After such a lot of people reading my last post about our scooter trip to Holland and Belgium I thought I may as well post my story of our trip 2 years ago. It was a better trip in just about every way. I’m not sure we’ll ever match it.
Lancashire Scooterists Western Front Bimble. 8th-12th May 2017
A number of us from Preston and Chorley, had talked about a scooter trip to the Western Front for a few years. This year we promised ourselves it would definitely go ahead, before age and infirmity intervened!
The Western Front was the site of some of the bloodiest battles in the history of war, with a massive loss of life. It would be a chance to pay our respects to those who fought and died for our freedom.
Planning started in January. After much discussion 10 volunteers were found and accommodation booked. The dates were agreed as the second week in May. We didn’t fancy camping so it would be one night on the Somme in a B and B, and one night in an apartment in Ypres, Belgium. These were the biggest areas of battle for British troops on the Western Front. Surfing around the internet showed us that there were plenty of memorials, graveyards, battle remnants and museums to be found.
The final platoon consisted of:-
Kirky (Me!) LML 125 auto.
Midge Lambretta Jet 200
Norwegian Bob Series 2 Lambretta Li
Paul Mac Series 2 Lambretta Li
Bigot Lambretta GP 200
Scribe Lambretta GP 200
Beechy Vespa PX 200
Norman Vespa GTS 300
Jonny Vespa GTS 300
Kieron Scomadi 200
Midge booked the ferry whilst Kieron and I sorted the digs, so we were ready to go.
Well, almost. I came up with an idea to commemorate some of the local lads who had given their lives. My wife is a school teacher. A couple of years ago she had come across a magazine article about tiny teddy bears made, usually, by a company called Farnell. They were given to soldiers by sweethearts and families as a mascot to take with them. Just like the men, some of the teddies even went over the top to perish in no man’s land. At the time the children in my wife’s school, St. Peter’s C of E Primary in Chorley, each made a small teddy. This made a very impressive display which was also exhibited in the church. It was a fantastic way to give the children a link to, and some understanding of the sacrifice which had been made a hundred years before, and was spread to a number of other Lancashire primary schools. We chose 10 men form the local Chorley Pals battalion. Some of us chose a name whilst I allotted a name to those who, despite being asked a number of times on our Facebook planning page, had not bothered to read it! The school kindly made us a teddy each. They gave them a name and provided us with an information sheet about the soldier which each teddy commemorated.
On the Friday before we set off Paul Mac and myself took my 8” wheeled Vespa and his series 2 Lammy into the school hall for the official handover of the little fellas, which was photographed for an article in a local newspaper. I’ve stood in front of 300 gawping children before but Paul seemed a bit overawed by the experience! The headmaster then handed out prizes for the week and asked the winners to stand by their favourite scooter, which he insisted on calling “bikes”. Vespa 5, Lambretta 6. What do school kids actually know eh? Our intention was to send back information live, as we travelled around, so the kids could follow the teddies journeys to the grave or memorial which commemorates each one.
The day finally arrived. Some of us breakfasted first and we then met by Bae systems on the A59, which would take us to Harrogate, York and Hull to catch the overnight ferry to Zeebrugge.
Sadly we lost one of our number near Clitheroe. Beechy’s Vespa seized it’s piston in a terminal way and he was recovered. There wasn’t time to arrange a lone scooter so that left 9 of us to carry on.
The rest of our ride over was uneventful. We stopped at the usual place in Harrogate to regroup. I suggested a shortcut through York which I’ve done a few times before. Somehow I got us lost. It must be the smell of 2 stroke smoke which lowers the mental capacity, I think. When we arrived in Hull it was virtually time to board the boat but I heard a cry of “Asda!” form Norman behind me. I think he must have shares. We did a full lap of the roundabout to get back to the entrance and lost Jonny in the process. We found him shortly afterwards at the ferry terminal.
We had all been primed to spend Pounds not Euros onboard, because it’s cheaper in our currency. The beer tasted all the better for it.
