In the Footsteps of the Fallen: Running the Western Front

 

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

 

(The Soldier: Rupert Brooke)

You can read about the first few days of my journey from Paris to London here.

Day 6 – Corbie to Auchonvillers

I had now reached the Western Front and began the day following the towpath along the banks of the Somme. It was a fresh and peaceful morning after the overnight rain and the area around the river was lush and green and a thriving hub of wildlife, a stark contrast to images of the Somme during the war. I enjoyed watching the many herons and crested grebes, and even saw a cuckoo at a distance.

I stopped off for a coffee at the tabac in the small village of Vaux-sur-Somme, where the owner presented me with a pen and bookmark commemorating the centenary – a touching gesture. Many of the villages I passed through now had lines of flags hanging across the streets remembering the countries involved in the war and some areas had a very international feel, with many of the locals obviously feeling a strong connection to the Allied nations and joint efforts continuing to discover more about the battlefields (and sadly continuing to recover more bodies).

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The brick chimney on the ridge above Corbie

Heading onto the ridge above Vaux-sur-Somme and Corbie, I passed the brick chimney near the Bray to Corbie road, where German flying ace Baron von Richthofen (known as the Red Baron) was shot down. He was considered probably the greatest pilot of the war on either side and he was given a full military funeral by the British Flying Corps squadron who retrieved his body.

I then followed the “Upper Road” above Dernancourt towards Albert. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end to feel I was truly following in the footsteps of the soldiers. As I approached Albert I had a fantastic vantage point above the town and could clearly see the twin church spires, with the statue of the Golden Virgin glinting in the sun on the top of the Basilica (sadly it was a bit hazy to get a good photo). This area saw heavy fighting throughout the war and the statue was of course a prime target for artillery. A superstition grew up among the British soldiers that the war would only end once the statue fell; it was leaning badly from 1915, but was only finally toppled in 1918 by British artillery, and of course a few months later the war was over…

 

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Thiepval Memorial

In the afternoon I visited the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, where the names of over 72,000 British and South African soldiers with no known graves are recorded. In particular I wanted to find the names of Alfred and Ernest Brett, brothers who lived at the farm just up the road from my house and who were killed within a couple of months of each other, serving with the Suffolk Regiment on the Somme.

It was lovely to meet up with Dave Hedges of the Western Front Association who had been a great help in planning my trip and who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area. I headed towards my overnight stop at Auchonvillers, visiting the Ulster Tower memorial and the preserved network of trenches at Newfoundland Park.

 

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Ulster Tower and Newfoundland Park

I was fortunate to be hosted that night by Avril Williams at her B&B in Auchonvillers and was very happy to find that my replacement trainers had arrived safely as my blisters were again worsening and my feet were very swollen. I was really starting to worry that my blisters could get infected and stop me continuing.

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My blistered and swollen feet

Day 7: Auchonvillers to Neuville Saint Vaast

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Visiting Serre Road Cemetery No. 1

It was an emotional and memorable start to the day as I set out in atmospheric foggy conditions. I threaded my way through the area north of Beaumont Hamel, via Redan Ridge, Serre Road and the Pals Memorials at Sheffield Memorial Park. The landscape was now dotted with a network of small cemeteries as men had been buried where they fell. I found these smaller cemeteries and the little memorial stones and plaques I came across commemorating individual actions more moving than the larger and better known memorials, despite their overwhelming scale. I was particularly touched by a plaque on the corner of a farmer’s barn, remembering some of the northern Pals units and as I ran on down the track tears were streaming down my face.DSC_1137copyFurther on I visited the grave of Captain Samuel Brammer Wilton at the Rossignol Wood Cemetery, a fellow member of Downing College at Cambridge University. He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross and received glowing reports of his conduct as an officer, but I prefer this description of him from the College magazine ‘The Griffin’:

‘a real, genuine, good-natured, intelligent, but not intellectual fellow… Simple, not complex: therefore you can always depend on him. Intelligent, therefore he’s a good boat-captain.  Not intellectual, therefore he doesn’t bore you. “What more”, you ask.  “Why, he must be very nearly the best in the world!”  Well, he nearly is!’

Leaving the cemeteries behind I was heading on through the fog towards Arras, when I was startled by gunshots very close to the track and emerging through the mist I could see a man up ahead with a shotgun. Making my way cautiously forward I could see that he was shooting hares and the speed with which he hid the shotgun and dead hare once he spotted me gave him away as a poacher. He did his best to pretend to be a farmer, ignoring me and inspecting the crop nearby, and I made my way past as quickly as possible, anxious to avoid any confrontation.

