Interpreting the heritage of war

Lochnagar Mine Crater in La Boiselle, Somme

Frank Baldwin has been leading tours to European battlefields for over 25 years, and Val Baynton discovers how he uses his knowledge to help organise group tours.­­­

Frank Baldwin

Joining the Royal Artillery in 1979 and leaving service as a Major in 1989, Frank’s interest in battlefields’ history started when he was based close to Hameln, Germany, on manoeuvres, and discovered that the book he was reading on military history referred to the precise location he was deployed. This coincidence encouraged him to find out more about battlefields and his interest developed to understanding the stories of the soldiers involved in each distinct battle, and the broader significance of battlefields within society.

For the last 15 years, Frank has organised and led tours in his own time, joining the Battlefields Trust, of which he is now a trustee and Chairman, and the Guild of Battlefields Guides. (see panel on page 30)

Frank became more involved with battlefield travel in 2006, when he joined The Royal British Legion’s Poppy Travel. As operations manager, he planned and led pilgrimages and battlefield tours for the public, as well as for schools. He also led ‘Realities of War’ tours as a part of the training programme for recruits to the armed forces. He left Poppy Travel in 2012 to concentrate on developing his own battlefields tourism programme – Baldwin Battlefield Tours.

 

“Travel to battlefields is akin to a pilgrimage.” Frank Baldwin

Freelance battlefield travel professional’ is how Frank Baldwin describes himself, and planning, organising and leading tours to battlefields has been one aspect of his broad ranging business and leisure interests since 1987. He is keen to see Britain make more use of its battlefield heritage for tourism purposes and so set up British Battlefields to provide a commercial service for inbound or domestic battlefield tourism.

Frank has an army background himself, and believes that understanding how and why people died in battle is very important, whilst visiting the place where someone fell is a spiritual and emotional journey that requires the utmost respect from a guide. Frank explains, “Travel to battlefields is akin to a pilgrimage. Battlefields have a special status as sacred places where blood has been spilt and where many young people have died.” He also feels it’s fitting to travel to battlefields in other countries to acknowledge the work that overseas communities put in to maintaining memorials and cemeteries to commemorate British nationals who are buried where they fell, rather than being repatriated. “We can learn from the experience of others in caring for war graves,” he adds.

The Memorial to the Missing in Tyne Cot Cemetery

Over the last 10 years or so Frank has led around 160 tours to battlefields, both on behalf of Poppy Travel, the travel arm of the Royal British Legion and in his own right. Numbers on each tour vary from a group of eight to a full 49-seater coach. “I’ve taken all age groups from teenagers to octogenarians,” he says, adding, “every group has their own reason for visiting the battlefields and I want to ensure that the expectations and needs of each party are properly met. Frequently I meet the group first to learn more about their reasons for visiting so I can tailor the tour to fulfil their needs.” His tours concentrate on Northern Europe and he has led tours around Britain, to France, Belgium, Germany and Italy, as well as a few to Spain and Portugal.

PLANNING TOURS

For school groups Frank has found the way to engage pupils is for them to find out if any of their relations fought in the First World War. This was the case for one school group from Bishop Henry Compton School in Fulham, London, for which Frank organised a tour to the Western Front, whilst he worked at the British Legion. “With the information that some of the pupils discovered, we were able to include a visit to the relatives’ graves as part of the tour. This was very moving for them,” he explains. Additionally the students researched the story of Walter Tull, an East Londoner and professional footballer, who rose through the ranks to become the war’s only black officer, dying in 1918 fighting against a German attack. The group subsequently visited the part of the Somme where this incident occurred. Frank also helped the teenagers find out about the stories of two other soldiers – a former student and teacher from the school in the early 20th century. “What often strikes people, especially children, when they visit the Western Front, is how many soldiers came from other countries – from India, Kenya, Afghanistan as well as from Australia and Canada,” he adds.

“Generally itineraries for a visit to the Western Front need two to three days, depending on just what the reasons for the visit are,” Frank says. He advises about accommodation, which can be to suit any budget. He notes, though, “that for a non-family group it’s important that all rooms are of a similar standard,” adding, “Ypres is very good as a centre for a tour, and is well geared up for British visitors.” Hotels he likes to use include the Ariane, the Novotel and the Albion.

Exhibit inside Flanders Fields Museum

Prior to the tour, Frank ensures the coach company is aware of the nature of the visit – that the road conditions might be poor, and that when the tour party returns to the coach after visiting a battlefield, shoes and boots may well be muddy and clothing, wet. Frank also takes along a range of material to help bring the past to life. “I ensure that coaches have good audio visual equipment because I like to evoke the mood of bygone times by showing films and playing poetry readings and music – German songs as well as British ones.” Frank is more than happy to guide groups with special needs or mobility problems too, “but,” he adds, “these are often best in a small group so that I can be sure that access is possible for everyone everywhere we visit, I can also get more guides to assist on these tours if required.” Frank has found that booking coaches direct from the UK, is usually the most economic way of accessing the battlefields and Northern Europe, unless the party has a long distance to travel to the British channel ports, when flying may be an option. For trips to France, to Meaux via Paris, or to Brussels for Waterloo and the Battlefield of the Ardenne, then Eurostar can be an option especially for groups departing from London.Frank will then book a coach to meet the party at the arrival station.

 

THE BATTLEFILEDS TRUST AND GUILD OF BATTLEFIELDS GUIDES

The Battlefields Trust charity was founded in 1993 and is dedicated to preserving, interpreting and educating people about battlefield heritage. British battlefields cover 2000 years of history from Boudicca to the Blitz. The trust’s aims are several and include saving battlefields from destruction by urban development such as motorways, providing a range of battlefield related activities and information through a quarterly journal, Battlefield, walks and conferences, and liaising with local and national organisations to improve the interpretation and presentation of battlefields.

Frank Baldwin briefing a group from a London school in the Sanctuary Wood(Hill 62) Museum, where there are preserved trenches.

The Guild of Battlefield Guides was formed in 2003 to analyse, develop and raise the understanding and practice of battlefield guiding, and to provide an environment for guides to share information, expertise and knowledge. It offers professional development, insights into new approaches and areas of interest, and, through its validation programme, gives guides a chance to prove they meet exacting standards. The Guild website has details of its badged guides – Frank is Badge No. 8 – giving details of their specialities, the tours they take and how to contact them. Many commercial companies specialise in guided battlefield tours, some are affiliated to the Guild of Battlefield Guides and display the Guild Logo, signifying that they subscribe to the ethos and practices of the Guild, and, in fact, many of the Guild’s badged guides are employed by them. Frank served as the education member on the Council of the Guild of Battlefield Guides from 2008 to 11. He drafted the Guild’s strategy for equipping guides for the educational sector and organised professional development weekends for the Guild on the skills and expertise needed for guiding school parties and armed forces groups.

For further information about the Battlefields Trust and Frank visit www.battlefieldstrust.com and www.menbehindthememorials.com

 

MEN BEHIND THE MEMORIALS

With his new­­­ tourism project, Frank draws on his experience of guiding people to battlefields but he also wants to build into this the facility for groups to carry out research into former soldiers, creating a record and testimonial that can be kept for posterity. This kind of research is not just for families, but is a broader social project that can involve many community groups from churches to Masonic groups. “There is so much information available now,” he explains, “that it’s possible to trace the lives of the soldiers involved in a battle, and find out what their role was and their wider significance within the war.”Many private companies, for example, have memorials to former employees, and Frank has found that company linked retirement groups are now contacting him to ask him to help with research into these individuals and, ultimately, to plan and guide a trip to the battlefield. This type of work builds a legacy for the community. Frank works with other guides and military authors who can help lead the research projects for each group, he also has links with publishers who can advise about the most cost effective way of printing a permanent record of the group’s work.

 

VISITING YPRES

In 2006 Frank guided a small group from the Battlefields Trust to Ypres. This mixed group of 10 people from the south east of England was looking for a good value three night trip, and so Frank arranged accommodation at The Old Abbey in Lo, which has a quirky style, and friendly staff. It also has a bar established with a British Army canteen atmosphere that goes down well with groups – especially those with former or current soldiers in the party.

