8th April 2017
Fed and watered at Monchy, we were off to the Wellington Quarry with Lord Petre and Colonel Foakes for mike tests and the finalisation as to where the two lancers would be standing the following morning. All this took time and Robert and I were getting pressed to head to the cemetery so that he could lay a wreath and then get to Vimy village for the shuttle up to the Memorial site.
By the time we we arrived at the cemetery CBC were wanting to know where we were, so without further ado we set off for Vimy. Road closed, road closed. Police everywhere, you would have thought it was The Twelfth. Eventually I found a way round to the car park where we armed ourselves with all our invitations and passports and got on the coach. Security was going to be very strict or so they said. Not by our standards. Robert was carrying the paperwork so he produced his invitation and we both produced passports. Somewhere in the wad of paper was my first invite but it wasn’t needed — go ahead. It had been found by the time we reached the new centre. “Great unwashed — over there in the marquee”. I let Stephanie from CBC know that we had landed on site and within moments we were being ushered through to the centre itself so that Robert could be filmed with the cross. Speeches of the back-slapping kind were being made so we had to stand outside in the sun for a moment. I seem to do a lot of standing in the sunshine with CBC.
Robert did his interview with Nahlah Ayad one of CBC’s top correspondents (She’ll be asking how old you are) and we went back to the main event to listen to pretty much the same speeches we had just heard. There was some music along the way to lighten the mood between a certain amount of drivel about Vimy Ridge and the Birth of a Nation. I don’t think I saw one cap with that written in French on it over the weekend and every Canadian I spoke to outside of officials was anglophone.
Suddenly all the photographers and cameramen rushed out much to our bemusement but it all became clear when we were informed that only the official party would be attending the official ribbon cutting. The rest of us were to help ourselves to food and drink — we would be called once the VIPs had left the centre. So much for photo opportunities. Never mind, the red wine was more than decent.
We were not given a great deal of time in the centre before we were politely asked to move our arses in the direction of the monument for the Sunset Ceremony. The evening was warm for the time of the year and the sky was clear, the sun would go down behind us as the final rays hit the monument. It is quite spectacular.
Up at the monument we were arranged in a rather weird fashion ; facing the pathway with the monument on our left. For the lowering of the flags somebody had decided that rather than put a couple of flagpoles up in front of us we could all crane our necks and watch the flags at the entrance, behind us.
A group of veterans arrived and Robert and I started to try and spot somebody with the Falcon crest of the 48th Highlanders of Canada (from whom the 15th Battalion had been created). Eventually we spotted one and I went across to say hello. He was a bit bemused because despite the badge on my blazer I was obviously not Canadian. As soon as I told him my name however he knew exactly who I was : “You’re Greg Young’s man, I’ve heard all about you”. Turns out he was Lt Colonel Dick Reed a former commanding officer of the regiment and nominated to take Justin Trudeau, the Canadian PM, around the trenches and tunnels the following day.
The ceremony was okay but nothing overly special and the fact that we were all sitting sideways on didn’t help much. They did have a trio of artillery pieces which fired off a couple of salvos. Noisy or what ? Made you wonder what it would have been like firing off the hundreds of thousands of shells in preparation for the assault on the ridge. Like a hundred years ago one of the rounds misfired and the gunners couldn’t get the casing out of the barrel in time for the following salvo. We could see one of the staff shouting into his radio for the band to continue — the Bandmaster waiting on the third round that would never come !
Flags down, Sunset sounded and it was time to get on the coach back to the car park. Robert and I had not eaten a great deal all day and it was evident that it was too late to get him back to Arras for a train to Lille. It was all swings and roundabouts as far as I was concerned anyway. I had to be in Arras for half five in the morning and it was going to be as quick coming in from Lille as it was for me to go to Arras and then swing around for home.
Decided then. We would head into town and get something to eat. The open air car parks were bunged so I just drove into the underground car park at the station. Special offer €1. Down the ramp and looking for a place when I spot a group of people coming towards us — a gaggle of Kiwis that I know, who were also heading for the Euro Star café. Not sure about the others but Mike and Deb had left home a good month back and been travelling the world, as only antipodeans can, to finally arrive in Arras for the centenary of their tunnelling ancestors exploits in the underground quarries beneath Arras.
His grandfather was in the new photo collection on the entrance to the tunnel and one of his letters home had been memorialised on “The Earth Remembers” by New-Zealander Marian Fountain. It is an intriguing monument to the New Zealand Tunnellers. Grass on top and the hollowed outline of a Kiwi sapeur through whom you pass as you would a tunnel. I thought I had taken some photos on my phone — but apparently not.
We had a good catch up on life, the universe and everything before Robert and I set out for Lille. Got there about midnight and I was far too wound up to sleep so we carried on nattering for a while.
9th April 2017
Although he appears to be a light sleeper, for some reason or other, although he made sure that I had woken when the alarm went off at four, Robert declined to get up !
One of the things about the Novotel Suite Hotel is that there is no car park. You have to use the public one. When I mentioned to the staff that the fee worked out to €30 a night they told me that in fact it was only €28.80. I had worked out the basics of getting in and out but that was always through the railway station, which would open at 0530 hours. To hell with it, I walked down the ramp. An hour later I was at Arras.
