FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Thoughts about Dunkirk

Posted in Dunkirk, France by folkestonejack on August 3, 2017

I made a trip to the IMAX theatre at the Science Museum (an impressive 16.8m tall screen that is the height of four double-decker buses) last week to see Christopher Nolan’s new film about Dunkirk and have been reflecting on it a little since then.

First up, I have to say that watching the 15/70mm film format version on such a gigantic screen places you in the action in a way that I have never experienced at a cinema before. This ‘immersive’ experience is undoubtedly assisted by the absence of back stories and somewhat spartan dialogue which focuses your attention all the more on the individual battle to survive. The story of the evacuation that follows is never less than riveting, from the terror of the opening moments to the beautiful cinematography of the final spitfire sequence. The evocation of the green and pleasant land that the survivors return to in early Summer 1940 is quite wonderfully realised.

The film has picked up criticism from some quarters as an assault on the senses and for various historical inaccuracies, some of which were acknowledged up front as necessary adjustments to help the audience. I think I managed to suspend disbelief for the most part, though I was pulled up rather sharply by the 1970s refurbished carriage interiors that haven’t long disappeared from today’s railways! Overall, I thought it was an astonishing creation and if it gives us a fraction of the sense of what that experience was like then it is massive achievement.

I have very little idea what my grandfathers, Alf and Pete, went through at Dunkirk so anything that helps me get a feel for that I greatly appreciate. I’ve been through the war diaries, regimental histories and a fair few books over the years but I still can’t begin to imagine how traumatised the men were by the time they reached Dunkirk, let alone what they experienced on the beaches and in the water. The little I know makes me wish I had a better understanding of the sacrifices made by my grandparents whilst they were alive.

In reality no film could match up to horrors so great that men could not bring themselves to speak of for the rest of their lives. The same holds true of the 1958 film. My grandfather, Alf, was worried that the 1958 film would show the terrible sights that he had seen and would not let anyone see it until he had been to the cinema to check it out. In the end he was quite relieved that it didn’t come anywhere close.

It’s definitely worth catching at the cinema as it won’t be anywhere near as effective on the small screen. If you can find it at an IMAX screen so much the better.

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Dunkirk 75: Pete’s road to Dunkirk

Posted in Dunkirk, France by folkestonejack on June 1, 2015

Today marks the 75th anniversary of my grandfather Pete’s return to the UK after the Dunkirk evacuation.

My grandfather, Pete, enlisted with the army at Canterbury on 3rd May 1928 at the age of 18 and was serving with the Royal Artillery when war broke out.

Pete had originally intended to join up with a mate from home (Folkestone) but things didn’t go entirely to plan. His mate was turned away and Pete said “I suppose we’ll go home now” at which point the recruiting officer said “No, you’re in now!” Pete initially signed for 12 years but later re-engaged for 21 years on 16th February 1939.

Pete (second from left)

Pete (second from left)

Initially Pete was appointed as a driver, working as part of a team riding horses to haul the 20 pound guns of the field artillery. However, the process of mechanisation saw Pete move from horses to motorised vehicles in Summer 1939. On 26th September 1939 he was posted to France with the 22nd Field Regiment Royal Artillery.

The regiment marched to Belgium on 9th May 1940 and were soon involved in the battles around the Escaut and areas that are today better remembered as the terrain of the First World War. Orders to withdraw and go in to action at Oost Dunkerque were received on 29th May and the regiment remained until 31st May before a further withdrawal to La Panne and the gradual destruction of the guns.

The war diary records that the regiment took refuge in the sand dunes as dawn broke on 1st June 1940, owing to the continuing danger of dive bombers. In later years Pete made brief reference to the safety of the sand dunes and talked about spending time on the beach, possibly in the company of an RAF man, and wading through the water (even though he couldn’t swim).

Some of the men made it off the beaches in small boats later that morning, between intermittent dive bombing, but the main body of the regiment marched on to Dunkirk and embarked from the pier with the last party going on board at 18:30 hours. Pete’s service record shows that he was home on 1st June 1940.

