A few months ago, the Programme Director of the First World War Battlefield Tours Programme, Mr Simon Bendry, approached me to ask if I’d be willing to act as a Battlefield Guide for an international battlefield tour of the Somme area, coinciding with the centenary commemoration of the Battle of Amiens. As many of you know, I have been involved with Simon’s programme, the British government’s initiative to provide spaces for two children from each English state-financed secondary school on an educational trip to the battlefields of the Western Front, for almost four years; I took up Simon’s offer without hesitation. The Tour’s participants came from the UK, Australia, Canada, France, and the United States; it was an administrative tour de force for Simon and his assistants Anna Warburton and David Rich, their organisation was a triumph of co-ordination to match that of the Haig’s Battle of Amiens itself.
The Tour took place in August 2018, with the students arriving from all over the World into the town of Albert in Picardy on Monday, 6 August 2018. Our first day of touring, covering the Somme battlefield of 1916, concentrated on the preserved trenches at Newfoundland Park, the Sunken Lane and Hawthorn Crater, the German cemetery at Fricourt, the Commonwealth cemetery at Caterpillar Valley near Longueval, and the Thiepval Memorial. The objective of this first day was to explain the trench warfare of the period from Autumn 1914 to the Spring of 1918, concentrating on the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Each day began with a strategic overview of the subject by our eminent tour historian, Sir Hew Strachan, his talk on this first day situated the battle of the Somme in both time and place. The tour was conducted in temperatures of almost 39 degrees Celsius, challenging conditions for tired and jet-lagged children, but to their credit they maintained their interest as we discussed the horrors of 1st July 1916 and the next 140 days, examined adaptations in warfare by both sides, and considered whether the battle was ultimately a success or a failure. After supper in Albert, we travelled to the Chateau of Flixecourt, near Amiens, for a VIP reception launching an exhibition created by our children to mark the centenary of the Battle of Amiens. Guests included the Secretary of State for Digital, Media, Culture, and Sport, the Australian and Canadian Ministers for Veteran’s Affairs, several General Officers from Australia and Canada, historians such as Gary Sheffield, authors including Sebastian Faulks, and the ‘great and the good’ including Lord Ashcroft and Dr Andrew Murrison MP. It was a spectacular start which made an enormously positive impression on all who attended, not least on the Australian Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, The Hon. Darren Chester, who I am proud to say I beat to the free bar, thereby preserving the honour of the British Army! The exhibition is now in the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux and will be available for viewing until September 2018.
Our second day began with Sir Hew giving an overview of the strategic situation in August 1918, discussing the German Spring Offensives and the Hundred Days’ Campaign which ended the War. We then set out across the Amiens battlefield, passing through the British, Canadian, and Australian sectors, to visit the memorial to the French 31st Army Corps at Moreuil Wood, where we discussed both the halting of the German offensive by Canadian cavalry in April 1918 and the launching of the Amiens battle by the French First Army on 8th August 1918. We then headed to Le Hamel, the site of the famous battle in which Australian and American infantry and artillery, supported by British armour, aviation, and logistics used innovative methods to comprehensively defeat a sizeable German force on 4th July 1918 to explain how combined arms tactics returned manoeuvre to the Western Front in 1918. It was also explained, however, that the combined arms perfection of 4th July and 8th August was rarely repeated in the following Hundred Days. Our final stand was at Villers-Bretonneux where we discussed the international nature of the Allied armies by looking at the origin of those soldiers whose final resting place lies in front of the Australian Memorial and the Sir John Monash Centre, named after the famous Australian commander of Prussian-Jewish lineage who commanded the Australian Corps in 1918.
In the second and final part of this Blog, I’ll talk about the Centenary Commemoration in Amiens Cathedral on Wednesday 8th August and our final stand at Compiegne on Thursday 9th August 2018. To conclude here I’d like to make three observations: First, the children appeared to be far more open to the First World War as an international conflict than the representatives of the nations from whence they came. Secondly, it is a shame that the British Cadet Forces could not find money to allow British cadets to experience the battlefields alongside cadets from Australia and Canada, and finally, that this tour and indeed the wider programme should continue after the end of the centenary. The First World War’s Western Front has much to teach us all, the programme has already had an effect on over a million children in England alone at the cost of only five million pounds for the four years of the centenary, imagine what can be achieved in another four or five years!