On Friday 15th September 2017, 38 staff members of the Voyager Force community embarked on a battlefield tour of Arras and Vimy Ridge. Coincidentally, we were to discover the weekend we had chosen also marked the death of Major George Ward MC and Bar, Officer Commanding 10 Squadron (Royal Flying Corps) almost 100 years to the day. After a quick debrief with the current OC 10 Squadron, Wing Commander Si Blackwell, we reengineered the weekend to ensure we covered both events.
A relatively short and trouble free (for a change) coach trip, including a Channel Tunnel crossing, found us in Arras late Friday evening.
An early wheels Saturday morning saw us start our tour just a few miles out of town. Having parked at the side of an unassuming and peaceful country road, military historian Tim Saunders MBE, our trusted guide of 7 years, relayed the actions that had taken place at that very spot 100 years prior. We walked through the fields and retraced the steps of the men of the 7th Battalion, The East Surrey Regiment, across their 1st, 2nd and 3rd objective lines on 9th April 1917, where Sergeant Harry Cator won his Victoria Cross [Sgt Harry Cator VC and MM].
Farmer’s tracks were adorned with artillery shells that have surfaced since the Great War and continue to surface on average around 60 each year. The openness of the area brought home how vulnerable the Officers and their men would have been during the battle.
We journeyed a few miles further to Monchy-le-Preux. Overlooking the village of Scarpe and the Arras to Cambrai road, this was a strategic position which had been taken by the Germans in October 2014 and key to the Northern end of the Hindenburg line. The British launched their offensive on 9th April 1914 and despite bad weather, 37th English Division regained hold of Monchy, which was finally secured on 14th April partly due to the heroism of just ten Newfoundland Regiment soldiers.
The beautiful village that now sits in Monchy-le-Preux hides an incredibly harrowing history of death and destruction, alongside proud remembrance and honour of the fallen. On the summit of the hill where the village is situated, lies a monument in memory of the Officers & Soldiers of 37th English Division who fell in The Great War.
A memorial commemorating the sacrifice of the soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment also sits in Monchy-le-Preux, facing a point known at the time as Infantry Hill and stands atop the ruins of what was a German bunker.
The next stop was the extremely impressive Vimy Ridge which hosted a military engagement fought primarily as part of the Battle of Arras and involved complex trench and mine warfare. Standing inside the British/Canadian trenches surrounded by a myriad of craters from artillery fire, incredibly you could see just how close they were to the enemy with the German trenches just meters away.
The Royal Flying Corps launched a determined effort to gain air superiority over the battlefield and deployed 25 squadrons, totalling 365 aircraft, along the Arras sector; outnumbering the German Air Service 2-to-1. Carrying out the hazardous task of Air Reconnaissance, the RFC lost a lot of aircraft in what is known as ‘Bloody April’. Despite this, they continued to succeed in their priority; air support for the Army during the battle and provided up-to-date aerial photographs and key reconnaissance information.
Located on the highest point of the Vimy Ridge, is Canada’s largest and principal overseas memorial. An extraordinary monument which is dedicated to the commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and Canadian Expeditionary Force members killed during WWI.
Sunday saw our first stop at the Wellington Quarry in Arras, an underground base for over 25,000 officers and men of the British Empire and Commonwealth during WWI. From the middle ages to the 19th century, the quarry was used to provide stone for buildings in Arras but was disused by the start of 20th century. During WWI, the British forces controlling Arras decided to re-use the underground quarries to aid a planned offensive again the Germans - with the help of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, tunnels were created to connect multiple quarries, creating an underground network.
Wellington Quarry is now a museum commemorating the soldiers who built the tunnels and fought in the Battle of Arras. Following a demonstration of the clothing and weapons that would have been used in WWI, we had the opportunity to walk through the quarry, experiencing the intimate, humid and dark underground space in which so many men lived and survived. With clearly defined areas signposted, such as the ‘cookhouse’ and ‘WC’, the underground network would have provided shelter, respite and at times much needed morale. Amazingly, remnants of the underground base were clear to see today; from cups, food containers and bottles to portraits and drawings on the wall created by the soldiers.
No. 10 Squadron RFC and Chocques Cemetery
Our tour continued and soon we arrived at a forgotten carpark in Chocques near Bethune. Little did we know that behind a small woodland lay an extraordinary piece of history for 10 Squadron – their Head Quarters during the battles of Arras. We walked around the woodland to find a very elegant and grand French building, now derelict and covered with climbing ivy. Whilst standing in front of the HQ, we heard how Major George Ward had been commanding 10 Squadron RFC at the young age of 26 and had been awarded a MC during his time serving on 2 Squadron and furthermore a bar to his MC, awarded just five days after his death on 21st September 1917. He was killed in action supporting the Western front in Northern France. His aircraft, an FK8, was attacked by four German fighters whilst he was carrying out vital aerial surveillance over German lines.
We paid our respects to Major George ‘Bundy’ Ward and the men of 10 Squadron, laying a wreath with the poem dedicated to his memory by his friend Maurice Baring:
“But all is still – there’s not a sound and I remember that somewhere in France you lie asleep in Gonnehem – it is close by. Oh! France, Great Mother, you watch their sleep, we thank you and our gratitude is deep, for the great vigil you so reverently keep”
Lest we forget, from the men and women of Voyager.
The battlefield tour of Arras and Vimy Ridge, led by military historian Tim Saunders MBE, was an incredible and unforgettable experience. The history and honour clearly visible to this day throughout the villages and surrounding areas of Arras was astounding and although peaceful now, it provided a sense of the sacrifice given endured during The Great War.