On their return to England the men were put on a train but Pete didn’t know where he was until he saw Warren Halt (Folkestone Warren). Everyone was throwing cards out and he took a field service card and wrote out a quick message to his father in Folkestone telling him that he was home safe, and threw the card out of the window, hoping that it would be delivered. It was and we still have the card today.

Pete went back to Dunkirk on a coach tour with my grandmother many years later. She recalled that the bloke opposite was telling his wife ‘All the trees were burning [to] ash’. On asking him about this my grandfather replied ‘Of course I saw it’ but that was it – he just didn’t like to talk about it.

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Dunkirk 75: Alf’s road to Dunkirk

Posted in Dunkirk, France by folkestonejack on May 30, 2015

Today marks the 75th anniversary of my grandfather Alf’s return to the UK after the Dunkirk evacuation.

My grandfather, Alf, enlisted with the army at Canterbury on 12th June 1925 at the age of 19 and was serving with the 2nd Battalion Buffs at Pembroke Dock when war was declared. By this time Alf had already seen service overseas once, having spent three months in Palestine in 1936.

Alf (standing)

Alf (standing)

The battalion headed by train to Southampton where they embarked on the ‘Maid of Orleans’, setting sail in the early hours of 17th September 1939. After a smooth crossing in a convoy of five ships, escorted by two destroyers, they arrived in Cherbourg later that morning.

Once they had landed in France the battalion made their way south east, rather than towards the Belgian border. Their destination, Blain, was a small town in the Loire-Atlantique department, just half an hour’s drive from Nantes. Amongst my late grandfather’s possessions is a small photograph of a French family of whom we know nothing, but perhaps that was taken here.

At dawn on 10th May 1940 Germany invaded the low countries, moving forward with frightening speed. The 2nd Battalion Buffs had reached Menin in Belgium by 6pm the same day and engaged the enemy in battle at Petegem ten days later. After three days the men were hungry, tired and weak. The order to withdraw was received on the evening of 21st May.

On the way to Dunkirk the men suffered terribly, particularly in the intense bombing of Mont des Cats. By 11am on 29th May 1940 all of the battalion had set out for the beaches of Dunkirk, from where the men were rescued. My grandfather couldn’t swim, but we know that he spent time wading through the water and seeing those incredible photographs of men queuing into the waters makes me wonder what he went through.

Alf’s service records show that he served with the 2nd Battalion Buffs (BEF) until 29th May 1940 and was ‘Home’ on 30th May 1940. I don’t know whether that is an accurate reflection of the date he came back or just a generalized date for the battalion.

It is hard for anyone of my generation to imagine the horrors of war from this distance in time, but they were all too real enough for my grandfather and clearly never forgotten. Alf was worried that the film ‘Dunkirk’ (1958) would show the terrible sights that he had seen and would not let anyone see the film until he had been to the cinema to check it out. In the end he was quite relieved that it didn’t come anywhere close.

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Boulogne-sur-Mer

Posted in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France by folkestonejack on August 31, 2011

After arriving in Boulogne-sur-Mer last night we took ourselves out for a walk through the old town to find a restaurant, but were somewhat surprised to find most places closed up. In many respects that was fortuitous, as it made us walk a bit further and delivered us to the doorstep of the Brasserie de la Mer Aux Pêcheurs d’Etaples, the restaurant of a fishing co-operative, which unexpectedly served up one of the most enjoyable meals that I have eaten in many years.

Today, we followed that up with a lengthier wander around the ramparts and into the Basilica of Notre Dame de Boulogne, a beautiful building but certainly suffering in places. In the small square outside the Mairie there was a garden display which seemed to be celebrating regional specialities with amusing displays of giant sweets and tins of herrings apparently growing in a small field!

After grabbing some delicious pastries from the nearby boulangerie we drove out of Boulogne to the Colonne de la Grande Armée à Wimille, a column built in honour of Napoleon I and in commemoration of the issue of the first Légion d’honneur at the camp de Boulogne. The museum was unexpectedly closed but we still enjoyed a wander around the outside of the statue and could just about make out a distant view of Folkestone.

