Last year we went on a camping trip to Ypres and The Somme to visit WW1 graves, memorials and battle sites. It was so good we decided to return to The Somme this year, and add a little day trip to Ypres, particularly to watch the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. Last year we saw the Last Post three times. Twice whilst we camped in Ypres and a return trip from France to see it one more time.
When we decided to return to France for a camping trip, we thought it would be pretty great if we were able to take part in the Last Post ceremony and lay a wreath at the Menin Gate. We got to thinking that perhaps laying a wreath for the rugby club (Sale Sharks) we follow would be a good way to give something back too so Rod got started on making enquiries.
We were referred to Sale FC Rugby Club where Sales Sharks roots are based and the club got to work in digging into their archives and pulling out what they could in relation to players who were with the club during WW1.
Our next step was to arrange for a wreath to be made. Rod made contact with the Lady Haigh Poppy Factory in Edinburgh. When it was ready we popped in to collect it as the factory is not too far from us.
Wreath paid for, we asked if there was any opportunity for a tour. We were in luck and one of the staff downed tools to give us a bit of history to the charity and then walk us through the process of making poppies. We were introduced to the staff at each station, all injured ex-servicemen. We saw the processes for the different poppy products they make and were even tasked with forming a stick on poppy with the different components ourselves. I wonder where my little poppy contribution will end up. We were each given a little poppy to take away at the end of the tour.
I am very grateful for the men to have allowed us this behind the scenes tour and we’ve been invited back … as long as we bring biscuits.
A few weeks later we booked a trip down to Sale so that we could meet the team we had been liaising with at the club. We took the wreath with us to take some pictures so that we could form a picture story of the wreath’s journey.
The club gave us a club tie and shield at the end of our meeting and these joined us on the trip to France and Belgium.
We the nipped by the AJ Bell Stadium to show the Sharks connection too.
Finally, the day arrived for us to leave Edinburgh and make our way to France. The car was packed and the journey from Edinburgh to The Somme saw me with the wreath on my knees for the whole journey.
We arrived in France on the Thursday and the last post ceremony, at the Menin Gate in Ypres, was taking place on the Friday. Thursday was reserved for pitching the tent, shopping and we didn’t venture too far, rather taking the chance to relax after such a long journey.
On Friday we travelled towards Ypres, stopping at a few memorials, battle sites and graveyards along the way. The Last Post ceremony was fast approaching so we headed into the town of Ypres and parked up.
We had a stroll around the Menin Gate then found the best place for our friends Gwen and Campbell to watch the ceremony.
We introduced ourselves to the men who oversee the ceremony. We had arrived early to ensure Gwen and Campbell found a good place to watch everything so this meant we had a bit of a wait.
People started filling the gate. There was the expectant chatter filling the arches and I was starting to feel a bit nervous. The Master of Ceremonies came over to speak to the six of us (three pairs) to explain how the ceremony would run and what we needed to do. He also said that he needed to find somebody to read the exhortation. Rod volunteered. While we waited the Master of Ceremonies told us a rather shocking fact. The ceremony had taken place a little over 30,000 times … not even enough for each name that is listed on the Menin Gate. Really puts the scale of deaths into perspective.
Finally it was time for the ceremony to begin. I was so focussed on what I needed to do the whole thing was a mash of bugles, a few words spoken, singing from a school choir and the silence of a crowd. Thankfully I’d seen the ceremony three times before so didn’t mind not absorbing it all fully.
I did listen to Rod read out the Exhortation. I had to pay attention to that! This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for him. He did very well, he was loud and clear and I am so proud of him.
We were second to walk through the gate and hang our wreath on the display stand. I felt as though my body was heavy and yet I felt as if I floated across the walkway and up the steps. We struggled with hanging the wreath but figured it out in what felt like an agonising eternity. We stepped back, we bowed our heads then turned and walked back. We were done.
As much as I don’t really remember the whole ceremony, it will also stay with me for a lifetime and I feel very privileged to have been able to participate in this act of remembrance.
Whilst in France and Belgium we were armed with a list of former Sale FC Rugby Club players who had been killed during WW1. We did a bit of research and sought out as many of the players as we could.
We tracked down eight of the men out of the 18 who had played for Sale FC Rugby and made the ultimate sacrifice:
* Charles Edward BEAUSIRE (Ypres Menin Gate Memorial)
* Henry BELL (Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension, Somme)
* Robert BLACKSTOCK (Bouzincourt Ridge Cemetery, Picardie)
* Stephen BROADMEADOW (Thiepval Memorial, Somme)
* Sam KENWORTHY (Guillemont Road Cemetery, Guillemont)
* Edward KINGSLEY (LYNCH) (Ypres Menin Gate Memorial)
* Robert John SMITH (Aveluy Communal Cemetery Extension, Aveluy)
* Eric James WOODHEAD (Dantzig Alley British Cemetery, Mametz)
The whole trip came to a conclusion on Saturday, 5 September. Unfortunately I was not able to take part in the final element, I was busy welcoming new international students. Rod went down to Sale FC Rugby Club for the opening game of the season. He was armed with prints of all of the photos I had taken on the trip in relation to the players we were able to find and the ceremony at the Menin Gate, all of the photos on a memory stick and a collage of photos framed.
Rod was treated as guest of honour with full hospitality. He formally presented the club with the pictures and was invited to read the exhortation. As a thanks in return Rod was presented with a signed Barbarians top.
What started out as a little idea grew to be rather a big deal for the club and they were very grateful (and perhaps a touch bemused at our daftness).