Explorers Remembrance Day in Ypres/Esquelbecq

posted 6 Oct 2016, 08:07 by Dave Tomlin   [ updated 6 Oct 2016, 08:08 ]

One evening in July I was counting the yeasts in the bottom of a pint of ?Whatever it is this week in the tap? at the Avon when Dave Charles, Explorer Leader of the “mud muppet” unit in Warwick hove into view and suggested that we should take both his and our Explorer Units to France/ Belgium for Remembrance Day 2003. Dave is well known for his liking for foreign travel and had had the idea after listening to a presentation by a local historian Shirley Wallis about the massacre of a group of Warwickshire Regiment men on the retreat to Dunkirk by the Waffen SS (Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler). Dave had approached me because he knew we had a house in France and therefore could probably be relied on to read the road signs properly and Sally could do any French negotiating required? he also knew that I had been involved in a number of battlefield tours in the army.

After a lot of machination and persuasion, and having got Kerrie McCann to champion the event with the Explorer Sea Scout Unit, things began to move in the right direction? grants were obtained from Warwick District and from Land-Rover, wreaths were purchased, boats and hostel accommodation were booked and several of us decided it would be easier if we drove rather than forking out £1500 for a coach. We were also successful in getting the Kineton Explorers on board too, making this a truly pan-District event.

A bright November Friday thus found 23 of us standing outside the 2Wk HQ ready to depart for France. Gums were bumped and cars were loaded slowly when eventually one of the leaders was asked? so when does the boat go then?? everyone looked at Dave who looked it up on his itinerary” HMMM THINKS” 2hrs to last check in ! Dover 200 miles?? That’ll be an average speed of 100mph then! So anyway we caught the next boat (only 90mph) and landed at Calais with next stop the Auberge Jeunesse in Dunkirk.

Interesting place the old Auberge!..double bunks which fall over, showers where the hot water came out of the cold tap, doors locked (and alarmed) at 11pm. Just time for an evening meal of rather eccentric constituents for most scouts, and three or so hours wandering around the beach/ town before lock-in. We leader types found a rather nice looking bar which was empty when we walked in? there was a bit of a funny herbal smell in the air and the waiters were dressed rather oddly (leather etc) but we were made very welcome and settled in for a couple of pints ? within 30 mins the bar was heaving with every well dressed young person in Dunkirk arriving to meet their mates! Obviously we have taste!

Next day dawned bright and cold and the Explorers sat down to their first real French Breakfast (bread, bucket of coffee, butter) which some found even stranger than the meal the night before!

Saturday morning we spent touring some of the WW1 battlefields around Ypres, ending in Tyne Cot Cemetery which is the largest Allied War Cemetery in the World. Here the Explorers laid poppy crosses on each of the graves of the 90 odd Warwickshire Regiment soldiers killed in that area. We also held a ceremony and laid a wreath on behalf of the Hampton Magna branch of the Regimental association at the wall which commemorated the other 1000 Warwick’s who had been lost around Ypres and Flanders in WW1 and had no known graves. This was a very sobering experience for the Explorers, none of whom had appreciated the scale of the carnage which had taken place in that area before, nor the youth of those involved. Tyne Cot was also an excellent place to show the meaning of “Killing Ground” since the view from the cemetery (which contains two German pillboxes) allows anything which moves to be seen for around 2km. We also visited the Hooge Crater museum and the preserved (but not very) trench systems at Sanctuary Wood. This to was very interesting to the Explorers who were able to discover that rusty barbed wire at ankle height hurts when you run into it (that’s why it was there!) and that dugouts need heavy beams to support the roof (ouch again!).

The mid to late afternoon was spent with the Explorers loose in the town of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) and organising their own evening meal which we understand went well (think someone found a Pizzaria!). We Leaders did much the same but without the Pizzas. The group then changed into uniform in a friendly hostelry and made our way to the Menin Gate for the evening sounding of the last post. This was a far more elaborate event than we had expected. Around 5-600 people were in attendance, together with reps from various organisations and the Grenadier Guards. It was my honour to stand in the centre of the arch and make the dedication immediately after the sounding of the last post. An Explorer from Kineton and one from Warwick (Woodloes) then laid wreaths at the memorial on behalf of the Scout District and the British Legion. The District Uni on Flag was the only flag at the ceremony and I was proud to have it carried by my son Richard.

We were pleased with the compliments paid by many of the attendees about the behaviour and smartness of our young people at the event and felt we had to round the evening off by a small beer (or pop) in the aforementioned hostelry.

After an interesting night navigation exercise (ask Barbie about bloody minded drivers!) we arrived back at the Auberge just in time to be locked in. That night was rather a busy one for many of the leaders since one or two of the young people were found to have enjoyed themselves rather too well  however, no harm was done and some people learned a lesson about fizzy beer!

Sunday dawned dull and perishing cold and there was a noticeably improved take up on the French breakfast as a result of that and the nights activities. Having packed up at the Auberge we left for Esquelbeq. In the village square we had arranged to meet the deputy Mayor who had written a book about the WW2 massacre, based on an account by his mother who lived within sight of the barn where it took place (and later joined the Resistance).

We arrived at the barn at around 1045 “ I do not think that any of us had appreciated that the barn was in fact a cowshed about 12 feet square “ over 100 men had been herded in there and most killed by hand grenades and machine guns. The barn was full with only 24 of us inside and was bitingly cold. We held a two minutes silence in the barn and Barbie and some of the young people read out loud prayers and a passage from the Mayor’s book. We laid a wreath on behalf of the Royal Warwickshire Regimental Association inside the barn then moved to the nearby Cemetery where we once again laid crosses on the Warwick’s graves. We then went back to the Office de Tourisme for tea and medals (and warmth) courtesy of the Town.

From then on the trip became a fast run for Calais, an early boat and home in Warwick by mid afternoon.

My take on this event was that this was one of the most successful events held in Warwick District in recent years. All of the leader team who took part (of whom myself, Sally, Kerrie and Barbie were from RN Unit 14) emerged proud of our young people, what they had seen and what they had done. We really felt we took part in something special

By Nick (GSL) 2003