LRM joins the G4 Owners Club on their drive of a lifetime along the Western Front under the expert guidance of Battlefields by 4x4
Here at LRM we have covered several Battlefields by 4x4 tours in the past including their Calais Taster Day (an introduction to greenlaning in France), 1917 Battle of Arras, D-Day Anniversary Special and the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Each tour is very different but all very poignant as not only do they give you expert insight into those campaigns, they also have you driving your Land Rover where most battlefields tourists don’t or can’t go.
Now it was time to go and do one of their newer tours, the Western Front which would take us from soggy Somme in France to the moving Ypres in Belgium.
Day 1: Dash to Albert
No one likes waking up at 4.00 am especially not my six-year-old son Isaac, who is on half term. But it’s the only way to make the early morning ferry to Calais. We are in the Frontrunner UK Discovery 4, driven by Johnny Nel. It has more kit on it than a G4 Land Rover. There is even a cooking pot on the roof rack! It certainly attracts attention. By now we are used to storms and French strikes so despite a two hour delay on our P&O ferry, our flexi-ticket allows us to board an also delayed but earlier boat, which ends up leaving at the same time as our original booking!
Our friends from the G4 Challenge Owners Club are on a ferry from another company. This was to be my first outing with the G4 Challenge Owners Club of the UK.
Once on French soil it’s a quick 100 miles on toll roads to Albert. The Ibis Hotel carpark (it’s too cold to camp) is full of bright orange Land Rovers, so we know we are in the right place. We’re given a CB radio by our hosts Battlefields by 4x4 and a short briefing follows. The group is divided into two so that we are not one long convoy snaking our way along the muddy lanes. Bright orange bags with a schedule, information pack and lots of goodies are handed out. Our guide is Jim Smithson while the other group is led by Keith Bowen. I’ve done tours with both and they are walking World War 1 and 2 encyclopaedias.
Seeing so many crosses reminds you of the magnitude of Great War
Our trip begins with a few lanes around Albert. We make our way into Mash Valley, where on July 1, 2016, the British army suffered the blackest day in its history. During the first two weeks of the Battle of the Somme, British forces were tasked with capturing La Boisselle. It did not go well; we see proof of this when we stop at the nearby Ovillers Military Cemetery. The British bombardment prior to the troops going over the top, had not really damaged the deep dug-outs of the Germans. Isaac and I walk past the graves of two 16 year olds. I squeeze his hand. Jim stops at the grave of Private George Nugent, who was only recently buried here after his body was found at the nearby Lochnagar crater in 1998, which is where he perished.
From the cemetery we make our way back into Albert and park up in the main square. A tour of the Somme 1916 museum follows. Isaac loves it as not only does the museum contain many artefacts from the war, it also has several very realistic scenes depicting life in the trenches for all the sides. To ensure he stays safe I buy him a Tommy hat which he then wears for the rest of the tour.
By now it is dark but as with most Battlefields by 4x4 tours they have a surprise in store for us. A visit to the Thiepval Memorial, which featured heavily in the 100 year remembrance of the Battle of the Somme in 2016. The memorial hosts the names of the nearly 73,000 British and South African soldiers who died during the bloody battle but have no grave.
While the G4 Land Rovers look impressive parked up in front of the memorial, they look even more impressive when someone flips a switch and the memorial lights go on. We use another vehicle to light up the G4 Land Rovers and I am able to get a shot. The surprises keep on coming, while looking around the memorial English soprano Emma Brown sings Amazing Grace for us. She is competing with a howling wind and by now the rain is pelting down. Emma’s incredible voice and the words do the place and fallen soldier’s justice. Isaac forces me to go and walk with him to look at the graves behind the memorial. He does not complain about the cold and rain. Which is nothing compared to the suffering of all those buried here. The day ends with a traditional meal at a nearby restaurant. It’s been a long but great day.
Day 2 : Albert to Arras
After our Ibis breakfast we depart and make our way through the British positions prior to the Battle of the Somme. We are driving along the very same tracks they might have taken to get to the frontline. Our first stop is about 2.5 km (1.5 miles) east of Albert at the Norfolk Cemetery in the village of Becordel-Becourt. It’s home to 549 burials with just over half of those identified. Each grave has a very different story to tell.
