Some corner of a foreign field: a battlefield tour worth making

Some corner of a foreign field: a battlefield tour worth making

by Stuart Crawford
article from Thursday 4, October, 2018

FOR SOMEONE who spent twenty years in the British Army I have done very few battlefield tours. Waterloo, as part of the Army Staff College course was one, and the Arras Counterattack of 1940 with my regiment was another – plus Gettysburg in Pennsylvania when I was a student at the US Army Staff School back in the 1990s. And that’s about it.

So when I was asked to join a small and exclusive group of ex-regimental colleagues (and, Heaven forfend, some civvies too) which planned to visit some of the battlefields of northern France I jumped at the chance. In any case, I hadn’t been abroad for five years or so and, notwithstanding my previously recorded distaste of travelling – see ThinkScotland articles passim – it was high time I got out of my rut.

I am hugely glad that I went. Getting there was actually great fun, via the overnight P&O ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge; great food in the restaurant and a shared cabin that had the tiniest en suite bathroom I have seen anywhere. Turning around was a trial in itself and the shower floor was lethal when wet.

The relative novelty of driving once more on the wrong side of the road made me smile as we headed south through Belgium to France. Our first stop, and initial rendezvous, was at Vimy Ridge near Arras, which the Canadians had finally captured from the Germans in April 1917.  The memorial there, built on Hill 145 which was the highest point on the ridge, is truly impressive, as are the preserved trench systems and tunnels all staffed by the politest and most enthusiastic Canadian youth volunteers you could hope to meet.

Then on to Cambrai to the Hotel Beatus, our base for the next couple of nights (and highly recommended by the way). The following day was my first experience of the Somme battlefield, despite having read about it in detail since I was a teenager. The focus of our attention was the rather pretty village of Flers, near to which the Tank Corps launched the first tank action ever on 15th September 1916 in support of 41st Division. The splendid monument to the 41st Division stands in the middle of Flers and is a magnificent tribute to its capture of the village.

On the way we visited some of the cemeteries which are liberally scattered over the landscape, seemingly one every 100 yards or so, and paid our respects to some of those who lie there. 

It’s a sobering experience. 

I remarked to one of my companions that if we had ever gone into action in our tanks, which thankfully we never did, then we might well be visiting the graves of those whom we knew and loved well.

The next day we visited the 1917 battlefield of Cambrai itself, hallowed ground for Royal Tank Regiment veterans like ourselves. Here on 20th November the Tank Corps carried out the first massed use of tanks in the history warfare when 386 Mark IV tanks advanced in perhaps the first modern combined arms operation. The attack was initially a resounding success and celebrated by the ringing of church bells across the UK. Sadly, much of the ground captured was subsequently retaken by German counter attacks and losses were high.

The Cambrai battlefield, as viewed from the Flesquieres monument, is possibly one of the easier of First World War battlefields to view and understand.  The battlefield itself is fairly compact and most of it can be taken in from one or two points. The remains of some of the German concrete bunkers and machine gun posts still dot the fields. The highlight of this particular visit, though, was the museum in which the tank “Deborah” (D51) is displayed.

Actually it is more a shrine than a museum. Commanded by 2Lt Frank Heap, Deborah was the only British tank to actually enter Flesquieres and suppress the enemy positions in support of the infantry of 41st Division. Coming out the far side of the village she was hit by a number of enemy shells and knocked out. Five of her crew of eight were killed, although Heap survived.

Quite what happened next remains a bit of a mystery. Local tradition has long held that she was pushed into a hole by Russian prisoners of war under German direction, others claim she was buried by the Tank Corps itself when cleaning up the battlefield. But what seems certain is that she disappeared underground for 70 odd years until rediscovered by local French enthusiasts.  After many years in a barn she now resides in a new museum in Flesquieres, fittingly next door to the CWGC cemetery where her crew are buried.

I have to say that seeing Deborah in her new home was quite an emotional event for some of our company. Having been tank men ourselves, we instantly understood the context and experiences of those who crewed her over 100 years ago. Technology has moved on leaps and bounds since those days, but the quintessential essence of being a tank soldier and part of a crew remains. I think we could all see ourselves as part of Deborah’s crew on that fateful day.

Then on to lunch and the tour was over. Back to Zeebrugge for the ferry and another overnight on the North Sea before up the road and back to Scotland. Those few days made an indelible impression on all of us and we have made plans to go back, this time with marked maps on foot as all old soldiers are want to do.  

One of my companions made a telling observation: “All politicians should be made to follow the road between Albert and Bapaume to understand what war means. Soldiers don’t start wars, politicians do, and I don’t think they ever fully understand the implications of their actions.” 

I end with a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, that most eloquent of war poets who became increasingly angry at the war and, on this occasion, the contemporary trivialisation of the new wonder weapon of the tank in the Liverpool Hippodrome:

Blighters

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin

And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks 

Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;

“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”

 

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,

Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,”

And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls

To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

© Stuart Crawford 2018 Stuart Crawford is a former officer in the Royal Tank Regiment.

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