23 October 2013
Each year on 11 November at 11am we stop to remember members of our armed forces who have died in the line of duty. 201
In September this year, my wife and I had a guided trip to the WWI Western Front in Belgium and France, organised by Historical Trips. The tour consisted of visits to Ypres and Arras and included visits to museums, battle sites, various memorials and military cemeteries.
Driving into Ypres we passed through the Menin Gate where at 8pm every evening the Last Post is sounded by members of the local fire brigade and wreaths are laid. The walls of the memorial contain the names of 50,000 men who fell in the Salient and have no known grave.
The following day we visited the Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele, where there is a small, but very moving museum. Among the artefacts on display are personal letters and photographs that were found on fallen soldiers.
A short walk takes you to the Sheffield Memorial Park, Serre, where the Pals Battalions are remembered. We passed a collection of three unexploded shells that were awaiting collection for disposal by the Army; shells are frequently discovered by farmers ploughing fields.
Thiepval, the impressive Anglo/French Memorial, has 72,000 names of men who fell and are missing. When a soldier is found and identified, he is reburied in the grounds and his name is removed from the memorial.
As part of our trip we were able to make a special visit to the cemetery at Vis en Artois, France, where my wife’s great uncle, Lance Corporal Gilbert Blackburn, is buried. Gravestones are engraved with the regiment's badge, rank and name of the fallen and date of his death, and if the family requests it, a personal dedication is added. When the stones become worn or in rare events damaged, they are replaced with new ones.
In military cemeteries in France and Belgium containing more than 40 bodies there is a Cross of Sacrifice and a register of those who are buried can be found in a small unlocked metal cupboard. A Stone of Remembrance appears in cemeteries where 1,000 or more fallen are buried. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of all these sites worldwide. In common with all the cemeteries we visited, we were impressed with how clean, tidy and well cared for they are, planted with suitable low growing plants and always roses. It is interesting to note that all ranks are treated equally.
Walking around various Allied cemeteries, we found graves of Chinese and South Africans who after the war were among many who cleared the battlefields of the debris of war, and lost their lives doing so. There are many unidentified soldiers and a few German graves can also be found.
To anyone with the slightest interest in the First World War, I would certainly recommend a guided visit. You will get an informed overview of the war and battlefields and begin to understand the horrors these brave men had to endure. In our party there were men and women including two American couples and a mix of those who had a great knowledge already but wished to learn more and others who were there to be informed, or to see where a relation had served his country.
During my trip I felt anger that there had been such a waste of young lives and I was very moved on more than one occasion. However, I also felt a lot of pride that the bravery of the soldiers had not and will not be forgotten and that the cemeteries and memorial sites are respectful of all who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Most of all I had got closer to the war and those that fought it.
Menin Gate Memorial.
Accrington Pals Memorial, Sheffield Memorial Park, Serre, France.
Live shells found by a farmer.
Vis en Artois Cemetery.
Lance Corporal Gilbert Blackburn, Norfolk Regiment.
We remember our military ancestors in the November 2013 issue of Family Tree, on sale now. Find your Tommy using trench maps and war diaries, explore Britain’s wartime landscape and study the British Army as it was in 1913. Find Family Tree in WH Smiths, leading supermarkets and all good newsagents, or you can download the latest issue as a digital edition right now – visit www.pocketmags.com, the App Store, Google Play or Amazon Appstore. Single issues, back issues and subscriptions are available for PC, Mac, eReaders, smartphones and tablets. A free sample is also available for all devices.