Another year, and another tour has come and gone, and once again a grand time was had by all in the Belgian and French countryside on Leger’s Tunnellers on the Western Front - The Underground War.
Surprisingly good weather and a superb itinerary made this an excellent trip, with the only blot on the landscape being the interminable wait to get through Customs checks on the way home at Calais and Dover. We appreciate that extra checks are necessary thanks to the murderous activities of certain groups over in Europe, but surely the requirement for extra staff to cope with this is obvious to all – the delays are getting worse each time we travel and for me, it puts a major downer on the whole Leger experience, as the long coach journey home is tough enough already!
Anyway, on to the good points – and there were plenty crammed into the two full days on the battlefields, led this time by guide Tony Carr, another enthusiastic and knowledgeable member of Leger’s always excellent team.
Highlights of the first day in Flanders included a fresh look at the area around Hill 60 where the tunnelling took a huge toll, and it was great to have time to wander over to the wrong side of the tracks and see the massive Caterpillar Crater, now hidden away in a peaceful wood. The information panel showing the close proximity of the British and German front lines at the time makes you appreciate how tough life in the trenches in this area must have been – you were almost near enough to the enemy to throw your leftover sarnies to the oppo trench.
The Passchendaele War Museum at Zonnebeke was thankfully a bit quieter this time around, allowing us all the time to get a proper look at the recreated trenches and dugouts, the excellent museum, and sample the first Belgian beer of the day. Early evening brought us back to our old haunts in Ypres, with another excellent meal on the Grote Markt followed by the Last Post ceremony.
The second day, down on the Somme, took us to the fascinating cave systems under the church at Bouzencourt, used at various times throughout history as refuges for locals hiding from invaders. During the Great War it became a safe haven for Allied troops, who left their mark by way of graffiti on the walls, with many names and regimental badges etched into the chalk, including lots from Canada. Much fun was had scrambling around in the pitch darkness, led by our local guides who didn’t speak a word of English, but whose enthusiasm and friendly welcome was much appreciated.
Later in the day we again visited Thiepval, although the memorial itself was covered in scaffolding as it was being prepared for the 100th anniversary of the Somme battle in July, when the huge structure will be lit up in grand style.
We also took a look around the Hawthorn Mine at Beaumont- Hamel and the ridiculously massive Lochnagar crater, where the famed ‘Iron harvest’ is still going strong a century on, with a number of recently uncovered shells loitering menacingly by the roadside.
The Alize hotel in Mouscron was a quality base for the tour, although the town itself is very much on the sleepy side – but is does have a handful of excellent restaurants… where some customers can grab a spot of shut-eye between courses after a long day on the coach…
So where next for the Driffield Historical Society? For me, personally, it’s a year out from battlefield touring as I’ll be heading to Canada for my 50th… but there may be a group trip to Belgium in 2017. After that, there’s the ‘big one’ – the 2018 100th anniversary of the Armistice, and for that, there can be no other destination than Ypres. This time, we may be going it alone and travelling by Eurostar, which should make for an entertaining trip. Watch this space!