Remembrance weekend 2023

'What makes success is planning'

We have recently returned from a three-day expedition through France to Belgium, organised by Andy to celebrate my special birthday (I'm getting old). Three things made it so memorable. The excellent planning, his encyclopaedic knowledge and last but by no means least the great fun we had. 

It is ironic when looking back to the expeditions of WW1 that if they had 10% of the planning that Andy put into our visit we may have been on a tour of the 1914-1915 war!

Planning was the key that enabled us to see so much. His knowledge was what brought to life so many of the places and events he showed us. His appetite for fun was what made the bits in between very special.

The idea of visiting cemeteries as a birthday treat seems a bit contrary. It was not. We learnt a lot as this was no mere tour of battlefields and cemeteries. 

Andy is a great storyteller. He will tell you the tale of a young man taken from a small industrial town who became an unexpected hero and then point out you are standing by his grave. You will see areas off the beaten track where the fields are still pock marked with craters and uxb's and shrapnel are still ploughed up. Andy manages to personalise the visits so as you are not just staring at a row of headstones before moving to the next (abc as he calls them). 

Anyway, back to our adventure. Having spent the first day in real WW1 November weather on the Somme, we were taken to Serre, Redan Ridge, Newfoundland Park, Thiepval, lunch in Albert, then La Boiselle, LochnagarCrater, Mansel Copse, Carney, then sites up to Delville and High Woods. 

We then headed for Ypres where Andy had some very special plans. The first being an excellent restaurant and some very welcome alcohol (for medicinal purposes to shake off the cold and damp). 

We were fortunate enough to be in Ypres on 11 November (as I say it's all about planning) where Andy had arranged excellent accommodation a mere Mills Bomb lob from the Menin Gate. Andy had (of course) managed to obtain special tickets where we were perfectly placed to observe the wreath laying ceremony at 11am at the Menin Gate on the 11th of November. 

Earlier that morning Andy was volunteering in the town square for Talbot House. After the 11am ceremony, whilst the rest of us enjoyed some drinks and a snack, the ever energetic Andy went back to his volunteering for Talbot House, imparting yet further local knowledge to visitors. 

Through his long-term and passionate support of the Last Post Association and Talbot House, Andy seems to know a lot of people in Ypres. It is like walking about with a local. Unsurprisingly, Andy is also well recognised in the bars and restaurants. 

After our lunch (which went only longer than expected) there was time for a visit to Essex Farm to learn about John McCrae and the inspiration from his poem "In Flanders Fields" was given to Moina Belle Michael which in a round about way, resulted in the poppy as a remembrance of those who fought. Andy, who the recited poems from memory, then presented us with poppies, asking us to wear them in remembrance of all those combatants and civilians. Andy does not glorify conflict, his deep respect is infectious and encourage us all to remember in our own way. 

In the evening Andy had obtained tickets for the remembrance concert in the Cathedral, which was excellent. After this there was time for more fine dining (and a drink or two).

Sunday Morning arrived when we headed for Talbot House for what Andy accurately calls 'the best English breakfast between there and Dover'. 

Talbot House was fascinating. Such a story to tell since 1915. A genuine living history. Again, Andy was greeted as an old friend returning.

Our final visit on our way back to "Blighty" was to Lijssenthoek military cemetery. 

I will finish where I started. What makes success is planning. 

Planning includes the small details of ensuring we had our packing list well before leaving home. Making sure we had comfort breaks. Adding to Andy's commentary by use of a computer video footage, digital and paper trench maps with before-and-after photos. 

Carefully prepared notes with just the right level of detail of individuals and letters sent all those many years ago to an anxious family. 

Knowing the best routes to each site of interest and alternatives if any was not available or busy with coach tours. 

What adds to success is knowledge, it is plain Andy knows his subject inside out. But just knowing is not enough. It is his enthusiasm for the subject that is infectious, so as you want to know more. 

Andy's delivery made our tour memorable and when we returned I couldn't wait to tell people what we had seen and experienced. 

Finally what makes success is fun. There is never a shortage of that, and I will sign off by thanking Andy (and Leanne) for a wonderful journey. 

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