eBook Chapter 1


For those of us who live in Scotland or indeed anywhere else in the British Isles north of the line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash, the journey to the battlefields is considerably longer than that for those fortunate Channel-hoppers of the south coast. As a car is absolutely necessary for exploration, the most convenient crossing for me is the one from Hull to Zeebrugge via P&O Ferries. It’s always a thrill to drive off from home on the journey down through the borderlands of Scotland and England and over the moorlands of Cumbria to the old cattle drovers’ rendezvous at Scotch Corner. From there it’s down the A1 past Catterick Camp where the sign to the Marne Barracks reminds me of what lies ahead. Arriving in Hull some six hours and three hundred miles later I wonder, as I pass the Alexandra pub with its shiny tiled exterior redolent of Edwardian days and full board at £19, what it was like in its heyday!

A mile or two further on, I pull up on the quayside at the King George VI Dock for ticketing and customs checks prior to embarkation on the P&O ferry which looms above the waiting cars and caravans.

For me, the overnight voyage to Zeebrugge is a most pleasurable part of the trip, watching little villages and farms slip by as the ship glides over the murky waters of the Humber, out past Spurn Head and into the usually grey North Sea. On autumn or early spring journeys, the lights from these isolated homesteads make me wonder what the occupants are doing as we pass. In contrast, on one bright evening a few years ago a football match was in progress at a tiny hamlet where the players and the few spectators must have far outnumbered the inhabitants. It was a scene which might well, apart from the cars round the field, have been taking place at any time, maybe even in that glorious summer of 1914, just before an unsuspecting Britain was engulfed in war.

Next morning, it’s down to the Four Seasons Restaurant at 06.30, just ahead of the ravening hordes of old-timers on bus trips, in time for a hearty (?) ‘Full English’ fry-up. Ready to give the day my best shot after that lot, I spend my remaining time on board watching from my cabin window until I see the white hulks of the hotels at Blankenberg getting ever nearer. Then the Mole at Zeebrugge, site of the actions of St George’s Day, 1918, comes into view and it’s time to get down to the car for disembarkation. Through passport control by 08.30 I’m on the road and soon passing by the redbrick stump of the massive Lissewege church, a sighting which somehow establishes for me that I’m once again in Flanders and the game, as Sherlock would have it, is quite definitely afoot. It was only recently, after many years of by-passing, that I finally went down to the little village and found, much to my surprise, that there, nestling close to the cranes and railways of Zeebrugge, was a whitewashed haven of peace, well-worth making a slight detour to visit.

My usual itinerary is to visit first the area of the Somme in France and then back up the road to Ypres in Belgium. There’s a kind of logic in this sequence which I hope will become more obvious as my journey progresses. The drive south is quite straightforward, if a little hectic, due to the volume of traffic coming from the coast and elsewhere bound for Paris and all points west. Things quieten down however once roads split and the péage is reached. Here traffic thins out with the thrifty French drivers heading for the routes nationales which are toll-free.

Two hours or so after leaving the ship I reach the exit which takes me to Bapaume and the road to Albert along which the events of July to November, 1916, unfolded. Passing green Commonwealth War Graves Commission signs to cemeteries bearing names familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the battlefields, I resist the temptation to visit. That can wait till tomorrow. Instead I make my way directly to Amiens, the capital of Picardie, a place of huge significance during the Great War, and nowadays my base while on the Somme.

It is here that my expedition truly begins.

The Road to Bapaume