In Flanders Field Battlefield Tour
On 9th November 2015 a group of eight RAF personnel from Pathfinder Building departed RAF Wyton for Belgium on a staff ride. After some eight hours of travelling by minibus and train, the group arrived at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), which would serve as home for the week ahead. The overall aim of the staff ride was to provide awareness amongst junior airmen of not only the significance, but the magnitude of the UK and Commonwealth contribution to both WWI and the Battle of Waterloo.
The first day was centred around the town of Mons, Belgium; the nearest major town to SHAPE and the sites of both the first and last British casualties of WWI. Perhaps, ironically, the close proximity of these two casualties, barely three miles apart, suggests that the four years that separated them achieved very little. However, the opposite is true; the retreat from Mons was so extreme that it took most of that time to win that ground back. SAC Grace Finch was particularly interested in these stands: “I was really looking forward to seeing the Nimy Bridge and the town of Mons. I found out before I went to Belgium that my Great Granddad fought in the town and was awarded the Mons Star for his time there. He went on to survive all four years of the war. Similarly, I wanted to pay my respects to the soldiers who were not so lucky, some of them probably friends of my Great Granddad.”
The following day took us to the Somme, probably the most iconic battle field of WW1. This is where the scale of the campaign really started to dawn on us; the Lochnager crater, the biggest ever manmade crater, was caused by an explosion that could be heard as far away as London. We also visited the Newfoundland Memorial Park, where 90% of a Regiment were taken as casualties within 30mins. Cpl Leigh O’Dell said: “Before visiting the Somme, I had a rough idea of what the great battles of the First World War were like. However, it is not until you stand in the same trenches that our forefathers fought in, that you get a real appreciation of the size, scale and conditions that these brave men fought in.”
Day three was spent in and around Ypres; a town that received such a sustained attack that there was literally nothing left by the end of the war. Remarkably, however, after the Great War it was rebuilt in its previous image. The day included visits to the Hooge Crater and the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museums, before finishing at the Menin Gate for the Last Post. This was a personal highlight for SAC Sarah Percival, who had this to say: “Visiting the Menin Gate was a profoundly moving experience, particularly the serenity and reflection of the Last Post Ceremony. It was lovely to have the opportunity to meet such a great group of people.”
The fourth and final day was at the site of the Battle of Waterloo, famous for being the decisive and final battle for Napoleon Bonaparte. Grace said: “I knew very little about the Battle of Waterloo, it was never something that we did in school. It was interesting to find out more about it, and to see how things differed 100 years before WW1.” The Lion’s Mound, built from the earth of the original battlefield, dominates the area, and allows for an appreciation of the general landscape that is depicted in the impressive Wellington Museum. The decisive part of this battle took place at a farmhouse called Chateau d’Hougoumont, where some 26,000 troops across 54 Battalions fought over a site that was seen as being strategically key to the main battle. SAC Scott Stannett said: “Waterloo was the highlight of the trip for me. It was great to see the rest of the group taking such an interest in a battlefield that is often overlooked in history lessons, and yet played such a huge role in shaping Europe and setting the stage for WW1. The museums there were top notch; the 4D movie depicting the battle really gave you the experience of being there, and having 10,000 horses charging at you is pretty daunting – although I’m glad it was only in 3D, and not 4D!”
From visiting museums and battle fields, and having the opportunities to learn about these campaigns at the very sites that they took place; every aspect of the trip was a huge success. Scott summed up: “Overall I had a great time in Belgium. We visited some fantastic places, and the quality of the museums (and the food) was very impressive. The whole group were really enthusiastic too, and this just added to what was a fantastic experience.”
by FS Joe Burgess