Latest news from The Cultural Experience
The Cultural Experience's two-weekly enewsletters feature interesting - and amusing - articles, book reviews and museum recommendations, as well as information about our forthcoming tours. You can also sign up to receive our news via email - see top right.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, February 2, 2013 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
Wurttembergers on the Somme 1914-1916 – WW1 contemporary art exhibition.
Last Tuesday lunch-time, Mark West found time to visit this art exhibition at ‘Abbott and Holder’s’ gallery in Museum Street in London WC1. The exhibition consists of “62 paintings in ink and watercolour which were personally commissioned from the artist Albert Heim by Lieutenant General Theodor von Wundt. Wundt commanded the 6500 Württemberger men of the 51 Reserve Infantry Brigade from 2nd August 1914 to 1st October 1916 during most of which time the Brigade was on the Somme battlefield between Ovillers and Beaumont Hamel and centred at Thiepval”
Says Mark, “Von Wundt was a famous mountaineer in his own right and had an English wife, so he would have had no difficulty in questioning the Irish prisoner, Cpl Stevenson, of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who is shown in (painting) no.48. He also had a sense of humour and self-deprecation, since had had no objection to being depicted having his ear examined or having his boots pulled off by his orderly; astonishingly he was even prepared to be painted with two of his staff officers under the legend “Die drei idioten”! About 16 of the collection have already been purchased, but the whole exhibition is on until the end of February (some of the pictures go to an exhibition at the Science Museum next week, but will all be back by next Monday). The general’s photograph album is also on display. The Wurttembergers’ records are still available in Stuttgart, so some enterprising soul may even discover what happened to Ruoff, Lach, Fat Basil, Baul and Moritz, the faithful hound.
Many of the pictures are for sale, but even if you cannot make the exhibition, it is well worth visiting Abbot and Holder’s website which displays most of the paintings with suitable commentary.
It seems that the much vaunted Spielberg biopic, released here in the UK on January 25th, isn't being shown all over the country. Which is a real shame for me stuck here in the West Country – I shall have to wait for the DVD. However if you have been or are will be lucky enough to see the film, you might be interested in this Los Angeles Times interview with Princetown University professor emeritus James McPeherson, author of the seminal Pulitzer prize winning American Civil War history 'Battle Cry of Freedom'. In my experience, it is rare for Hollywood to receive such academic accolades.
Of course, this year marks the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln's celebrated Gettysburg Address, and The Cultural Experience will of course be in attendance at the commemmorations this year. Our Gettysburg Campaign tour from 30 June – 9th July will include grandstand seating at the largest re-enactment since the battle itself.
The Earl of Cardigan
I was saddened to read about the further demise of the present Earl of Cardigan this week as he agreed to be bound over for 12 months. Nevertheless I was reminded of the first time that I came across the Earl back in 2003 when I was planning 150th anniversary tours to Balaclava. He was very keen to be involved but did not know how and asked if he could come over and see me to explore options. Of course I agreed, but imagine my surprise when a leather clad motorcyclist presented himself on my doorstep a few days later – I had never met aristocracy before, but I definitely wasn’t expecting this. In short he decided to join our anniversary tour with his wife, but he had also been contacted by some 17th Lancer cavalry re-enactors who had asked that, if he was going to the Crimea, could he lead them on their recreation of the famous Light Brigade charge which they were planning to perform on the very same spot at the exact time 150 years later. Without thinking, he agreed, and then it dawned upon him that, whilst he could ride a motorbike, despite his heritage, he had never ridden a horse! There followed a hectic few months taking lessons and true to his commitment on the anniversary, there he was to be seen on horseback following in those hoof-steps of his infamous ancestor exactly 150 years later.
Accompanying Cardigan around the Crimean War battlefields at that time was none other than Mick Holtby, who coincidently will be leading this year’s Crimean War tour from 16 – 22 May. As well as Balaclava, the tour will explore the battlefields of Inkerman and the Alma and, of course, the siege of Sevastopol.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, July 28, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
Treasure off the coast of Ireland
On January 30, 1941, convoy SL.64 consisting of 28 ships departed Freetown, Sierra Leone for Liverpool. One of the ships the S S Gairsoppa was a steam ship built in 1919 had joined the convoy after having left Caclutta in December laden with 7,000 tons of cargo containing tea, pig-iron and silver. She was low in the water and consequently slow and rapidly ate through her coal reserves forcing her to leave the convoy and turn to Galway and the coast of Ireland for resupply. On 17 February, U-Boat U-101 spotted the forlorn ship and unleashed 4 torpedoes upon it, one of which struck her bow and she started to sink. Of the 83 crew and 2 gunners abandoned ship amidst murderous German machine gun fire, but only Second Officer R.H. Ayres survived to tell the tale after spending 13 days in his life-boat.
In 2010 the British Government awarded Odyssey Marine Exploration the salvage contract by which the company gets to keep 80% of the value of any of the cargo recovered. Recent estimates place that value at around £125 million. However readers may remember the story of the 'Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes' which we reported below whereby the Spanish government successfully recovered the $500 million from Odyssey.
A unique Peninsula War grave?
After returning from our recent Wellington in Portugal tour, Peter Butt was inspired to perform further research which he has kindly agreed to share with us.
Having found that an ancestor fought in the Peninsular War 1808-1814 as a private, and survived, we have been on 2 Cultural Experience battlefield tours with Alan Rooney, last year: 'Wellington in the Peninsula' and this year: 'Wellington in Portugal'. Although there would appear to be many memorials to the officers in our Churches and Cathedrals a Peninsular war grave appears to be a rarity. On the first tour we visited the British Cemetery at Elvas, Portugal (1), which 'may' contain the bodies of 7 officers who were killed or wounded in Spain. On the second tour, we only saw George Lake's grave. Yet, Wellington when in conversation with Earl Stanhope in 1836 stated that he had, 'lost in Spain, killed, prisoners, deserters, everything – it amounted to 36000 in 6 years'(2), and estimates of the French dead alone begin at 250000 and extend to as many as twice that figure (3). After Talavera, 27 and 28 July 1809, Sergeant John Cooper 2/7th (Royal Fusiliers) wrote what would appear to be typical of the aftermath of Peninsula battles: 'The first work to be done, was to remove nine or ten thousand wounded into Talavera; and to bury four or five thousand dead bodies. What a task it was for 16 or 17 thousand hungry worn out men to undertake! 'Twas impossible! We had but few tools, and the ground was hard and rocky, therefore the dead were either thrown into dry beds of winter torrents, &c, and scantily covered with earth; or, together with dead horses, gathered into heaps and burned' (4).
In November 1807 the French had taken Lisbon without a shot being fired. During the first week of August 1808 Wellesley's (Wellington's) army landed some 95 miles further north along the coast before heading south. The French took up a defensive position 40 miles north of Lisbon on the 300ft high ridge south of the village of Roliça that blocks the southern end of the Obidos plain. The slope of the central part of the ridge varying between 45° to the near vertical but has four deep ravines cut into it which at least lessened the angle of approach but they narrowed further up the ridge. With brushwood on the sides of the ridges, the French position was a 'defenders dream'. Wellesley divided his forces into three. Two, to outflank the French on the right and left and he led the main force in the centre of the valley which included the 1/29th (Worcestershires) commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Lake.
Unfortunately Lake was the wrong type of leader for a diversionary attack compounded by the fact that the 29th became isolated in front of the rest of the army and as he wanted to win glory for himself and his regiment, as soon as they arrived at their ravine he advanced up it. Lake was on a charger 17 hands high and dressed in an 'entirely new suit, his hair powdered … his cocked hat placed on his head square to the front'. His reply to the comment, 'Colonel you are dressed as if you were going to be received by the king', was, 'Egad Sir, if I am killed today I mean to die like a gentleman' (6). Lieutenant Charles Leslie who was one of only three officers in the 29th right wing not to be killed, wounded or taken, wrote: 'We entered the pass, which was extremely steep, narrow and craggy being a dried-up bed of a mountain stream, so that at some places only 2 or 3 men could get up at a time. The enemy kept up a tremendous fire at point blank … The further we advanced the more the ravine receded into the centre of the enemy … after clearing the narrow defile, we entered upon some open ground thinly wooded under shelter of which the officers lost no time in forming the men, the whole then pushed forward and at last gained the wished for heights … When the enemy, who appeared to have been lying down behind a broken earthen fence, suddenly rose up and opened their fire. Colonel Lake called out , 'Don't fire, men; don't fire; wait a little, we shall soon charge, the bayonet is the true weapon for a British soldier', which were his dying words for as he moved forward to superintend the line being prolonged, he was marked and killed by a skirmisher, and his horse galloped into the French lines', to become the property of the French General Delaborde (5). At least with the French being diverted by the 29th, other regiments were able to press home their planned attacks with less casualties. George Lake's body was buried by his troops where he fell, and the monument was 'erected by his brother officers as attesting of high regard and esteem', in the middle of the now farm track facing down the way that the 29th had fought up. 'His action changed the battle of Roliça from an inconsiderable occasion to a perilous drama' (7), however Wellesley in his report of the battle wrote: 'we have to lament particularly of that gallant office the Honourable Lieutenant-Colonel Lake, who distinguished himself upon this occasion'(8). This comment could have been 'political' for George Lake's father Lord Lake, who also died in 1808, had been appointed to the household of the Prince of Wales, probably because the George III hoped he would have a beneficial influence on the Prince of Wales, becoming a gentleman attendant on the Prince from 1796 until his death. As Commander-in-Chief, India, the Wellesley brothers would have worked with Lord Lake and when in Parliament, 1790-1802, he had been a supporter of the Duke of Portland, who was now the Prime Minister (9).
George Lake's monument was restored in 1903 and the stone paved area and forged and cast iron railings added by the offices of the 1st Battalion Worcestershires. Some 20 years ago when Alan Rooney first visited the site he had to clear away bushes that had overgrown the monument to find that it was still there. The grave site is now clear and an information board has been added which tells of the incident in Portugese, English and French and was sponsored by: Câmara Municiple de Bombarral, The British Historical Society of Portugal, The Worcestershire Regiment Museum Trust, and Association of Friends of the Waterloo Committee.
The manner of George Lake's death is told consistently in each of the 5 books that I own on the war but understandably they give no information is given about his previous life. However, Googling produced contradictions concerning whether he was the 1st or 2nd son and even the year in the 1770's when he was born, but it was agreed that George had been his father's aide-de-camp in India. So, who was George Lake and why was he held in 'high regard and esteem' as to have a unique war grave?
References 1. http://british-cemetery-elvas.org/cemetery.html 2. Wellington at War in the Peninsular, by I C Robertson, Pen and Sword Books, ISBN 085052735X, page 328 3. Peninsula Eyewitnesses, C Esdaile, Pen & Sword Books, ISBN 1844151913, page 278 4. Talavera, by P Edwards, Crowood Press, ISBN1861267673, page 230. 5. ibid, page 52. 6. To War With Wellington, P Snow, Murray, ISBN 9781848541047, page 16. 7. Wellington, by Elizabeth Longford, Abacus History, ISBN0349112916, page 97. 8. The London Gazette 16177, September 3rd 1808, page 1186 9. Lake, Gerard, first Viscount Lake of Delhi (1744–1808), by Anthony S. Bennell, Oxford Dictionary of English Biography
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, July 13, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
A fantastic Kaliningrad Tour completed!
A reasonable Thursday lunchtime departure from the much improved London Gatwick (compared to my recent experiences at Heathrow, security at Gatwick was a real pleasure; logical and very efficient) saw us arrive only a few minutes late at Riga, but as we had a few hours to wait for our connection, this was not a problem for us. The Kalingrad flight arrived on time and we were soon whisked off to our hotel situated alongside the River Pregel in the centre of town. The hotel was modern and of an excllent quality with large comfortable rooms, health spa and the usual faciliities that you come to expect from a four star hotel. A late dinner was washed down with a welcome beer before we retired for the night.