After leaving Wimille behind we took a steady drive through Wimereux and back onto the motorway, making sufficiently good time to take an early Eurotunnel crossing. Although we might only have been gone a few days we seemed to have seen an awful lot in that time so a quiet afternoon back in London was much appreciated!

Agincourt

Posted in Azincourt, France by folkestonejack on August 30, 2011

An inland diversion after leaving St Valery sur Somme took us through Crecy and on to Azincourt (more familiar to us as Agincourt). The Centre Historique Médiéval d’Azincourt in the village provides a thorough, if a little quirky, explanation of the battle. If you make it through all the displays, interactive exhibits and the film you will have covered the battle three times so you are unlikely to forget in a hurry!

For all of that, it did do a good job of explaining a complex battle and provided some nice touches. One example of this was an exhibit that encouraged you to poke your head into the inside of a helmet to see how much of a view this gave you. After being bludgeoned by the final interactive exhibit (which repeated the words Agincourt 1415 repeatedly as if desperately trying to finish the job of ramming the battle history into your brain) we headed back onto the roads.

The website provides a helpful drive to see the battlefield as it stands today. Amusingly the route is marked by a succession of archers and knights on horseback. Finally, the circular route takes you to a viewing platform (it must get a bit of traffic as they have put a ‘zebra crossing’ in the middle of the country side to serve it!). As with the museum you soon realise that the English and French descriptions on the display boards are not exact translations – most noticeable when the French text refers to “un horrible massacre” whilst the English text is glorying in “a tremendous slaughter”!

Roadside archers at Agincourt!

St Valery sur Somme

Posted in France, Saint-Valery-sur-Somme by folkestonejack on August 30, 2011

Our stop in St Valery sur Somme gave us the chance to wander along the quayside up to the medieval old town, taking in the view across the fast moving waters of the bay to Le Crotoy. Although intended as more of a short break from our journey rather than as a destination to linger we found ourselves entirely won over by the charms of the place and spent much longer here than originally planned.

The walk we took was broken up every now and again as we took a moment to read the display boards dotted around – amongst the most informative I’ve seen on my travels. They really make a huge difference to a wander through the town, which is delightful enough as it stands but so much better armed with a little information. The boards highlight the towns connections with various artists, literary giants and historical figures (such as Joan of Arc) as well as the various buildings around the town, including the curious church of St Martin which has two naves.

Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme

Posted in France, Noyelles-sur-Mer, Saint-Valery-sur-Somme by folkestonejack on August 30, 2011

A cross-country drive westwards towards the coast took us first to Noyelles-sur-Mer on the Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme, a preserved railway which runs across a beautiful coastal landscape. Today it was only operating between Le Crotoy and St-Valery-sur-Somme – with three trains in each direction over the course of the day.

Steam locomotive no 1 'Aisne' approaches Noyelles-sur-Mer

Steam locomotive no 1 'Aisne' takes on water at Noyelles-sur-Mer

One side of the railway station at Noyelles-sur-Mer faces onto the SNCF mainline whilst the other looks out over the small metal turntable of the preserved railway. We were lucky enough to be able to watch the arrival of veteran steam locomotive no 1 ‘Aisne’ (a 2-6-0T from 1906) from Le Crotoy. At this location the locomotive is turned (a matter of physical exertion – the crew literally push the locomotive round) ready for the run into St Valery sur Somme.

Steam locomotive no 1 'Aisne' is turned at Noyelles-sur-Mer

A steady drive into St-Valery-sur-Somme allowed us to leapfrog the train and watch it cross the Somme canal before making its way up to St-Valery Port where a much larger crowd was awaiting its arrival.

