Background article about these visit’s from the XXIV Sqn Association’s Nominated Hawker Memorial Liaison Officer – Chas Whitaker.
As Remembrance Day 11 November 2015 approaches I thought it would be pertinent to write a piece for the Association Blog about the visits that 24 Sqn and XXIV Sqn Association members, and their wives and partners, have made to pay our respects to our first Sqn Cdr, Major Lanoe Hawker VC DSO, at his Memorial in the village of Ligny -Thilloy. As you may know, this Memorial was erected in 2012 – due largely to the initiative of Flt Lt Phil Mobbs (then a serving C-130 Captain on 24 Sqn at RAF Lyneham).
We had a very good trip again last year, but our party was very much the same team as has travelled on each of the three trips so far. So I thought I would try to encourage a few more to make the journey with us this year! First of all, a little background may be appropriate.
Although Major Hawker lost his life on 23 November 1916, his Memorial was actually inaugurated on 11 November 2012. This date was chosen because it was considered better to align the Inauguration with France’s Remembrance Day Commemorations.
Unlike our own Remembrance Day, which takes place on the closest Sunday to 11 November, France’s Commemorations ALWAYS take place at 1100 on the 11th day of the 11th month each year, (because this was the time that the Armistice was signed at the end of the First World War in 1918). So it is in an easy date for us all to remember! But it is not always a Sunday – and indeed 11 November 2015 falls on a Wednesday.
When settling on the 11th November 2012 for the Inauguration, this date was chosen – rather than the anniversary of Major Hawker’s death – because it was felt more people would visit and pay their respects at the Hawker Memorial in years to come if ceremonies coincided with France’s Remembrance Day.
Whether we will retain this tradition in 2016 – the one hundredth Anniversary of Major Hawker’s death – remains yet to be determined. Next year is also the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and it may prove appropriate to align the 2 Memorial Ceremonies
Naturally enough, the initial ceremony in 2012 was well attended by OC 24 Sqn and several of his officers as well as by a very good turnout of XXIV Sqn Association members. The Inauguration of the Memorial was deliberately crammed full with interesting touches, such as the participation of members of the German Air Force’s Richthofen Geschwader (named in honour of The Red Baron). Baron Von Richthofen was Major Hawker’s foe on the fateful day in 1916 when they met at 10,000 feet in the skies above the town of Arras. The dogfight lasted an incredible 30 minutes and finished at near ground level over Luisenhof Farm less than a mile from the village of Ligny -Thilloy.
Also present on 11 Nov 12 were the Station Commander and the Squadron Commander of the French Air Force Fighter Squadron then based at Cambrai – less than 10 miles from Ligny-Thilloy. This seemed appropriate because No 24 Sqn had been a Fighter Squadron in the First World War. It was considered worthwhile to involve members of the 3 Air Forces at the Memorial Inauguration, if possible, to underline the fact that the Royal Air Force, the Luftwaffe and the Armee de l’Air are all now allies.
2012 was of course the first year in which we met the Mayor of Ligny Thilloy, Monsieur Dominique Deleplace, and his excellent administrative assistant – Brigitte Le Grand. From the outset, they were fully supportive of the idea to erect a Memorial to Major Hawker alongside Ligny-Thilloy’s own Memorial to the villages fallen – military and civilian – of the First and Second World Wars. They were instrumental in ensuring that the Memorial was erected in a prominent position and that the whole area was beautifully landscaped. They also ensured that Major Hawker’s Memorial can be lit at night on important occasions.
Should you travel to France and decide to pass by and have a look, the site of these two Memorials is directly opposite the Mairie in the centre of the Village. I think that the location of Major Hawker’s Memorial alongside Ligny-Thilloy’s larger War Memorial is poignant, as it makes the point very clearly that Lanoe Hawker was flying in the defence of France.
In modern RAF parlance he was effectively providing Close Air Support and seeking to achieve Air Superiority over the German Air Force as the Battle of the Somme, and the Battle for Vimy Ridge in particular, raged beneath him a Century ago ! 100 years ago and yet for our generation, many of whose parents experienced the Second World War, it seems only a few yesterdays ago. And indeed, the Two World Wars were partially responsible for many of us joining the RAF when we were young men!
Returning to the present, Dominique Deleplace and Brigitte Le Grand’s organisation and unstinting cooperation during 2012 – and their continued and unfailing support ever since then – have been an absolute inspiration. When one is alongside them in Ligny-Thilloy each 11 November the reason for their support becomes clearer. Dominique always stresses the importance of the village’s children understanding France’s history and realising that their country has been under the heel of invaders repeatedly during the last 2 Centuries.
This is assuredly why Dominique was so supportive of the Plan to erect the Memorial to Major Hawker. And it is also why he and all the citizens of Ligny-Thilloy took XXIV Sqn Association Members under their wing and made us feel entirely part of their family when Dominique inaugurated the Hawker Memorial on 11 Nov 12. We were given the same wonderful welcome when we attended the Remembrance Ceremony in Ligny Thilloy the following year on 11 Nov 13, and again on 11 Nov 14.