Sadly the weather was against us and Friday started very wet as we made our way towards Bagrationovsk on the Polish border. Here we were met by the curator of the town museum resplendent in his Napoleonic period uniform; a captain in the Russian artillery. Aleksander then proceeded to take us around his museum exlaining the collection of exhibits, many found on the battlefield of Eylau. He also provided a useful explanation of period uniforms in the Russian army. The rain was still coming down as we commenced our battlefield tour, which made walking the battlefield quite uncomfortable, so initially we drove across the battlefield to Klein Sausgarten, before returning to the centre of the Russian position where we climbed the small hillock to look towards the French lines. If we thought we were uncomfortable, we could spare a thought for those fighting on 7/8 February 1807 where the temperatures were as low as minus 15 centigrade and the snow storms blinding. The ground here is gently undulating and apart from the woods, quite featureless and one could imagine how a whole army corps could lose its sense of direction whilst marching through blizzard conditions. Equally such ground was perfect cavalry country and one could appreciate how it might have been for Russian infantry to deal with 90 squadrons of cuirassiers and dragoons bearing down upon them.
An enjoyable traditional lunch was taken in a nearby restaurant before we made our way to Pravdinsk. We travelled over featureless countryside with few natural barriers other than the Rivers Alle and Pregel, the former exhibiting its steep banks - a real military obstacle. The local town guide was waiting for us and opened up the church tower, from the top of which one gains the most splendid view of the battlefield of Friedland; from the Sortlach woods to the south, the meandering River Alle, the town itself, the millstream, the woods to the west and Heinrichsdorf to the north. We could see the bridge and the sites of the pontoon bridges, the routes of approach for both armies and of the retreat of the Russians along the banks of the Alle. It is one of the greatest battlefield grandstands in Europe and fortunately for us the weather turned in our favour as we stood on that magnificent spot.
Switching our attentions to April 1945 and the battle for Konigsberg, we started Saturday with a tour of General Lasch's command bunker in the centre of the university district. There are many interesting photographs and films on display here through which the tragedy of Konigsberg became apparent. Firebombed by the British in August 1944 and then bombarded by the Russians before being stormed, much of the city was destroyed. Any buildings symbolic of former German presence, such as the Royal Castle were dynamited by the Russians years after the war and if it had not been for the corpereal presence of Emmanual Kant, the cathedral might have gone that way too. Thence to the city's museum of art and history were, using a large illuminated map, the curator and former Russian paratrooper colonel, provided a convincing and enigmatic explantion of the final battles for the city. Amongst the wealth of Russian weapons and uniforms, the museum also displays the large model which the Russians used to plan their assault and which took ten man-years to make. This was a very useful orientation tool for the later visits to the city fortifications. For many the highlight of the tour was meeting Colonel Gavrilov, a former T34 tank commander, veteran of Stalingrad and who partook in the attack on Konigsberg. His spritliness and lucidity belied his 89 years and no subject was taboo. You can view some of the interview we enjoyed on our Youtube page . We heard how during his four years he changed tank only four times, how the T34 had been improved during the war and the tactics that were adopted when fighting in built up areas. Fortunately, I was able to video much of this fascinating question and answer session and we will publishing much of it on our web site and Youtube page shortly.
The final stop this morning was at one of the ring forts which was siezed from the Germans after a bitter struggle. Fort Frederick William III still bears the scars of almost 70 years ago, although its rear was destroyed when captured ammunition was detonated after the war. Most of the ring forts still exist, but with the exception of this one and Fort Stein, they are dangerous places to visit as many remain as they were left in 1945, being dark with many floors missing. The city museum has made this one safe and it was good to see that, since my visit last year, they have spent rare funds on creating a couple of new exhibitions and generally tidied up the fort. Of course the forts were built in the late 19th century and designed for use with mobile artillery, so whilst they have many casemates, there are no fixed gun positions, rather they have long gun platforms allowing guns to be placed in any position. This lack of protection meant that the fort's artillery was knocked out early on (the one hastily erected fixed gun position protecting the rear entrance of the fort excepted), but of the 150 or so shells that landed on the fort only two were able to penetrate, thus the German garrision proved difficult to winkle out.
Lunch was taken in the 'Teutonic room' of an unusual very up-market 'cultural centre' and one could only imagine what those cultural events might be, albeit in very comfortable surroundings. Again we experienced delicous Russian cuisine which set us up for the afternoon visit to Baltysk, a town that, until recently, denied access to foreigners. Indeed our visit had to be pre-approved and copies of our passports taken for us to gain access. Much of Pillau was destroyed in 1945. The star fort houses a Russian military unit which made it off-limits during our visit, but we were able to stand on the Baltic seafront opposite the entrance to the Frisches Haf and the Frisches Nehrung spit. Our visit also included the recently created German cemetery judiciously maintained with funding from the Reichstag. The import of the statue of Empress Elizabeth did not go unremarked upon, the Russians reinforcing their claim to the region by virtue of her seizing the area before it became known as East Prussia.
Sunday and we started with a tour of the 19th century fortifications. Most of the gates survive, none more so than the Royal Gate which has been restored to its former glory. Conversely the Cronprinz barracks stand just as they might have been abandoned in 1945. Here in its courtyard one can hear echos of its past; the drill sergeants barking their orders, the beat of marching feet and the clunking of rifles brought to the salute. An earrie and haunting place. Passing many other gates and towers (the individual fortifications were standalone linked by an earthen rampart, all traces of the Vauban defences having been removed) we took a brief stop at a local market before visiting the Friedland Gate Museum which interprets pre-war life and architecture in Konigsberg. Whilst this was fascinating for our tour party, it must be more so for the locals, who for many years were forbidden to mention the word 'Konigsberg' let alone speculate what it must have been like.
We then set off to Sovetsk for lunch and a visit to the town museum where we were met by its delightful curator. She and the town's goverment have been very crafty and managed to secure funds from the European Union to develop its interpretation of the Peace of Tilsit. We then toured parts occupied by Emperor Alexander before walking under the Queen Louise bridge to the overlook where the famous meeting of the two Emperors took place on a raft in the centre of the River Nieman. A fitting end to our itinerary. During dinner on this, our last night, we were entertained by a local Russian folk band whose harmonies, rhythym and presence entranced us all. Indeed they finished far too soon. And so to the bar and thence bed for we had a fairly early start the next day to catch our flights home from Kaliningrad.
Kaliningrad and its region is a contradiction. The area was ethnically cleansed of its German population after the war and replaced with people from all over the former Soviet Union. During the Soviet times, mention of its former past was forbidden, Breznev giving the order for the destruction of many buildings to reinforce this directive. But with the coming of Glasnost, the cloak of denial has been gradually removed to the extent that today its Russian population positively hanker for its past. Black and white photographs of pre-war Konigsberg are ubiquitous and many buildings have been restored. They promote its Teutonic past and revive many of the German traditions and myths. Our hotel was a classic illustration of this conundrum; a modern hotel built in neo-gothic style on the waterfront alongside other new buidings designed in the style of its German past; opposite, the ugly Breznev era concrete blocks of apartments that look like they might collapse at any moment; the lovingly restored Dom cathedral sits isolated on its verdant island (that pre-war was a dense mass of buidings) and in the background on the site of the former Royal Castle sits the grotesque 'House of Soviets' that was so poorly designed and constructed that it was condemned before it was completed and consequently has never been occupied. Many uncompleted captial projects stand alongside some superb three lane highways which are suddenly interupted by permanent road works diverting the fast moving traffic onto dirt tracks before it regains the highway; witness the airport upon your arrival and your journey into the city. Its people can be lazy, sullen and extremely unhelpful until you acknowledge them and give them a smile and then they can't do enough for you. For us all, this tour was a remarkable and unforgettable experience. Perhaps Kaliningrad represents the last vestiges of the former Soviet Union without the restrictions.It is a city that is growing up, adolescent with its Moscow parent giving it very little attention. It is not easy to enter, but it is very worthwhile making the effort and we are all so pleased that we did.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, June 30, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
In the footsteps of General Sir Rowland Hill
I had been working and looking forward to this special family group for sometime, ever since Robert Hill telephoned me to discuss the possibility of a Peninsular War tour following the exploits of his illustrious ancestor, General Sir Rowland Hill. I suggested that the tour coincided with the bicentenary of the General's notable success at Almaraz on 19 May 1812 and so the dates of the tour were set around this.
Despite a few family members from South Africa and Dubai dropping out as the departure date approached, on 14th May 2012, I welcomed some 16 members of the family, some of whom had travelled from as far away as New Zealand and Singapore. Thanks to British Airways cancelling the mid-morning flight to Lisbon, the family had to switch to the early morning flight. But the silver lining was that we could take advantage of the additional time in Lisbon and start our tour on the first day by visiting the Lines of Torres Vedras.
Starting at the monument of Hercules which was raised to commemorate the laborious achievement that the creation of the Lines represented, we gazed fore and aft over the area of responsibility that was General Hill's during the four weeks that Wellington's army waited to see whether Massena would attempt to break through. After a welcome lunch stop at Bucelos, we climbed atop of the Montachique 'cabaca' from where we gained splendid views to the first lines and along the second. Indeed the visibility was good enough to make out the Tagus estuary, the Atlantic coast and Cintra, to name but a few of the landmarks visible.
Continuing our drive north, we stopped off at the superbly restored Sao Vicente fort above the town of Torres Vedras. Here we discussed how the fort and its signal station would have operated in 1810. We ended the day at our wonderful art-deco hotel, built during the First World War. Hercule Poirot would not feel out of place here, even in modern times. The family quickly fell in love with the place and its magnificent gardens and were pleased for it to be our base for the next two nights. We spent a memorable first evening having dinner in the very atmospheric dining room with the strains of 1920's jazz playing from the balcony above us.
Tuesday and we set off in pursuit of General Hill as he advanced along the coast towards Porto on Wellesley's left flank. A short stop on the banks of the Vouga put the expedition into perspective, courtesy of a 'sandpit' talk in the mud of the recently receded river. And then we found ourselves besides the Aveiro lagoon where a wonderful example of a brightly painted Portuguese fishing 'skiff' provided a lovely photo opportunity. These were exactly the type of boats that Hill and his men would have sailed in all the way up to Ovar, our next stop, where in the beautiful sunshine we took morning coffee (one or two taking something stronger!) overlooking the probable point where Hill's brigade disembarked.
Thence on to the outstanding mirador overlooking the Douro above the Dom Luis I Bridge and from where Wellington oversaw the audacious crossing. The commanding position dominates both the city of Porto and the approaches to the seminary that was fortified by Hill and his men immediately they crossed the river. The sun still behaving itself, we went down to the riverside and enjoyed lunch in one of the traditional restaurants there. A late start to the afternoon saw us at Graham's port lodge, where following an interesting tour and short film on Warre's Port General William Warre, one of Hill's contempories, we indulged in some port tasting. Sadly, the airport liquid restrictions prevented many from purchasing their favourite tipple and I fear that this may become increasingly problematic for the port lodges as their tours fail to self finance themselves. Nevertheless in a happy state we all boarded our coach for the return journey to our hotel.
Wednesday was Busaco day and we started our tour at Massena's windmill headquarters at Moura where the 1810 campaign was put into perspective. With Hill having shadowed Reynier's march from Extremadura we looked along the ridge to the south where he took up his position above Penacova.
The battlefield military museum has a good introductory film which many found informative and the museum has adopted the very good idea of placing small videos besides a number of weapons showing re-enactors demonstrating their operation and use in combat. Simple but effective. Our very co-operative and skilful driver, Nuno, negotiated the off-road track to gain us easy access to the rocks below which Reynier's first attack was dealt with by soldiers from both Picton's and Leith's divisions. At Craufurd's 'mill' we marvelled at the achievements of the French in gaining access to the heights before being sent fleeing back down again by the Light Divison.
