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SomeKindHand


stephen binks
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(It's a long read so get yourself a cup of coffee and a mince pie)

We are in the process of a Pilgrimage to all the burial grounds and memorials across Belgium and France; approximately 1850. We stop at each headstone, read the serviceman's name and say "Thank you". Etaples for example took six days. We are also reading the names of all the memorials to the missing; the Menin Gate took thirty eight hours to complete. We progress chronologically and started in Mons in May 2012. This year we completed 1915 burial grounds and started 1916. Our database shows we have missed some (by choice and error) and will need to re-visit these areas. Some like Marseille require a special trip.

I have copied below our yearly update that goes out to our friends via e-mail, but have now decided that we would like to let more people know what we are doing to commemorate the Great War 100th anniversary. Hope it copies okay! We expect our Pilgrimage will last for at least another three and a half years.

Our Pilgrimage year started in April when we departed the U.K for Abbeville. Our first priority was to catch-up on those burial grounds of 1914 that we had deliberately or inadvertently missed, before striking out for 1915. Our database highlighted 27 such sites, all geographically spread far from the static front associated with the Great War. In two weeks with our caravan newly serviced we managed to visit 19 burial grounds, the furthest being St. Nazaire, Le Mans, Orleans and the intervening places that became the B.E.F’s lines of communication in September and October 1914. I’m not sure if it was blind optimism or a certain amount of budgetary control but at several locations we ramped up with the caravan in-tow, because occasionally the burial ground was on our way to our next overnight stop; what a waste of a night if we had to stop again! A few scary moments looking for a big enough parking space!

By far the greatest cluster (8) was Paris, somewhere we were not looking forward to traversing. We calculated from our campsite at Epone, that we could visit them over a two day period. Although we experienced the usual difficulties of navigation and parking problems, we were not helped with a wrong address (on the CWGC website) for St. Maurice Communal Cemetery that took us to the cemetery at St. Maur! Although a lack of a cemetery register at the large communal cemeteries was of equal frustration when trying to match the CWGC burials to those actually in situ. On completion of our two week sortie a recalculation – always ongoing – showed we still had 11 of the 225 1914 burial sites to visit: Marseille and Narbonne spring to mind, but now our attention shifted to the early trench warfare of 1915.

In the first week of May we pitched up at Houplines, close to Armentieres; the camp-site is on the old German front line. Unlike the 1914 burial grounds which tend to follow the movement of the B.E.F, static warfare made it virtually impossible to visit the burial grounds based on the dates of the 1915 offensives. We therefore decided to divide them by Department, although the relatively small sector that the B.E.F held in 1915 proved a great benefit and by the time we moved to Aire (sur la Lys) we were averaging around 20 burial ground visits a week. From Aire we went to Aubers and again found the campsite within the old German defences. On the occasional day off I take the opportunity to walk or cycle the battlefields. Not until I opted for two wheels did I appreciate the high ground of the Aubers Ridge. La Cliqueterie Farm stands high behind the German second line on a 35 metre contour line.

We stayed in Aubers for three weeks and should have completed our stay with the reading of the Loos (Dud Corner) Memorial. However the day we planned to start there was an Armada of CWGC white vans parked outside. The dust cloud from their sandblasting was perhaps more impressive than British attempts in September 1915!

We are very careful to check the CWGC for their extended maintenance programs, but a site visit on the previous Saturday showed nothing. A call to Beaurains confirmed work scheduled until October; so we abandoned Loos and spent a couple days travelling around, booking sites at Etaples, and Albert and visiting some of the more distant (away from the old front line) burial grounds. One such visit brought us to Meerut Indian Cemetery at Boulogne, where we had to visit the Town Hall to gain entry to the cemetery in exchange for my driving licence. The level of vandalism inflicted on the headstones upset me a great deal; this was no inner city area, this was a well-to-do neighbourhood!

From Aubers we had visited 41 burial grounds in three weeks and then moved to Ypres where we spent four weeks at the very popular Jugstadion Campsite; a mere ten minute stroll to the Menin Gate. Whilst in Ypres we visited a further 49 burial grounds including Lijssenthoek, where it took us five days to complete the reading of 9923 Great War Commonwealth burials. It was strange to witness how popular Lijssenthoek has become with the opening of a visitors centre and toilets. It seems to be a first stop for the coach loads of school children coming in to Belgium. The grass over Nellie Spindler’s grave will soon require asto-turf. Ironically her grave is perhaps the most visited on the Western Front!

