SPRING NEWSLETTER 2015 – ‘Robin Moore’s Pilgrimage of War and Words’ offers a message of history and peace for the good of charity raising £1125.
The cheque presentation held at The Angel Inn, Oundle represents fundraising from Robin Moore’s Pilgrimage of War and Words which commemorated WW1 in September/October 2014. The walk also marked a completion of his expeditions around Europe and the British Isles covering over 25,000 miles. He has walked in other continents too and around several countries exceeding in all 30,000 miles including Barmy Army Cricket Tours (he was a founding member at Adelaide in 1995 when England won the test match to keep the series alive for the last game at Perth). As well as his passion for cricket he enjoys the countryside and history and has always been an extreme athlete with a love for sport too.
It was an interest as a youngster in the 60’s to recognise the sacrifice of those who fell in the Great War and Robin knew many WW1 veterans (including his grandfather and great uncle) at his home at The Angel Inn Oundle where he grew up; he will soon be publishing a book about his amazing journey. ‘Although the quest goes on with many walks planned for the future we still need time to reflect on the past which has also seen the end of a personal era too. My Auntie Marjorie, who died recently at the age of 91, was one of my greatest supporters and friends also donated generously to the Cancer Charities after my Uncle Eric died of the disease in 2000.’ As well as helping Robin, she recently pledged £10,000 to Macmillans, £10,000 to her local charity; also £264 was raised at the funeral service for one of Robin’s fundraising charities from his recent walk, Sue Ryder Care. Other organisations that benefited from the expedition are Prostate Cancer UK; The Cornwall Hospices and Cancer Research UK. The WW1 Walk was set up originally for a local Cancer Appeal in Peterborough, PCTA which is largely fronted by friend Mark Folgate of Oundle who is the Fundraising Executive and major supporter of the charity. Robin’s expedition helped raise awareness for the charity and his book will be dedicated to the appeal.
Extracts of the book are printed below (historical content refers the first year of the Great War) For more about the wonderful life of Marjorie Jones please click on CANCER CHARITIES when you visit: http://www.robin-moore.co.uk
ROBIN MOORE’S PILGRIMAGE OF WAR AND WORDS
Geneva to Ypres – WW1 Walk – September 2014
‘The Early Shots’
August 1914 saw the Battle of Mons,
As Britain and Germany sent fourth their sons,
Soon to be cannon fodder and casualties of war,
Shedding blood on a scale never seen before.
Reeling through France came the British retreat,
Shielded by the cavalry who turn up the heat,
Those gallant equestrians, adrenalin-fed,
Push back the big guns till all are dead.
But the Kaiser’s war machine continues to roll,
Crushing forests and towns as the guns take their toll,
Gone are the romance and glamour of war,
Replaced by trenches, barbed wire and gore.
Gas, gas, gas a ‘Tommie’ cries,
As the Battle of Ypres takes on a new guise,
The Prussian Guard advance strong and steady,
Like a ceremonial parade, but with guns at the ready.
The British fix bayonets and the guard are speared,
Fighting hand-to-hand till the woods are cleared,
By dusk the guard lie dead in great knots, swathes and heaps,
For them the war is over in this first battle of Ypres.
Poem by Robin Moore.
Dedicated to those who fell in the first year of the Great War.
Commemorating WW1 a century on, Robin Moore sets off on a 1000km trek across Switzerland, France and Belgium which will complete a circuit of Europe and the British Isles. Read how his adventure unfolds each day and learn about the historical places of interest he encounters.
Dominant Mountains That Preside Over Europe
Geneva to Hotel Bellevue, Gex
Starting my walk from Geneva city centre, I make my way to the great lake which borders France and Switzerland; then after running a video commentary near the ferry port and fountain, I continue beside the water. It is a perfect late September day; sunshine with a breeze from Lake Geneva allowing a pleasant initiation to this historic walk. Although the war did not affect this region I planned to start here so as to link this expedition with my previous one in March when I walked from Geneva to Arles. A century ago WW1 was well underway having commenced in August; The First German Army had already penetrated the borders at Belfort and Luxembourg; then spilling all across Belgium. By the end of September they had taken Liege, fought the BEF at Mons and the French on the Marne. These places I hoped to see a week or so from now but for the time being I am pondering all sorts of thoughts about weather, what I will see along the way and where I will stay each night. As the journey unfolds, I pass through several small parks, occasionally stopping to absorb the changing scenery and around noon I take a cycle route away from the lake towards the mountainous French Border. The road becomes busy though broken frequently by colourful towns and occasionally my gaze is drawn towards the sky where air traffic is in motion too. I am 5 km from the next village when a local walker joins me; he is astonished when I tell him I am walking to the Menin Gate! He shuffles off quietly on reaching his destination and after continuing to the end of the village I seek help from a hotelier who points me towards France. In the distance lie the Jura Mountains which I feel will test me over the coming week. Soon I cross the border, and with little to get excited about other than a sign post marked ‘France’, I continue uphill towards Gex. It is an arduous trek in the heat as I struggle with a 50lb load, and lack of sleep at the airport the previous evening also adds to the discomfort. Once I am confident of my route I start to feel much better and on my last ascent, which sees me only 27km from Morez, I decide to take refuge at Hotel Bellevue. it is a large building owned by an enthusiastic ex-marine commando whose father fought at Verdun during the Great War. He shows me his father’s picture and medals and later I begin writing my book with a beer on hand while the bar maid tells her local patrons of my endeavours.