Finally our tour ended at the battlefield monument where we understood the importance of the battle to the Portuguese and how their defeating of the last French attack created a self-confidence in their ability that was also appreciated by their British comrades. Amongst the splendour of the dining room in the neo-manuline Busaco Palace hotel we enjoyed a late lunch of the regional speciality of the very tasty suckling pig washed down with a few glasses of rose which set us up for the southward journey to our splendid five star hotel looking out across the Atlantic Ocean and our base for the next two nights. A superb buffet dinner was on offer, but our stomachs having been somewhat taxed by lunch, little advantage was taken of it.
Thursday saw us visiting the battlefields of August 1808. Starting at Rolica we looked towards Obidos from where the advancing British army advanced in line, colours flying, bayonettes glistening, with Roland Hill commanding his brigade in the right centre.
We drove in to the heights above the little village and stood in the gully where Colonel Lake of the 29th was killed leading his men. The dangers that accrued to senior officers leading from the front became apparent. Thence on to Porto Novo, where standing on the beach in front of the powerful surf we appreciated the difficulties of bringing an army ashore and the chaos that ensued afterwards. After a coffee besides the beach we made our way to Vimeiro where Rui Filipe, the curator of the interpretation centre was waiting to greet us and provided an informative and humorous battlefield talk before taking us around this gem of a museum. He then kindly surprised us by bringing out a bottle of port where we all toasted the success of the centre and of course General Hill.
Our next stop was at Ventosa from where we gained a panoramic view of the main part of the battlefield where the events all fell in to place. A late lunch stop at the stunning little Moorish fortress town of Obidos followed before returning to our hotel to enjoy its many facilities and another superb buffet dinner.
Friday and we started our drive towards the Spanish border, stopping off for lunch at the UNESCO Roman and Moorish town of Evora where some of us where caught enjoying rose and tapas in the sunshine of the courtyard of a hidden away bar. Only the intimated mass walk out could stimulate the laid back waiter to deal with the bill. I am sure many of us could have whiled away the afternoon there, but we were on schedule to meet two members of the family that emigrated from Kenya to Portalegre some 10 or 15 years ago. Charles Harris had the grounds opened of the quinta that was locally known as 'Wellington's House' before taking us back to his own splendid house, where in the shade of his enormous pagoda we enjoyed a typical British afternoon tea whilst Charles and David Hill recounted anecdotes from the Hill family's colonial past.
In recognition of his hospitality, Robert Hill presented Charles with a silver plate commemorating the tour and engraved with the family coat of arms. Thence on to the daunting fortress town of Elvas on the Portuguese border where we stayed in what was once the town's military hospital and no doubt would have nursed many of the wounded from Talavera, Albuera and Badajoz.
The bicentenary of Almaraz and the day started early at the British Cemetery at Elvas where we paid our respects to the fallen and from where some magnificent views of the city fortifications can be gained. In a short period of time the 'friends' have refurbished a forgotten overgrown cemetery and brought it in to the public eye. They have even purchased and restored the adjoining Hospitaller chapel (Project Hougoumont take note!)
We were under time pressure, as crossing the border into Spain we lost an hour, meaning that we could only pay a fleeting visit to Badajoz, standing before the imposing walls of the Santa Maria and Trinidad bastions, the site of the breaches which were so bloodily and unsuccessfully assaulted by Wellington's men on 6 April 1812. We continued further into Spain arriving at Fort Napoleon, assaulted by Hill and his men on this very day 200 years ago. On cue, the sun revealed itself and out came the picnic and bubbly (which had been chilling nicely in the fridge on-board the coach) and a family toast was raised to the great man by all present. (I must add a big thank you to Celia Denney who put together the picnic). We then headed for the little village of Romangordo, the parish of which Fort Napoleon resides, to be greeted by the lady mayor and other local dignitaries who were unveiling a plaque to the battle in the village square and most importantly inaugurating a brand new interpretation centre.
This centre is probably one of the most impressive and informative of all the Peninsular War museums and is due in no small part to the funding received from the Almaraz nuclear power station which allowed them to engage a professional creative team to design and construct it. After exchanging speeches and sampling the local sangria we made our way to our lovely 16th centry convent parador in the magnificent conquistador town of Trujillo. The main square is dominated by a statue of Pizarro which is an acknowledgement of the fact that some 500 years ago local destitute men hardened by the extreme Extremadura climate left Europe to seek their fortunes in South America and returned with undreamt of treasures which they spent creating the fine buildings that can be seen in Trujillo today.
And so to our penultimate day, which after the emotive and entertaining events of yesterday, we had little expectations of. More wrong we could not have been. On the edge of the remote pretty village of Arroyomolinos we were met by a deputation of villagers who escorted our coach through the narrow streets to stop outside the town hall where we were greeted by the mayor, his wife and the deputy mayor who spoke to us about how the village had embraced the bicentenary of General Hill's raid of 28 October 1811.
In planning for the event, the village, which has a population of no more than 1000 people, split itself into various groups, each of which took it on board to recreate a regiment that had fought in the famous action. The ladies of the village handmade uniforms of the British 34th, 92nd, 50th and 60th, the French 34th line, 10th Hussars, Portuguese Cacedores and Spanish cavalry. There were hand made regimental and king's colours of the Border Regiment. Regimental 'commanders' had drilled their regiments using authentic words of command and it was delightful to hear English commands such as 'halt' and 'present' given by locals who otherwise could speak no English. And their drill was not bad either. From the local sports hall we watched the regiments march past and take up their various positions in a field on the edge of town. And solely for the benefit of the Hill family, the recreation of the battle commenced, each unit following a rehearsed routine.
Upon completion, David Hill made another well received speech of thanks and we all retired to the sports hall where a magnificent buffet was laid on for everybody. Virtually all the produce was local, including the wine and it gave us all an opportunity to show our appreciation, culminating with exchange of gifts between Robert Hill and the mayor. Sadly, with time pressing we mounted our coach and as we left, the villagers sang us off. A memorable morning which, if possible surpassed the events of the previous day.
By the time we arrived at Talavera, enthusiasm for a full battlefield tour was waning and so we briefly discussed the battle from the monument before heading off to Toledo and our superbly appointed parador above the River Tagus. From its terrace we indulged in pre-dinner drinks whilst enjoying breathtaking views over the entrancing historical city of Toledo.
During a farewell dinner we reflected on what a rewarding and entertaining holiday this had been and many resolved to engage in following the further exploits of the great General next year.
Monday; and due to the timing of our return flights we were allowed our first 'lie in' of the tour, before taking the short journey to Madrid airport to complete this excellent Tour.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, June 12, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
War in the Desert: Tunisia - Tour Report
A late flight (in fact the only direct flight from London) arrived at Tunis airport to be met by Mick Holtby and our tour manager, Nor, who accompanied the group to their hotel in Carthage where they enjoyed a welcome drink before a late dinner.
The first day proper started with Mick giving a briefing on the background to the Torch Landings. Thence to visit sites of early actions of the 1st Army such as those of Blade Force at Coxen's Farm, Djedaja Airfield, Tebourba, and the Chougi Pass. Incorrectly assuming that Tunisia was a typical North African country, many of us where struck by its verdant countryside, especially lush in this late spring tour. Much of the terrain was difficult and remote and thus a packed lunch allowed uninterrupted touring throughout the day. A good start to the holiday, although one of our party was suffering from an imported stomach upset and remained at the hotel.
Our final day in the north with the 1st Army saw us head out to Massicult, Longstop Ridge and the bridge at Medjez el Bab. At Bou Arada we saw the ground over which Operation Eilobte was launched on 18 January 1943 and travelled over the Goubellat Plain to the Grandstand Ridge and Two Tree Hill. It was a very long and complicated morning and upon reflection we should have taken another picnic lunch with us, but nevertheless we made it back to Tunis for a late lunch and some time for personal exploration.
Tuesday and we checked out of our hotel to commence our journey southwards via Enfidaville and the isolated position at Takrouna. At the latter we were fortunate to bump in to Trevor Sheehan, who was in the midst of his research for his forthcoming book on the Tunisian campaign and he kindly shared his knowledge of the Takrouna battle with us. After lunch at lovely traditional restaurant we headed for the magnificent Roman ruins of El Djem ending our day in Sfax, where we paid a visit to the graves of 4 winners of the Victoria Cross.
Wednesday was one of the more ambitious days in that we covered three battles and time was to become very much our enemy. At Wadi Akarit we appreciated the military obstacle presented its steep banks and understood how the fight rapidly became an infantry battle only. We enjoyed the museum and exploring the forts of the Mareth Line and gained a great insight in to the strength of this Axis position. By contrast the Medenine battlefield was dominated by the high ground occupied by the 8th Army against which the Germans were given a bloody nose in an exemplary battle of defence.
Thursday was far more relaxed with a mix of battlefields and culture. We visited a typical troglodyte house at Matmata where a way of life unchanged in thousands of years continues unabated. Dropping down to the plains below we found a magnificent spot overlooking the desert and the mountains from where we discussed the famous left hook through the Tebaga Gap and where, serendipitously, appeared a modern day armoured column belonging to the Tunisian Army emphasizing the advantage of armour operating in such terrain. After lunch at the lovely town of Douz, where a couple of us took the opportunity to ride camels, we made our way in to our desert camp via the 'Sahara Express', which was a slightly farcical tourist train of the variety that you might find in a theme park. Although the camp offered very comfortable Berber tents with full facilities at hand, we felt that, as a desert experience, something was lacking. However, it proved a great venue to celebrate Denis's birthday.
Friday saw us crossing the salt lake known as the Chott el Djerid which protected Rommel's right flank against the advances of the 8th Army. The extent and colourful magnificence of the water will be etched in many of our memories for years to come. After checking in to our hotel at Tozeur we took an excursion to the oasis of Chebika Tamerza. A gentle day which allowed us to recharge our batteries.
Today, Saturday, was to be a long drive requiring a fairly early start. Armed with a packed lunch we headed for Kasserine where we were held up by local villagers blocking the road as a form of local protest. Not to be thwarted, Mick and Nor engaged the services of a local who in true partisan style guided us along a track that skirted the village and we climbed up to hills above Kasserine from where gained some superb views over the battlefield. Just out of the pass we stopped to enjoy a very panoramic packed lunch. One of the most memorable stops was at Fondouk, where Mick gave us a passionate and fascinating account of the battle from the 17th/21st Lancers' perspective. Perhaps the best day of the tour ended in the wonderful city of Kairouan and a magnificent five star hotel.
On our final day we enjoyed a tour of Kairouan including the beautiful Grand Mosque, the Mausoleum and, of course a regulation visit to the carpet shop! After lunch we headed back to Tunis via Hammamet and on to Hammam Lif, the capture of which led to the surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa some days later: a great place to end the battlefield aspect of our tour. But the day was not to end there as due to the late return flights, we still had time to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage.
It would be fair to say that our future Tunisian tour will be less ambitious (we covered nearly 2800 kms in 9 days!) and it will benefit from the experiences and many of the comments of all concerned. Nevertheless this was a very enjoyable tour and one in which all concerned were pleased to have been part of. The complexities and topographical challenges overcome by the armies of both sides during early 1943 can not be appreciated until one travels over the ground. Indeed the countryside of Tunisia is where the desert warfare of 1940 – 1942 transitioned in to the mountainous terrain that was to be later experienced in Italy from 1943 to the end of the war. If this has whetted your appetite for a desert war battlefield tour, its not too late to book in our War in the Desert: Egypt tour which departs 21 October.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, May 26, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
Wellington in Portugal
The flight to Lisbon being slightly delayed did not impact our first stop on the tour at Rolica where we stood in Delaborde's first defensive position and gained a magnificent view northwards towards Obidos. We could well imagine Wellesley's virgin army deploying into line as it marched towards us, colours gently fluttering, bayonets glittering and the increasing crackle of musketry and rifle fire as they got closer. As did Delaborde, so we repositioned ourselves on the commanding heights above Rolica. In one of the four gorges that pierce the position, besides Colonel Lake's restored monument, we heard how the 29th pushed on too far and took a galling fire from the French from all sides. It is remarkable how well kept this monument is today as I well remember visiting this place nearly 20 years ago and having to clear the bushes that had overgrown it to reveal its sorry state. It is revealing how a bicentennial raises awareness of these long ago events, as during our visit the monument had a poppy wreath placed beside it. Is it just a matter of time before we find wreaths placed over the graves of fallen Roman soldiers too?
