Western Front, 1914-1918, France/Belgium
At the beginning of the “Arab Spring” in late January 2011, I travelled to the Ieper/Ypres area of Belgium with my brother Mike and visited sites where Irish soldiers had fought and were buried on the Western Front. It was freezing weather as we strolled around Mesen/Messines looking for small cemeteries or locating, in an Arctic gale, the grave of Lieut. Col. Victor Rickard, CO of the Munsters killed at Aubers Ridge (May 1915) and buried at Cabaret Rouge Cemetery. At the tourist centre in Kemmel we were fortunate to meet Philippe Mingels, who is an expert on Irish soldiers stationed in the area, especially during the battle of Messines in June 1917. With his help with found the grave of Major Willie Redmond in Loker, the excavated Bayernwald trenches outside Wytschaete and the Irish Peace Park in Mesen (Messines).
As we are both interested in military history – our father was a captain in the Cavalry Corps of the Irish Army during the Emergency and two of his brothers were “Desert Rats” ‒ we began to plan organized tours to the battlefields of the Western Front. I organized two trips to the Ypres /Ieper area for students of Vienna University (2012, 2017), while Mike organized four in all – two to the Ypres/Northern France sites and two on the Somme. The infrastructure for military anoraks is superb in Heuvelland (Western Flanders), for our purposes especially the moderately priced accommodation and good food (not to mention the bar!) in the Peace Village hostel in Mesen and the reliable drivers of Suffis Bus (Poperinghe). Indeed, the whole area around Mesen und northwards into Ieper and beyond is ideal for tourists not in a hurry, rolling countryside where the roads are safe for a cycling tour. Fixed points on these tours were also: Flanders Fields Museum, Ieper; Passchendale Museum, Zonnebeke; Kemmel Tourist Centre (film show, exhibition on Irish regiments); Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, German Cemetery Vladslo; Tyne Cot Cemetery and Museum, Passchendale; Francis Ledwidge Memorial in Boesinghe and his grave nearby (Artillery Wood Cemetery); Australian Museum, Fromelles; “Shot at Dawn” memorial, Poperinghe etc. And, of course, one should not miss the “Last Post” ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ieper.
With Tom Dillon from Listowel, our “group photographer” and expert on The Royal Munster Fusiliers, Mike and I did a “recce” in Northern France in September 2013. On the basis of our observations, Mike organized another group from Ireland to the Somme battlefield in August-September 2014. We were based in St. Quentin and took part in the centenary commemorations of the “last stand” of the Munsters at Etreux in 1914. We revisited the area the following May, staying outside Arras. Places worth visiting along the Somme: Military Museum, Peronne; Devonshire Trench Cemetery; Ulster Tower; Thiepval Museum; Vimy Ridge Canadian Memorial and Museum; and Guillemont village church with memorials to the 16th Irish Division.
We noted that “war tourism” is far better catered for in Belgium than in France, not least in regard to language skills, good accommodation and museums. Our WW1 tours are on the back burner for the moment but the urge to bring groups to this part of Europe is an emotional attachment, especially to the staff of the Peace Village Hostel in Mesen and the drivers employed by Suffis Bus. Other factors are the happy memories or the good weather we always seemed to have, the comradeship and the sing-songs into the wee hours. Have a look at the details of our tour itineraries (2012, 2016) and the historical background to the battles (tour 2014). See also Picture Gallery.
Spanish Civil War: Spain
When I completed my book on Frank Ryan and the men from Limerick in 2014 (Fighting for Republican Spain), I organized a trip to Spanish Civil War battlefields in August, travelling from Barcelona to Belchite, the town left a ruin by Franco. It was captured, after heavy losses, by the American and Dimitrov battalion in early September 1937. Our group consisted of Richard Baxell, Emmet O’Connor, myself and my Viennese friend Christian Lendl, who is a cameraman, among his other talents (musician, historian of code-breaking, photographer and media studies lecturer). In Belchite we met our guide Anna Martí and her husband Enric Comas, spent hours in the ruins and wandered around the skeleton of San Augustin Church, where Jim Woulfe from Athea, Co. Limerick, was mortally wounded on 3rd September 1937 in the cloisters (since demolished).