Major Stewart Walter Loudoun-Shand’s tells us he was awarded a Victoria Cross while Jim reads out the details of his incredible bravery and leadership even when wounded. You would not know what happened to Private Jennings and Private Lewis buried in the same cemetery unless you had a great guide like Jim. Both these Privates were shot at dawn by their own forces near here after being arrested in London and found guilty of desertion.
Our next stop is the impressively-sized Lochnagar Crater, it’s about 330 ft wide and 30 ft deep. It’s just one of a series of mines which were dug under the German lines before being blown up at 07.28 am on July 1, 1916, literally seconds before the Allied soldiers went over the top. The gale force winds and striking skies add to the drama of the setting.
Muddy lanes on the way from Albert to Arras
More muddy lanes follow on the way from the Devonshire Cemetery to the 38th Welsh Division Memorial. On one of the long inclines I tell Johnny to stop, reverse and put his D4 in the correct settings. The grassy tracks are very tricky while the deep muddy ruts make the Land Rovers act like an eel on ecstasy. You think you are going straight and before you know it you are going sideways. Fortunately, we make it to the top of the climb but one of the others behind us is not so lucky. Nothing that a recovery rope cannot quickly sort out. It’s really great seeing the members of the G4 Owners Club using their rare Land Rovers as they would have been used on the actual event.
With everyone safe we stop at the 38th Welsh Division Memorial near Mametz Wood. I remember coming here in the summer during the previous UEFA European Championship, the Welsh team had laid a wreath here and they went on to do really well in that tournament. A bus load of British youngsters is visiting the memorial at the same time at us, what a great way to be spending your school holidays: learning important life lessons from the past. An impressive red dragon stands atop the memorial dedicated to all the brave Welsh who perished in the attack on the woods in front of us.
Before stopping for lunch at the Blighty Tearoom there is time for a short stop at an old German bunker. This deep concrete fortress with views for miles must have been seemingly impregnable for advancing soldiers. Today it would not last five seconds with modern weaponry.
After lunch we head for the Bouzincourt Church. Where do you go when thousands of bombs are falling all around you? Underground, of course. We all don helmets and headlights before making our way down into the network of tunnels beneath the church. It smells musty, is wet and a little slippery. This was home to thousands of men during the war, some have penned their names into the cave walls. Our guides point out the chapel, toilet, kitchen and sleeping quarters. It’s an underground army base really. The only thing they don’t have is a rifle range. We all gather in the little chapel where once again Emma has us all spellbound with her rendition of Abide With Me. I close my eyes and try and imagine what it must have been like for a soldier before exiting the tunnels and heading to the frontline. I can’t.
As most on the tour have only ever seen the Thiepval Memorial in the dark, we stop there again, this time at the visitors centre for a refreshment and quick tour. We then move on to the Indian and Chinese Cemeteries followed by the Houdain Lane Cemetery. By now the rain is pelting down and the wind is near gale force. Our tour leaders call a halt and order a quick march to the Arras Grand Place. It takes us about 20 minutes to get to the grand square which is surrounded by restaurants and bars. After freshening up in the hotel we enjoy a great meal at the Assiette au Boeuf. Yes, most of us had the beef and French fries.
Day 3: Arras to Ypres
After breakfast our tour of the Western Front continues northwards towards the Belgium border but not before stopping at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s recently opened Visitors Centre. These folk are like modern day angels. They deeply care for the graves and memorials of 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women in an incredible 150 countries. Imagine trying to co-ordinate that. The place is not a museum but rather an interpretation centre of how they care for graves in 23,000 sites around the world. Signs, gravestones, gates and doors all need replacing at some stage. Lawns need mowing and so they employ over 1400 people.
Steve Arnold's talk and demo was a highlight of the trip
The most fascinating part of the visit is the 20 or so minutes we spend with Steve Arnold, the Horticulture Manager of France for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. One of his roles is the recovery of remains, which believe it or not is on the increase especially when there is development taking place on former battlefields. While Steve rightly does not do a Silent Witness type autopsy for us he does show us recently recovered artefacts that were found with remains. The soils in France and Belgium vary greatly, in the latter the items preserve a whole lot better. He shows us boots, binoculars and a pen that look as if they have just come out of an Amazon delivery box.