On to our hotel for the night, a beautiful five star hotel situated on the Atlantic coast and where we enjoyed a splendid buffet dinner. The following morning we set off for Vimeiro and from just outside of the village of Ventosa we obtained a magnificent panorama of the battlefield. A spectator at this vantage point in August 1808 would have observed both the French assaults on the town and Colonel Taylor's fateful cavalry charge. From here it was but a short hop to the other side of the hill where the French flanking attacks were dealt with. We then popped in to the wonderful Vimeiro battlefield interpretation centre where we were met by its indefatigable curator, Rui. In my opinion, never has European funding been better placed, but then perhaps I am biased. However in these times of austerity it is particularly important to make sure that the guest books at these places are signed to help keep the accountants at bay.
At Porto Novo we stood on the beach and admired the powerful waves crashing on to the steeply inclined beach and understood how difficult it must have been to bring Anstruther and Acland's brigade ashore through the dangerous surf. The bars and cafes alongside presented an unmissable coffee opportunity before we set off for a late lunch at the wonderful Moorish fortress town of Obidos. The sun was out and many of us sat in the streets enjoying the local bachalhau with a chilled glass of Mateus rose. Thence on to Mondego Bay or Lavas as its better known today where we once again saw the rolling surf that Wellesley's men had to struggle through on 1st August 1808. The relentless thirst of the marching troops for lack of drinking water could be appreciated as we drove along the sandy coastal plain until we turned inland and followed the line of the river Mondego to Coimbra. From there it was but a short hop to our hotel in Curia where we stayed for the next three nights. And what a magnificent hotel. Although recently furbished, it retains its 1920's art deco style, which could be seen at its most impressive in its vast two story lobby, outdoor swimming pool and imposing dining room, which in turn overlooked the wonderful ballroom. But most of all I will remember the hotel for its beautiful wondrous gardens which at the time of our visit were in full bloom.
Monday and we followed the British advance on Porto of May 1809. At the River Vouga we heard of the duplicitous French Capitan Argenton, who, as a consequence of his passing back and forth through the British lines in pursuit of his intrigues, was able to forewarn his comrades of the advancing enemy. Thus was nullified Sir Rowland Hills clever waterborne flank movement through the Aveiro lagoon, our next port of call. The Portuguese 'skiffs', bedecked in their splendid colours, are still abundant on the lagoon, and near Ovar we found a welcome stop for coffee besides the water, very close to where the troops disembarked. Then onwards to Porto, or rather Vila Nova de Gaia situated on the south side of the Douro and where we climbed up to the Serra monastery with its commanding views over Porto and more importantly the seminary which was occupied by Paget and Hill as a consequence of their audacious crossing of that river. A splendid gun platform, it's no wonder that today a Portuguese artillery regiment is situated here, presumably placed there to quell the riotous population in more turbulent times of this country's past. From the crossing of the Douro we indulged in the tasting of the port: Warre's and Graham's to be more precise, made all the more special by the fact that William Warre fought alongside Wellington throughout the Peninsular War.
Tuesday was Busaco day and we started our tour at Massena's headquarters to discuss his (limited) plans before we made our way along the ridge to see where the men of Picton's and Leith's divisions saw off Reynier's attacks. Scrambling amongst the rocks and listening to the accounts of William Grattan we really got a flavour of the desperate struggle. On the heights above Sula we saw how steep the mountainside was and marvelled at how the French actually got to the top. Standing on a rock, perhaps the same one as Robert Craufurd, I could not resist reciting his exultation to the 52nd! Then on to the obelisk that commemorates the battle and from where the Portuguese saw off the second of Ney's attacks with aplomb: thus was born the modern Portuguese army. We finished our day with a late lunch at the incomparable neo-manueline Busaco Palace hotel where we enjoyed a very tasty suckling pig, the speciality dish of the region.
Checking out of our hotel we drove south to Pombal where we picked up the trail of Massena's retreat from Santarem. At Redhina it was pleasantly surprising to find that the locals had celebrated the bicentenary of the action by creating a lovely mural and monument besides its ancient bridge. Ending our chase at Foz de Arouce we stopped at Portugal's ancient university town of Coimbra for a couple of hours before commencing our drive southwards to Lisbon and the old suburb of Belem where we found our modern hotel situated opposite the beautiful and imposing Jeronimos monastery. Belem offers a wealth of restaurants alongside the old waterfront and for the next three evenings we engaged in gastronomic indulgence.
After considerable travelling, we welcomed a day in Lisbon which included Black Horse Square (or more properly Praca do Commercio), the superb military museum, the Cristo Rei, where we took an elevator to the top to gain panoramic view over the Lisbon peninsula, and finally St George's castle.
We spent the penultimate day exploring the Lines of Torres Vedras. Starting on the east of the first lines from where we gained a great view of the Tagus estuary, which would have been patrolled by British gun boats, we made our way along the bottom of the artificially steepened scarps to Montachique where, due to some superb weather we could make out the Monte Socorro signal station, Monte Agracio, the Tagus, the west coast, Cintra and much, much more. Whilst we sat and ate our hastily purchased picnic lunch we could see both the first and second lines laid out before us and it was stunning! Moving northwards we drove up to the great redoubt of Sobral in front of which the small skirmish took place on 12 October and from where warning shots were fired at Massena himself. Over the last few years archaeologists have excavated much of the area giving a very good impression of how the fort would have been laid out some 200 years ago. Thence to Monte Socorro for more stunning views and an understanding of how Wellington's signal system operated and then on to Fort Sao Vicente, a complex of three interlocking forts superbly restored. Our final stop of the day was beside the Sao Julio fort, today the residence of the defence minister of Portugal and around which would have been an arc of redoubts offering protection to an unfortunate British army should Massena have broken through the first two lines. Fortunately he didn't and whilst I am sure that Wellington was pleased that the lines did their job, for a battlefield tour it is somewhat frustrating not to be able to tell of some daring deeds of valour.
And so our last day dawned and a reasonable hour of departure saw the group back at Lisbon airport for their return flights home. I think that everybody gained a thorough understanding of the events of 1808 - 1811. We certainly enjoyed some great hotels, restaurants and enjoyed some fantastic views. I am sure that each one of them will be coming back for another tour sometime soon.
If this report has whetted your appetite for a Peninsular War tour, its still not too late to book on our Salamanca bicentennial, Retreat to Corunna or Wellington in the Peninsula Tours.
Some items from our e-newsletter Friday, May 11, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
Welcome from our Wellington in Portugal Tour!
Welcome from Lisbon, where I find myself guiding our Wellington in Portugal Tour .The sun is shining here and we are having to cope with temperatures of up to 28 degrees Celsius. Last month I returned from our Napoleon on the Danube tour, a report on which constitutes the main story for today's newsletter. Comments from participants or otherwise are most welcome.
Friday and we all arrived on-time at Vienna with Austrian Airlines and transferred to our hotel almost next to the Stephandom. This would be a very comfortable base for the next four nights and the convenience of its location was immediately proven as we met Karl, our local Vienna guide who took us around the city to sites of Napoleonic relevance, recounting events and anecdotes from 1805 - 1815. Dinner this night was in the 'Kaiserstuben' of a typical Viennese retaurant were we looked after regally and enjoyed a splendid dinner.
An early start on Saturday to drive out to Forchtenstein Castle, but the traffic was so kind to us that we arrived a little early and so found ourselves taking coffee in a suprisingly acceptable cafe in the local Spar supermarket. However, having booked an early tour we were pleased to find that we had the castle to ourselves. The castle holds a most impressive private collection of weapons dating from the 30 years war. Clearly the Esterhazy's were aristocratic kleptomaniacs! However, due to a project overrun, the refurbished Napoleonic weapons and uniforms gallery had not been completed in time for our arrival, a slight disappointment. Nevertheless we all felt the visit was still very much worthwhile. After a light lunch we made our way to Schonbrunn Palace. The sun was out, which made wandering through the magnificent gardens very pleasant. In the palace courtyard we imagined the weekly parades of the Imperial Guard and the assassination attempt on Napoleon. We ended our visit with our enigmatic palace guide taking us around many of the rooms associated with Franz-Joseph and Maria-Therese as well as the room used by Napoleon during his residence and where his son, The Duke of Reichstadt, died. We were then whisked back to our hotel in a fleet of taxis before we dined at the famous Figlmuller restaurant, renowned for its Wienner Snitzels.
Sunday was dedicated to the battles of May and July 1809. We started off in the Muhlau salient from where we could well imagine the chaos and horror experienced by many of the French who had to stand and suffer the withering Austrian artillery fire. This position afforded us good views towards both Aspern and Essling and one found it difficult to believe that beyond this view was situated a massive General Motors factory on the north side of the road connecting the two villages. As it was a Sunday, the Aspern museum and the Essling granary opened their doors to us, the latter housing an impressive diorama of the battle. Our final stop on this field was just outside Essling where the trees masked the factory and from where we gained fairly good views to the north over which Lannes attack and the many cavalry clashes took place. We even had time for coffee in the so called Essling 'castle'. After a pleasant lunch in Wagram, we visited its very good museum there, before setting off to the 'heights' from where we gained a good idea of the Austrian defensive positions. The terrace between the heights and the Russbach stream would have been 'perfect' killing ground. It was astounding that the Archduke left it until 4 July before he decided to fortify them, for if he had spent more time doing so (and he had at least 6 weeks whilst his army was encamped upon them), one could believe that they might have been impregnable. A theme regarding the Archduke's vacillation was starting to develop in the lively discussions within our group. Sadly, despite the day starting off with glorious sunshine, the weather was starting to turn against us. Nevertheless we made our way to the site from where Napoleon watched much of the battle on the second day. The whole of the line of the heights from Markgrafneusiedl to Wagram are clearly visable from here and one could undertand how Napoloen could time his movements in the centre with the advance of Davout as the rolling smoke of the latter's battle would have been clearly visible from here. Looking to the south we could also look towards Aspern and Essling to where Hiller's Austrians were able to advance. A fine appreciation was gained of the risk taken by Massena when he undertook his flank march across his enemy's front. It also took little imagination to conceive the deployment of the french artillery and of MacDonald's huge open square towards Sussenbrunn. By now the weather was getting the better of us as the cold was starting to creep upon us, so we decided to make our way back to the hotel. Dinner this evening was at a lovely Italian restaurant, literally yards away from our hotel, and which many thought was the best of the holiday. The proximity of all the restaurants was a great bonus on this tour, none of which were more than a 5 minute walk from the hotel, two being much closer than that.