Our journey then took us to Calaceite and the roads outside it, where the British battalion ran into Italian tank and infantry columns at dawn on 31stMarch 1938, with disastrous results. Among the prisoners taken that day were eight Irish, including Capt. Frank Ryan. Our base for the next few days was at Hotel Piqué, Gandesa. The town played a part in the Retreats of March 1938 and marks the furthermost point of the advance of the Republican Army during the Battle of the Ebro (July-November 1938). Gandesa could not be taken by the Internationals because the hills to the south were well-defended. Many Irish and British volunteers died in fruitless attempts to take Hill 481. Later on the battle moved to the mountains proper, Sierra Pandols, to hill 666 and Cota 705 nearby, and Sierra Cabals to the east. The last day in the war for the Brigades was 23 September, when the fascist broke through east of Gandesa on the Corbera-Les Camposines road (N-420), killing and capturing many brigadistas. Anna showed us all these sites, and there was a lot of clambering over rocks. Gandesa itself, a centre of wine-growing, has several small bars and restaurants.
There is a fine brass plate memorial to the memory of the British battalion on Cota 705, which was destroyed by fascists some years ago but has been replaced since. We also visited the renovated old church (now an arts centre) in Corbera, which is also a ruined town and can be visited by appointment. As in the case of Belchite, the new town was built nearby. Our last stop on the way back to Barcelona was Marçà, the base of the 15th Brigade between May and July 1938.
In August 2015 we repeated the experience, this time without Chris, who was replaced by our sprightly Yorkshire friend, John Halstead, a demon walker for all his 80 years. We were based in Gandesa, visited Belchite again and, in sweltering heat, the nondescript town of Quinto and Purburrell Hill on its outskirts overlooking the winding Ebro. It was captured in late August 1937 by the British battalion led by Paddy O’Daire, following the death of his predecessor Peter Daly. Once more we climbed around the Sierra Pandols/Caballs (Hill 481, Hill 666, Cota 705) and finished our tour by visiting the Civil War museum in Gandesa. The relatively new and modern Battle of the Ebro Museum in Corbera is much better. As in the previous year, our last port of call for a long lunch was at the excellent La Señia bar and restaurant in Marçà, Tarragona Province.
Our July 2016 trip was about battle sites in and near Madrid. We travelled around the Brunete offensive area. There are no traces of the war in Villaneuva de la Cañada, the village taken under heavy losses by the 15thBrigade, which is now a modern town. At least we found a good vintage point to view the offensive sweep of the Republican Army, with the high buildings of Madrid in the hazy distance. Unfortunately, you cannot see any traces of the fighting on the Heights of Romanillos (“Mosquito Ridge”), which remained in fascist hands and is now part of a housing estate. The area is dotted with bunkers and pillbox MG nests, especially near Brunete, and the castle of Villafranca del Castillo is still standing. On the second day we visited the scene of the British battalion’s involvement in the Battle of Jarama near Morata de Tajuna, delighted to find the sunken road and the hills where so many died in the days 12-14 February 1937. Some trenches can still be seen, and memorials. At the local Meson (roadhouse restaurant) there is a museum which has excellent exhibits.
In July 2017 we four pursued a more ambitious itinerary, Albacete and environs, starting from Valencia. The first stage took us to Albacete, headquarters of the International Brigades from October 1936 to March 1938. We stayed for two nights in the Grand Hotel, where IB functionaries lived, and explored the town. The bull ring still exists (it was closed), where Marty gave speeches of welcome to the British and Irish volunteers in January 1937. Our daily tour took us Madrigueras where the British battalion trained in the earlier days of the war, preceding the Germans. We found a memorial to the Brigades in a back street carrying their name. The next day found us in delightful Tarazona, the training base of the 15thBrigade from August 1937 to March 1938. It boasts an elegant square and cafés under the arcades. As in most Spanish towns we visited, the church in Tarazona was massive, a symbol of temporal as well as spiritual power. Villaneuva de Jara was the next opportunity for exploration, the town in which the first Americans (joined by some Irish) trained before the Battle of Jarama.
The drive over the mountains to Teruel has some spectacular views, not least the ruined Moorish fortress in Canete, allegedly where the Sephardic Jewish family of Elias Canetti originated. The village itself could serve as a film scene for an Italo-Western, replete with sleeping dogs and a bar without food. Teruel is a town perched on a hill surrounded by other hills and entered over a bridge. The heat was stifling and most places of interest closed because of stages being erected for a feria, with bullfights and music. The next morning we believe we found the site of the MG positions and the headquarters of the British battalion north of the town, defensive lines held during the latter stages of the battle in intense cold during January and February 1938.
Our short video on the men from Limerick in the Brigades is now online: