Welcome to the first guest feature of 2021! These features have been overwhelmingly welcomed last year (must be far more interesting than my posts!) so I’ll be continuing with them but this year on a Bi-monthly basis. I have some willing victims… sorry I mean volunteers.. and I look forward to sharing their pieces with you over the coming months ahead. So without further ado I’m very pleased to introduce my first guest of 2021, renowned & respected Battlefield Guide & Researcher Mark Banning with a few tales of those who literally came from the other side of the world, the Australians.
Just before Christmas, I was looking at Twitter, when I noticed a request for help from Wayne McDonald. He was inviting those who were interested, to write a piece for his blog. Now, I’ve never actually met Wayne, but like a lot of folk on Twitter, you get a sense that they are decent sorts by the things they post and how they comment, and having already read some of his own pieces I thought it only fair to help a chap out.
After some brief comms, we agreed that I would write a piece that reflects on some of the many Australian guests I have had the pleasure of guiding across key parts of the Western Front over many years; their thoughts, their experiences and in some instances, their memories of a few days in special places.
It’s been an abysmal year for battlefield guides, with no immediate end in sight to the current travel restrictions, so this will also perhaps provide a taster for the experiences that myself and all my guide colleague friends, whether they live in Britain, France or Belgium can’t wait to re-experience.
A little about myself: like many, my interest in the Great War started at quite an early age and was due to the service of a relation, in this instance, my paternal grandfather, who served with the 13th (Royal Highlanders of Canada) battalion, and was taken as a prisoner of war in April 1915 during the first successful use of poison gas on the Western Front. Through a long and slightly convoluted sequence of events, my father and I visited Ypres in April 1984. We visited the Canadian Memorial at Vancouver Corner, Hill 60, the museum at Hill 62, Kemmel and attended the Last Post ceremony where we may have been the only people present.
Move forward a number of years to the desperate need to move from a job that didn’t suit, an increasing interest in the battlefields, fuelled by further visits and it was time to take the plunge, and attempt to be a battlefield guide. This is not a job that you often see advertised, and at that time the whole aspect of guiding seemed to be a closed shop; the only qualifications for success being that you had published umpteen books or had served for years in the correct regiment and spoke in the correct manner. I hadn’t done either, but through good fortune, I found a small advert for a travel business that were looking for guides for their one day battlefield trips. I applied, was invited for an interview, which quickly turned into one of those pleasant conversations and ended by me being told, ‘if you want to work with us, you’ll have to pass your bus test’. The reason for this was that not only would I be guiding, I’d be driving the guests in a 16-seater Mercedes mini-coach. This required an additional classification on my driving licence, so the process was gone through and I got the necessary qualification.
Then, the day came: I was told I would be looking after my first guests on the Western Front. I was to pick them up from where they were staying, in Ashford, Middlesex and look after them for three days. I had to go to certain places on each of the three days, and I had money for food and diesel. Hotel accommodation was booked. That was it: what I said, exactly where we went and most importantly, how we got there was up to me. So, thank you to Caroline and Peter Dixon from Auckland, who were my first ever guests. They were, like most New Zealanders, quiet, reserved, thoughtful but, as we got to know each other a bit, I realised they were very overawed with what they saw and with what I told them. I felt I was off to a good start.
The company I was working with went through some re-structuring at the end of that year, but it worked well from a personal point of view, as the tours I had done had all been well received by the clients, and my status rose a good bit: ‘here’s a chap who may be new to us, but he seems to know his stuff and the clients like him’.
And so, the years went on, in the run up to the centenary of the Great War. One of my good pieces of fortune was that what had been a privately owned UK company had now become part of a much larger Australian based travel business, although it was still located in West London. With growth in all areas, there was clearly a desire from the marketing people to promote Western Front battlefield trips in Australia, and the number of trips we were running increased three fold between 2012 and 2014, remaining at about 20 trips a year throughout the centenary period. I should say at this point that I was one of a team of guides, all of whom are friends, and I didn’t guide every single tour, but I was fortunate enough to be allocated a good percentage of these tours over this period.
Before I share some of my experiences with you all, I’d like to give you a general overview of the Aussie psyche. This is based on the interaction with many clients over a number of years, but there are themes that you can pretty well guarantee will emerge with each group.
‘You know, Mark, they all speak French in Paris…no one spoke English…’ Surely not, the French speak French in their own country? How very rude of them.