One of the most pleasing things about these type of discoveries is that when they do find human remains, they give them a burial with full military honours. Even better, if they can identify the fallen soldier, then the families are informed and the headstone will have the name of the soldier.
From the CWGC we head round Arras towards Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French military cemetery in the world, it’s home to around 45,000 soldiers. As we make our way up towards Vimy Ridge, red signs warn us not to go off the tracks as there are still undetonated shells in the woods. A few local antelope temporarily halt our advance. They obviously cannot read as they ignore the signs
We stop at the Loos British Cemetery for a very personal stop for two members of our group, Kim and Sue Worrall. Here they visit the grave of a family member, John William Forster. John served in Gallipoli in 1915 before being redeployed to the Somme in 1916, where he was killed on a night-time raid near Ypres. Keith hands Kim a specially prepared docket with information about John and his unit. It has copies of original war records. This is more than just a tour along some muddy lanes, our guides transport us back to the First World War with their tales of bravery and tragedy, and they have also helped to personalise the tour.
Later in the afternoon we cross a canal and make our way into Belgium and on towards our final stopover, Ypres. It looks like they have saved the best hotel for our last night. Just after sunset we all walk down to the Menin Gate Memorial, where the names of more than 54,000 soldiers who died in Belgium and have no grave adorn the panels on the massive gates. At exactly 8.00 pm the Last Post ceremony commences. Three people from our party lay a wreath. A Scottish piper adds to the occasion. It’s a short but very moving occasion. I take Isaac to show him the 500 plus South African names on the gate walls. How good is it that this ceremony happens every night?
Day 4: Back to Britain
Before we head for the ferry at Calais, the friendly team from Battlefields by 4x4 still have a few stops planned for us. The first is at Essex Farm, one of the most visited sites on the Ypres salient. It was at the Advanced Dressing Station here that Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote the moving poem In Flanders Field. We take a walk through his dressing station. Today its peaceful. I can hear the birds singing and the cars passing by on a nearby new road. Pictures of what it looked like at the height of the fighting are very different to my picture of it.
One of the most visited graves on the Western Front is that of Valentine Joe Strudwick of the Rifle Brigade. Why is his grave covered in flowers, messages and teddy bears? Valentine was only 15 when he died near here. He was not the only teenager to perish in that terrible conflict, his grave just happens to be on the main tourist route.
Our second to last stop is on a private farm called Pond Farm, where the local farming family have collected an incredible number of artefacts from the First World War. Each year when ploughing or digging their collection gets bigger and bigger. They even have a little indoor museum. Judging by their visitor book, people come from all over the world to see their hoard.
Our final stop is at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, we all gather around the big Cross of Sacrifice. I climb halfway up the cross to a viewing platform. I’m surrounded by the graves of 11,900 Commonwealth serviceman who were killed during the Battle of Passchendaele. It’s the biggest Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in the world. A fitting place to end the tour.
As I touched on at the start of this report, I have been on several of these Battlefields by 4x4 tours and I can confirm that no two are the same – this one was probably my favourite. My son was with me and even though I was visiting some places for the second or third time I was learning so many new things, which is what life and travel is about. We have enjoyed so many surprises and special moments. The tunnels under the church at Bouzincourt, Emma singing Amazing Grace at the Thiepval Memorial while a storm raged around us, driving past places where Kim and Sue Worrall’s dear family member once slept, fought and was eventually buried. Also, Steve Arnold’s talk at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s HQ was truly special. Plus, we were with the G4 owners Club, what’s not to like about a rare G4 Land Rover? It was one of those tours that will remain with all of us until we, too, eventually end up in a grave. If you are only ever going to do one 4x4 trip in your life, then try a Battlefields by 4x4 trip.
G4 Challenge Owners Club
For those that don’t know the G4 Challenge was a global Land Rover event held in 2003 and 2006. It was a bit like an adventure race (run, cycle, paddle, navigate) but with new bright orange Land Rovers. Due to economic reasons the Mongolian version of the event in 2009 was cancelled. Today, Land Rover fans all around the world own former G4 Challenge Land Rovers.
Battlefields by 4x4
The only people to take you on a personalised and special 4x4 tour of the battlefields.
For more details see battlefieldsby4x4.com