Monday and we started the day at the fantastic Heeresgeschictlishes Museum, better known as the Austrian Army Museum. One of the museum's staff took us around the recently refurbished Napoleonic Wars and Revolutionary hall, which constitutes 25% of the museum. The museum was purpose built in the latter half of the 19th century and it seems no expense was spared by Franz-Joseph: the sculptures, paintings and architecture that he commissioned are stupendous. The museum's exhibits are no less remarkable either, in particular a French revolutionary observation balloon is on display. Of course the museum's most famous exhibit is the car in which Archduke Ferdinand was assinated in 1914. After a light bite to eat we set off to the Danube and the site of the pontoon and trestle bridges. The river has much changed in 200 years due to the canalistion of the 19th century. However in recent years a hydo-electric power generating barrier has been built in more or less the place were the bridges from the Schneidergrund to the Lobgrund were situated and it is possible to walk and cycle along the top of it. The Lobgrund is no longer recognisable as such, the spoil from the canalisation having created a long linear island now known as the Donauinsel. But serrendipity has determined that the hop from this island to Lobau is via a seasonal pontoon bridge! So sending our coach around to the Muhlau, we set off from the Schneidergrund and walked the short length of Lobau, seeing the site of Napoleon's headquarters and from where the French army debouched on to the northern bank of the Danube in to the Muhlau. Today Lobau is a park and the vegetation is similar to that of 1809 - bush and wood. There are many roads and paths crossing it, a legacy no doubt of the French occupation. After the best part of a three hour walk, interupted by refeshment at an outdoor bar on the island we were pleased to see our coach waiting for us. It was too much to ask for us to walk to the east of the island, so we drove back through Aspern, Essling and Gross Enzersdorf to the eastern branch of the Danube known as the Stadler Arm where we saw the Ile Alexandre and could well imagine the superbly executed crossing of the 4/5 July. Thence back to our hotel for our final dinner during which we enjoyed a beef fondue - a socialable end to a tremendous long weekend tour.
Checking out from our hotel mid-morning we were whisked back to Vienna airport where we experienced a trouble free check in and boarded our on-time flight to Vienna. Everybody thoroughly enjoyed themselves and I am sure that they must have returned home extremely satisfied with their exploration of the events of 1809 surrounding Vienna.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, April 25, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
Music of the Month
The Minnesota Opera recently commissioned classical composer Kevin Puts to write an Opera based on the Christmas truce of 1914. The recently completed work won the Pulitzer prize for music. You can see pictures of scenes from the production and listen to the complete composition on the NPR website.
Haig on the Western Front
On Saturday 14th April, a small group assembled on board the Eurostar train to Lille. Sadly one of our party was forced to cancel on that very morning due to an unforeseen mishap. Nevertheless our merry band looked forward to an exciting weekend with one of the foremost living experts on the First World War, Professor Gary Sheffield. The train journey did not seem to take the time that it was scheduled to take and in no time we were on board our small coach and making the short journey to Ypres. At Hooge cemetery we immediately got in to a discussion of the folly of High Command occupying headquarters too close to the front. Moving on to Polygon Wood we examined the methods and luck involved in the recovery at First Ypres from Black Watch Corner. At the New Zealand monument at Graventefal and the Passchendaele New British Cemetery we considered the execution of Third Ypres and Haig's strategic objectives. By now the group dynamics were really starting to work with Gary being put on the back foot occasionally by intellectual challenges. Although a pro-Haig historian, he not only delivered the anti-Haig arguments but recognised many of his faults. This was military historical interaction at its best – being on the ground arguing the pros and cons of strategic decisions and visiting the sites of their operational and tactical outcome. And we had only just started!
After checking in to our four star hotel in the centre of Ypres, we walked to the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony. Having not been to Ypres for some years I was surprised at how 'commercial' the commemoration of the war has become there (particularly when I was able to compare it with the Somme later in the tour). Maybe it was because it was a Saturday evening, but the crowds were considerable and only the lucky ones got see the ceremony itself. I thought it a sad indictment of the times that a public announcement had to be made prior to the start of the ceremony exhorting the attendees not to applause during the 2 minute silence. Still if these crowds are an indication of what is to come in 2014 and beyond, then some sort of formal crowd management, viewing stands or tele-visual relay may be required to satisfy the increasing demand. A superb steak supper followed and we all returned to the hotel full and content.
On Sunday, the weather was still holding, although the wind was getting stronger and starting to bite. I wish I had brought a few more layers with me. Still one benefit was that throughout the weekend the visibility was fantastic. At Port Arthur (the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle) the discussion started on Haig's advocacy of and belief in the Field Service Regulations (FSRs) and his conviction that the cavalry should always be close enough to exploit any break-through. This was a theme that was developed throughout the tour and one started to feel sympathy for the frustrations that the man must have felt in this respect throughout the war. A slight aberration in the tour occurred at lunch in La Basse when Derek managed to spill a whole jug of vinegar over Gary and consequently throughout the ensuing afternoon each point Gary made was reinforced with the aroma of fish and chips! One such point was the failure of Sir John French to have the reserves at hand to exploit the initial gains at Loos. How this error was noted and the lesson subsequently applied by Haig in the future provided for a lively debate. However, by now the wind was getting very strong and we were unable to continue the discussion from the platform of Dud Corner Cemetery, seeking the shelter offered below instead. It was but a short hop to Arras where we checked in for the night before dining at a splendid bistro, where although steaks were on offer again, alternative choices were selected, perhaps to favour the overworked digestive systems.
Monday and the weather was still dry and sunny, but the wind as strong as ever. On the Somme at Lochnagar Crater, Gary explained why the battle of the Somme had to be fought. Perhaps Haig and the British Expeditionary Force did as well as could be expected given the prevalent political circumstances, technology and training. Just outside Longueval we obtained a glimpse of how cavalry exploitation might have worked when two cavalry regiments occupied the southern edge of High Wood. We also started to get a good feel for the relationship between Haig and Rawlinson. Moving on to Pozieres Gary spoke about the development of the dominion troops and in particular the development of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in to its own Corps. This led to some interesting debate about the development of the Australian psyche! The day ended at the Royal Picardie hotel on the outskirts of Albert where we enjoyed another great meal. Compared to the Ypres area, the poverty on the Somme is palpable. We had lunch at The Tommy at Pozieres and coffee at a bar in Longueval (the South African Memorial was undergoing long term renovation and consequently its café was closed). Oh how these two places would benefit from an injection of pride and a lick of paint. One feels that if the owners brought these places out of the 1960s and raised them to modern expectations, a fortune is awaiting them, especially with the centennial looming.
And so to our last day, Tuesday. The weather was still holding and we needed it to do so as our first port of call was the Australian National Monument at Villers Bretonneux. It's a hard slog to the top, but well worth it for the incredible panoramic views of the battlefield of Amiens. Unfortunately the wind was blowing a gale and it was impossible to speak on the platform, so we went below to commence our discussion on 1918 battles. Le Hamel was described as the blue-print for the model all-arms battle. Was much of this due to Haig's attention to the development and training of the BEF in minor tactics and his emphasis on professional logistics? By the time we reached Chipilly spur to discuss 'Germany's blackest day', ours had commenced as the skies had finally opened forcing us to make our own strategic withdrawal to the bus. The final stop of the day and the tour was at Riqueval Bridge over the St Quentin Canal. The methods used to break the Hindenburg Line came in for a deal of debate and it was ironic that when the moment had arrived for Haig's cherished cavalry to break through and exploit, the meagre two divisions available in reserve were refused by the relevant army commanders and so the great man was never to see the fulfilment this particular tactical doctrine. By now the rain was fairly heavy and I was concerned that the motorway traffic en-route to Lille Europe railway station might misbehave and delay us. I needn't have worried, Joel, our competent and friendly driver, delivered us with time to spare and our Eurostar train turned up on time to whisk us back to London St Pancras where we all said our farewells.
Everybody seemed to have enjoyed themselves and gained an insurmountable amount of knowledge from the tour. It was evident that all had prepared themselves with thorough reading in advance of the tour which enabled them to challenge many of the arguments put forward by Gary Sheffield, which he in turn said he really enjoyed having to counter or justify. In the words of one of the group, Alex, "it was a great privilege to experience a learning curve in the field with one of the greatest living experts on Haig". I am pleased that Gary has agreed to run this tour again in 2013 and we will be posting the dates and prices in the summer. But if in the meantime this sounds like a tour that you might be interested in, please drop us a line.
Listen to and see an excerpt from one of Gary's talks during the tour on our You Tube page where we will be posting more footage from each tour as it returns.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, April 7, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
Website of the month
This month we came across the Kings of War which is a blog put together by the faculty and research students of the Department of War Studies, King's College London. Some interesting articles and challenging opinions.
Inauguration of bicentennial obelisk in Badajoz
The Badajoz Town Hall has announced that a bicentennial obelisk in memory of all those who fell during the sieges of 1811 and 1812 will be unveiled on Saturday 21st April at 11h30 at the Santa Maria Bastion in Badajoz, Spain. We will see the obelisk during our Wellington in the Peninsula tour in September.
Auction news update – Wellington Chair and the Raglan Collection
It seems as though we are ahead of the game with the latest news. If you remember back in February we reported the auction of a chair made from the Elm tree that stood at the crossroads at Waterloo. Well it was reported last month that it went for a whopping £9,000. And you may remember that we were the first to bring the auction of the Raglan Collection to your attention. Well since then, there has been an intense amount of media attention and expressions of outrage. So much so that it seems that the auction has been suspended. There has even been a website set up to save the collection! It's a shame that the collection never received as much attention when it was hidden away from the public whilst under the ownership of the last Lord Raglan. We may all have been able to make time to have viewed it!
The Portuguese battles of the Peninsula War.
It is still not too late to join us and, what is presently, a party of 8 on a superb one week tour of Portugal. As well as exploring some of the more evocative battlefields of the Peninsular War, we will travel through some wonderful countryside, stay at some superb 4 and 5 star hotels and, whilst in Lisbon, dine at some really atmospheric restaurants. Busaco in spring-time is glorious with amazing views over the sierra, the Lines of Torres Vedras beckon us to some of the remote as well as restored forts that held off Massena in 1810, whilst the port houses of Porto cry out for our indulgence. There is still time, but only just. If you are interested in the slightest please telephone us on +44 (0) 1935 813700 to see if we can fit you in. You can see the full itinerary of the tour here.
Baron Lejeune at Versailles
Thanks to Charles Mathiesen for this. There is currently an exhibition at Versailles of the paintings of Baron Lejeune – for full details please click here . Most keen Napoleonic scholars will be aware of Lejeune's work – as well as a superb war artist, he left behind a fascinating set of memoirs. I, for one, would be really keen to jump on Eurostar to Paris for the day, before the exhibition closes. If you fancy coming, please drop me a line and I will set up an impromptu day trip.
Charles also writes; I think the first time we met, certainly the first time we travelled together, was on your 'Napoleon's Paris' tour early in 1999. The main reason I went on that tour was to get into the First Empire galleries at Versailles, and I was not disappointed. I hope one day to see the Second Empire pictures as well, particularly those dealing with the Crimea and Italy in 1859. Much earlier memories, indeed childhood memories, were triggered by your piece in your December newsletter about the military museum in Dorchester. I visited the museum in 1974 and remember seeing the Plassey diorama. It brought back fond memories, because I remembered it from the old Royal United Services Museum in Whitehall, which I first visited as a small boy in the late 1950s. My favourite exhibits were the series of dioramas of events from British military history, of which Plassey was only one. When I first went there, I was so small I could barely see the dioramas, having to stand on tiptoe. However, I was entranced. They were the first 'grown-up' model soldiers I had seen, and they played a key part in getting me hooked on military history generally. It was a very black day for my 11 year old self when the museum closed in 1962 (not 1968 as it says in the Wikipedia article). If you are interested, there are more details about the dioramas and their fates via this link and here .
A fascinating collection of contemporary American Civil War photographs
Thanks to Helen and Colin Davies for bringing to our attention the following link to some really interesting American Civil War photographs; If this has whetted your appetite why not join our American Civil War Eastern Theater tour later this year?
