This past summer, we spent three days touring the battlefields, cemeteries and memorials of Belgium and northern France with other Royal British Legion members as part of a pilgrimage to commemorate 100 years since the end of the First World War. The first day was spent in and around Ypres, known as ‘Wipers’ by the British soldiers who could not pronounce the name! In the morning we visited Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world. The site was of great strategic importance during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, as it lies on a ridge. It was captured and recaptured by both sides repeatedly, even after the cemetery had been established. The site contains three German pillboxes, one of which the cross of remembrance is now built on. This pillbox was used as a field hospital at one time and the random pattern of the graves immediately round it indicates that soldiers who died here were buried almost directly outside the door.
Tyne Cot Cemetery
The cross of remembrance that was once a field hospital.
This sort of evidence of the mass loss of life was constantly leaping out at us during the trip. On the second day we visited the Somme memorials. At the Thiepval memorial, Ben pointed out the grave of an unknown Devonshire Regiment Soldier and said to me, ‘If we were born 100 years ago I could be in there,’ to which I replied, ‘Yes, and I would never have known where you were.’
After this we visited Thiepval Wood, where the British were caught by their own gas as it slipped back down the hill into their own trench, and Delville Wood,where the entire area is an undisturbed burial ground of unidentified South African soldiers.
Finding Cyril Harvey’s name on the memorial to the missing at Arras
However, amidst the solemnity, the trip afforded much that was positive. When we visited the memorial to the missing at Arras, we realised that one of our own was here. Cyril J Harvey’s father ran the Half Moon pub in Manaton and built the Kestor as his intended knew dwelling. Cyril is believed to have been killed at the battle of Arras on Sunday 31st March 1918 in a charge that was intended to retake a trench they had already won and lost earlier that day. When we told our bus companions from the other Devon branches that we believed there was a Manaton boy here, everyone leapt into action and together we found Cyril’s name on one of the memorial walls. We left a piece of paper bearing his story below the name, as though we were reuniting him with his village.
The new-found camaraderie formed between the Legion members in the course of the trip made the day of the march even more special. On this day, standard-bearers and wreath-layers from Royal British Legion branches all over the UK marched through Ypres to the Menin Gate. This was to mark 100 years since the start of the 100-Day Offensive, the campaign that finally ended this four year conflict. Our entire bus had a photo together in our formal attire before leaving the hotel – as seen below.
Once we were assembled ready to march – Ben with the other standard bearers and me with the wreath layers – a voice sounded over the loudspeaker:
‘Two miles down the road behind where you stand is Ypres railway station. In the period of 1914-1918, half a million men from Britain and the Commonwealth got off those trains and marched down this road and they followed the route along the Menin Road to Passchendaele. Today you are recreating that.’
As we marched, it did truly feel as though we were part of an historic event. We both felt immense pride carrying the standard and wreath for Manaton. We thought of the men on our own memorial in Manaton, and even though we were there because of terrible things that had happened, it felt a very positive thing to have brought the thoughts of the people of Manaton back to where so many had fallen.
Ben and Felicia taking part in the march through Ypres