Exercise Forgotten Warhorse Weapon Training Section Staff Ride

Recently, eight members from the Weapon Training Section set off on ‘Ex Forgotten Warhorse’ a Staff Ride to Belgium and France. Following a long days travelling we arrived at the hotel in Belgium for what we thought would be a quick bite to eat that arrived in the form of half a cow on a skewer!

This was followed by a change of clothes into our No 1’s and a brisk walk to the Menin Gate where Sgt Abbott delivered his stand outlining the history of the memorial to the missing. With a considerably larger audience than expected we took part in the Last Post Ceremony which is held every Evening at 2000hrs. Sgt’s Scutt and Parkinson did us proud in laying our Memorial wreath with the rest of us as Guard of Honour, resulting in some unrehearsed and last minute drill!

Ex U Turn… Tuesday began with some Sat Nav confusion and a trusty local garage owner heroically directing us to the Langemark Cemetery. Langemark Cemetery is one of only four WW1 German cemeteries in the Flanders region and its distinct German headstones lay flat on the ground in somber contrast to the British graves.

Many, many u turns later we then found Tyne Cott Cemetery for the stand of Sgt Warburton. The memorial holds the names of 33,783 soldiers of the UK forces and a further 1,176 New Zealanders who’s bodies were never found. The personal message at the foot of one particular headstone – Second Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young – reads “Sacrificed to the fallacy, that war can end war.”

The rest of the day consisited of visits to Flanders Field, an American Memorial and then St Symphorium Cemetery. In this extremely tranquil cemetery lay the headstones of the first and last casualties of the War and the 1st VC and Iron Cross of WWI. Eight wet and hungry personnel then descended upon Butterworth farm so named after the London born composer George Butterworth who was killed in Pozieres on 5th August 1916 in a Trench near this Bed and Breakfast. We parked up the mini bus next to the pile of WWI ordinance on the driveway and went inside some homemade cake and a cup of tea.

Day 3 began visiting Thiepval memorial, dedicated to the names of 72,191 missing British and South Africans from the Somme, followed by Ulster Tower and the Lochnegar Crater where SAC Thompson explained the story behind the largest crater made in battle at 300ft wide 70ft deep.

Our next stop, The Newfoundland Memorial was the destination for a stand by Sgt ‘Jabba’ Perkins. The Newfoundland Memorial Park covers 84 acres featuring preserved trench lines and a stark reminder of the close proximity of enemy lines. Half-way across No Mans Land is the Danger Tree – a preserved tree, thought to be original, which reportedly marks the limit of any Newfoundler’s advance that day.

Thursday began with a tour of The Somme 1916 Museum which occupies what was originally the crypt beneath the Albert Basilica used as shelters during WWII. Throughout the tour, scenes set up depicting trench life during The Great War and displays original uniforms, equipment, weaponry and other war materials rescued after the war from surrounding fields and old trenches. Here Sgt Scutt delivered his stand describing how during WWI the statue of Mary and the infant Jesus seated on top of the Basililica was hit by a shell on January 15th, 1915 causing it to fall to a horizontal position but remain attached. The Germans said that whoever made the statue fall would lose the war and a number of legends surrounding the “Leaning Virgin” were formed among German, French and British soldiers.

From there we went on to visit the Norfolk Cemetery, started in 1915 by the 1st Norfolk’s. Amongst those laid to rest there are Victoria Cross recipient Major Stewart Walter Loudoun Shand and two deserters shot at dawn in 1916. The tranquillity and picturesque nature of this gravesite made it difficult to imagine the horrific conditions these men would have had to endure. From here we travelled to Delville Wood and then Vimmy Ridge Canadian Memorial Park and Monument. Interestingly the guided tour of this site delved into the actual tunnels underneath the preserved battlefield area. This gave insights into the antiquated methods of communication and hideous living conditions faced by the soldiers that occupied them awaiting battle. As repatriation during the war was rare, the Canadian Corps faced the morbid reality of digging their own graves during advancement, in preparation for their possible mortality to follow. The battleground itself portrays the short 25m area which lay between enemy forces. However during the December of 1914 a Christmas truce was observed along the Western Front with widespread ceasefires between enemy forces. Troops ventured into ‘no mans land’ to mingle, play football and exchange cigarettes and food. This was a period during trench warfare of WWI which reflected a mood of ‘live and let live’ a reminder to all of the humility that can exist between human beings.

Before our return home on the final day we laid a wreath at the RAF Memorial at St Omer Aerodrome unveiled on the 11th Sept 2004 to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the 1st British aircraft to arrive at the airfield in 1914. Sgt Dickinson’s stand commemorated the efforts of the men and women of the British Air Services and their vital participation in providing aircraft and components for the entire Western front during the war.

Ex Forgotten Warhorse gave an unprecedented glimpse into how past sacrifices have shaped the future and a reminder of a heroic and selfless generation who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country. It also highlighted the admirable work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the relentless task of maintaining the immaculate standards of these memorials.

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