, Derek, also took a keen interest and was a source of many fascinating facts.

It’s also a popular choice for single travellers as a safe way to go on holiday.

However, you could put together your own itinerary using the internet, possibly starting with sites such as ww.mons.be and www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com. Download the app ‘diaries 14-18’ from www.1418remembered.co.uk to discover some fascinating war diaries. To find a casualty’s grave, go to www.cwgc.com.

I would also recommend the Bradt guidebook, World War One Battlefields: A Travel Guide to the Western Front.

We travelled to Calais, which is a good starting point for a trip, by P&O Ferries.

I was on the tour as a guest of Nord Tourisme (www.tourisme-nord.com), Visit Mons and the Coach Tourism Council, which has links to more than 100 British coach tour operators offering short breaks or escorted coach holidays to the WW1 battlefields.

They can be found by visiting www.findacoachholiday.com.

From Yorkshire there is a choice of tours with national operators such as Leger and Shearings, as well as Glenton Palmer and Eddie Brown Tours. Prices with Shearings for a five-day trip start from £299, for example.