 

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Enjoying the atmospheric conditions, shortly before hearing gunshots!

In the afternoon I visited the Arras Memorial, where nearly 35,000 missing British, New Zealand and South African soldiers are remembered, before making my way to the German War Cemetery at La Maison Blanche. This is the largest German war cemetery in France where nearly 45,000 German soldiers are buried.

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The German War Cemetery at Maison Blanche

Nearby I then had the incredible experience of visiting the Maison Blanche souterrain, an old cave that was used during the war as a barracks for around 200 Canadian soldiers. The cave is looked after by the Durand Group who have tried to leave it much as it would have been; possessions such as mess tins and boots can still be seen, as well as some live grenades! The highlight of the cave though is undoubtedly the graffiti, with incredible carvings and interesting markings, mostly from the Canadian soldiers, but also from the original miners and from Belgium refugees who sheltered in the cave while fleeing the Nazis in the Second World War.

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Visiting the cave at Maison Blanche (left: mess tins amongst the rubble; centre: the entrance; right: regimental carvings)

That evening I was hosted by a member of the Durand Group, who happily is also a French A&E doctor and was able to expertly tend to my poor feet, as well as supplying me with iodine and dressings so I could keep looking after them myself.

Day 8 – Neuville Saint Vaast to Fleurbaix

The mist and murky conditions of the previous day had vanished and I set off with much more comfortable feet towards Vimy Ridge. The craters, dips and ridges left by old trench networks and shell craters looked beautiful in the morning sunshine and it was hard to imagine that this had been a scene of such carnage. Reminders were all around though in the large fenced areas, closed off due to unexploded shells and mines.

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Shell craters at Vimy Ridge

I was lucky to have the Vimy Memorial to myself in the early morning, the views from the ridge providing an understanding of what an important vantage point this was during the war.

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The stunning Vimy Memorial

From Vimy Ridge I made my way down towards the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, confused to find myself suddenly joining a stream of walkers. All was explained when I reached the village and a marshal attempted to usher me into a checkpoint; there was an organised 50km walk taking place! I resisted gatecrashing their checkpoint, and instead treated myself to a fresh crepe from the village market, sugary and delicious.

Around lunchtime I met Arnaud and Anne-Sophie of the Durand Group at the cemetery on the site of St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station and they explained the work that the group is doing to explore and open up the extensive network of tunnels in the area, stretching along much of the Front. This is the cemetery where Rudyard Kipling’s son is buried, about whom he wrote the incredibly sad poem ‘My Boy, Jack‘. Two newer graves marked the burials of two soldiers from the Royal Scots, discovered during recent investigations of the nearby tunnels.

In the afternoon the land became very flat and more like the images of Northern France that I had been expecting. I wound my way through the battlefields and cemeteries around Aubers and Fromelles, before finding my way to my campsite just north of here at Fleurbaix.

Day 9 – Fleurbaix to Ypres

I started the day following a pretty track beside the railway as far as Erquinghem-Lys and Armentieres. This area was known as ‘the nursery’ during the war, thanks to its gentle rolling scenery and it made for a pleasant start to the day. Unfortunately the rest of the day was mostly on roads or concrete cycle tracks, although my feet seemed to be recovering and getting used to the pounding.

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Green fields on the way to Erquinghem-Lys

I crossed the border into Belgium and followed a very boring long straight road as far as Ploegsteert (known as Plug Street by the soldiers). Here another Downing College member, Lt Frederick Wilson, is listed on the Ploegsteert Memorial and it was particularly poignant to remember him almost exactly 100 years after his death on 12th April 1918.

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The Ploegsteert Memorial

In this part of Belgium it seemed very difficult to find anywhere to buy food, although everywhere was serving beer despite it still being mid-morning! Thankfully I eventually found a butcher’s who also sold sandwiches and drinks and was able to stock up for the day!

It was fascinating to approach Messines Ridge on foot as I gained a real sense of how the ridge commands the lower ground around it and its strategic importance in the area. Messines itself was a pretty village, with many statues commemorating the war.DSC_1211

Following the road to Ypres, the extensive fighting in the area became apparent in the numerous cemeteries and memorials spread across the landscape, right up to the outskirts of the city.