We left Lijssenthoek with a breakdown vehicle and three days later handed over 1,300 Euros to keep mobile. The loss of vehicle did not stop our Pilgrimage. After a day of sulking and also the realisation we had pre-booked a site at Etaples, I was on my bike to Colne Valley and the following day I pushed Nancy in the wheelchair the few miles (and back) from Potijze, visiting the three burial grounds there. By the time we got the vehicle back we had just five burial grounds to complete our Salient Pilgrimage of 1915 burial ground.

On Sunday morning 30th June, we departed Ypres for Etaples. Our home for the next ten days was the campsite just 50 metres from the entrance to the vast burial ground. It is not very often that we could say that we went home for lunch! We spent six days reading the names in Etaples and like Lijssenthoek we also recorded the chronological layout of each of the plots. On reflection I’m not too sure why we did this, but I have really got a strong desire to understand the burial grounds we visit. At Etaples we also recorded the number of headstones with no religious symbols and recorded those men who served under an Alias. The additional work helps with the concentration.

On our last day at Etaples I encountered many headstones with the inscription “A Victim of the Great War”, with several different dates. It wasn’t until I stood in front of the Special Memorials, “Known to Be Buried…” did the penny drop. These men had been killed in a series of German Air raids, their remains so completely destroyed they could not even be identified as soldiers! It proved to be the most poignant and emotional moment of our Pilgrimage so far.

We went home from the 9th July until the 1st August; the excellent weather we had had in France and Belgium did not desert us and followed us to North Wales; just as well, as we were in the caravan, that needed some repairs. Most urgent was the leaking roof over the bathroom and a new sink. The caravan has proved a reasonable buy, but things do go wrong. If you calculate that the ordinary person will use their caravan for less than four weeks a year! At Aubers we had lost all running water due to a (undiagnosed) faulty pump. It was a very long three weeks until we eventually realised what the problem was and sent for a replacement. The bathroom sink, which we had patched up in April, disintegrated soon after. I managed to pull one of the handles off the front, trying to pull the caravan on my own. Not everybody notices Nancy stood by my side with a pair of crutches!

On the 2nd August we arrived at the Velodrome Campsite in Albert. It was a glorious day and the campsite was very quite; we had the pick of the pitches. Now getting quite the professional, I walked around to check the path of the sun and looked for a pitch that offered ease of manoeuvre. After about an hour, leaking with sweat, I gave up trying to level the caravan; what I’d forgot to check was the uneven ground; something we endured for the next two months!

We had intended to use Albert as a base to complete the last of the 183 1915 burial sites, but we got so comfy and familiar, meeting new friends, that we decided to remain here until the site closed at the end of September and commence the 235 or so burial grounds of 1916 from Albert. Again through error or geographic necessity we overlooked 10 burial grounds from 1915 and will add them to our “things to do” list.

And so at the end of September we arrived back where we had started the year, Abbeville. Our plan was to visit around 27 small communal and churchyard burial grounds dotted around the country side and the larger hospital burial grounds of Mont Huon and Abbeville Extension. Visits progressed quicker than expected and we again found ourselves ahead of schedule. With several days before our crossing back to the U.K, we decided to complete a trio of burial grounds in the Department Seine Maritime: St. Sever Extension (8346), Bleville Communal Cemetery (1) in Le Havre and Etretat Churchyard Extension (282).

St. Sever is on the southern outskirts of Rouen, a city –in driving terms - I have never been able to master and this trip proved no exception. The nearest campsite was unfortunately in the northern suburbs and proved to be the most “rustic” we have encountered so far. What we did not count on was the main bridge over the River Seine (Pont Matillda), linking north and south being closed!

Comparable in size with Lijssenthoek, Etaples and Tyne Cot; St. Sever has been divided in to two burial grounds but has 11,428 burials with just 12 unknown. Thankfully (not wanting to spend any more time than necessary in Rouen) we had already completed the none extension burial plots and had calculated that it would take us at least three days to read the 8436 names of the Extension; it took just two days with absolutely no interruptions; we saw just one other person in our two days there!

We returned to the U.K in October, combining a visit to family and friends with a week in the archives at Kew and the CWGC in Maidenhead.

We came back to France on the 1st November and took up residence in Bob & Julia Paterson’s holiday cottage in Morval, on the border of Pas-de-Calais and the Somme. We will be here until the 1st April, 2014. Our priority is to write up a mountain of notes, label thousands of images and start to rationalise exactly what we intend to do with it all! Meanwhile we will continue our Pilgrimage, all be at a slower pace and of course weather dependant. Pushing a wheelchair across and down grassed paths in winter can be really tiring; Bazentin Le Petit’s extensive path was a real challenge. We have 124 burial grounds still to visit from 1916 and expect this number to change little before our first visits next year. We would like complete our 1916 Pilgrimage with the reading of the Thiepval Memorial, sometime in late spring I would suggest. We have also decided to add an additional year to our Pilgrimage; 1919. This will enable us to spilt the extensive number of 1918 burial grounds we have in our database and extract those which are purely concentration cemeteries.

