1st Middleton St Leonard’s Scouts and Explorers pay respects in Belgium and France

Date published: 31 October 2017

1st Middleton St Leonard’s Scout and Explorer groups paid their respects in Belgium and France over the last weekend of October with a trip to Ypres and Passchendaele.

31 Scouts, Explorers and Leaders visited the European countries and visited various significant sites from the First and Second World Wars. Whilst the trip was primarily focused on events of World War One, the group decided to visit sites from World War Two as they were so close by.

Their trip began in France, stopping at Dunkirk, passing a huge industrial processing plant, with a chimney emitting a brilliant flame that ‘lit up the clouds above for miles’ with a flickering orange light. An eerie sight that would have been reminiscent of the flashes in the sky during the Blitz set the atmosphere.

The first stop was at the Dunkirk Memorial Cemetery, where the group arrived in the dark, with the sun just threatening to peep above the horizon and the clouds still flickering a ghostly orange from the processing plant.

The group wandered amongst the thousands of meticulously clean grave stones, set in neatly-kept gardens, like all Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries.

For some of the party, this was the first time they had seen the true scale of these sites, and even for those who had seen similar sites, it was ‘impossible not to be shocked again’ at the vast, almost unimaginable, numbers of men killed, and families and communities left devastated.

As dawn broke, the sun shone through the Dunkirk Memorial Window - a beautiful and moving sight.

1st Middleton headed back to the buses and made a short trip further along the coast, stopping at Bray Dunes where the war effort almost ended in disaster for the Allies as their troops were surrounded and cut off by the Germans - Winston Churchill called it "a colossal military disaster".

In an uncharacteristic oversight by Hitler, the German Army and Airforce did not move in immediately for the kill, allowing a daring rescue mission to take place. While the Royal Airforce fought to keep the Luftwaffe at bay above the beach, and a rear guard fought in the streets behind the beach, hundreds of vessels, from Royal Navy destroyers to small fishing boats, carried the stranded troops back to the mainland and safety.

By the end of the operation, over 330,000 troops were saved – although many men died and a huge amount of tanks, vehicles, equipment and ammunition had to be abandoned on the beach.

The Middleton Scouts and Explorers explored the bunkers, mostly buried after 80 years of wind and sand, and set off further into France.

Their next stop was at Wormhoudt, where around 80 to 90 men of The Royal Artillery, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and the Cheshire Regiment, were massacred after they were captured by the SS Liebstandarte (the 1st SS Panzer Division which started off as Adolf Hitler's personal bodyguard) on the 28 May 1940.

The British soldiers were marched into a cowshed in the corner of a field where members of the SS threw five hand grenades into the barn. Two British soldiers are reported to have thrown themselves over the grenades in an attempt to save their comrades.

In the confusion, two British soldiers escaped the shed and tried to escape, ducking into and following a ditch along the back of the field. Back at the shed, machine guns were fired into the survivors, the dead and the dying. Finally, those still alive were brought out, stood in groups of five, and shot in the back.

The two escaped soldiers were spotted while wading through a stagnant ditch and an SS officer fired his pistol at them at close range. Captain Lynn Alen was shot in the head and killed instantly, whilst Private Bert Evans, whose right arm was already almost destroyed by the grenades, was hit in the neck by a ricochet and presumed dead.

Miraculously, Private Evans survived, later having his arm amputated and visiting the site many times in later years until he died in 2013.

SS Obersturmbannführer Wilhelm Mohne, who commanded the SS Leibstandarte on that day, survived the war, was never brought to justice for his war crimes and died peacefully in his bed in 2001.

1st Middleton visited the massacre site and museum. Although the original barn was demolished in 1969, a faithful recreation was built nearby, standing as a monument to those who died on that horrific day. Almost every space in the barn is adorned with wreaths, poppies and crosses. The groups left their own poppy cross before setting off on the short journey to cross into Belgium and the Mendinghem Military Cemetery.

Mendinghem Military Cemetery was a late addition to 1st Middleton Scout Troops’ itinerary after they found out that a man from Middleton was buried there – Alexander Harry Noyles. Not only was he from Middleton, he had attended the Parish School and Saint Leonards Church, and was a Scout in Middleton, meaning he was almost certainly from the 1st Middleton Scout Troop.

They found his grave in yet another pristine cemetery, along with a rare sight, the grave of another soldier, Lieutenant B Dunkley, a VC (Victoria Cross) medal recipient, the highest award for valour.

The troops held a short ceremony for Alexander Noyles, read some poems, held a minutes’ silence and placed a poppy cross and a 1st Middleton Necker on his grave.

Next stop was the short journey to the picturesque town of Poperinge, where they visited the site of the ‘death cells’, the prisons where many British Soldiers were held before being ‘shot at dawn’.

In what we now know these days as ‘shell shock’ or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, many men could not function after periods of shelling and constant gunfire at the front lines. They were branded as cowards – and the punishment was often death by firing squad.

A reconstruction of the post to which they were tied, and the sandbag wall to catch the bullets, stands just outside the cells. The troops could still see graffiti made by men on the cell walls a hundred years ago as they awaited their fate.

After many years of campaigning, the 306 British soldiers shot at dawn for ‘cowardice’ were granted posthumous pardons in August 2006, along with statement that each one executed was "one of the many victims of war.... and (it was) not the fate he deserved".

After this, and a spot of lunch, they headed to another cemetery at Brandhoek to visit the grave of Noel Chavesse, a soldier who was awarded two VCs. His gravestone was covered in wreaths, messages, and poppies.