Hotel Bellevue, Gex to Morbais
Starting in hot sunshine I continue my ascent across the Jura Mountains; there are no war monuments or battle fields here – just a slow grind through steepling countryside as the towns and villages of yesterday disappear behind a curtain of mist. Even traffic flows by at a leisurely pace and the lorries chug along cautiously as the journey evolves by way of the narrow pass. It is an laboured affair during the morning where at times the diverse terrain reminds me of New Zealand with its collaboration of forest and stern peaks. The afternoon brings respite with a cool descent beyond the St Claude Junction; by now I am hitting towns regularly and make use of the facilities available to enjoy a coffee break and the chance to pick up a few provisions.
At La Cure I rouse some curiosity as I deposit my backpack on a park bench outside the Tourist Office, change my socks and eat a sandwich. Soon I have an audience comprising of a touring party who had seen me walking earlier; after explaining the purpose of my journey I show them my WW1 passport and a publication about a recent expedition. After wishing me well they depart and their distant waves see me on the way to Les Rousses and later Morez where I purchase groceries for tonight’s supper. A further ascent along a busy road section completes my day at the campsite in Morbais. Although the amenities are now closed for this season the club owner allows me to stay the night and I am able to purchase a drink from the Bar Brasserie known as ‘Chez Nous’, where the locals are enjoying some lively banter amid the smoky atmosphere of a ‘barbie’. After completing the final day’s entry in my diary amid a background of contemporary disco music, I retire to a more peaceful location beside the campsite stream.
Bar Brasserie ‘Chez Nous’ Morbais to Veiux Chalet Champagnole
Rising to a dew-soaked morning I roll up the tent and take a shower at the wash room which is still unlocked despite the closure of the site. A cooler start makes walking bearable as the continuation of steep ascents set the tone for the day. The first few days of any walk always present a challenge but I am grateful to find this route is broken nicely by interspersing villages. As the road narrows the terrain becomes more demanding and yet diverse affording sheer drops of many hundreds of feet; it is awe-inspiring peering down onto treetops as they disappear into a bottomless chasm. Reaching the next summit I stop at a park to relax in the shade and study my map. Recommencing my walk I dodge more traffic by crossing the road at each bend and take in the changes of terrain as each new town approaches. Reaching Champagnole I collect groceries and beyond the town, not far from my next route, I stop at a public park and camp for the night; there is a terrace of houses on a suburban lane where I hear a party celebration in progress. Next to the park entrance is a shop where I buy a bottle of wine and ask the owner to uncork it. Sitting on a bench by my tent I eat a supper of cheese, olives and salad washed down with wine as dusk closes in across the mountains and all becomes quiet beneath the stars.
Veiux Chalet, Champagnole to Samson
Rising to bright sunshine I dismantle my tent, use the toilet facilities at the park entrance and then proceed along the main road to the Salin Junction. This section follows minor roads throughout the morning and with little else open on a Sunday, I take my first break at a restaurant in Salin-le-Bains. From here the heat is unbearable though the scenery, comprised largely of forest mountain landscape broken by a spectacular viaduct, and the audio presence of running water help serve as a delightful opiate. As the traffic dies down the sound of jingling bells from ascending cattle add a different tune to the journey. En route I meet another traveller who had passed me earlier in a car heading for Champagnole; he hails from Verdun and speaks good English. Intrigued by my quest he takes photos and a video which he posts on his Youtube/Facebook pages to give me a bit of support and hopefully some media coverage for our charities. Before departing he hands me some fruit and a bottle of water; then wishes me well for the remainder of my trip. As evening draws close, I meet a group who also supply me with water and an offer to camp by their recreation centre where their friends are playing bowls. Feeling that the day is incomplete, I thank them for their trouble and press on to the next village called Samson. On arrival I am fortunate to purchase cheese and wine from a grocer shop (Bulangerie Courtois) which is about to close, and a further 2km north of the village I camp at a field beside the road. I find a sheltered spot near the hedgerows which conceals me from the public eye. Feeling satisfied with my effort I relax
with my provisions and listen to the sounds of dusk as a new world comes to life.
Samson to Rioz
Disappearing off the radar at dusk is quite important when camping rough in order to rest and recuperate sufficiently to gain a few hours sleep.