On this particular visit, the group started at the Menin Gate, having arrived the evening before. Frank likes to ensure the members of each tour group have an understanding of the conflict, along with its significance in British and world history and he finds this cemetery and memorial is a good place to outline the chronology and set the scene. “At Menin Gate the numbers involved and scale of the Great War is all too clear,” he says, continuing, “55,000 soldiers whose graves are unknown are recorded here, they came from all over the world and this is only a small proportion of those who lost their lives between 1914 and 18.” Following on from this the group visited the Hooge Crater Museum just outside of Ypres. “Museums help to put the conflict in context and gives groups a chance to touch and feel equipment and the trappings of war,” Frank explains. There are several museums in the Ypres area and Frank typically tries to match the museum with the interest of the group. The Hooge Crater museum has excellent collections of weapons and uniforms of the period and is set in a chapel built in the 1920s in memory of the fallen. Visitors can also tour the restored trenches, which evoke some of the horrors of the period. “It also makes a good lunch stop,” Frank continues, “as there is a themed cafe serving an excellent selection of food, which can be pre-booked.” For groups more interested in the social history of the period, Frank would choose the In Flanders Fields Museum, while the Sanctuary Wood Museum is an option for school groups.

In the afternoon, the group visited a cemetery. Sadly there are many to visit such as Tyne Cot in Zonnebeke, or Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, near Poperinge, but Frank chose the Essex Farm Cemetery for this particular expedition. This cemetery is linked to the story of the poppy being chosen as the symbol of remembrance. Canadian army doctor, and artillery brigade commander, Major John McCrae, composed the poem, In Flanders Fields, whilst working here. The cemetery also contains the grave of a soldier who died before reaching his 16th birthday – Valentine Jo Strudwick – whose death has come to be symbolic of all the underage soldiers who fell during the war. “If I am leading a party of students, I often come to this cemetery,” Frank adds, “because youngsters find it a very poignant place to visit and can relate to the age of Jo Strudwick.”

Passchendaele Cemetery
left The Last Post takes place daily at the Menin Gate in Ypres­­

After a restful evening, with some good food and conversation, during which the group had free time to explore Ypres, the party was ready for the second day of their tour. The itinerary included a visit to Passchendaele, the focus for battle in June to November 1917 and to the Zonnebeke museum, church and memorial plaque. With all his tours, Frank is always anxious to involve the needs of individuals within the party and if a guest wants to visit a particular cemetery with a family connection he will always try to include this, adapting the itinerary to suit. Often the request comes during the tour, rather than before, but Frank prides himself on his flexibility to be able to accede to such requests. Frank often includes a visit to a German cemetery, such as at Langemark, as part of his tours. He finds people are interested to see how other nationalities care for their dead and the many differences in the layout between a British and German cemetery – with British ones taking on the form of an English village churchyard, and a German one using dark stones with trees and hedges. The final visit of the day was to the Menin Gate to take in the Last Post ceremony. “This is one of the most moving parts of a visit to Ypres,” Frank explains, “but I find it is best to leave it to the end, when the group has a fuller understanding of what must be remembered and why.” One logistical point to consider, Franks notes, “is that the ceremony takes place between 7.40 and 8.20pm, so groups must choose whether to eat before or afterwards.”

 

“No two tours are the same “

For Frank there is really no such thing as a typical visit, because every tour is tailor made to suit each group and because there are so many places from museums to battlefields to include. For aviation groups, for example, he will include visits to airfields such as Abeele and the graves of airmen, or for church groups he has found that the Toc H club (Talbot House), a chapel and place of refuge, in Poperinge, is a frequent request (see page 35) For school groups he often includes a visit to Hill 60 near Ypres, where four Victoria Crosses were won in an area not much bigger than a football pitch, including one honouring a boy of 18 years, and to the grave of Welsh youngster Hedd Wyn, who is buried near Passchendaele (see page 40).

Frank believes that in the coming five years there will be much pressure on accommodation in Ypres and other towns close to the Western Front battlefields such as Arras, Albert and Preonne. However, there are many alternatives, including hotels outside of town centres, which provide very good quality facilities but groups need to be aware that transport into Ypres or other towns will then be needed in the evening. Frank is more than happy to arrange evening entertainment for groups who choose to stay in these hotels, and he will mastermind quizes, movie evenings and even talent shows!

Another option is to visit the Somme, in France, and here Frank constructs itineraries that begin with an orientation at the memorial at Thiepval, which is engraved with the names of 73,367 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell during the Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916, and who have no known grave. Other key places are the Ulster Memorial Tower and visitor centre, the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel, where there are remains of trenches as well as a visitor centre, to provide context for his groups. Other visits take in the Lochnager Mine Crater in La Boiselle – the largest man-made mine crater created on the Western Front – and a little further afield, the Vimy Ridge memorial. For Somme based tours, Frank recommends accommodation in Albert and Peronne where there are many choices from B & Bs upwards, such as the 3* Hotel Ibis in Albert and the 3* Saint-Claude in Peronne.