Each year Dominique conducts the Memorial Ceremony in a secular, non religious manner and supervises the programme to permit the laying of Flowers and wreathes at the foot of both Memorials. His speech is always translated in parallel into English so that those of us who never learned French, or who have forgotten it over the years, understand what he is saying! Last year, he introduced a new theme, which was to review the contribution that women made to the War Effort in France in The Great War and to outline the terrible hardships brought about by the separation of families as the struggle for survival continued for years.
Ceremonial is added to the Commemoration Event by the presence of the National Flags of France, Australia and The United Kingdom – and also by the playing of the appropriate music at particular points in the Ceremony. Our own Sam Wright, in full Scottish Piper’s regalia, is always an instrumental part of the proceedings (sorry for that inadvertent pun!). And in 2012, Dominique’s Son in Law – a member of the highly acclaimed Orchestra of Bapaume – played an evocative rendition of The Last Post on his trumpet (rather than a Bugle). Later on 11 Nov 12, he joined a select number of musicians from the Bapaume Concert Orchestra when they played during the Vin d’Honneur Ceremony. In 2013 and Last year, his place was taken by his son Julien – not yet a teenager – who has clearly inherited his father’s musical gift.
Dominique is always at great pains to involve the village’s children in the Ceremonies as he wants them to fully understand the significance of France’s troubled history. They are always positioned where they can follow events easily and they are made to feel part of the proceedings. And one child is always chosen to lay flowers alongside Major Hawker’s Memorial.
In 2013, and again in 2014, Dominique has led us on a short 10 minute walk along a road through very lovely surroundings until we reach the Village’s cemetery. This is kept in pristine and beautiful condition and is a very interesting site to visit as it somehow feels more human than cemeteries in England! You will understand what I mean if you come with us in 2015!
This cemetery is the site of the Village’s Memorial to the Fallen of the Franco Prussian War of 1870 and 1871 and Dominique always conducts a short commemoration here too. Again, the children are made part of the event as he wants them to remember that war has been a repetitive element in the history of their nation. Last year a group of 6 of them, lined up in a prominent position, read out elements of a relevant account by Victor Hugo. Sam Wright also adds a special element to this ceremony each year when he plays appropriate music on the plaintive Scottish Bagpipes in this cemetery.
Once the 2 Commemorative Ceremonies are over, we then walk the short distance back to the Village’s modern Community Hall – the Salle Polyvalante Jacques Lolele (named after Dominique’s predecessor as Mayor), where we attend a Vin d’Honneur laid on by Dominique and where we are always made to feel incredibly welcome by all the villagers. They invariably offer us inexhaustible canapés and more libations of Kir or Champagne than are good for us! We respond by inviting Dominique and his wife Michelle to be our guests for lunch at Le Gourmet Hotel in the nearby town of Bapaume. In 2014, it was almost a Hospitality Competition because Dominique invited everyone back to the Village Hall again for another Vin d’Honneur after lunch!
It was during this last Convivial Ceremony in 2014 that the idea of Dominique and his wife Michelle attending the 100thAnniversary of the Formation of No 24 Sqn Royal Flying Corps later Royal Air Force was first proposed. Who could have known then that this would ultimately come to pass on 11 September 2015 at RAF Brize Norton and that they would be introduced to HRH Princess Anne on this auspicious occasion.
The reason that I am writing about the atmosphere and the excellent rapport that has developed between 24 Sqn, the XXIV Sqn Association and the village of Ligny-Thilloy is because I would like to encourage more of you to set sail for France in the years to come ! I should also stress that our trips also have a splendid convivial social side to them, beyond their official purpose!
As we have now been three times, we have discovered the most affordable and pleasant hotels in which to stay and the nicest restaurants in which to eat! We always deploy to France on the 10th of November and we cross the channel using the Ferries or the Channel Tunnel to reach Calais. We then drive some 80 miles on an excellent uncrowded auto route to reach the historic town of Arras – our Forward Operating Base! Last year, one of our members and his wife travelled by train via Lille – arriving in Arras at about 1715 and able to walk from the railway station to their hotel in just 5 minutes !
As most of us stay in a choice of 3 hotels in the vicinity of the Main Railway station (the Mercure, the Ibis and the Holiday Inn), their chosen mode of transport was very convenient and their arrival time was well planned! The rest of the team, who arrived a couple of hours earlier by car had initially entered the hold at the Leffe Bar in the Place d’Heros after reaching Arras’s beautiful, historic town centre. Yours truly was late on parade as I had “crashed” (metaphorically speaking!) at an Auto route Rest stop and only awoke when a “squawk” from Leffe Bar Control arrived via i-Phone! All of us eventually RV’d at the bar in the Mercure before taking a 5 minutes stroll to one of Arras many excellent restaurants for a pre-booked dinner (Well done the Chairman, now the President of the Association!).
Some sixteen of us duly sat down at Le Bouchot restaurant at 3, Rue Chanzy, where we enjoyed an excellent 2 or 3 course meal with wines (which came in at about Euros 25 per head if memory serves correctly!). Such meetings are great because they are really the mortar that binds our ever youthful band of ancient flyers together, cementing great friendships that we owe to our time on 24 Sqn.
We usually make Arras our HQ for 2 days, but some stay a third, so that they have time to take in the amazing breadth of places which can be visited in the vicinity of Arras – as well as in and and under the city of Arras itself. Yes, especially UNDER Arras! Until Keith and Peggy Chapman and I conducted a reconnaissance mission a year before the erection of the Hawker Memorial, I had no idea that beneath Arras there are over 20 kms of tunnels! These tunnels can be accessed via an entrance inside the Town Hall. And your tour guide will then recount how, in the First World War over 20,000 – yes THAT MANY – British and Commonwealth soldiers were garrisoned in these tunnels. Some lived in them for many, Many MONTHS! Take a moment to consider the implications of keeping this number of men alive and combat ready? Exactly! The task hardly bears thinking about! And no it wasn’t just a garrison; it was a hub from which expeditionary tunnels were extended beyond our own lines under the German trenches. And, of course the Germans counter attacked……. Make the journey, listen to the history recounted, and be amazed!
On this same trip in 2012, we also visited the Memorial to the Royal Flying Corps Cemetery at Arras where there is also quite an impressive Memorial to Major Hawker. Elsewhere in the RFC Cemetery there is a large Bronze plaque laid horizontally on stones at knee level facing some 200 or so headstones. This provides a map of the salient points where the RFC provided Air Support and then tells the story of the Air War as well. It is a small Memorial to a significant contribution and very well worth finding!
Also worth finding is the intensely sobering “Mur de les Fusillees” Memorial in Arras
This memorial is to those members of the Resistance who were captured and executed in Arras by the German Occupying Forces during World War 2. The area is about the length and width of one half of a football pitch split lengthways. At the centre rear is a solitary, vertical, dark stake. The purpose of that stake is crystal clear and totally sobering. The near vertical side walls and rear wall of this sombre area have been covered uniformly in plaques – made of engraved stone – bearing the name of each victim, male and female, stating what they did for a living and the date of their execution by firing squad. I was chilled by the memorials to 4 Polish men who were killed on 24 December 1944 – this date undoubtedly selected because it is Christmas Day in Poland.
There are of course many other locations which are worth visiting. It is incredibly thought-provoking to visit Thiepval.
As explained in this link, Thiepval is the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields. It bears the names of 72,194 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme battle sector before 20th March 1918 – and who have no known grave. Over 90 percent of those commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial died in the 1916 Battles of the Somme during the 5 months July to November 1916. This of course was the period when Major Lanoe Hawker was supporting them from the air.
History tends to glorify air aces, but there was nothing glorious about the War in which Hawker fought. It was awful. This was the word my father used when he watched the brief BBC TV News reference to the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1966. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. When I asked him why he was crying, he told me that nearly 40,000 British soldiers had been severely injured and nearly TWENTY THOUSAND had been killed in THREE hours on that day in 1916.
When I visited Thiepval in 2012 with a few of the XXIV Association members, I found the plaque that confirmed those facts. It made me think because at that time we had lost some 300 in Afghanistan and the British public was getting uneasy about that war by then. I wondered how the British public would have reacted to news about the failed offensive of 1 July 1916? I guess in those security-conscious days they probably didn’t hear about it for months!
I also walked the lines of the graves in Thiepval’s Anglo French Cemetery, where I found the headstone to a young boy who died at the age of 18. I would not have known that he was the Headboy and Captain of the First XI Football team of Hereford Public School had I not read the account left by his school. A party from Hereford school apparently lays poppies at his headstone on Remembrance Day every year. I wondered how his enthusiasm to join up must been effected when reality confronted him.
Why have I spent so much time proposing that you visit these sobering Memorials if you have not already done so? I am not entirely sure, except that it made me feel lucky that I was not born 120 years ago and very lucky that my whole RAF career had been served without exposure to anything like the Battles of the Somme.
I came away from these visits (and from an earlier visit to the Menin Gate) hugely conscious of the need for Politicians to consider their options incredibly carefully before they commit young men to war. It was interesting to me that this same sentiment was an instrumental element of the impressive Speech made by Lt Col Matthias Fensterseifer, OC 2 Sqn of the German Air Force’s Richthofen Geschwader , when he made his Presentation during the Vin d’Honneur following the Inauguration of the Memorial to Major Lanoe Hawker on 11 Nov 2012. And this, I guess, brings me neatly full circle!
Please give serious consideration to making a trip to visit Major Lanoe Hawker’s Memorial in Ligny-Thilloy the next time you are in France or, better still, join up with us on our visit in November this year. And of course, we need a large contingent on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary in November 2016 of Major Hawker’s Final Flight in November 1916………
No matter what the reason that helps you decide to come with us, I am certain that you will find the journey very worthwhile – and the social dimension will be great fun too! It always is!
“Fair stands the wind for France!”
(Derived From “Agincourt” by Michael Drayton).
It would seem that Every Generation has to learn The Hard Way……..