A misty morning brings cooler air as I tackle the busy main road with caution. It is a tedious session and I am glad of a coffee break at Larnod around 11.30am. Sitting outside the cafe, I enjoy a few moments as a spectator. It is a pleasant interval watching the world go by as people greet each other with an embrace and friendly chat. I ponder over the reality that there would have been many young men recruited for WW1 from these rural parts of the continent. I wonder too what the bar conversation of that time would have entailed as these little meeting places have always been the soul of a community. Soon the road beckons and I prepare to return to the task. The next ascent exposes me to distant river scenes and before entering the urban sprawl of Beure I stop at a lay-by to rest from the speeding traffic. Sadly the second part of the day disintegrates as the road network becomes complex around the industrial realms of Besancon. After taking a wrong turn I receive directions from a lady at a nearby school and descend to the outer regions of town. Soon I am walking on the main road to Vesoul having failed to locate the byway I need to keep on course to Combeaufontaine. A sense of apathy creeps over me as I fear the momentum of today may be lost along this dangerous highway. Continuing in fear for my life and with motorway instructions imminent, I am relieved to reach Rioz by nightfall. After an extensive ‘reccy’ I realise there is nowhere to stay; so I put up a bivvy outside the campsite which is closed, and fetch a takeaway meal from the only place that is open in town.
A Countryside Devoid Of Time
Rioz to Combeaufontaine
Sleeping through sheer exhaustion and uncertain what to do, I visit the police station for help. They are great! Once issued with a coffee they give me a route planner to cover the next 2 days which promises a rural journey along the quieter byways/cycle routes as far as Jussey. Then after receiving an official Brigade De Gendarmerie stamp on my WW1 passport, I set off in good stride, feeling grateful for their efforts to help me. The route takes me through the remainder of the town and passes under the motorway where it bears left by a country park to join the D33. As the day unfolds I begin to appreciate a pleasant scenic journey through rural France in contrast to the initiation along the steep mountain pass, and mad motorway of yesterday. This more refined route allows me passage through many small villages such as Fondremond with its old abbey and unique water features; later I visit Maizieres and Traves where I am happy to enjoy my coffee breaks amid a rural atmosphere. I even stumble across a Camino de Santiago route which interacts with some of the more ancient communities. There are lone bridges and wide river crossings; archaic buildings with eloquent gardens and festooned streets prompting me to make good use of my camera. On reaching the quaint little town of Combeaufontaine I pick up some groceries, and with the hotel closed for renovation, I set up camp 2 km north of the village in a paddock beside a forest.
Combeaufontaine to Lamarche
The early morning pattern of mist continues as I dismantle my tent and wander carefully along the road. The one problem I face today is obtaining enough water and provisions in these rural parts where it seems that the inhabitants live with a degree of self-sufficiency. Passing through numerous communities over the last week I notice allotments, small-holdings and farm shops which open only in the morning; though later today I manage to get adequate supplies at Jussey. After obtaining road information from the Tourist Office, I visit the cenotaph which is the most conspicuous so far, revealing the names of the war dead who had fought in great campaigns such as Verdun, Le Marne and the Somme; monuments such as this will be commonplace throughout the remainder of my journey. Resting at a bench near a road junction I eat a salad meal which I purchased from the local supermarket; at present the town is a lively scene of folk shopping and socialising in restaurants and cafes. Jussey is an unusual, yet welcome break in this quiet, rural section of my walk which gives more of an insight into farming traditions. With each road spurring off to a new destination I continue into the wilderness not seeing another shop or restaurant for the remainder of the day. There are moments too when I feel as though this countryside has transported me back to a former age – devoid of change or the passage of time. Only speeding motors and farm machinery betray the secrets of an environment where people enjoy their allotments and orchards which have kept them self-sufficient for generations. Nearing dusk a group of youngsters at a small village direct me to a tap by the church where I obtain fresh water. Later on course for the final 6km to Lamarche they track me down on bicycles to give me a king size water bottle for the night. It is as though they know I am facing a tough evening and I am quite taken back by the kindness – it is the highlight of the day – God bless them.
Lamarche, like all that preceded it since Jussey, is another dead place – rundown hotels which are closed – no sign of life any where, and on leaving the town I quickly find a quite spot near the woods to set up camp for the night.
Lamarche to Neufchateau
I am shattered having completed a week on the road at 12 hours per day with each night under canvas – I need a proper sleep! The dew fell heavy over night but as the mist clears the day heats up draining me as I struggle to obtain water. Eventually I manage to acquire a bottle at a farm where the owner also gives me some fruit for sustenance. I only have a 37km walk today but the heat and lack of food make it slow work. Reaching a village fountain I leap into the water to cool down and enjoy a good soak. The locals appear bemused though I try to explain it is more pleasurable to do this now than at 6am – though I did summon enough courage to attempt a shave in a water butt one chilly morning! Life on the road is full of innovations where good health and survival are the only way forward. Rejoining the road I stop to ask a local couple for water; they kindly invite me into their garden for a drink of freshly squeezed apple juice curtesy of their orchard while I explain my quest and what it has so far entailed. They are astonished to feel the weight of my pack – ‘Vingt kg?’ exclaims the lady! After bading farewell I make good progress along the industrial perimeter of Neufchateau, reaching the town centre by 5pm where I promptly book into the local hotel, Le Rialto – 52euros. The lady signs my WW1 passport but refuses to give any discounts – explaining that they were reserved for those with Camino de Santiago credentials. At least I enjoy a proper night’s rest with the promise of a breakfast in the morning.
Neufchateau to Vaucouleurs
After a night in a hotel I actually feel more tired than usual and after my breakfast I struggle in the heat. I make hard work of the morning session to Domremy but enjoy a good coffee which is a boost to morale. After the break I get into a steady rhythm and the afternoon drifts by amid the drone of harvest machinery as farmers toil to make good the land. Reaching Vaucouleurs I pass an old military hospital founded in 1916 for the soldiers of Verdun; a few metres on is a cenotaph and a brightly coloured mural decorating part of the church. It is early evening and I feel as though I can press on further, but wary of the previous times when short of provisions I opt to visit the supermarket first to get food and refreshment. From here I am content to walk a few km beyond town where I set up camp on the edge of a forest next to a road junction.
Poignant Reminders Of The Great War
Vaucouleurs Region to Rouvrois Sur Meuse
Starting in heavy mist I concentrate hard for the first 10 km and cross a bridge into Void where all is still quiet on this Saturday morning. Not able to get coffee I press on to Commercy and enjoy a bustling market scene which to a ‘man of the road’ is a breath of fresh air. Feeling energised by the moment I walk through the slender streets to the beautiful town centre and its lofty architecture. Here I take coffee and marvel at the crowds thinking to myself that Commercy most definitely lives up to its name. Before pressing on to St Mihiel I visit a war cemetery harbouring those who fell in the battles of the Marne, Meuse and Verdun – here I get my first glimpse of the effects of WW1. Battles raged on around these parts throughout the Great War where the Germans came within 50 miles of Paris. So desperate was the plight of the French that commander-in-chief, General Joffre hired every cab in Paris to rush troops to the front line. This drastic action enabled him to successfully launch a counter-attack along the River Marne on 4th September 1914 which halted the German war machine. Sadly though, the great French dreams of a triumphant offensive to end the conflict did not come and the misery of trench warfare followed with pointless combat in ‘No mans land’ until the end of 1918. Beyond here are many places with war graves but few with shops though I manage another at coffee at a bar and later a cake at St Mihiel. Along the way there are more cenotaphs and memorials to the Great War; most significant is the Roman Camp at St Mihiel which was taken by the Bavarians despite brave fighting from the single unit left there to guard it; it was later freed by General Pershore during a Franco/American offensive. Beyond the town is another war cemetery and a tablet on a hill defining the battle at Troyan Village in September 1914. Six miles on I find the only hotel between St Mihiel and Verdun thanks to the help of a local lady. Merci beaucoup!
Auberge du Chaudron Fleuri to Verdun
I am glad of a good sleep at the hotel and keep some of my supper for this morning’s breakfast realising that there are so few facilities out in these rural parts. Today is also Sunday and a wet one at that as I walk all the way to Verdun ticking off the cemeteries en route and trying to imagine the scenes of battle along the Meuse. Over a hundred years ago tanks would have rolled through broken woods towards the river against the sound of cannon fire and machine guns. Today could not be more contrasting as the landscape presents a peaceful arable scene that bears the solitary murmur of a tractor. Only the weather identifies with history in that the day stays damp and miserable as it may well have been a century ago. Reaching the outskirts of town I begin to wonder when I will come across a place to enjoy a coffee! Joining the thoroughfare I find a solution to the problem at Macdonalds where I also tuck into a cooked meal – burger and chips and use the wifi system to upload my video diary– good old Uncle Ronnie!
Heading into town I pass the spectacular Hotel de Ville accentuated by its bold, sumptuous facade. Further on I find a grocer shop that is open and later visit the Tourist Office where the attendant stamps my passport and provides information about the town’s war history. Continuing across the river to the gated town entrance I watch a boat race reach its conclusion amid enthusiastic cheers along the river bank. Passing through the gated entrance I see a different section of the town which is largely commercial with modern shops, restaurants and a few dated buildings; most of these are residential interspersed by several reasonably priced hotels. On the whole this is an ideal base for war historians wishing to explore one of the most catastrophic theatres of war ever known.Tourism here is largely derived from the devastation of the Great War which has intrigued so many over the last century. Some are drawn here to find lost relatives who fought in the campaign; others visit to try to make sense of the huge loss of life which occurred during what was the most modern war of its age. The whole region conveys a poignant message and as the night continues I pass more cenotaphs and a vast war cemetery where the visual evidence of a desperate struggle is quite conclusive – those who fought here knew real hardship and suffering! As the white tablets fade in distance dusk approaches bringing more wet weather. Finding a field suitable for camping I descend to the woods where I stay dry and free from the noise of traffic. A mackerel salad accompanied by a drop of wine finally caps off the day helping me to drift into a deep slumber for the remaining hours of darkness.
Verdun Region to Inor
Waking after a night of rainfall I make the most of the clear visibility in the morning and later obtain a coffee at a bar near Charny around 10am. The bar which is next to a park attracts a few visitors, and the locals express curiosity at the sight of ‘a lumbering backpacker’ in pursuit of his quest. After exchanging greetings the patrons enjoy looking at my passport stamps while I take a wash and shave in the disabled toilet. As it turns out this is the one and only opportunity to have a coffee break as the trend of no facilities continues; during the last week I have come across many places closed for renovation, sale or simply brought to a standstill through lack of trade. Even at the town of Dun sur Meuse everything is either closed or under repair and the only place I can obtain water is the chemist! Eventually my efforts are rewarded at Stenay where I find a supermarket and buy all I need for tonight. A few miles on at Inor I finish at the campsite where a night under canvas costs only 4euros. I speak to another traveller from Germany who is also visiting the battlefields. I had seen my fill of cemeteries over the last few days including a German one which I located along the D964 earlier this morning. Unlike the white tablets that represent the Allied soldiers of the Western Front, this cemetery contains rows of black crosses. Inscribed on a plaque is the story of their demise and there is a memorial to them above the steps to the entrance. After a further chat with the proprietor I cross the road to the local pub and write up my diary on what turns out to be the most productive day on tour so far – realising over 50km.
Inor to Sedan
During the night torrential rain forces me to abandon tent and take refuge in the wash room. Packing a wringing wet tent and clothing is not the best start to the day and my initial steps along the road lack the normal enthusiasm that I need to meet this challenge. The nightmare continues as rain and traffic disrupt the journey, though I pass through some historic places which helps break up the monotony; Mouzon with its medieval archway entrance and wonderful church add a depth of history dating back 2000 years. Although a bit autumnal I enjoy my visit consuming raisin bread and milk beside the river; after I follow the bank back to my main road route via the D954. Occasionally I stray from my route and take a village trail; this is usually counter-productive yet often necessary to relieve myself from the stress of traffic. The last two days have seen many beautiful water scenes where tributaries form from waterfalls and canals spur off the river following the course of the road through more towns and villages. For a while I get a chance to walk close to the river bank; I stop at a lock gate to eat some chocolate and later watch fishermen casting from a bridge. A shoal of large chub in the shallow water catch my gaze and I shout across to the fishers to cast further out. Another place dominated by water (and once again from the sky too) is Sedan, my destination for today, where I am fortunate to find a municipal campsite. Although closed the care-taker does not object to me setting up camp under the games area where I can at least stay dry! He and his wife wish me well and give directions for tomorrow’s journey which will take in the busy region of Charleville Mezieres.
Sedan to Bourg Fidele
The pattern of wet continues and I promptly stop for coffee at a sports cafe on the edge of town where todays travels begin. I use the facilities for a wash and shave then from here I toil on through the suburban areas of Charleville Mezieres stopping three more times for coffee to take refuge from torrential rain. I pass through Flize which on a good day may have been a bit more inspiring instead of wet and grim like all else today. As my journey finds momentum I notice a burnt out house along the thoroughfare to Charleville but on reaching the town centre I am pleasantly surprised by the spectacular architecture which sets it apart from the rundown towns of previous days. I pause for a while to savour a moment before heading into many more miles of countryside and diminutive communities. In pouring rain I search for the exit from this busy city as teatime traffic nears its peak. The weather does not ameliorate as I march beside the puddled carriageway but by early evening I locate the correct junction and take the D22 to Renwez. It is a quieter affair along the country road where the only significant landmark is an old fortification at Erat. Finally I reach Renwez where to my horror the only hotel I have seen all day is closed! All too often nearing dusk I find myself in this predicament – particularly on this current expedition and with more wet weather imminent I face the prospect of camping in a muddy forest. This I do several miles on but eventually the storm that has stalked me all day finds its quarry and my tent fills with water soaking everything. Now in total darkness I am subjected to a cold, wet and sleepless night.
