Byfield & District's Member Bob's experience of GP90
THE GREAT PILGRIMAGE
In August 1928, ten years after the First World War ended, thousands of former soldiers returned to France, along with the widows and families of thousands of others who never returned home. It was called the Great Pilgrimage and in August of this year the Royal British Legion commemorated this event by recreating it.
From around the UK, other parts of Europe and beyond, the branches of the RBL sent over 1,100 Standard Bearers and the same number of Wreath Bearers, to march through the town of Ypres, in Belgium, to lay wreaths in memory of the fallen. Representing Byfield and District was myself and our Standard Beaer, Chris Kielly of Woodford Halse. The event was called The Great Pilgrimage 90, or GP90 for short.
The first two days of GP90 were taken up with visits to the battlefields, the cemeteries and the memorials to the fallen.
What is most striking is, firstly, the number of cemeteries; there seems to be one every mile in some places. At Tyne Cot, the biggest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world, there are 11,900 graves, but many cemeteries contain only a hundred or so graves. Then, within those cemeteries, there are the graves themselves: row after row of them, each one identical.
Well, they aren’t quite identical. While some headstones are marked with the full number, rank, name and regiment of the soldiers whose mortal remains they contain, about two thirds are marked only with the words ‘A soldier of the Great War, known unto God.’ Because so many of those young men were never identified.
At Delville Wood and Vimy Ridge we were told that the land around us contained the remains of thousands more British and German soldiers who couldn’t be recovered from the battlefields because the ground had been churned up so badly. Each year the remains of yet more dead come to light as the ground gives up its secrets.
Their names haven’t been forgotten though. At five locations there are monuments that bear the names of those who have no known graves. Many of these same soldiers must also be amongst those who are only ‘Known unto God’, but many more lie undiscovered in the fields and woods of France and Belgium.
It is the sheer number of names on each memorial that strikes at the heart. At Arras, on the Somme battlefield, the memorial bears 34,785 names. At Loos, 20,600; The Menin Gate, 54,896; Ploegsteert (colloquially Plug Street) 11,477; Thiepval, 72,246; and Tyne Cot, 11,954. Included on some of those memorials are the soldiers of the Commonwealth, with additional national memorials at other locations.
I could not stop a tear from forming as I read the names. Listed by regiment, these are the men who marched off to war without question, to do their duty. It is baffling in two ways. Firstly, that the governments of Europe continued to throw so many lives away for 4 years, but also baffling because those men continued to go ‘over the top’ knowing they faced almost certain death. Again and again I asked myself if I could have done it. I still don’t know the answer.
On the final day we marched through the town of Ypres to lay our wreaths. We followed part of the route that the soldiers took from Ypres station to the front line. We wound our way past the cathedral, through the town square past the magnificent Cloth Hall and then down the narrow street to the Menin Gate, set in the town’s ancient walls. Many of those marching said they felt as though they had others, unseen, marching alongside them. Fanciful? Perhaps, but they said they felt something and I, for one, am not going to dispute that claim.
A short memorial service was conducted by John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. I am not embarrassed to admit that during the playing of ‘The Last Post’ and during the two minutes silence that followed, I wept for those long dead soldiers.
A wreath was laid by the King of Belgium and another on behalf of our government by the British Ambassador to Belgium before, finally, we Wreath Bearers laid our tributes. Later, after the crowds had dispersed, we laid a copy of the Rolls of Honour for the 13 villages that make up our district: those names that can be found on our War Memorials. We then laid four personal tributes from families in the Byfield area who lost members of their family all those years ago. It seemed fitting that we were able to lay them below the panel on the Menin Gate that records the missing of the Northamptonshire Regiment.
It is probably the last time the Royal British Legion will be able to mass so many standards together at one time. As the years pass the branches are getting smaller and some are disappearing altogether. We need new recruits, but so few are coming forward. But we must keep the memories of these brave men alive, if only to remind us of the terrible cost of war. Because if we forget them there is the danger of it happening all over again. If you think it can’t happen, then remember that there hasn’t been a single decade since 1918 when British soldiers haven’t died in some corner of a foreign field.
So, with Remembrance Sunday coming up, please give up a few minutes of your time to join us at the Byfield War Memorial to pay tribute to those brave young men and women who fell in two world wars. We will be there with our Standard at 11.00 to be silent for just two minutes.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM”
From “For The Fallen” by Robert Laurence Binyon
Bob Cubitt, Menin Gate, Belgium, 8th August 2018.
If you haven't "clicked-on" to any of the links (in red font) in this article, at least make sure you do that for the last one above (We WILL remember them) AND BE MOVED
AND Bob's got his & our names in Sept'18's Legion Mag - see below right...