E&LW Staff Ride to the French First & Second World War Battlefields

Recently nine members of the Engineering & Logistics Wing Training Cell departed Marham, bound for a weeks Force Development Training in France.

The group consisted of Flt Lt Catherine Hall, Sgt’s Colin Scutt and Dave King and Cpl’s Daz Owen, Ady Boler, Mazza Marriot, Gez Wilden and Paul and Amanda Sawyer. The aim of the trip was to visit the battlefields, memorials and museums of both First and Second World War campaigns. We sought to explore and understand the history, discussing how this relates to current and future operations, and importantly, enjoy the experience. Prior to departure, each team member was tasked with researching the areas we were to visit in order to deliver a brief to the group on arrival.

Our first stop on day one was the Messine ridge and the village of Ypres, where the battle of Messines was fought. The attack on the ridge took place on 7th July 1917, and was preceded by a massive mine explosion.

Both the allies and the Germans employed miners to tunnel under the opposition lines and lay huge amounts of explosives, often detonated prior to an attack. The explosion at Messines killed a staggering 10,000 German soldiers and was heard as far away as Dublin and London. The allied troops attacked immediately after the explosion, under protection of artillery, tanks and gas attacks and by mid afternoon all objectives had been successfully taken. The battle was the first time on the Western Front that defensive casualties outnumbered attacking, 25,000 German, compared to 17,000 allied and was a great boost for morale. Later in the week we would learn of the huge sacrifices in terms of casualties at other less successful battles.

The following day we located the Vimy Ridge, which had been captured by the Germans in 1914. Recapturing the ridge was left to the Canadians, which they did in 1917. Canada has created a memorial and retained the site of the battle and trenches in as near to original condition.

The Royal Flying Corps were based in the vicinity during WWI, flying sorties over the Arras area battlefields. In the afternoon we visited Newfoundland Memorial Park, located near to the town of Beamont Hamel. Here we were given a guided tour of the battlefield and memorial, dedicated to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada at the time and the men chose to fight alongside the British rather than amalgamate with Canadian regiments fighting elsewhere. On the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, at 0845 the regiment, fighting along the Royal Essex, were ordered over the top; 22 Officers and 658 other ranks were cut down within 15 minutes, for all intent and purpose, wiping out the regiment in one attack. Over 60,000 allied troops were lost on the 1st July 1916 alone.

The following day we visited the Basilica and museum in the town of Albert. During the WWI, the statue of the ‘Golden Virgin’ which sits on the top of the Basilica was damaged by German shell fire and left hanging perilously. Both the Germans and the allies believed that if the statue was to fall then the war would end. The battlefields, memorials and cemeteries, we visited, brought home to us the shear sacrifice of life made during the WWI and we were all moved by the experiences we encountered.

After two nights in Caen, we spent two days visiting Second WW battlefields and memorials. The Merville battery and Pegasus Bridge, both taken daringly on June 5th 1944, by the Paras prior to the D Day invasions. We visited the Normandy beach landing sites of Omaha, Sword, Gold and Juno, where the British, American, Canadian and French troops came ashore on the morning of the 6th June 1944.

We all learnt a great deal from the trip, researching the areas and briefing the group provided us with a good insight into the history. Finally, on behalf of all team members, I would like to thank Daz Owen for organising the visit; he put in a great deal of work to ensure a very memorable trip.

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