Edwin Mortimer writes;
I was in the Military Museum in Budapest in the early 90's too, high up on the hill of Buda overlooking the Danube, just as the Roman Legionairies must have gazed out over the start of the Hungarian Plains and Barbarian lands. The Museum has a lot of Habsburg era uniforms and even Russian ones from the 1850's. I didn't know that the Budapest Regiment stood up against the Austrians/ Russians to defend their city during the 1848 Revolution, and lost lots of patriots; I knew a little about the revolutions of 1848, Kossuth, and the fact that Russian troops had to be called upon to put down the uprisings. There is a marvellous painting of the defence of Buda Hill, in the Museum, and very complex 1914 cavalry trooper harnesses, which somehow stuck in my mind. Also a fairly small exhibit dedicated to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution......which I remember listening to reports of on the radio, how Gen. Pal Malater was betrayed and shot, and KGB troops and tanks rolled in at the direction of Kruschev. Now apparently there is a larger museum to the revolution in the former Hungarian secret police ( AVO?) offices on Andrassy Ut, .........history has always fascinated me.......it invariably repeats itself in different form....
Here in Bermuda we have our 92 forts and shore batteries, some the first permanent fortifications in the English New World, dating back to 1612. We shall soon be 'celebrating' the embarkation from Bermuda of 3,000 British troops and 1,000 Royal Marines from Bermuda to make the attack on Washington and burning of the White House, in the War of 1812-14.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, March 17, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
Painting the British Army at Waterloo.
How many British troops were there at Waterloo? The owner of this website estimates some 28,000 and he has set himself the goal of painting a 28mm figure of every one them. You can follow his progress on his blog at British Army at Waterloo Blog. He is even trying to name many of the participants. Fascinating stuff.
Madonna to play the Plains of Abraham
Almost 253 years after General Wolfe had the French dancing to his tune, it seems that the first lady of pop, none other than Madonna, will be getting the Quebecois to do the same this September as she intends to transform the Plains of Abraham in to one gigantic dancefloor. And whilst this is not a new phenomenon for the Canadian National Park, apparently it's causing a bit of a stir as this will be the first time that a concert for profit will be taking place on the hallowed ground. No doubt the raunchy singer will get a few wolfe whistles though!
Richmond battlefield to be burnt!
Richmond National Battlefield Park will set fires at the Malvern Hill and Cold Harbor battlefieldsthis month to preserve the historic landscape and native plants. Approximately 60 acres at Malvern Hill in eastern Henrico County are scheduled for a controlled burn on Thursday (15th), if weather conditions are favorable. The burn at Cold Harbor will be next week. During the burn at Malvern Hill, the park trail and parsonage parking lot will be closed. At Cold Harbor, the park tour road and extended trail will be closed. The park areas are burned every two to three years to maintain the landscape as it appeared during the Civil War. This year's burns will be completed in time for the park's sesquicentennial commemoration of the 1862 Seven Days Battles, which culminated July 1 at Malvern Hill.
Wind direction, wind speed, smoke dispersion and fuel moisture must be within certain ranges for the burn to proceed. Under this prescription, the fire will move slowly through the area and stop at established breaks. Smoke will disperse quickly, although neighbors may smell smoke during and shortly after the burn. At least a dozen certified wildland firefighters will be on hand to ensure that each fire is conducted safely.
The Lord Raglan Collection: FitzRoy Somerset memorabilia from the Peninsular War, Waterloo and the Crimea.
Lord FitzRoy Somerset joined the Duke of Wellington's staff in 1807 and as a prominent aide de camp, served with him throughout the Peninsular War and at Waterloo his arm was severely wounded resulting in its amputation. After Waterloo he became the Duke's secretary and ultimately his military secretary when the former became commander in chief in 1827. In 1852 he became 1st Baron Raglan and two years later he was promoted to General and appointed to command the British forces during the Crimea War. After victory at Inkerman in October 1854 he was promoted to Field Marshal, but died of dysentery shortly after the abortive assault on Sevastopol in June 1855. On 10 January 2010 the 5th Baron of Raglan died without issue and his executors have decided that many of the items that the 1st Baron collected over the years should be put up for auction at Christies on 4 April. Of particular interest are FitzRoy Somerset's Peninsular War awards and medals estimated to fetch between £250,000 - £350,000 and amongst which are his Peninsular Gold Medal (with clasps for Badajoz and Salamanca), the Peninsular Gold Cross (with five clasps) and his Field-Marshal's baton. As FitzRoy Somerset married Wellington's 'favourite' niece, it is no surprise that the auction contains a ring that was supposedly taken from the Tippu Sultan's body after the assault of Seringapatam (estimate up to £15,000). There are also two Russian bronze cannon taken from Sevastopol in 1855. As their estimate is up to £40,000. might this indicate that the Ministry of Defence is looking to back up its stock of Victoria Cross bronze? Although Christies have yet to update their website with the details of the sale, the collection can be viewed at their Kensington showroons from April 1 – 3.
The treasure of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes
As part of a 4 frigate flotilla loaded with a cargo of Spanish gold, silver and jewels, the 34 gun frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes set off for Cadiz from Montevideo in mid 1804. Unbeknown to the Spanish, the Royal Navy was aware of their cargo and, importantly, their movements and on 5 October, just 100 miles short of their destination, off the Cape of Santa Maria (close to Faro in Portugal) 4 British frigates intercepted, engaged and captured the Spanish ships, with the exception of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes which exploded and sank with all her treasure on board. The action created tremendous anti-British feelings in Spain and resulted in her declaring war in Great Britain on 12 December. Less than a year later a combined Spanish and French fleet would be destroyed off Cape Trafalgar. In 2007 the American recovery firm discovered and recovered the treasure and quickly flew the coins to Miami, where they claimed salvage rights. Subsequently the hoard was valued at in excess of $500 million! Not unsurprisingly, the Spanish government took great umbrage at this act and commenced legal action in the US courts to have the fortune placed in their care. In February the courts found in favour of the Spanish and last Saturday (25 February), the trove arrived just outside of Madrid on-board a Spanish military aircraft, presumably the RAF being instructed to take the weekend off. Apparently Spain's Culture Ministry has ruled out the idea of the treasure being sold to pay off the country's national debt.
Sad news from Benghazi
In this cemetery, amongst other brave Commonwealth soldiers lies the grave of Lt Colonel Keyes VC, he of Rommel Raid fame. Lets hope that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission can find the resources to repairs the recent damage as soon as it is safe to do so.
France's pay TV group, AB have announced the commissioning of a three-part mini-series on Waterloo (in English) which should be arriving on our screens in time for the 2015 bicentenary. Richard Maroko, the group's commissioner of programmes promised ambitious investment in epic actions, rich costumes and décor. And with 'Napoleonland' regularly hitting the headlines, it looks as though the French are not going to ignore the events of 2015. But as to the victors of Waterloo, very little advance notice seems to be coming from Britain, Germany and their allies. In the meantime, perhaps we should bring this year's Waterloo tour to your attention, which departs on 16 June and coincides with the commemorative events. The tour is led by one of Britain's foremost historians, Professor Jeremy Black of Exeter University. In much demand, Jeremy's encyclopaedic knowledge on all matters historical provides a unique appreciation of the campaign, its surrounding events and the context in which the great battle is regarded in modern history.
The Continental Wars Society
Ralph Weaver writes; The Continental Wars Society was formed in 1984 by a small group of enthusiasts, originally as a study group of the Victorian Military Society. The aim is to foster an interest in all aspects the military history of the continental European powers in the period after the fall of Napoleon. Militarily this was a period of great innovation; in weaponry, tactics and the approach to war itself. The Society endeavours to further this object by publishing a quarterly newsletter, the Foreign Correspondent, written by and for members, which includes as many different areas as possible. Campaigns, accounts of individual battles and skirmishes, information on uniforms and weapons, discussions on tactics, reviews of books and wargames figures, and reports on display games such as those undertaken by members of the society. We also include news items and reprints from hard to find C19 journals. Membership is open to everyone who has an interest in the period, in the hope that we can share our knowledge and encourage each other to better understand the events that shaped the world before the catastrophe of 1914. The annual subscription is £6 for four issues of the newsletter. Cheques or postal orders should be made payable to Ralph Weaver. We also have back issues 1 to 69 of the society newsletter available on CD in PDF format for WINDOWS 95 to XP. This is available at £6 including postage. The society also publishes a number of A5 size booklets on battles and armies of the period. So far five booklets have been published, Hanover and the battle of Langensalza; the Polish Army of 1815 to 1831; the Bavarian Army of 1866 and the Battle of Montebello, 1859 and lastly the Battle of Froeschwiller (Worth) 1870. These are available to society members at £5 each including postage.
Interested subscribers can contact Ralph Weaver at firstname.lastname@example.org
A very useful resource site for those intersted in researching the locations of the First World War. Created and maintained by Joanna Legg, Graham Parkeer and David Legg, who ran Flanders Tours until 2000 the site is a mine of information on events, the battles, battlefields, personalities, monuments. Museums, research tips, articles and home to the Poppy Umbrella, a unique way of showing your support for those who gave so much.
In particular I would like to draw attention to their Battle Study for the Second Battle of Ypres, which includes over 90 pages with maps and text showing what was happening on both the Allied and German sides of the wire. The Prelude focuses on the build-up to the German trial with chlorine gas from January 1915. The Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge section focuses on the events that unfolded on the Allied and German sides of the wire when the gas was released.
World War 1 in East Africa
The campaigns during the First World War in East Africa were among the longest running of that war and yet comparatively little has been written of them and an overall view is, at best, sketchy. The various engagements could well be described as some of the most far-reaching of those grim four years, involving over 16 countries and embracing forces drawn from land, sea and air. East Africa is a destination to which we are looking for a tour or two in 2013 and beyond, so I was very interested to hear that the Great War in East Africa Association will be holding a conference in London to examine and discuss aspects of it on 14 July 2012.
The conference aims at bringing together interested persons, both amateur and professional, to share and extend their knowledge of the war in East Africa. Presently the GWEAA is looking for contributions from those working on; military, political, social or cultural themes; heritage, including archival, archaeological, documentary and family history; the impact of the campaign or aspects thereof, including representations of the campaign through time, memory studies, re-enactment, literature and film.
If you are interested in delivering a paper or contributing in some way, please contact Dr Anne Samson via email
There will be a charge for attending the conference. This is expected to be no more than £75 per person. Further details of the conference, including fees, will be circulated in due course including through the Great War in East Africa Association website.
Operation Mercury- revisited?
The Telegraph this week reported on one of the German initiatives to assist the Greeks during their debt crisis by "parachuting 160 German tax collectors into the country". An action that would be very likely to raise the temperature of debate within Greece, if not inflame it. So my suggestion to the German government is that if you are thinking of such action, try it on a Greek Mediterranean island first, perhaps giving it a code name, something like, say…….'Operation Mercury'. I already have a vision of it taking place – indeed German tax inspectors being parachuted in to Crete might look something like this….(as pictured). Which is a round about way for giving a plug to our own Operation Mercury tour to Crete this September!
Some items from our e-newsletter Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
I notice that Taylor and Fletcher auctioneers have the 'Wellington Chair' up for auction on March 1. According to the Daily Mail the chair could fetch up to £8,000! Whilst an 'expert' in a local paper put an estimate on it as high as £20,000.
And this struck a chord with me, as many years ago I remember seeing such a chair at Belvoir Castle. So, I wondered, just how many pieces of furniture were actually made from the famous Elm tree that stood at 'Wellington's Crossroads' on the battlefield of Waterloo? I did a quick bit of research and found an article by A.E. Gunther. In the September 1977 bulletin of the British Museum, whereby it seems that in the autumn of 1818 a gentlemen by the name of John George Children purchased the tree from the Belgian farmer on whose land it had stood. Children shipped it back to England and commissioned Chippendale the Younger to make "various items of furniture out of its timber".
Three chairs were made and one, known as the 'Wellington Chair' was presented to King George IV and Gunther asserts that this was still to be found in the Royal Collections at St James Palace in 1967. The second chair was presented to the Duke of Wellington and according to the Daily Mail in 2008 still resides in his private apartments at Apsley House. The third chair was last known to be in the possession of the Duke of Rutland, and I personally saw this chair at Belvoir castle about 10 years ago and indeed the Duchess of Rultand confirms its presence in her book on the castle that was published in 2009.