The Last Charge
Bourg Fidele to Chimay
The nightmare continues and I can barely keep my eyes open as I decide which items of equipment are no longer serviceable. The tent is of no further use and was in any case just a glorified ‘bivvy’ used normally in summer months; I also scrap some of the more worn clothes that are too sodden to dry. Finding a bakery en route I purchase a ham roll and ponder over my predicament; at least I will be crossing the border into Belgium soon. On this note I press on to the next village where I am escorted to a sports cafe by 2 cows – probably an early milk delivery! Cafes in Europe are deemed social places where all visitors are made welcome! They peer through the door and soon gather an audience as we tolerate their company long enough to take photos. After my coffee I march them up the road as far as the square where they stop to investigate a new curiosity. Happy to leave them to their own devises, I continue my adventure in the direction of Rocroi. There are roadworks near the town entrance though thankfully the thoroughfare is more intriguing defined by numerous flags, elaborate features and eye-catching monuments to the left. After visiting the Tourist Office at Rocroi it rains again, so I retire to the Hotel de Commerce to write my diary with the aid of more caffeine. Rain eventually subsides and I move on from the town; the terrain remains typically rural and in the afternoon I pass Le Cafe de La Frontiere and cross the border into Belgium. The road is quiet with only a few broken communities and rundown hotels. Joining the main road I make steady progress to Chimay where I purchase groceries (still French-speaking) but have difficulty in finding anything that resembles an hotel; on making an inquiry at a local residence the family kindly offers to let me stay the night.
The lady is a nurse who works nightshift and her son who speaks good English is planning a walk with his girl friend in Spain. Later his father arrives and we chat and drink as I explain how far I have walked during the last 20 years. They are a very kind family who extend their hospitality to sharing their meal with me which I am very grateful for. Despite a rude awakening to the day, I sleep well tonight knowing that my faith in humanity has been well and truly restored.
Chimay to Mons
My hosts had dried my damp clothes overnight and this morning give me a good breakfast before setting off on an ambitious journey to Mons which revisits the early days of Britain’s WW1. To mark the occasion we take photographs at the house and then I visit the local market to video the activities as the day gets underway in good stride.
Well the task of reaching Mons which is 58km from here seems a little unrealistic yet I feel confident I can get close and should in any case find a hotel along the way by dusk. The morning goes well stopping at Beaumont (26km) at lunch; this vibrant town has many facilities and a good social forum, though it is far too early to stop. I do however rest at a cafe and contemplate the next part of the journey wondering what new experiences lay in wait. Excited about reaching Mons, I enjoy the following session ticking off all the villages thereafter. The Kaiser’s violation of Belgium’s Peace Treaty saw Britain’s enter WW1 and during that time my grandad and great uncles all joined up serving in Northampton Regiments. My grandad, Charles Thurlby was only 14 but like many others altered his age and fought his first battle a year later in Constantinople. My great uncle Ben who owned a scrap yard in Oundle was gassed during a France/Belgium offensive. Ben survived and lived in a caravan at his yard well into his seventies until being attacked and robbed by youths; he died shortly after. Charlie fought again in WW2 but died in the sixties through poor health – predictably the wars had taken their toll. Other family members were killed in the Great War and there were many people I knew from Oundle who fought in these campaigns. One man Billy Duke who lived in a hut beside a paddock used to help my parents at the pub and later lodged with our neighbours. Then there was ‘Nobby’ Smith from the ash cart lorry who lived well into his nineties. What ever future life evolved beyond the trenches these men could never hide the scars borne from this dreadful war; most would have found it too difficult to talk about. Inspired by their brave deeds I soldier on feeling grateful to be here and finding a fruitier by the roadside I purchase bananas and an orange. I am able to pick apples most days as the trees still bear fruit which provides a welcome treat along the way. As darkness approaches I struggle on expecting to find a hotel but realising that I had yet to find one that is open in Belgium! Before long I am entering Mons next to the cenotaph laid by the British and Canadians at the end of the war. Mons was the first battle fought in WW1 by the British who quite literally stumbled on the positions of The First German Army. Their infantry came on in great numbers but where gunned down by the fusiliers of the BEF who had been trained in rapid fire and use of machine guns. The success was short-lived and German artillery fire sent the BEF reeling back through France all the time screened by the cavalry whose bravery and altruism helped preserve the BEF as a fighting force in the field. Four years on in this bloody campaign the German war machine was finally halted and the assailants kicked out of Mons by the Canadians who made a valuable contribution throughout the Great War. Across the road I pass an Irish Cenotaph and continuing into the centre I see many epitaphs and personal reminders of the War. Around midnight I come across the only hotel in this part of the city – priced at 100euros – no thanks! Instead I find a park with a lovely dry spot under a conifer which shelters me from the dew and feeling grateful for comfort I drift into slumber.