They visited Hill 60, a preserved battlefield, littered with the still-visible craters from the constant shelling that took place a hundred years ago. The area was strategically important and was fought over throughout the war, changing hands several times. Metal markers in the ground show the front lines for the German and Allied forces in December 1914 - only about 20 metres apart. The 1st Middleton Scouts and Explorers also investigated bunkers in various states of collapse.

After a short rest, it was time to walk into the beautiful town of Ypres, where the chocolate and souvenir shops caught the attention of the Scouts and Explorers.

Just before nightfall, the troops gathered with the growing crowds at the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony, which has taken place every day since 1928 after the inhabitants of Ypres wanted to show their gratitude towards the men who had died to ensure Belgium's freedom.

During the occupation by Germany in WW2, the ceremony was held instead at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. The day the town of Ypres was liberated by the Polish Army in WW2, the ceremony resumed at the Menin Gate.

The haunting Last Post was played followed by music from a choir as wreaths were laid by visitors. After the event there was no clapping or applause, just a dignified silence despite the hundreds of people present, before everyone dispersed, and the road was open again.

1st Middleton took a few minutes to have a look at the walls of names - almost 55,000 men with no known grave, an unimaginable number of soldiers, whose remains still lie under the earth in the surrounding fields and towns.

A day later on Saturday 28 October, the troops were off to Tynecot military cemetery to read poems and present a wreath, then to find the names of the fallen men of Middleton. It was a bright, sunny day, but a bitterly cold wind was blowing across the open farmland and across the cemetery.

The Scouts and Explorers read poems, presented wreaths, and held a minute's silence. The standard bearers fought to hold the heavy flags in the wind.

Whilst there, each of the Scouts and Explorers went to find 'their' soldier - a man of Middleton who had fallen, chosen by Julie, the group’s resident historian, matched up either by a similar name or by living close to where each Scout now lived.

Each Scout left crosses at ‘their’ soldier’s grave and looked at exhibits in the museum.

Their next stop was Passchendaele, which is littered with underground tunnel complexes. The British, Australian, and Canadian tunnellers and engineers dug out huge areas ranging from small forward bases and attempts to tunnel under enemy positions, to huge ‘caverns’ that could hold up to 2,000 men and could be used as barracks, or hospitals.

Most of the tunnels are eight to 12 metres below ground but some are up to 40 metres below. It is hard to imagine how they could achieve this with the technology of the time – particularly whilst under fire.

One such tunnel was found next to Passchendaele Church, which would have been under the foundations of the old church which was completely during the war.

Historians have emptied the tunnel, which was completely flooded, and opened it up to the public so it can be seen (and smelt) first-hand what it would be like to be in such a cold, smelly, wet and muddy place.

The tunnel is being kept open and preserved as best it can for only a short time; afterwards, it will be allowed to flood naturally again to help preserve the wood, which is rotting more quickly now it has been exposed to organisms in the air again after 100 years.

After the damp confines of the tunnel, 1st Middleton went into the warm comfort of the museum - an excellent resource with an extensive reconstruction of tunnels and trenches. This all seemed to really hit home with the Scouts and Explorers who were fascinated.

They headed to the Langemark German Cemetery before they returned back to the Menin Gate in time to take part in the Last Post Ceremony.

Langemark is a very different cemetery: the gravestones are square, dark coloured blocks of stone, laid flat on the floor. The sheer scale of loss of life is difficult to comprehend, especially the relatively small grassed area, surrounded by dark obelisks with thousands of names inscribed on them. This is a mass grave for 24,917 soldiers, almost 8000 of them still unknown. The names of those known are inscribed on the obelisks. A sculpture of four mourning figures stands guard over the fallen at the end of the area. Small German flags had been placed by the figures' feet and fluttered in the icy breeze.

They returned to Ypres, in order to get organised for the night's ceremony at Menin Gate with their Explorer Unit and the Union Flag.

The group were also honoured and privileged to have been given permission to take the Royal British Legion (Middleton Branch) Standard with them.

The majority of the 1st Middleton Scouts, Explorers and Leaders lined up at the far end of the monument, with the three standard bearers at the other end. After what seemed an age waiting nervously as the crowd grew and grew, the announcement was made that the ceremony was starting and a silence fell over the crowd.

Four buglers marched smartly into the square, standing a few feet in front of the line of Scouts and Explorers, facing the flags. They blew the Last Post and Middleton’s standard bearers dipped their flags to the ground - the only time that flags and standards are ever permitted to touch the floor.

A haunting song was sung by a male voice choir as guests laid their wreaths, including the Explorer Leader, who laid a wreath and also came back at the end, after the 'reveille' was played and the flags raised, to read the epitaph: "When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today."

A spokesperson for the group said: “I think the Leaders and some of the older Explorers had already been hit by the full impact of what we saw, especially those who had been to there Somme the year before. I think the younger ones will slowly realise the enormity of what they saw, and the implications, as time goes by. They will certainly have made memories that will last a lifetime.

“We could not be prouder of our Scouts and Explorers, they represented their Group, their generation, and their Country, with pride and in an exemplary manner.

“We would like to thank the parents and guardians for trusting us to take their children abroad.

"We would also like to thank the Royal British Legion (Middleton Branch), Julie Grainger (the Royal British Legion Middleton Branch Secretary), and David Brown (the Royal British Legion National Parade Marshall), for supporting us in our trip by allowing us to take their Standard abroad, providing training in the presentation of the Standard, and supplying the wreaths, poppies, and crosses that we took with us.”

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