Me: so then, the Western Front was, give or take, 700 km long. The BEF, including the Australian divisions held, give or take, 160 km of it. Who do you think held the rest?
One guest: the French, with a quizzical expression.
‘Hey, Mark, these beer measures are a bit small’…
Me: ‘Take it easy, that beer is 8%. You don’t need too many…’
But, in amongst it all, Australians are great people. They are intensely proud of what their forebears did, and what is wrong with that? They have trouble with distances, not believing that taking an hour to drive from Arras to Amiens is a ‘long way’ and realise, very often, that what they knew or were told, if they were told anything at all, was not necessarily the total truth when any history was taught at school or college. Of course, amongst some of my guests have been exceptionally well read and highly educated individuals who have, for the first time, seen the landscapes that they have read about; again, none can fully grasp the intimate nature of many of the most horrific Australian battlefields: Pozières, Broodseinde, Bullecourt and Fromelles.
However, the most rewarding guests to have on any trip are those who want to follow a relatives action and if, as is sadly often the case, he was killed, then to visit the cemetery where he is buried or visit the memorial where is name is commemorated. If you are very lucky, you have been notified about this in advance, and can do the necessary research as part of your tour preparation. For Australian soldiers, this is comparatively easy, as there are great online resources, all totally free, via the Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia websites. These enable you to extract relevant war diary excerpts as well as the personal records of the man involved.
Sometimes, the guest is so well prepared that he or she has all this information with them, but they need guidance as to where the places are that are mentioned; sometimes, the information you are presented with at the beginning of the trip can be vague in the extreme. It’s my proud boast that I always been able to take a guest to an area where their relative served and I have always been able to take them to the cemetery where they are buried.
I’d like to share with you three stories that cover elements of all of the above and how, in each case, the modern family was able to pay proper respect to their forebears. I will mention the soldiers concerned, but not the individual guests by name. Before I commence, I should also like to make one very obvious point clear: when you are guiding a group, your responsibility is to all members of the group, to ensure that their individual needs and personal requirements are attended to, so it’s important not to allow one individual to dominate the tour. Having said that, Australians being the sort of people they are, are almost universally fascinated in their nation’s history, so focusing on the tale of a relative of one guest often stands as a leitmotif for all Australians, and therefore the soldier’s story is taken up by the whole group. The other very obvious thing to say is that it is almost impossible to carry out research whilst leading a tour. I could not have delivered the three stories I am about to share with you had I not had the most wonderful, diligent and timely research being carried out at home by my partner, Mary Freeman, who would then send me chunks of information in bite sized pieces by text or email. I also have to thank the hotel we use for printing off, at a moments notice, maps and photos of soldiers or trench positions that I had been sent overnight from home.
Sergeant Billy Willmott, 21st Battalion AIF
This story is our greatest triumph, in my opinion. Having met my guests, my routine was always to ask them, once we had covered the basic introductions, if any of them had anywhere that they especially wished to go. On this trip in May 2016, the couple sitting near the front asked me if they could go to the place written on the piece of paper I was handed. On the piece of paper was written one word: Vignacourt. I was aware that there was a military cemetery in the town, so assumed they had a relative buried there they wished to visit. This was correct, so I asked them what his name was. There was then a certain amount of concern, as neither could remember the name, but they had it in their bag, which was along with 15 others in the boot. I asked them to let me have it as soon as we checked in, which would be much later that day, as we had the Last Post to attend prior to check in. Anyway, once checked in to our overnight accommodation, I was given the name of Billy Willmott. The guests just knew he was a family member, nothing more.
Later that evening, I had a call back home and gave Mary the name. She promised that she would have a look, and see what she could come up with, because, as already mentioned, it’s always nice to put a bit of background to why a particular soldier has a grave in a particular cemetery. This was on a Tuesday evening. Our itinerary and route dictated that a visit to Vignacourt would be on Friday, the last day of the trip, so I thought that would be sufficient time for anything interesting to emerge.
It soon became apparent that Billy Willmott was no ordinary soldier. He’d been wounded at Pozières, his hospital ship had been torpedoed while he was being brought back to England for treatment and by the spring of 1918 he was a highly capable and respected NCO. It was also clear to me that being buried at Vignacourt, he must have been wounded in some action, as the location was well behind allied lines and a known medical location.