Mons to Tournai
Having overslept I amble to a nearby cafe which is opened early to accommodate the Saturday market. This is the only commercial activity I come across as I begin to focus on the day ahead. In fact it transpires to be an even later start as the town is not open for business until after 10am; I need food and the tourist office before I depart from here! Eventually I purchase a breakfast at ‘Uncle Ronnie’s and obtain adequate directions for the last section of my walk from the Tourist Office. Leaving in torrential rain I pass through November 11th Street, onto Parc Road and then join the N50 to Tournai. Slow and arduous is how I describe it as the road transforms into a trickling stream though I am lucky to find a cycle path by the river which I use for part of the way. A huge barge passes by and I think to myself ‘Don’t see many of those frequenting the River Nene.’ The width of the vessel would almost certainly breach both banks of our little country river unlike the waterways here which compare to crossing an ocean. Water is certainly in vast quantity for all concerned along this present route, and when the sun finally appears at Bescecles around 4pm I still face a further 20km to Tournai. Stressful it becomes too! Feeling miserable, I remind myself why I am here and think of those who marched before me a hundred years ago. It is difficult to imagine the horrors of war and what they had to put up with, but soon my problems pale into insignificance. Eventually the rain abates and I manage to buy a fish supper 6km from Tournai. On arrival it is the same old story- no hotels/hostels and so I retire to yet another conifer tree in a park opposite a shopping centre; it is the best option given the circumstances. Surrounded by mud, the tree droppings at least provide a dry surface to lay on, while the density of the branches conceal me from main road traffic and late night party dwellers. Given these advantages and the ebbing flow of traffic I manage to steal a valuable ‘forty winks’ in the warmth of my sleeping bag.
Tournai to Roncq
Waking to the commotion of a Sunday Market at Tournai, I join in the fun at a nearby cafe which is presently a hive of activity and commerce. Feeling invigorated by the experience I make my way out of town filming some of the majestic architecture which gives the place its character. Having survived the Great War, ancient and modern blend well in these parts; all the old world cafes have embraced technology and I have no difficulty in constructing a facebook video diary along the way. The road is a less dramatic affair as I tick off the villages en route, find the necessary ‘pit stops’ for coffee and treat myself to a meal after crossing the border into France. I am now bound for Roubaix where I hope to reconnect my journey through Flanders via the Menin Road. Reaching the urban swirl I continue along the busy streets which are a mix of rundown flats and fast-food facilities in what appears to be a largely Muslim Community. I see a cloaked man walking barefoot in the road as he tries to avoid a raucous crowd – it is busy here with many intersections to cross. My journey slows down for a while but eventually I reach Tourcoing where the streets are a maze of captivating architecture. After finding a grocer shop and purchasing provisions, I feel as though the day is near its end. Unable to find a receptionist at a nearby hotel, I take on another section which at least ensures my route to Menin. I stumble down a hole in the embankment and damage my hamstring; continuing lamely I am fortunate in finding a budget Hotel-Premiere where I feel happy to retire for the day. It is only 40 euros including breakfast so at last I can relax, attend to my injury and enjoy the comfort of a bed having walked 150 km for the privilege of sleeping in it!
Roncq to Ypres
Leaving the Premiere Inn after a substantial buffet-style breakfast I walk the N8 to Warelgem which provides reasonable passage despite being under siege from commuter traffic. Bearing left at Warelgem, I cross the road bridge and I walk into Menin. Promptly finding a restaurant I enter for coffee and attempt to chat with a few of the locals; one of the guys, called Jules Coppelle, had spent time in Canada in the 60′s and still speaks good English. He buys me another coffee and takes a photograph to mark the occasion as we continue to chat. Leaving the cafe around noon my journey takes shape along Iuper Street which leads me out of Menin as I follow my course through Flanders Fields. There are now pavements to walk on and a few villages en route; eventually we encounter the Ypres Salient where I visit a cenotaph on the right. A bit further on is a museum containing Great War relics and archives; opposite is a cemetery harbouring many of those who fought in the last battles of 1914. The contestants of this battle front where the BEF who had regrouped at Zonnebeke and stiffened up with Commonwealth troops against the hand picked elite Prussian Guard who had pledged victory or death. It is said the guard came on magnificently – almost as if they were on a military parade; only mortality defied their courage as they fell in their ranks against the murderous machine gun fire of the British Fusiliers. This was a do or die battle to save the Channel Ports and it is impossible to imagine the carnage and consequences resultant from this desperate struggle which only served to widen the conflict. The chaos of backup troops arriving to the front line with the guard breaking through the forest; officers panicking as they try to lead counter-attacks to clear the woods. Hand to hand fighting continued with bayonet and pistol until finally dusk fell upon the victorious remnants of the BEF who had managed to hold their positions; before them lay the guard dead in great swathes and heaps. It should have been the end of the war but instead battles raged on until 1918; new weapons were employed; gas, high explosives laid by tunnellers and the discovery of the tank added to the misery of the ‘tommies’ life on the front line. Despite the innovations of a new age, tactics often remained dated as old generals steeped in Crimea and Boar War history blundered there way to the battle fields. The romance of war, deeds of gallantry and childhood dreams of adventure soon disappeared beneath the mud and barbed wire of Flanders Fields. Young men were wrenched from theirs families and propelled into a war that was fought in Hell. All along the Menin Road I saw poignant reminders of the Great War and a mile from Ypres, by a Commonwealth Inn I take an excursion to Hill 62 at Zillebeke where the Canadians fought battles between 1914-16. Passing Wood Cemetery I come to a museum which is also a restaurant; further on I find the cenotaph; from here Ypres sits only 2 miles from the field which would have been a sobering concept for the public to deal with throughout the conflict. Returning to the restaurant I chat to the maid about finding a hotel in town and spend a moment savouring the day with a coffee. There are many archives here, and on leaving I take photographs of the artillery outside; then head back towards Wood Cemetery and the Ypres Salient. Finally I conclude my pilgrimage at the Menin Gate where a great lion sits proud above the cenotaph reminding the world of the ultimate sacrifice made for peace. It is a stark paragon showing insight into the oddity of war and yet its true horrors and reality could only ever be known by those who stood in ‘No Man’s Land’. This is the most sacred place on Earth to a military man from the British Empire – an epitaph of epic proportions – one that would require a week to read every name inscribed. The soldiers names are all that remain of them though their souls live on in the heart of Ypres where locals and visitors commemorate their loss each night at the Last Post usually performed around 8pm.