Steam locomotive no 1 'Aisne' crosses the Somme

The passengers today have it much easier than their predecessors a century earlier. The line originally crossed the bay by means of a long wooden trestle bridge which at some stage in its history could no longer support the weight of the train and its passengers. The passengers were required to disembark on one side of the bay and make their way across to the other side, following the train under the bridge, before re-boarding on the other side. The walk was apparently usually more of a wade, leaving the passengers with wet feet! I’m glad that isn’t a feature of my commute, even if sometimes it might appear that I have been wading through the Thames after a particularly wet British Summer’s day…

Steam locomotive no 1 'Aisne' at St Valery Port

At St-Valery Port there is a small electric turntable which spares the crew from the need to manhandle the locomotive so soon after Noyelles. Once again we watched the locomotive being turned before continuing to walk along the canal towards the sea. As we strode away the steam locomotive departed for Le Crotoy.

Our stop at the Baie de Somme was not really intended as a photographic expedition, so I only grabbed a few shots in the obvious places. However, having seen the beautiful landscape that the train crosses I am sure I will come back some day to explore the line in its entirety.

24 hours in Amiens

Posted in Amiens, France by folkestonejack on August 29, 2011

Our itinerary allowed us a full day in Amiens, as a break from our cross-country expeditions, and it served up a wonderful mixture of attractions to us – including a walk around the canal district of Saint-Leu, a visit to the Maison Jules Verne, a walk around Amiens ‘in the footsteps of Jules Verne’, a visit to Amiens Cathedral and a boat trip to see the hortillonages (floating gardens).

Amiens Cathedral

Lion in Amiens Cathedral

The hortillonages cover 300 hectares criss-crossed by 65km of small canals, which you can experience on a 45 minute tour by boat. It was a suitably relaxing way to start the afternoon with some charming views – you just had to remember to duck every now and again as a low hanging branch or two came into view!

The hortillonages and the Perret Tower

The towers of Amiens Cathedral were open between 3pm and 4.30pm on the day of our visit so we returned to the cathedral to take in the view from the top. You ascend one tower, cross the west facade in front of the rose window and then ascend the taller tower for a view across the city. It’s not for the faint hearted but it was well worth the view.

Spire of Amiens Cathedral

Amiens Cathedral is one of the largest gothic cathedrals of the 13th century and impresses in every way – both inside and outside. In recent years restorers discovered that the western facade of the cathedral was originally painted rather than plain, as we see it today. This spectacular sight is cleverly brought back to life each night between June and September by projecting colours onto the facade. The times vary according to the month but tonight it began at 10pm and even knowing what I was about to see, it was still quite amazing to watch the transformation.

Figures in daylight

Figures illuminated

A landscape of cemeteries

Posted in Longueval, Neuve Chapelle, Villers-Bretonneux, Ypres by folkestonejack on August 28, 2011

Anyone who has driven through the countryside of northern France or Belgium will recognise the dark green road signs that indicate a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery is approaching. The sight of the beautifully maintained roadside cemeteries, large and small, soon becomes a familiar part of the landscape. Our drive from Ypres to Amiens presented many such moments of recognition.

Ypres at sunrise

Our drive took us out of Ypres, south to Messines Ridge British Cemetery, and then on to the Indian War Memorial at Neuve Chapelle. The memorial is located at a busy roundabout where the D947 crossses the D171 and it is rather remarkable that the moment you walk through the gate this world slips away. The beautiful space inside exudes calm and peace.

The Indian War Memorial at Neuve Chapelle

Detail from the Indian War Memorial

Our third stop was Arras, where we re-visited the Arras Memorial, having once again discovered that a distant member of the family was listed on the panels here. It seemed like a bad day to be crossing Arras as half the town seemed to be dug up for roadworks and it was the day of a marathon so many roads were closed or reduced to single lanes. Nevertheless, we eventually made it through to the memorial where we paid our respects to Frederick Henry Kent.

Exterior of the Arras Memorial

Interior of the Arras Memorial

The next stop was one of the smaller cemeteries, Grove Town Cemetery at Méaulte. After a number of frustrating drives in the past trying to locate small cemeteries we had taken the precaution of doing our homework this time and came armed with printouts showing the location of the cemetery on satellite images of the area. This proved very necessary as many of the printed and online maps that we consulted showed roads that seem no longer to exist following the construction and subsequent extension of Albert-Picardie Airport.