The dawn service is not usually a big affair at the Wellington Quarry, perhaps a few hundred of us sat on school benches. What a difference a centenary makes. A complete grandstand for a few thousand and for once I was one of the VIPs, as I was reading one of the pieces.
Now they may have told us that it was going to be a roasting hot day but at six in the morning it was about that in Centigrade. Two hours later the two lancers from the Yeomanry were frozen, shaking with the cold.
I like the ceremony at the Quarry because there are no speeches, or at least not until it is all over and we retire for breakfast. The Maire of Arras just does not seem to be able to get his head around the idea that we are all cold and that all we want to do is get a hot coffee into our hands and something to eat — not listen to him talk for fifteen minutes without notes, constantly repeating himself. He got really upset at one point and told us all to Shush ! and then carried on droning on and on until he eventually fell over backwards (if only).
I said my good-byes to Lord Petre, the Yeomen and Isabelle and her team at the Quarry before setting off for the Arras Memorial and my next port of call with the Royal British Legion (Scotland). Wandering about I discovered my friends Gilles and Stéphan amongst the crowd.
The sun was up and, as warned, it was getting warm. Robert arrived by train and joined us at the memorial.The big question was : go to Vimy or not ? Gilles was telling us that the latest announcement from the Canadians was that they wanted everyone on site before midday — for a ceremony that started four and a half hours later and no chance of leaving before seven in the evening.
Not going seemed to be the choice of the wise so Robert and I bimbled off to the battlefield again. They may well have closed the roads but they hadn’t closed the farm tracks leading to where we wanted to go. This time I had the time to give Robert the full run down on the battle and where his great-uncle would have fallen. We visited the locations of the former cemeteries and the front line before going back to Nine Elms to retake the photos of him and the grave.
The number of people that had been since the day before was amazing and quite a few mentioned that they were there for 48th Highlanders. I suggested that our next move should be to continue on to where his other great-uncle with the Royal Irish Rifles was buried at Haisnes on the old Loos battlefield.
In a moment of auto-pilot, however, I came off the autoroute an exit early and we found ourselves at the 48th’s plaque at the aerodrome. No matter I pulled up in an empty car park and explained the whole 1915/Jack Kipling thing and then the Highlanders’ attack in 1917. Ten minutes later the car park was full and people were parking along the main road.
It looked as though we were there to stay if we wanted to watch the aeroplanes take off for the over flight. As I had done two days before with the veterans, we just wandered into the hangar area and chatted with the Vimy Flight guys. Having got the timings we retired to the bar for a beer. I was sorely tempted to send text messages to the rest of the gang to see how they were faring in the frying pan that was Vimy Park. It was very hot.
We counted the aircraft out and then counted them back in again. It was all good fun in the sunshine and not a speech to be heard. The flying excitement over we continued up the road to Haisnes and visited Robert’s other great-uncle before turning around once more and heading for Arras where the Royal Regiment of Scotland were going to Beat the Retreat.
For all their fine efforts the Canadian musicians were beaten into second place by the spectacle of scarlet tunics, kilts and bonnets blowing in the evening breeze. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was present and I was rather surprised that she did not take the opportunity of making a show of the European flag. All was revealed when towards the end of the evening the band struck up the European Anthem under the guise of it being a bit of Beethoven !
Good show and time for another chicken and chips before heading back to Lille. It was probably a good thing for the pair of us that Robert doesn’t like white wine, which just happened to be the only bottle we had. It had been intended for the first night of the trip in Ieper — but we all know how that ended !
10th April 2017
Last night then was down to lemonade — now there’s a first. The following morning I had to be up and away to collect John and Jean and take them back to Vimy for Jean’s two singing sessions. Robert was bound for CDG and his flight back to The Smoke.
As he sat and relaxed on his journey I found myself talking myself hoarse next to our cross. Basically telling the story to anybody who wanted to listen to it. What was really strange was the fact that the CBC programme had aired over the weekend so people were coming and shaking my hand. I even received an email from Canadian friends who had heard the radio broadcast whilst travelling in Florida ! The guides very kindly kept me supplied with water and I was fortunate in spotting Johanne towards the end of the afternoon and we managed to get some photos of us : End of Mission.
It was a shame that for her second performance they forgot to turn Jean’s mike on until she was well into the song. I was impressed with the fact that she was singing whilst accompanied by her video, on screens behind her. That explained the twenties outfit because it is what she wears in the video. It was rather weird to watch her video lip-syncing with her live performance — spot on, dealing with a professional here.
As soon as she had finished we were back on the road. Jean was interested in going up to see the Memorial Ring at Lorette and really wanted to pick up some chalk from the battlefields. Those two wishes dealt with we turned north and headed for Brussel and the airport.
It had been a long week and by the time I had turned around and driven the three hours to come back to the Somme it was gone midnight. A couple of days rest and then back to work to finish my lecture on the taking of Vimy Ridge by the Canadians — as if anybody didn’t already know the story.
Posted : 9 April 2017