World War One Remembered
Hundreds of people are crowded together underneath the high stone archways. Gentle jostling takes place as people search for a better view while waiting for the start of the ceremony. We can hear the quiet whispers of at least six different languages around us from people of all ages.
As the local volunteer fire service march out, silence falls over the swollen crowd. To my left I can see a RAFA standard slowly lowered as the five buglers shatter the silence and blast out the Last Post. Our journey through the battlefields of the Great War culminates with the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial.
The mission for the Tornado Components Squadron’s (TCS) Staff Ride was to gain an insight into the operational difficulties surrounding campaigns on the Western Front and pay our respects to the fallen. Our route through history would trace the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) first contact of the war, the development of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and conclude with the battles of Le Hamel and Amiens and the Menin Gate Memorial.
So twelve personnel from TCS piled into two minibuses and off we went. First stop was St Omer airfield. For most of World War I (WWI) it was a major British airfield and the largest on the Western Front. Over 50 of the RFC’s flying squadrons are recorded as having operated from St Omer, some only briefly, but others for extended periods – including 9 and 16 Squadron that were first formed here.
At Mons we learnt about the BEF’s first contact with the Germans and the first Victoria Cross recipients. At Tournai Cemetery we visited the graves of the first RFC aircrew killed in action. On 22nd August 1914, Second Lieutenant Waterfall and Lt Bayly were on an observation flight when they made a very low pass over a column of advancing German soldiers. As they turned their aircraft and lined up for another pass they were shot at and their Avro 504 crashed killing them both.
Vimy Ridge is one of the most impressive and dominating memorials I have ever seen. Towering above the elevated position Vimy Ridge commands, it’s easy to see how important this area was. As we descended into the bowels of the earth on a tour of the tunnels underneath the battlefield it was poignant to see the living and fighting conditions endured by both sides during the war. Emerging into the Allied side of a preserved trench network the German trenches were scarily only 15m away.
The Thiepval Memorial is the largest of the Memorials to the Missing. This is the most imposing of the memorials visible from a long way off, and visiting here was a moving and sobering experience. Inscribed on the walls are the names of over 70,000 British soldiers lost during battles in the Somme region that have no known grave.
Moving to Ypres we stopped at Ballieul Cemetery and in particular the final resting place of Sgt Thomas Mottershead. He was the only non commissioned RFC officer to receive the VC during WWI. On 7th January 1917, Sgt Mottershead was on patrol when he was engaged in combat by two enemy aircraft. With one aircraft downed, their machine caught fire. Enveloped in flames he was very badly burned but managed to fly back to the Allied lines and made a successful forced landing. The undercarriage collapsed on touching the ground throwing the observer clear but pinning Mottershead in his cockpit. He was rescued but died of his burns five days later.
Later that day we visited Passchendaele Museum and Tyne Cot Cemetery. We knew that this was a large Cemetery, 11,954 allied graves and the inscribed names of 33,783 missing British servicemen. But it wasn’t until we actually stepped inside the boundary of the cemetery that the gravity actually hit us. Row after row after row of engraved bright white headstones, rising from the earth, lined up with military precision facing the field of battle. As we made our way through the grounds it felt as though time stood still. The short drive to the accommodation was a very quiet and reflective one.
Throughout we learnt about the evolving tactics and co-operation between the RFC and Army ground units. Increasingly the RFC and BEF coordinated their planning and support resulting in more successful attacks and increasing amounts of ground gained.
And so we found ourselves stood under the Menin Gate memorial to the missing. Inscribed are the names of over 54,000 missing British servicemen. This staff ride had been a massive eye opener into the reality and devastation caused by the Great War. Everyone who took part delivered informative stands and we all learnt something new about the history of the RFC and the BEF in Europe.