As the location of all three chairs has been established as late as 1967, the recent auction story in the Daily Mail asserting that the 'Wellington Chair' for auction was purchased by its vendor in the 1950s raises the eyebrows somewhat, especially given the values concerned. So was A.E. Gunther, who was a prominent historian at the British Museum (and incidentally, or coincidentally, J G Children was Assistant Keeper at the Natural History Museum), incorrect in stating that there were only three chairs made from the Elm Tree?
The auctioneers state that they found some provenance from an article in a 1936 edition of the Gentlemen's Magazine, and yet that august magazine ceased publication in 1922. However my research indicated that volume 156 (p290) of the same magazine published in 1834 corrects hearsay in a book review of 'Thomas Dykes travel memoirs' and states that J G Children was the purchaser of the said elm tree and that he did make a chair, but that it was not for sale. So could the chair that is up for auction be of doubtful provenance? A mystery that requires further research, particularly on behalf of the potential purchaser. Certainly a question that I will be asking of eminent historian Professor Jeremy Black who will be accompanying our Waterloo Campaign tour this June.
Napoleon Brandy anyone?
Talking about auctions with a Napoleonic theme, a Dutch antique trader is selling 5,000 bottles of unopened cognac which dates back to 1795, supposedly being for the officers of Napoleon's army in 1795. Now as Napoleon only commanded the artillery in 1795 and given the state of the French Army of Italy that year, I suspect that if any such brandy existed, it would never have been around long enough to have seen out that year, never mind lasting over 200 years!
St Mary's Church, Warwick – errata.
Eric Wood writes; 'I enjoyed the article in respect of St Mary's. For the sake of accuracy Enoch Powell is buried in Warwick Cemetery alongside others who served in the Warwickshire Regiment. Rumour (fact) has it that he was buried in his Brigadiers uniform!'
Bullets, boots and bandages
My radar missed this one recently. Professor Saul David's programme on logistics and support services was broadcast this month. Once you overcome the sweeping shots of Saul walking through fields of crops whilst he delivers his sound bites, there is some interesting stuff here. I haven't found the time to watch more than half an episode, but thought it worthwhile highlighting for those like me who missed the original broadcast. If you live in the UK then you have got seven days to watch it on the BBC iPlayer . But no doubt BBC4 will get to repeating it soon.
Helion & Company
Of interest to might be Helion & Company, renowned as the specialist publisher of mid-19th Century Continental European military history, with an extensive backlist of 1866 titles, as well as a growing list of newly-researched studies appearing on a regular basis. If you have booked or are considering booking our Austro-Prussian War tour then you should certainly get hold of a copy of their "The Road to Koniggratz" by Quintin Barry which is probably the most comprehensive modern military history of the 1866 Campaign". It can be ordered directly from their website or via our Amazon book store .
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, February 4, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
St Mary's Collegiate Church, Warwick
Whilst in the Midlands recently, I had an hour or so to spare in Warwick. This town has a wealth of historical places to visit, not least its famous castle. But in the short time I was there I happened across the Collegiate Church of St Mary. And what a pleasant surprise it was. Besides its fine architectural style (it was rebuilt on its Norman foundations after the great fire of Warwick in 1694) and its imposing tower (with its impressive views of the surrounding area and the castle in particular), there are a number of beautiful tombs of some very important characters from the medieval and Tudor periods.
As the church was born out of the benefaction of the Thomas Beauchamp, 11th Earl of Warwick, naturally he lies in pride of place in the chancel besides his wife, Katherine Mortimer. He was Marshall of England for 25 years until his death in 1369. He fought beside Edward III at Crecy, the siege of Calais (both 1346) and with the Black Prince at Poitiers (1356).
The 13th Earl of Warwick (Richard de Beauchamp) commissioned the construction of the Beauchamp chapel, were he was subsequently laid to rest some years later after his death; his magnificent tomb is made from Purbeck marble and gilded latten. During his life time, the earl was the scourge of the Welsh and the nemesis of Owen Glendower. He also fought with Henry IV against Harry 'Hotspur' at Shrewsbury in 1403.
Also in the chapel can be found the Dudley brothers – Ambrose and Robert; the latter, the 1st Earl of Leicester and suitor of Elizabeth I. Both their tombs are works of art in their own right, the detail of their sculptured effigies being remarkable.
Elsewhere in the church can be found the chapel of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment with many memorial plaques to its former members, Enoch Powell (who is buried in the churchyard) and Field Marshall Montgomery included.
Whilst there are a myriad of reasons to visit Warwick (and I will provide more in future editions of this newsletter), if you only have an hour to spare, it would not be wasted at St Mary's. See the church website for more information.
The Battle of the Little BighornMark West writes;
Over the New Year period I have been rewatching Ken Burns' 1996 series The West (which has a website ) on DVD. Episode 6 – Fight No More Forever (1874-1877) - takes in the consolidation of the railroads, the federal government's assault on the Mormons, George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull and the epic 1,500 mile retreat (and 17 engagements) of Chief Joseph (the Red Napoleon). (One of the interviewees, Joe Medicine Crow, knew 5 of Custer's Crow scouts as a young boy.)
I was consequently searching for more on the Battle of the Little Bighorn when, with that serendipity which is one of the hallmarks of the Internet, I stumbled across this website:Little Bighorn Documentary 2010 by an American, Bill Smith, an amateur historian who has been studying Custer and the Little Bighorn campaign for more than 25 years. He has made a series of some 39 linking videos (some with sub-parts) on the life of Custer and the Little Bighorn campaign (which run for a little over 6 hours in total: the parts run in separate bite-sized chunks of about 7-10 minutes each).
They constitute a comprehensive commentary on, and virtual tour of, the campaign and the battlefield itself. After his introduction, Smith embarks on an explanation of Custer's Civil War exploits and his military service in the Northern and Southern Plains and during the Red Cloud War. He produces maps of the cavalry movements of the 1876 campaign and in Part 8 highlights many of the men who fought in the battle and shows photographs of a number of them. (Captain Myles Keogh, for example, who now has his own website - who was a papal zouave who had later joined the Union Army and fought at the Battle of Gettysburg under General John Buford.)
From Part 9 onwards he commentates on a video tour of the Little Bighorn battlefield (which he knows intimately), from the Rosebud and Davis Creek to Reno's fight in the valley and retreat to the bluffs, the point of Weir's advance, the Morass, Medicine Tail Coulee and Calhoun Hill, to the evocative culmination of the conflict on Last Stand Hill where Custer himself fell surrounded by his men (including the only Russian member of the 7th Cavalry). Two of his brothers, his 18 year old nephew and his brother-in-law fell with him.
For those who are not going to Montana in the near future, this is the next best thing to walking the field of battle itself. It seems to cover almost every blade of grass, graphically demonstrates the fatal topography of features such as the Deep Ravine and the almost complete absence of cover, which led to many of the troopers having to shoot their horses to provide breastworks. It is a remarkable tribute to those who died on both sides on 25th and 26th June 1876.
Finally it seems that Moscow is getting its house in order and started focusing on the bicentennial of 1812. The Voice of Russia has released a series of interesting articles about the first 'Great Patriotic War'. Our Napoleon 1812 tour which is planned to coincide with the bicentennial events runs from 1 – 10 September and covers the routes from Krasnyi, Smolensk, Viazma and Moscow. More details can be found here.
Fancy taking an MA in War Studies?
Professor Gary Sheffield, who is leading the 'Haig' and 'Wellington in the Peninsula' tours, is the convenor of the MA in British First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham. This is a two year, part-time course, taught via intensive Saturday schools (three a term) that leads to a Masters degree; it is the only one of its type in the country. Some of the leading experts in the field teach on the course, and in their second year students have the opportunity to carry out a piece of original research. There is a high proportion of mature students on each course. Places are available on the course starting in September 2012. If you would like to know more, or would like a 'taster' session, email Gary on email@example.com . For course information, please visit the website.
The Great Patriotic War.
Jay Hambleton has put together a useful and interesting website about the battle for Stalingrad www.thoughtsonmilitaryhistory.com. If this whets your appetite, then perhaps you might like to consider our Great Patriotic War tour
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, January 21, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here
The Queens Royal Lancers Museum, Thoresby Park
Museum opening hours are a curious thing. In my review of the Keep Museum in Dorchester (see 17 December 2011 newsletter), I failed to note that during the winter it is only open Tuesday – Friday and closed at weekends. Conversely ,the Queens Royal Lancers and Yeomanry Museum, Thoresby Park, when it re-opens on 1st March, will only be open at weekends until it starts its summer roster at Easter when it will open from Wednesday to Sunday. So presumably those in the south of the country only like visiting museums during weekdays, whilst further north they only prefer weekends?
The curator of the Queens Royal Lancers Museum is our very own Mick Holtby who will be guiding our War in the Desert tours to Egypt and Tunisia as well as those on Wellington in India and Northeast India. Over the last few years he has been very busy: firstly closing down and mothballing the old museum and its collection that was previously resident at Belvoir Castle, secondly project managing the design of the new museum at Thorseby Park, thirdly delicately selecting the display contents from three regimental collections and finally overseeing its inauguration last summer. Not least of his problems was obtaining the necessary funding from both public and private purses, a task that he continues to pursue in order to ensure the museum’s survival. Being formed from four regiments; 16th, 17th, 21st and 5th Lancers, the Queens Royal Lancers contribution to the museum is the most dominant. The museum’s website gives a good account of the artefacts on display and the campaigns associated with them, but perhaps the exhibit of which they are most proud is the bugle that sounded the charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava.
The Napoleon Series - www.napoleon-series.org
This is a very useful website for those researching Napoleonic History. It is not particularly easy to navigate, but it is well worth persevering.
Of great interest is the Live Discussion Forum. Here you can find some of the leading Napoleonic Historians sharing sources and links, debating and generally helping each other out. Indeed I never cease to be amazed by the quality and even obscurity of some of the information that is dragged up.
With the Google Books scanning programme taking place on a global scale, many out of copyright books have become available on the internet, and when they do, this forum is not slow in highlighting their whereabouts. An invaluable resource.
The Falkands War
Another story that we reported on our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/historicaltours was that provided by the BBC earlier this month which featured the reunion between the anti-aircraft gunner that shot down an Argentine Skyhawk attacking HMS Coventry and the pilot of that plane.
As we draw close to the 30th anniversary, it is refreshing to see the reconciliatory side of remembrance. And of course if you are considering our Falklands War tour, there is some good footage of the islands themselves.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, January 7, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here
Happy New Year – what’s on this Spring
And so to 2012. We enter the year with a strong order book indicating to me that many of our clients have decided not to let the economic doom and gloom get to them. I am sure that they are correct in doing so. You never know what the future might bring, good or bad, so booking a great holiday well in advance is good for the soul.
I believe that a holiday consists of three parts; the anticipation, the holiday itself and the memories. For a battlefield tour, the anticipation often involves getting hold of a good book on the subject and doing preparatory reading. I find that the more that I know about the campaign and battles before travelling on tour, the quicker I appreciate the lie of the ground and the greater my interpretation of the events that took place. My photos are also far more meaningful as I am ‘looking’ for the angle from the very beginning. Of course one could simply read up on the subject and book much nearer the time, but by committing to the holiday early on, one is much more motivated to do the preparation. And of course, we are making it easy for you by listing a select number of books for each tour, details of which you will find on the relevant tour web page or through our Amazon store.
Dresden Military Museum
I first came across this museum in the early 1990s not long after the war had come down. After years of East German control, it was in a desperate state and yet in the way of old museums it still maintained a celebration of German martial prowess (albeit with shadow of Soviet Russia cast over it). It certainly featured in the Midas Tours ‘Napoleon in Germany’ tours as it had some good content from 1813.