As the trip went on, my phone was pinging away with great rapidity. I was receiving text after text, as Mary’s research revealed the events that had resulted in Billy’s death. The time period is April 1918, when Australian troops are part of the massive effort being expended to hold the German advance at bay. Across the high ground running above the village of Dernancourt, the Australians had been given orders to dig in and hold on to ground that German troops would have needed to take to press on towards Amiens. Digging in is one thing, but by this stage of the war the Australian divisions had honed their skills, and were prone to taking part in small scale raids against the enemy at any opportunity. This was to be the case on the night of 13th April, when a small party, led by Lt Sibbison were to raid the enemy lines and bring back anything useful. Sadly, the raid was not the success it was hoped to be, resulting in the death of the officer, last seen very near the enemy trench, and ultimately two others, Billy and his mate Hec, who sustained mortal injuries. They were brought in by another corporal, Cyril Ingle who was subsequently promoted and decorated.
All this information was being conveyed to me by Mary – then, at a brief break whilst the group were visiting the Thiepval Memorial, a call. ‘You can take them to the spot on your way to Amiens, it’s just off the main road, turn left, go down this road and stop near the little copse on the left. It all happened there…’
This is where there is a massive advantage to having a small group in a small vehicle and being the driver as well – you can just do it, so, on Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours from being given Billy’s name, I was able to take the relatives to the exact spot in Northern France where he had been badly wounded on the night of 13th April 1918. I could explain to the group what the objective was, what happened, the loss of the officer, who has no known grave and that tomorrow we would be able to visit Billy’s grave, as well as his cobber, Hec, who is buried next to him. But, more was to come – overnight, I had pictures sent to me by email of Billy and others in the raiding party. For a short period, Mary and I knew more about Billy’s history than his family!!
On the Friday morning, our first stop was at Vignacourt British Cemetery. This is a lovely location and Billy’s grave is just inside the entrance. My guests had poppies and we left an Australian flag as well as a copy of his picture at the headstone. My guests were quite overcome by how much we had been able to find out in such a short time and how this long dead relative had suddenly seemed to come alive.
I kept in touch for a bit after the trip and exchanged more detail with the family in Australia. They also sent me some further family detail. It must have made an impression, as three years later, the husband returned for another trip with his son, and yes, we replayed Billy’s story all over again.
Corporal Murray Elder MM, 23rd Battalion AIF
Just a few weeks after the above story, I was leading another tour. On this occasion, there were fewer guests than usual, just five, but two of the five had direct family members that served, both sadly being killed, one at Bullecourt in 1917 and one in June 1918. This recollection concerns the soldier who is buried at Ribemont Communal Cemetery Extension on the Somme.
The guests concerned were both Australian by birth, but had met some many years ago whilst travelling in Canada and had decided that this was the place they wanted to live. Now officially Canadian by nationality, but with discernible Aussie undertones to their voices, it was an interesting accent!
Unlike Billy’s relatives, Murray Elder’s relative was aware of where he was buried and it would have been impossible not to visit the grave on the trip, but Mary was again to come up trumps in finding the back story which otherwise might never have been shared.
It’s all around that spring 1918 period, such a desperate time for the allies. We know that the Australians were instrumental in halting the German advance towards the end of April 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux (spoiler alert, the Poms were there too), but along the whole of the Somme frontage there were a series of ‘small scale’ operations which harassed the Germans and ensured that they were more than well aware that it was not over yet. One of these actions involved Murray Elder, the platoon Lewis gunner, as the Australians sent a small party out to investigate the German held village of Ville sur Ancre.
The Australian force numbered just less than 30, led by two officers. The village was fully occupied by recently arrived German troops. By a combination of surprise, good soldiering and the inevitable touch of luck, the majority of German troops were taken prisoner or killed very quickly. However, a small group had taken cover in a farmhouse in the village, and were determined to stay there. The Australians were determined they wouldn’t. After half an hour of vicious rifle and machine gun fire, the latter being skilfully aimed by Murray, the German troops surrendered. The white flag was raised, the firing stopped and an orderly procession started to emerge from the farm building, led by the German officer. He was approached by his Australian opposite number, when suddenly, he withdrew his revolver and aimed. Quick as a flash, Corporal William Flinn threw himself across his officer, taking the bullet which killed him, the only Australian death of the raid. Of the Germans taken prisoner post surrender, the war diary simply states that they were severely dealt with, following the ‘foul tactics’ perpetrated by the officer.
The farmhouse is still there, and therefore, after more assistance from Mary, we were able to park up and walk the approach route the advancing Murray would have taken. Although trespass would never be encouraged, we managed to get as close as we could to the farmhouse, by looking through the typical big wrought metal gates in the outer yard. We visited Corporal Flinn’s grave in nearby Mericourt-l’Abbe Communal Cemetery Extension. There was more to come from Mary, in the shape of articles written about the raid in the trench papers and the award to Murray of the Military Medal as a result of his solid performance on the Lewis gun that day, 19th May 1918.
It’s a strange fact of war that once a man has achieved some great feat on the field of battle, he often feels he is invincible. So, just three weeks later, in a similar operation a little further up the Ancre Valley towards Albert, Murray was involved; sadly, his luck had run out, and during this operation, he was killed. His body was taken back for burial and then subsequently reburied in 1919 at what is now Ribemont Communal Cemetery Extension, just a few kilometres north of where his mate, Corporal Flinn lies. Taking the family to the military cemetery, and allowing them time to leave a tribute is something many guides do as a matter of course: having the ability to provide the story where it is not known previously is a great honour, and gives all involved a greater sense of the wider impact that an individual had as part of this great conflict.
Lieutenant Cliff Burge, 24th Battalion AIF
My final story contains many of the themes already identified above, but there was an additional twist to proceedings. The guests had previously requested, and reconfirmed with me as soon as they met me that they had to be at Cliff’s grave on 14th August, which was the centenary of his death. The way the itinerary was written lead them to believe that they would have to break from the tour for a day, and get to Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery under their own power, as we weren’t supposed to visit this important Australian battlefield location until the 15th August. What they were not aware of is that I had already decided to swap the official itinerary about, meaning that the request they had made could be honoured with no inconvenience to themselves.
I had already done a small amount of research myself between my previous trip and this one, but again, Mary was able to provide a lot more detail to me whilst I was on the tour.
Cliff Burge had recently been commissioned, as the need for junior officers increased in the AIF throughout 1918. Many believe Australia’s finest hour during the Great War was in the period August to October 1918, as the Australian Corps under Lt General Monash scored decisive victory after decisive victory during what is commonly known as the 100 Days. This was not without loss of front line infantry, both officers and men, and replacements were not able to keep up with the casualties being inflicted. Promotion from the ranks was the only answer.
By all accounts, Cliff was a fine junior officer, but naturally looked up to fellow officer, Eric Edgerton for guidance in this challenging role. Eric had been decorated with the Military Medal twice and had also been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, unusual for a junior officer. Imagine Cliff’s shock when, on 11th August, Eric was killed during an attack. Now the responsibility for the whole platoon’s well-being rested on Cliff’s shoulders.
Australian forces were in the vanguard of the advance from east of Amiens towards Peronne. As the days went by, Australian troops were forcing the enemy back in great numbers but at cost, as we have seen. It was perhaps inevitable that Cliff would be killed. The battalion had set up forward company headquarters in a sheltered position in an old quarry. Even at this stage of the war, with so much going on, the battalion war diary contains a vast amount of information, including the exact map reference of the headquarters. This is important, as it was on the periphery of the HQ that Cliff was hit by rifle fire, dying almost immediately.
Having visited the grave earlier, and allowed my guests the time they needed to remember Cliff, including leaving a handmade personal tribute, I was then able to take them and the rest of the group to the exact location of the HQ, and where Cliff had met his end. I very much doubt that any battlefield group has ever visited the location, and the look of surprise from the tractor driver we passed near the spot very much confirmed this. However, once there, it was immediately apparent why such a location had been chosen, and the debris of war was still in evidence on the ground. Needless to say, it was Mary’s interpretation of the evidence and ability to translate that into easily understandable directions that allowed me to achieve this.
Leading tour groups is not always as fulfilling as this: there are the occasional individuals who have travelled with me whose reasons for so doing are beyond my comprehension, but in the overwhelming majority of instances, Australian guests are very humbled by what they see and very appreciative of gaining an additional understanding of what I believe was the most defining period of their nation’s history. The current suspension on travel and tourism across the globe has been a disaster for so many, including every battlefield guide I know. Whether the business I have enjoyed working for since 2008 will be able to ride out the current storm, I don’t know, hence I haven’t mentioned the company by name. However, as soon as it is safe to do so I will be visiting the old Western Front battlefields, and would be happy to guide you.
Editor: Well I must thank Mark very much for sharing those incredible stories with us all and for giving us an insight into his life as a Battlefield Guide. I really hope going forward it’s a better year for all Guides out there & that we can all return to those hallowed grounds once more.