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Following the success of the four years of Bristol and West Country based battlefield tours (2016-19) organised with fellow historian, Clive Burlton, we are pleased to announce another trip for autumn 2021. Our 2020 tour was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, hence we are carrying over our suggested plans for that tour to 2021. Our focus is not solely actions by units from the West Country but on this tour will look at the role of the Tunnelling Companies and their incredible underground war, fought deep beneath No Man’s Land. We will also visit sites and tell stories associated with the post-war reconstruction of French communities. 

Once again we are travelling with our partners at Bakers Dolphin. The three night, four day tour will visit key sites associated with the West Country. Travelling by executive coach we will depart from Bristol on 24 September and travel to Arras, stopping at sites of interest en route. 

The next day will be spent on the 1916 Somme battlefield with a look at the tunnelling exploits at such famous sites as Hawthorn Ridge, La Boisselle, Bois Francais and Carnoy. As ever we will ensure that we stop at key battlefield sites including the Thiepval Memorial. 

On 26 September we will journey northward to the sacred Ypres salient and Messines Ridge, a key battleground for the tunnelling war. En route we will visit Bethune and the Tunnellers Memorial at Givenchy-les-la-Bassée for the tale of Sapper William Hackett VC, the only tunneller recipient of the Victoria Cross. Whilst in Ypres we will attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate.  Other key sites around the salient will be explored. 

As ever, our tour will cover the stories of relatives of those who join us. Please do send details and we will endeavour to visit individual graves and battlefield sites if time permits.

Accommodation is based at the following 3-star hotels – Holiday Inn Express (Arras) and the Novotel (Ypres). Full details of cost, what is included and contact details to reserve a space can be found on the attached flyer and via our dedicated website: https://westernfrontfootsteps.wordpress.com/.

We look forward to you joining us for another wonderful few days following in some Western Front Footsteps…

Back in early March just before lockdown I spent a half day filming with David Walliams at the Guards’ Chapel for the new series of Who Do You Think You Are? David’s episode was broadcast tonight, 19 October, on BBC One. I was asked to set the scene for David’s great grandfather, John Boorman, who served in the Grenadier Guards.

With David Walliams at the Guard’s Chapel filming Who Do You Think You Are?

His was a fascinating but ultimately tragic story. Having enlisted at the end of September 1914 it is possible that his above average build (he weighed 140 pounds and had an expanded chest of 36 inches) alongside his height of 5 feet 9 inches meant he was guided in the direction of the Guards by recruiters.

Having undergone training John proceeded overseas. His Medal Index Card and surviving service record confirm his date of arrival in France as 16 March 1915. John joined the 1st Battalion and while the service record does not say when he joined them, the battalion’s war diary notes the arrival of a draft of six officers and 350 men on 20 March 1915. It is assumed John was in this draft.

Extract from John Boorman’s service record showing time spent in the UK and overseas

Two months of trench routine and a few weeks break in divisional reserve during which the battalion practice drill and route marching precede John’s first battle, the Battle of Festubert. In comparison to the titanic battles of 1916 & 1917 this affair, in the flat lands of French Flanders, was small but no less bloody. To soften up German positions over 100,000 shells had been fired before the assault. Early in the morning of 16 May the 1st Grenadier Guards followed behind the 2nd Border Regiment, passing through them to attack German trenches. There was no great distance gained and it certainly didn’t alter the course of the war but this action was John’s first taste of the harsh brutality of war. Battalion reports describe close quarter fighting, killing the enemy, taking prisoners plus clearing trenches by throwing bombs. It was a tough baptism of fire, as recorded in Ponsonby’s Volume 1 of The Grenadier Guards in the Great War of 1914-1918:

The 1st Battalion Grenadiers came in for a great deal of shelling, and one shell burst in the middle of No. 8 Platoon, killing four men and wounding many others, including Lieutenant Dickinson and Lieutenant St. Aubyn, who was struck in the face by a piece of shrapnel. All the time a stream of wounded from the front trenches was passing by, some walking and some on stretchers.

Another entry in the Guards’ history records:

Rain began to fall at 6 p.m., and grew into a steady downpour. In the newly won trenches the men were soaked to the skin, and spent a miserable night. Everywhere the wounded, both British and Germans, lay about groaning.

For someone with only two months service in France those images must have made an impression. During the action at Festubert the 1st Battalion lost 2 officers killed, 2 officers wounded and 113 Other Ranks killed, wounded and missing.

Guards at the Battle of Festubert, May 1915

John was invalided back home for fifteen months, suffering from shell shock and returned to France on 28 August 1916. What is unclear is exactly when he rejoined the battalion as September 1916 sees many drafts arrive – 90 Other Ranks on 15th, 60 on 17th, 35 on 19th, 20 on 22nd, 23 on 27th and 72 on the 30th.

Those fresh men were much needed as the battalion was heavily involved in the Battle of the Somme that month. The attack towards the village of Lesboeufs was a costly affair for the Grenadier Guards, now part of the Guards Division. They had been in action on the 15/16th September but it was on the 25th that they took a major part. A few days prior to this the battalion was employed digging assembly trenches from which they would attack. The assault of the 25th was a success with the 1st Battalion passing through other Guards units to take their objective. The war diary has the wonderful line ‘Huns thoroughly demoralised’. Demoralised they may have been, but John’s battalion had paid the price for their success. In 11 days of action from 15-26 September they sustained a staggering 611 casualties.

Guards Division on 25 Sept 1916 at the Battle of the Somme

The month of October was spent way out of the line, absorbing new reinforcements and training before moving back to ground west of Lesboeufs in mid-November. By this time the Battle of the Somme was coming to an end. At least the men would no longer have to leave their trenches to assault enemy positions. But that did not mean an end to casualties – enemy shellfire saw to that. Holding exposed shellhole positions joined up to make short sections of trenches, John’s battalion endured mud and tough conditions that the battle had created. Even getting to frontline positions meant miles of trudging along muddy paths and duckboard tracks. Safety, warmth and aid would have seemed a long way away.

Having contended with autumnal mud it was a horribly cold winter with temperatures falling to minus 20 Celsius for a six week period. One blessing of this plummet in temperatures was the mud froze, but so did water…and men. The main enemy at this point was the weather, not the Germans. In mid-March John was admitted to No.34 CCS for treatment of lumbago and “ICT feet”. Having endured such terrible trench conditions many men suffered problems with their feet. It is likely that John moved to a hospital in Rouen, thereby missing his battalion’s part in pursuing the Germans in their retreat to the Hindenburg Line. At some point he rejoined his battalion and moved northward to the Belgian city of Ypres. This was for the start of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) during which the Guards Division attacked on the opening day, 31 July 1917.

And for the filming with David, this was as far as I got! I was asked to set the scene for John’s war up to this point. David went over to Ypres and was shown where his great grandfather was wounded. The records show John Boorman arrived back in the UK on 11 August 1917 having been wounded in the left leg below the knee. Despite escaping the horrors of the battlefield John’s war continued. In April 1918 he was admitted to hospital and found to be suffering from mental instability (delusional insanity). A few months after he was transferred to the County of Middlesex War Hospital which contained a specialist military mental hospital. Sadly, it appears John never recovered from the mental scars of service on the Western Front and died, still in care, in 1962. His is a tragic story that reminds us of the enduring effect that war had on many men. While some seemed to return to civvie life and get on with things, return to work, raise a family and function normally, other men were unable to do so and suffered mental anguish for the rest of their lives.

My thanks to the estimable Chris Baker of https://www.fourteeneighteen.co.uk/ who did so much of the research into John Boorman’s story and provided me with a copy of the report he had prepared for Wall to Wall.

JB