Most of us opted to spend £26 on a buffet meal and breakfast package. It’s amazing how much you can eat when it’s paid for and staring you in the face.
The entertainment was provided by an attractive female singer accompanied by a guitarist, who didn’t actually look to be playing! The first set was good. She had a good voice, but by the third set we weren’t so impressed. She was choosing songs which were just not right for her. When she started singing “Mustang Sally” my sense of honour and duty got the better of me. I felt I had no option but to jump on the stage and steal the microphone for a couple of verses. Where’s Simon Cowell when you need him?
We breakfasted as we arrived at Zeebrugge and went through customs with no problems or strip searching. We decided to stop at Ypres on the way down to the Somme. I had planned the route in detail but my plan was foiled by a long section of road which was being resurfaced. We could have followed the diversion but looking down the long, straight pavement, it looked clear so we gave in to temptation and set off down it. After a few hundred yards a piece of tape was stretched across the path so we crossed the carriageway, which had had it’s surface scraped off, and went down the other pavement. The workmen seemed amused and waved at us as we passed. Some police officers in an unmarked car seemed less amused and could clearly be seen counting us as we passed. Paul Mac decided to stop and state the obvious. “We’re going to get pulled here”, he said. A voice from behind was heard to say “So what are we waiting for!” and on we went. We turned right at the next roundabout towards Ypres and saw nothing more or the boys in blue. Confusingly the French spelling of Ypres has generally been replaced by the Flemish spelling of Ieper in the modern day. I’m sure some of them thought I was lost again. It was no help that we were calling the town “Wipers” as the Tommys had in WW1.
The town was absolutely flattened in the war but is beautiful now. The British armies held the town for the entire conflict and as a mark of respect the Last Post is played every day of the year at 8pm. Then Menin Gate was rebuilt after the war as a memorial to those of no known grave. Names from all over the Commonwealth are carved into panels inside and outside of the massive structure. This was when it really hit me that 1914-18 was truly a world war. Names appear from Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India amongst others. Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddists, they’re all there commemorated together. The only Chorley pal, Pt. Henry Calderbank, is inscribed on the monument and he was one of our chosen 10, so his teddy was photographed by the name and his picture posted for the children. It didn’t seem a great resting place for the little chap so he was taken with us to be found somewhere better.
Next we went to the frontline trenches and museum at Hill 62, Sanctuary Wood, just a couple of miles from town. This was a fantastic place. The trenches have lost their perimeters and so seem a little shallow. There is a long underground rat run which you can go in for a considerable distance. It’s amazing how many trenches were crammed into the small wood. I imagine that they were closely arranged to make them even harder to attack. The Germans would have been only a hundred yards away just over a small hill. The museum has masses of weapons and memorabilia from both sides of the conflict.
Outside I tried to start the LML. It just wouldn’t get going. My first thought was that the auto choke wasn’t working. Midge held his hand over the air intake to richen the mixture and it started. I tought once it had warmed up I would be back in business. Instead I ground to a halt a few hundred yards down the road. It was time to see if it was sparking. Off with the seat and engine cover and the problem was soon obvious. The vacuum pipe from the inlet manifold had popped off. The spring clip had cut into the soft plastic and was no longer providing any grip. There was enough loose pipe for me to cut a centimetre off and push it back in place. The Lambretta owners still hadn’t threatened theirs with a spanner. Quite a surprise, I’m sure you’ll all agree.
We had spent a couple of hours in Ypres and had some light refreshments before continuing to the Somme. We set off south out of town and I was happy to allow sat nav to earn it’s keep. The route took us on ordinary roads where we stopped for petrol close to the French border. Across the road was a delightful patisserie where we bought some pastries.