Grove Town was the name given to a casualty clearing station at Méaulte which dealt with the casualties from the Somme battlefields from September 1916 to April 1917. After the war the cemetery must have resumed a more peaceful aspect at the end of a dirt track amongst the fields, but these days it is just a short walk away from the perimeter fence of the airport (which apparently sees regular use in the transportation of aircraft parts from the nearby Airbus factory). Nevertheless, at the time of our visit all was quiet.

A quick check of the cemetery plan showed us where to find Thomas William Bailey and we paid our respects. I wonder what he would think, as a worker in the GWR factory at Swindon, of the modern day engineering taking place at the nearby Airbus factory and flying out above him.

Grove Town Cemetery from the roadside

Cross and graves at Grove Town Cemetery

Grove Town Cemetery

The penultimate stop on our journey was Delville Wood, Longueval, where my grandfather’s cousin, Cecil Henry Bushell, died on 3rd September 1916 just eight days short of his 18th birthday. The wood today is the location of the South African War Memorial and its tranquilty is as far removed from the horrors of the past as you can imagine.

Cecil Henry Bushell (1898-1916)

Our final stop of the day was the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, near Amiens. The memorial commemorates all Australian soldiers who fought in France and Belgium, with the panels listing those who died at the Somme, Arras and in the battles of 1918.

The Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux

Th steps up to the The Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux

A late spring break

Posted in Arques, France by folkestonejack on August 27, 2011

A plan to go away with the family for a long weekend in April 2010 went somewhat awry due to family illness, so much so that we only managed to re-schedule it at the third attempt beginning with a channel crossing today. In that sense, this trip is a very very late spring break…

The plan for the trip was simple enough – to start at Calais and then take a circular route via Ypres, Amiens, the Baie de Somme and Boulogne before returning to Calais for the crossing back to England. We briefly thought it might all go wrong at the last minute with talk of industrial action at Eurotunnel but luckily everything seemed to be operating normally for our early morning crossing. Soon enough we were heading off the Autoroute des Anglais on our way to La Coupole, a facility intended to store and launch V2 rockets. Our previous travels to France have often taken us past signs for this place, but we have never contemplated a visit until now.

La Coupole

My initial reaction to the complex at La Coupole was one of astonishment at the immense scale of the unfinished complex, it impresses (if that is the right word) in a rather brutal way, from the long cold corridors to the massive concrete dome. At the same time you can’t help but be acutely conscious of the price paid by many to build the place. Today the site houses a museum about the German rocket programme and the occupation of Northern France in 1940-1944. It makes for quite an intense visit of two and a half hours, by which time you are likely to be reeling with information overload. As is often the way with such visits I learnt much that I didn’t know before, particularly aspects of the occupation such as the honouring of the graves of allied airmen as an act of defiance.

L'ascenseur à bateaux des Fontinettes

Our next stop, a short drive away, was the town of Arques where we visited L’Ascenseur des Fontinettes, a remarkable boat lift built in 1888 to transfer boats from the river Aa to the Neuffossée canal. It is a very peaceful place today so it is hard to imagine the busy waterway that necessitated this development (the M25 of its day by all accounts with barges queuing up to a week to traverse the staircase of five locks that existed previously). The boat lift was closed in 1967 and replaced by a new lock. Today the boat lift remains as a static museum. It doesn’t take long to wander round but it is rather delightful. You can also take a short walk to the new lock.

The giant 'new' lock at Fontinettes

The Chemin de Fer Touristique de la Vallée de l’Aa terminates at a station just above the lock, operating the strangely styled Picasso X3853 diesel railcars. We didn’t have the time to take a ride but marvelled at the design of the railcar, which curiously places the driver in a bubble atop the railcar. I’ve never seen anything quite like it!

Picasso railcar at Arques

Picasso railcar at Arques (les Fontinettes)

The drive from Arques to Ypres was interesting, with the local gendarmerie turning us round at one point due to a local half-marathon that had prompted the closure of the road through Cassel. Nevertheless, we made it to our destination without too much difficulty.