FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS
All battlefields tours are special, for so many reasons. It is the connection that you can make with events that happened close to one hundred years ago that helped to shape the world we live in today.
However, if one of your relatives fought on the Western Front and survived that cataclysmic series of actions, then it is likely that you will have an even greater desire to want to find out more and see where this may have happened. For Bryan Elson and his family, that was one of the objects of a recent trip to France with Backroads Touring. Although the family had all arrived in France before the trip from Nova Scotia, Bryan’s father was born in England and initially served with the London Scottish Regiment, a territorial unit, as were all the London Regiment battalions.
This unit was one of the first territorial units in action on the Western Front in October 1914, but we were on the flat French Flanders plain to explore their involvement in the Battle of Loos in September 1915, which is where Jack Elson was wounded in the ankle. We knew from the Regimental History and the War Diary the exact movements of the unit through the first day of the battle. We had maps of the area and knew the positions of each of the opposing forces. What was so fortunate was that the actual battlefield was still easily accessible.
It is a common misconception that from the outbreak of war the Front immediately and instantly developed into a stinking quagmire; it took some time for this to be the case, and although the ground over which the attack had taken place would have been festooned with wire and machine gun positions in 1915, it has changed little in terms of its topography since then. The farm that was just to the right of the London Scottish trenches is still there – albeit rebuilt. The tracks across the fields that would have enabled the French farmers to get to their crops pre war are still more or less in the same position today. Therefore, it was easy to establish from what we already knew, exactly where the lines were, the views that the attackers and defenders had and how it was that so many men were lost that day.
A particularly noticeable spot on the battlefield that Saturday morning in 1915 was a tree, a lone tree on the battlefield. This assumed such significance for the advancing British infantry that it appeared on maps and in written accounts. For this reason, there is a Lone Tree still, out in the middle of nowhere, but now with poppy wreaths attached to it. It is not the original tree, but acts as a living memorial to those soldiers who were lost that day and over subsequent days.
When you know that your father would have been advancing towards a similar tree in a similar position, but possibly suffering from the effects of poison gas that had been released across the battlefield, that he would have been under fire and under the most extreme of pressure, that he would have certainly seen friends wounded or killed, but he remained to carry out his orders before being wounded, then you also realise what a debt you owe to this man, as well as countless others like him.
When your biggest concern is that you have a bit of Flanders mud on your shoes and trousers and that it might rain again shortly, the true perspective of what this amazing generation of men achieved has a greater resonance.
It is an overwhelming powerful experience for anybody and also helps to provide a closure on a series of events that are immensely personal.
Jack survived his wounding, was commissioned into the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and served with the British Army in the Middle East and India until the early 1920’s.
If you would like to follow in the footsteps of your relative on the Western Front or across other battlefields of Europe, please contact Backroads Touring to see if we can help you. If you are able to provide, as Bryan was, as much detail as you can, it will result in a more fulfilling experience than you might be able to imagine.