Memories of Recent Bespoke Battlefield Tours

Battlefield Bimble - September 2023

I’d taken some of my wife’s relations out to Ypres on Walters Wander (2019); the team enjoyed the mix of family get-together, holiday and trench nerdiness, so they decided they wanted a return visit.  Then Covid-19 arrived.  We finally made good on our ambition and explored the Somme for four days this September.

We were blessed with scorchingly-good weather, so re-hydration and picnics in shady places were top priorities.  Still, we managed to get in some good walks, following the 21st Division’s actions from 1st July 1916 until the fighting petered out amongst the mud and cold of a wintry November.  It’s nice taking out such a mixed group: the variety of questions at times really made me stop and think.

Salient Saunter - June 2023

It had been great for the MA group to get back to the battlefields in 2022, and we were very much looking forward to doing so again this year.  We hadn’t been to the Ypres Salient as a team since our very first outing back in 2016, so thought it was high time we remedied that.  We splashed out and stayed at the Ariane; it is such a welcoming place, and ideally suited to trenchy types.

A large part of our success at Arras Amble was down to dealing with just the one battle; we did the same at Ypres, and concentrated on the worst of them all: the Third Battle of Ypres – Passchendaele.  We covered the offensive chronologically, and in some depth, from Menin Ridge to Passchendaele itself.  Visiting lesser-known sites, such as Pilkem Ridge and the Bellevue Spur, gave us a great idea of how the battle developed.

Passchendaele Push - May 2023

It is particularly rewarding to get a repeat booking, no more so than when it’s a really good bunch.  We’d been to the Somme in October last year (Somme Intro – see below), so it this time I introduced the ‘boys’ to the Immortal Salient.

Building in a couple of pilgrimages to honour men who died in 1918 allowed us to incorporate the lesser-known Fourth and Fifth Battles of Ypres – part of the German Spring Offensive and the Final Advance to Victory respectively.

Somme Intro - October 2022

My first return to the Somme for three long years, and I couldn’t have had a better group: three friends who trace their friendship back several decades to their time together at university.  None of them had been to the Western Front before, so they wanted an overview of the whole conflict, and to understand the experience of a Tommy on the Somme.

We stayed in Péronne, at the eastern end of the battle zone, which provided accommodation, food and entertainment; at the very least we contributed significantly to the local economy.  We visited all of the major sights and sites on the Somme, but also delved deeper, following individual battalions and soldiers as they fought for the almost five months of this epic, and strategically-important, campaign.

Arras Amble - June 2022

After three, long, Covid-constrained years, the Wolverhampton World War One Wanderers finally made it back to France for the pandemic-delayed Arras Amble.  Unsurprisingly, we lodged ourselves in the city of Arras, our hotel being very close to where the British front-line trenches would have been.  Although missing two of our stalwarts, Dad and Hugh, I’d say this was our most successful tour to date.

The relatively limited nature of the offensive, just five weeks’ fighting, meant we could get a really good idea of the development of the offensive – from brilliant set-piece success on the first day, to stagnation and bloody attrition by the end.  As well as exploring the ’must-see’ Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, we got out and about all over the battlefield and visited the excellent Carrière Wellington and CWGC Experience at Beaurains.

Normandy - May 2022

I was delighted to take a booking from a group of three friends who wanted to explore the liberation of Normandy in 1944.  I hadn’t visited the area for many years, so I made a pre-tour recce of the Overlord theatre in a very cold and wet April.  It was great to get back to Europe after the frustrations of Covid-19, and even better that we were blessed with glorious weather for the actual tour.

Basing ourselves in the beautiful medieval town of Bayeux, we used the five days to gain an idea of the whole campaign.  This meant visiting not just the landing beaches of D-Day fame, but also venturing deep into the lovely Normandy countryside, exploring terrible attritional battles as well as  smaller, tactical encounters between the two sides.  We ended up at Falaise where the Allies largely destroyed two German armies, paving the way for the eventual liberation of the whole of France.

Mons Meander – 2018

Having a special passion for the enormous strategic gamble that was the German invasion of 1914, I bullied my MA colleagues into examining the largely-unvisited areas of the mobile fighting in 1914 and again in 1918.  

This allowed us to see the way warfare developed in the First World War – from almost Napoleonic tactics at Mons and Le Cateau, to the first, tentative steps towards all-arms warfare at Cambrai where infantry, artillery, tanks, aircraft and tactics combined to form an effective whole

Somme Stumble – 2017

Wipers Waddle was obviously a success because my MA group, with extra players, were back on the Western Front three months later.  Having ‘done’ Ypres, it seemed natural to ‘do’ The Somme.  

Despite some challenging weather, we thoroughly enjoyed our time getting to grips with 3, 7 and 47 Divisions and their medics’ experiences in this haunting landscape.  By now close friends, we vowed to continue our Alliterative Adventures.

Wipers Wander - 2017

I undertook an MA in Britain and the First World War at the University of Wolverhampton.  During this excellent course, I offered to run a tour to see the scene of our studies for my colleagues.  Five us (with my Dad keeping an eye on us) set off for Ypres.  

This was a very different from my previous tours: the depth and variety of my colleagues’ knowledge meant we could each present a Stand on our own pet projects – all I had to do was put these into some semblance of order and then herd the kittens once we got to Belgium.  

3 Squadron – The Great Retreat 100 Years On - 2014

My last post in the RAF was flying the Typhoons FGR4s of 3(Fighter) Squadron, so it was only natural I would develop an interest in the Squadron’s history.  My predecessors deployed to France in August 1914 – the world’s first over-water deployment of airpower – with the infant Royal Flying Corps.  The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War provided ideal context for a 3(F) Squadron  Staff Ride I led in August 2014. 

We retraced the RFC’s (and hence the BEF’s) footsteps during the Great Retreat from Mons to Paris, finding suitable locations for Stands on the development of airpower and paying respects to those who went before us.

Pilgrimage – Private Will Hart, Ypres and the Somme - 2011

The first ‘proper’ tour I led: taking my Dad to see the First World War battlefields.  As a focus, we tracked down his uncle, my great uncle, who served in the 1st Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment.  

He survived the Somme, but died on 9 October 1917 near Polygon Wood during the Third Battle of Ypres. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the awe-inspiring Tyne Cot Memorial.