We finished our second year having visited a total of 503 burial grounds and memorials and in those two years have said “Thank-you” to 303,653 servicemen and women.

As Nancy and I reflect with satisfaction and pride in what we have achieved so far, we realise that our journey is something very personal to us. We wanted to do something that (we think) has never been done before – yet as important - we wanted to do something that we could do together. Given Nancy’s MS and mobility problems, there have been times when our will to continue has been tested and questioned. But tomorrow is always another day and a new burial ground welcomes us. We end our visits by signing the visitors’ book thus: “Some kind hand came to say Thank-you”.

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Wow, that is certainly an undertaking, I take my hat off to you (and Nancy)

Are you photographing each stone / memorial ?

Grant

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Well, that is in deed a huge project!

Keep us all posted please.

G.K.

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Grant,

Already being done by a group "associated" with the CWGC. We are photographing the following:

All Vc's

All over 60's

Under 17's

Albert Medals

Errors (55 so far)

R.S.M's

Personalised inscriptions

Whilst I read the headstones, Nancy reads the registers and then we photograph retrospectively. We also photograph all personal mementos, which have included a pair of socks, jar of Shipham's Paste (ex employee), holy water, Death Pennies, and an urn containing someones ashes. We also photograph all photographs left on the graves. Oh and the entrance to every cemetery, all single burials and groups of unusual headstones, such as English, Irish Scots and Welsh regiments buried in adjacent graves; not as frequent as you may think. Military Medal recipients buried in consecutive graves (max 3 at the moment), unusual names. Still looking for 1914,15,16,17, & 18 consecutive burials! Thanks for your interest.

Steve & Nancy


Well, that is in deed a huge project!

Keep us all posted please.

G.K.

After our winter break I hope to post a monthly update

Steve & Nancy

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Wow, that is certainly an undertaking, I take my hat off to you (and Nancy)

Grant

And I do too. What can I say. This is such a wonderful tribute ... will be thinking of you both and yes, please update.

Judy

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Grant,

Already being done by a group "associated" with the CWGC. We are photographing the following:

All Vc's

All over 60's

Under 17's

Albert Medals

Errors (55 so far)

R.S.M's

Personalised inscriptions

Whilst I read the headstones, Nancy reads the registers and then we photograph retrospectively. We also photograph all personal mementos, which have included a pair of socks, jar of Shipham's Paste (ex employee), holy water, Death Pennies, and an urn containing someones ashes. We also photograph all photographs left on the graves. Oh and the entrance to every cemetery, all single burials and groups of unusual headstones, such as English, Irish Scots and Welsh regiments buried in adjacent graves; not as frequent as you may think. Military Medal recipients buried in consecutive graves (max 3 at the moment), unusual names. Still looking for 1914,15,16,17, & 18 consecutive burials! Thanks for your interest.

Steve & Nancy

After our winter break I hope to post a monthly update

Steve & Nancy

I left the jar of Shippams paste, when I made my own much, much smaller pilgrimage in May. I visited the men from the Shippam's War Memorial, leaving a jar of paste at each grave or memorial.

I would be interested to know Steve whose grave or memorial you visited and when. I have always wondered how long things placed on graves etc are left for.

Mandy

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Steve and Nancy

What an inspiring undertaking. My very best wishes to you.

My mother has suffered from MS for many years and so I have a (very small) insight into what additional problems you may be encountering in what is, by any stretch of the imagination, an astonishingly gruelling if rewarding task.

Again, I tip my hat to you, an extraordinary feat of practical remembrance

David

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  • 2 weeks later...

I left the jar of Shippams paste, when I made my own much, much smaller pilgrimage in May. I visited the men from the Shippam's War Memorial, leaving a jar of paste at each grave or memorial.

I would be interested to know Steve whose grave or memorial you visited and when. I have always wondered how long things placed on graves etc are left for.

Mandy

Hi Mandy,

Sorry for the late response; we have only just returned to France after Christmas in the U.K.

We photographed the Shiphams paste at Voormezele Number 3 on the 9th June 2013.

Steve

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Thanks for the reply Steve, I left my jar on May 16th.

Good luck with your pilgrimage in 2014.

Mandy

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  • 2 months later...

I hope to have our second installment of our "Pilgrimage" uploaded today. So that I can put up some images, Is it better to load images separately or can one copy them in to a word doc and cut/paste?

Steve & Nancy

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I look forward to it Steve.... What a Pilgrimage. Well done to you and Nacy.

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  • 7 years later...

Stephen and Nancy - did you manage to finish the project before the pandemic started?

William

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