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Oostaverne Cemetery, one of many on the road to Ypres

Ypres was my overnight stop and I had the incredible honour of reading the exhortation at the nightly service of remembrance at the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate Memorial was erected in 1927 and marks the gate through which hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers marched on their way to the front line. The names of almost 55,000 missing soldiers are carved into the internal walls.

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Reading the exhortation at the Menin Gate (photo by Last Post Ypres)

Every evening the road is closed and a service of remembrance held at 8pm, with the local fire brigade sounding their bugles. The service has been held without interruption since 1928, other than during the German occupation in World War II, when the service was conducted instead at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey. It was incredibly emotional to read the words from Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ in such surroundings; an experience I will never forget.

 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Day 10 – Ypres to Ghyvelde

In the morning I was very glad to have the company of Simon and his lovely Labrador Poppy for a couple of hours; the time flew by with someone to chat with, plus he had brought a rucksack full of food which was very well received, although Poppy did her best to persuade me to share it with her!

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With Simon, Poppy the dog and a single flowering poppy at Essex Farm Cemetery

We passed through the Menin Gate and then along the canal towards Boezinge. A little way to the North of Ypres we visited Essex Farm Cemetery, where John McCrae was stationed at the Advanced Dressing Station and where he wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. We explored the bunkers of the Dressing Station and poignantly found a single poppy growing on the side of a bunker. From here we continued along the canal, which in places formed the front line of the Ypres Salient; it was chilling to see just how close the two lines would have been as they faced each other across the canal.

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Bunkers at Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station

At Boezinge I said goodbye to Simon and Poppy who were returning to Ypres and now turned away from the Western Front to make my way towards Dunkirk and the ferry. The afternoon became a long slow plod on flat roads under a scorching sun. I had over 30 miles to cover and was struggling in the heat. Thankfully with about 5 miles to go I crossed back into France and found a fabulous tiny boulangerie in a portacabin in Les Moeres; several cold drinks and a large cake gave me the energy I needed to push on to my campsite. Unfortunately this campsite was a revolting place, squalid and unkempt; I didn’t feel guilty that my efforts to call the out of hours phone numbers failed to raise anyone and so I ended up staying without paying – wild camping would have been far more hygienic! I set my alarm for 4am, ready for an early start to reach the ferry at Dunkirk and head for home.

This section of the run had been an intensely emotional experience. Crossing the landscape on foot gave me an incredible insight into the war and a far greater understanding of the battles and strategic challenges, but more importantly I felt a strong sense that I was walking in the footsteps of the soldiers and in some small way seeing much of the land as they did. The memories will live with me forever.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.
(In Flanders Fields; written by John McCrae at Essex Farm, Boezinge in 1915)
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The remaining days to follow soon…

 

 

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13 thoughts on “In the Footsteps of the Fallen: Running the Western Front

  1. Outstanding. The writing really connects with the emotion of the experience. Is it not difficult to connect the common sense of the brain to 55000 missing humans here and 72000 unidentified humans there? You really touch the reader. Fascinating history you’ve researched and reported…thank you.

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  2. Your blog brought back poignant memories for me. I too have visited Auchonvillars searching for where my great uncle went over the top in the Battle of the Somme. He was one of the Durham Pals and died of his wounds on July 16th 1916, aged 26.

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  3. I suddenly found my eyes filling with tears as you described the area & the memorials. Two of my great uncles are buried out there, one with a gravestone & the other just a name on the Menin Gate. Beautifully written.
    And your poor feet!!!!

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      1. No. My niece visited on a school visit and took photos. I’d just fall apart. I’ve seen some of the cemeteries and I couldn’t even hold it together then. But my grandfathers served for the full duration & both survived. I have a copy of a letter from one great uncle who died and he sounds like such a lovely man. Tragic.

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  4. Wow, that’s an emotional and beautifully written read! I’d love to know more about what it was like to see the preserved trenches. I was already awed at your navigation and planning but this post really makes it obvious how much research went into the trip. It sounds as though it really enhanced the whole experience though. So glad you got your feet tended to en route!!

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    1. Thank you. I only wish I had had time to visit more of the sites along the way, but there was only so much I could fit in alongside the running! The trenches are really incredible to see; both historically fascinating and incredibly moving.

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  5. Hats off to you Lizzie for a terrific achievement and such a good read. I share your sense of history as earlier this month I cycled part of the road that you took and my Great Uncle took en route to his own place in the story of the Somme . Excellent.

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