I have not had the pleasure of revisiting the museum since its major refurbishment under the guidance of the American architect Daniel Liberskind (who was also responsible for IWM North). However Helen Chaloner recently came across a review of the new museum in the Guardian. As part of our 1813 bicentenary tour we shall be visiting the museum, but I was wondering if any of our readers might have already visited it and if so, whether they might be kind enough let us have their opinions on its new presentation style.
Wellington in Portugal
One tour which I am very much looking forward to is Wellington in Portugal. We last ran this tour in 2010 and it was one of the most pleasurable tours that I have ever led. In the main this was due to the pleasant and cohesive group of 12 participants, but also I loved the hotels at which we stayed.
Our first night is on the Atlantic Coast at the magnificently situated five star Praia del Rey. The next three nights are spent at the lovely four star art-noveau Palace Hotel in Curia which is a full of Belle Epoque splendour – one can easily imagine Hercule Poirot feeling quite at home here. And finally you can spend your last three nights as a ‘Belem Ranger’, a term of endearment given by Wellington’s men to their comrades who managed to stretch out their recuperation away from the front-line. The modern four-star Jeronimos Hotel is situated right besides the splendid monastery of the same name and nearby are some fantastic little restaurants at which we dine in the evening. If you are looking for a spring holiday, I can highly recommend this tour.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday, December 17, 2011 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Well with just a week to go before the festive date, I would like to wish you and yours a happy Christmas and the very best for the New Year, when I hope that I shall have the privilege of meeting many of you on tour.
Our offices will be closed from Friday 23rd December until Tuesday 3rd January, although I dare say the pull of the office may get the better of me during that period, in which case you may catch me there.
Napoleon on the Danube
It is often asserted that the battle of Aspern-Essling in May 1809 was the first significant military reverse experienced by Napoleon. It certainly caused him to take pause and consider his next moves. What followed six weeks later was the bloody battle of Wagram, a battle notable for its lack of tactical finesse and reliance on brute force.
I am pleased to be leading a long weekend tour to Vienna to explore both these battlefields, Lobau Island, the fantastic Heeresgeschictliches Museum, the superb Napoleonic weapons collection at Forchtenstein Castle and at Schonbrunn Palace we will discuss the more intimate aspects of Napoleon’s life.
Whenever I think of this tour, I can never forget the experience of one guest who, as we approached the site of the pontoon bridges to Lobau Island over the Stadler Arm of the Danube, was so keen to get his photos of the site before we, as a group, arrived to discuss the crossing, that he ran ahead and started snapping away. In his mind’s eye all he could see was the image of Lejeune’s painting of the pontoon bridges. As we caught up with him, all that we could see was that he was snapping away at what was, at the time, a nudist beach in the height of summer! You know who you are!
I am not promising nudity on this tour – far from it. But this does promise to be a cracking weekend where, as well as the history, we will experience a number of Viennese restaurants and explore the city in the evening from our centrally located hotel. I urge you to join me.
Book Review – ‘Russia against Napoleon’ by Dominic Lieven
In preparation for our Napoleon 1812 tour I recently got hold of a copy of this excellent volume. I had not come across Lieven or his work before. It turns out that he is a Cambridge University scholar and professor of history at LSE. He speaks German, French and Russian and has used these skills to wade through the archives of those respective countries. And given that the Russian archives were unavailable to Western based historians (even if they could speak Russian) for many years, he has unravelled much new material. He is also a direct descendent of the Lieven brothers, both of whom were generals who held much sway in Alexander's court – Christoph was head of the Tsar's personal military secretariat, a position of great power, and the younger Johann was wounded at both Eylau and La Rothiere whilst leading his division. So Lieven's credentials are well and truly established – a multilingual scholar, a professional historian with access to multiple archives, family connections and familiarity with much of the terrain of which he writes.
He provides us with some revealing Russian eye-witness accounts which he makes available in English for the first time. Bernard Cornwell's 'Richard Sharpe' would have felt very much at home in the Russian army of the Napoleonic Wars as the number of commissioned NCOs was comparable to the French Army and far greater than that within the British Army. Literacy in the rank and file was encouraged and it was not unusual to find 25 year old Russian generals who had obtained their rank through merit, such as the artillery General Sukhozanet at Liepzig. Equally, royal connections resulted in senior appointments at an early age, but even Grand Duke Constantine's nephew, the 23 year Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, proved himself more than capable of commanding his brigade at Konigstein.
Lieven takes us inside Alexander's court in the years leading up to the invasion of 1812. He examines its politics and jealousies, the tug of war between the German and native senior officers, the tremendous effort and sacrifices made by aristocrat and serf alike to support the Tsar and therefore their country. We see how resources were marshalled throughout the empire and importantly how the logistics were put in motion to supply such a vast army. Once the battle had been taken in to Germany and ultimately France, Lieven provides a succinct analysis of the diplomacy at play and in particular Alexander's motivation.
But can he write? Most certainly – yes. He has a style of writing that is easy to read – even page turning. This book has been referred to as a historian's version of 'War and Peace' and that is not far off the mark. Whilst Lieven is clearly and understandably sympathetic to the Russian cause, he rarely lets this bias interfere with his analysis and conclusions. I even like the style of his footnotes, only making them at the end of the relevant paragraph. And they are worth reading too, as is the extensive bibliography. However this is a book written from the Russian perspective and to that extent I would recommend that you obtain a fair understanding of the events from 1807 – 1814 before commencing it. But if you are only going to read one book in the next year, this must be a strong contender. I have been reading Napoleonic history for nearly 40 years and it is a long time (if ever) since I have read a book as good as this. Buy it here!
The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester
I took some holiday last week and found myself in Dorchester where I spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the Keep Military Museum. Whilst the museum has been partly seduced by the modern methods of presentation, it is pleasing to see that traditional presentation has not been abandoned either.
Some of the exhibits which took my attention were a 25 pdr, a map plotting all the bombs, by device, dropped in Dorset during WW2, and a magnificent diorama of the battle of Plassey. And do you know where the last British mounted charge took place? Well if you have been on our War in the Desert tour to Egypt, the chances are that you drove right past the site en-route to Sidi Barrani. On 26 February 1916, three squadrons of the Dorset Yeomanry and one of the Bucks Yeomanry charged a Turkish rearguard (armed with Maxim machine guns). At a cost of only 32 killed and 26 wounded, they inflicted nearly a thousand casualties and captured the enemy general.
Find out more about the battle of Agagia on the museum's website or, better still, why not visit this superb museum. I think that future tours to Egypt might incorporate an additional stop, once we have figured out exactly where the battle took place.
Best selling tours in 2012
Despite the recession, bookings for 2012 have been extremely good - indeed 2012 bookings have already surpassed those taken for 2011.
Haig on the Western Front continues to do well, but we still have a few places remaining. And although it doesn’t depart until next September, the Operation Mercury tour to Crete is proving very popular.
Newsletter content request
It is a challenge to find refreshing content for this newsletter. I don’t think that I could find the time to read enough books or visit enough museums to be able to provide a worthwhile review in every issue.
But perhaps you have and you would like to pass on a recommendation to other travellers? Would you like to review any of the tours that you have experienced with us? Or maybe you have spotted some newsworthy content that you would like to share? Please send anything of interest in and we will be delighted to publish it in our next edition.
Some items from our e-newsletter Saturday November 26, 2012 - if you'd like to receive our e-newsletter please sign up here.
Haig on the Western Front – exploding the myth
If you are not familiar with Professor Gary Sheffield's work on Haig, then you should be. Gary is Haig's biographer and has written widely on the First World War.
I asked Gary to give his thoughts on his forthcoming Western Front tour with The Cultural Experience: 'I am very much looking forward to leading the Haig tour in 2012, not least because the recent Armistice Day commemorations show that the First World War continues to be a hugely controversial topic. I was involved in a debate on Radio 4's Today programme about the influence on War Poets, which was continued in the columns of the Daily Telegraph. My verdict? The role of Douglas Haig and the British Army in the First World War continues to be widely misunderstood.'
Maybe you would like to add your own comments on this subject to our dedicated Facebook page where you will also find more links to Gary talking on Haig and articles on Haig himself.
A recommended reading list for the Haig on the Western Front tour, which Gary has kindly put together, is now available.
The four day tour departs London by Eurostar on 14 April next year and you can find full details of the battlefield tour on our website. As with all our tours, the number of participants is limited to 20, so you should consider booking as early as possible to secure your place.
Protect or Lose
What a week for travel industry! If you've been reading about Thomas Cook's woes then you might like some reassurance as to where we stand on consumer financial protection. You will be pleased to hear that The Cultural Experience offers the strongest form of consumer financial protection possible.
As members of The Travel Trust Association all the money that you pay to us goes in to an independently operated trust account, the proceeds from which we can not access until you return from your holiday with us. And we issue you with an insurance certificate that guarantees that promise.
Further we have our own Air Travel Organisers' Licence (ATOL) which means that you are protected under the Civil Aviation Authorities ATOL scheme. And if you wish to be triply secure, then of course you can pay us by credit card (for which I am afraid there is a 2% charge) or Visa debit card (no charge).
Coincidentally I gave a talk on consumer financial protection last week which was based on my MBA dissertation on the same subject. It's good advice no matter who you're your holidays with - you can read the contents of the speech here….
The War in the Desert: Tunisia
The Arab Spring has certainly hit the headlines over the last year and has impacted our tour programme to North Africa. However last month Tunisia held its first free elections and is now settling down to enjoy democracy.
The Tunisian tourist economy has understandably suffered too which means that it is now keener than ever before to ensure that it delivers a top quality experience. And of course one such experience is our War in the Desert tour.
Of all the three North African battlefield and historical tours that The Cultural Experience offers, I have to say that this is by far my favourite. I realise that the battles don't have household names, but actually from a military historical perspective, this has to be one of the most interesting Second World War tours: 1st Army racing towards Tunis, Rommel in full flight across the Libyan coast to take up the old French Mareth defensive lines, the Americans striking inland in an outflanking attempt and being outwitted by Rommel, the bitter winter fighting before Tunis, Hitler's idiotic decision to reinforce and the final surrender of half a million Axis soldiers.
And then there is the cultural content of this tour: the remains of Hannibal's Carthage, the magnificent imposing Roman amphitheatre at El Djem, a 4x4 trek in to stunning oases, a night in the desert and the troglodyte houses at Matmata. There can be no more dramatic tour than this. Mick Holtby, your guide for this tour said that 'he is really looking forward to showing clients many of the important actions of the 1st Army on their route to Tunis – no more so than the action of the 16/5th and 17/21st Lancers". But then, as curator of the Queens Royal Lancers museum, he would say that, wouldn't he?
You can find more information on the tour on our website.
Badajoz in Lego!
Tours that have been booking well over the last two weeks
No doubt keenness to avoid the Olympics has been a reason why our Salamanca anniversary and Retreat to Corunna tours have proved so popular. Or it could be that the inimitable Major Gordon Corrigan is our expert?
That isolated exclave of Russia, Kaliningrad, has been generating a great deal of interest. Perhaps it’s the mix of Napoleonic Warfare with the great 1945 battle for Koenigsberg? or that it's one of the few remaining undiscovered cities of Europe?
The Operation Mercury tour, still along way off in September, has proven popular too. Led by Sandhurst’s genial Kiwi, Dr Chris Puglsey, this tour travels though the beautiful Crete countryside that was so bitterly fought over during the German airborne assault of 1941. Of course it is never too early to book a tour, particularly when places are limited.
Please let us know what tours that you would like to see us offer in 2013. It's early days of course, but we are already thinking ahead.
There will be 200th anniversary tours celebrating Wellington’s victories at Vitoria and in the Pyrenees.
In October 2013 we will attend what is sure to be a huge event at Leipzig, the battle which effectively established the principle of German nationalism that was to so dominate events during the latter part of the 19th century.