Onwards, ever onwards, the gallant nine road crossing into France where we started to use the autoroutes. Mainly two lane and generally crowded, this wasn’t great riding. One advantage was that we passed the battle site at Vimy Ridge. We took a short detour up a hill. This site was crucial to the war effort. From the top you can see for, maybe, 30 miles, and the Germans were in possession of it. It was decided that taking the ridge was essential and a new technique of a rolling barrage was used to make progress up the steep slope. 60,000 mainly Canadian lives were lost but after a few days the ridge was captured. The Canadian war memorial is therefore sited at the top and is an overwhelming site. The ground around the memorial is peppered with hundreds of thousands of shell holes upon shell holes. Not even a square inch was left undisturbed. The sun shone and it was a moving experience for us all.
We got back on the autoroutes heading for our overnight digs in Auchonvillers, which the Tommies called “Ocean Villas”! About half a mile outside the village we stopped to regroup. When we got to Avril William’s guest house only a few arrived. After a wait we went back to our last stop to find that Kieron’s Scomadi TL200 had blown it’s engine. I’d noticed the odd puff of smoke when he gave it throttle and had intended to mention it, not that this would have saved the day. It was mainly down hill to Avril’s and with a bit of towing the stricken machine was taken there. After a ‘phone call it was on a transporter back to the ferry port within 45 minutes. A lesson for British recovery companies there, I think. Kieron continued on the pillion of Jonny’s GTS 300 for the rest of the trip.
We had intended to go to the local town of Albert by taxi for the evening but by now it was too late so Jonny and I went to find some food since we hadn’t asked Avril to feed us. This gave me a chance to do something I haven’t done since my French oral exam in 1978. I spoke French. My linguistic skills secured us not only bread but some bags to carry all sorts of supplies home in. When we got back Avril had taken pity on us and made us egg and chips, which was very welcome. We had a beer or two in her bar then she left us with the instruction to make a note of what we’d drunk to be paid for in the morning. It had been such a fraught day that I don’t think we drank any more and got to bed very early.
We were accommodated in several rooms which were equipped with single beds and were certainly cosy enough. Avril is English so thankfully serves an English breakfast rather than the squirrel food the Europeans eat. In her back garden is an original communication trench which we spent time exploring. This was a trench linking to the front line a mile or so away. There were several curious sheep and some tree climbing chickens in the garden as well.
We got away fairly early and our first stop was the Ulster Tower which commemorates the bravest of fighters from Northern Ireland. Some of us have connections to Ulster so it was a moving experience. It is a very close copy of Helen’s Tower which stands in the grounds of the Clandeboye Estate, near Bangor, County Down, Northern Ireland.
Next we visited the Thiepval memorial to the missing which commemorates 72,246 British and South African soldiers who’s bodies were never found. We found the names of some of our chosen soldiers but again we decided not to leave the teddies here.
We then went to the very place where the Chorley Pals had gone over the top on 1st July 1916. Their aim was to attack and capture the hamlet of Serre about half a mile downhill from a small woodland which is now called Sheffield Park. Under cover of shell fire men advanced into no man’s land and at 7.30am the officers blew their whistles. The men had been assured that the German positions would be so much destroyed that they only needed to walk forwards. The Germans were so well dug in that they had suffered few casualties even after days of shelling. The machine guns and artillery wiped out 60,000 on the Somme on that day alone. The Chorley lads weren’t in the first wave but 31 were lost. There are several graveyards around Sheffield Park including Serre road No.3, where my own chosen Pal was laid. Private Clarence Widdop had probably joined up underage and died in the attack, though his body wasn’t recovered until the following spring. Like me Clarence was born in Yorkshire and moved to Lancashire early in his childhood. I laid my teddy on his grave and sent the picture back to St. Peter’s school. A small memorial plaque dedicated to the Chorley Pals has been placed in the woodland and was a perfect place to leave the teddies which hadn’t been left at Ypres and Thiepval. A picture paints a thousand words and the photos of us there show how respectful and somber we were.