We will remember them – God Bless them always!
‘The Apathy of War’
Remembering the mud at Passchendaele
In an Autumn offensive doomed to fail,
The loss of life that came to us all,
In another pointless battle which saw many fall,
My nostrils fill with the stench of death,
And gas too, as I struggle for breath,
Flooded are the trenches in the pouring rain,
To fight a battle here is totally insane,
Finally the guns fall silent offering a peaceful hand,
Now poppies grow tall in ‘No Man’s Land’,
Across the world bells toll with joy,
But whatever happened to our beloved boy,
Where are the young people that we all love,
Are they happy in heaven above,
Taken so young is our greatest pain,
How can our world be the same again,
The war to end all wars came at great cost,
Dynasties shattered and a generation lost,
Our boy will never age nor again march or roam,
For he lies with his pals in Flanders Fields and won’t be coming home.
Poem by By Robin Moore
Dedicated to the soldiers who never came home.
With the last post still ringing through my mind the train journey across Flanders and then Lille to Calais gave me much to reflect on having now completed a 35,000km circuit of the British Isles and Europe. To finish the last leg of this circuit along the WW1 battle fields one hundred years on makes my effort more significant and historically rewarding; I have seen poignant plaques and cenotaphs; learned of the brave deeds of our ancestors who were selfless and altruistic in the face of battle with an undying sense of duty. Even though I have met many of these brave men as a child I could never have envisaged their plight or the misery of the trenches, mud and barbwire. It should have been the ‘War to end all Wars’ but sadly it seems humanity has failed to learn this lesson; or is it simply that we are only capable of solving our problems through conflict. A hundred years on, we can only show deep respect and gratitude for the sacrifice of a generation and pray no such war will visit humanity again.
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1914 TIME LINE – the opening stages
28th June – Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
1st August – Germany declares war on Russia
3rd August – Germany declares war on France
4th August – Germany violates Belgium Neutrality – Great Britain is now at war
7th August – German forces march into Leige
16th August – BEF lands in France and sets up HQ at Amiens
21st August – BEF crosses into Belgium – Private John Parr, aged 16, is the first British casualty at Obourg
22nd August BEF take up positions at Mons – Cavalry Divisions are engaged in battle with the German Hussars
23rd August – The Battle of Mons Salient where the Germans attack on two flanks
Apparition of the ‘Angels of Mons’ follow the BEF in retreat through the Marmal Forest towards Le Cateau
September – Battle of the Marne
November – The First Battle of Ypres
Christmas Day Truce – British and German troops meet in ‘No Mans Land’ to celebrate Christmas.
Follow Robin’s walk from Ypres to Nantes (via Arras/Somme) in part 2 of A Pilgrimage of War and Words.
PERSONAL DEDICATION TO MARJORIE JONES
THE CADBURY’S ANGELS – Celebrating the life and times of Marjorie Jones.
One late day in July saw a new gift of life,
Born to this world that had seen much strife,
The Great War had gone parting families and friends,
But as an old era dies, a new one begins,
Now the winds of change blow quieter here,
Where the folk of Bournville are kind and sincere,
Like a song that celebrates a brand new face,
Comes free spirit and energy that make a good place,
With compassion and love they valued each day,
Forging friendships at work the Cadbury way,
It was a time of happiness, joy and great fun,
Especially for young Marjorie who loved every one,
The old widows of war had a family again,
Working with the young helped ease their pain,
Among chocolate and raisins life was such fun,
On the sports field too, playing cricket in the sun,
As time marched on this community grew strong,
Bolstering the friendships that remained life-long,
‘The Cadbury’s Angels’ they became to be known,
Iconic in a workplace that they viewed as their home,
But people move on just as the world will turn,
And as this song ends we look back and learn,
Not to forget, and treasure dearly those days,
With the Cadbury’s Angels and their fun-loving ways.
Written by Robin Moore as a Tribute to Marjorie’s wonderful life at Cadbury’s where she viewed her friends as an extended family. She will be sadly missed by all she knew – Marjorie we will always remember you. God Bless you.