We then had a mission to visit the grave of Midge’s uncle. No member of the family had ever done so but this was finally an opportunity. With only the vaguest of directions we headed south towards Le Hamel. I again spoke french. Nothing for 39 years then twice in 2 days. I got the directions to a military cemetery but the one we found was dedicated to the Australians. Much head scratching and another incorrect cemetery visit proved the adage that “prior preparation and planning prevents piss poor performance.” Eventually we found the right place. Set in a large field of potatoes with the sun beating down we paid our respects. Then we sat on a grass bank outside and eat some of the food which we hadn’t needed the previous evening. Gorgeous. Almost worth the trip on its own.
Heading back northward we visited one more cemetery with the help of sat nav. This time we found a small area of war graves in a large civil graveyard. Another teddy laid by his namesake. By now it had become clear that we wouldn’t have the time to visit our final grave of the day at Amiens where a relative of Kieron’s was buried. The situation didn’t look any better when Bob’s Eibar had a soft seize. A second nip up shortly afterwards and a new plan was decided on. Kieron and Jonny would go back to Amiens the following morning and Norman agreed to go with them, all on Vespa GTS 300s. Midge and Bob waited for the scooter to cool down and said they’d take it easy on the way back to Ypres.
The rest of us continued together but got separated by traffic lights. Jonny and Kieron, Paul Mac and myself waited whilst Norman, the Scribe and the Bigot turned the wrong way. Sat nav saved them. After a fruitless chase by Jonny to catch them we headed north again and tried to pick up the pace on some gorgeous rural roads. This was so much better than yesterday’s trip south on the autoroutes. Time was tight and we arrived at the Menin Gate to hear the last post with 8 minutes to spare. The others cut it even finer but with a large crowd we didn’t bump into them. We had a massively welcome beer brewed on the premises of a fabulous bar within site of where we had parked our scooter in our desperate rush, catching up with the rest when we found our digs.
Bob, meanwhile, had found that his scooter was feeling much happier. So much so that he and Midge ignored all road signs and took a 60 mile detour north then south again. By the time they got back to Ypres they’d missed the last post and found us in a bar across the road from our digs.
Ypres is a fantastic place to visit and we managed to make up for the previous evening by drinking until all the bars had closed. We ate pizzas at some point and talked to some squaddies who were taking some time out for leisure under the watchful eye of their NCO. Bed came a little too soon after a great evening but probably saved us from hangovers.
We spent a superb morning in Ypres whilst Norman Kieron and Jonny went back to Amiens. Gifts were bought for our loved ones. Not sure if Midge fits into that category but I got him a chocolate spanner to reward his skills, which had been little tested so far. I was just enjoying a pastry and cappuccino when Midge said he’d had a text from the ferry company, P and O. I knew it was a hoax when he said that he’d been told the ferry had broken down and we now needed to get to Rotterdam to catch the ferry back to Hull. What a laugh that would have caused except for the fact that it was true! 167 miles to Rotterdam rather than 43 miles to Zeebrugge. We needed to get on with it and elected to use the crowded 2 lane motorways the whole way. We stopped at motorway services several times. At the final stop I needed to relive myself so went behind a grass bank where I said hello to a local engaging in the same activity. Paul Mac decided to do the same but was a little late and was warned off by 2 Dutch police officers. He just had to hold it!
We went through a tunnel where we had to pay a toll. The noise alone was terrifying, echoing from the wall as we were surrounded by trucks. Back at Europoort near Rotterdam there is a bar called “The Pub”. Beer has rarely tasted as good and a few slipped down rather quickly. The GTS riders weren’t so lucky. They hadn’t checked their text messages and only found out about the change of port as they sat having a swift one in a bar in Zeebrugge. A swift dash across northern Belgium and Holland got them to the ship with time to spare.
We got the scooters onboard and lashed into position ready for an evening of beer, food and weariness. The entertainment was no better on the larger ship back to Hull so we drifted off to bed. After breakfast and docking we split up on various routes back home. A few took the motorways for speed whilst Bob, the Scribe and I took the A59 through York and Harrogate.
We’ve all agreed it was a fabulous trip. In fact we were soon booking for next year. All of this year’s travelers along with 4 others are going to Normandy for a D Day commemoration. Can’t wait.