As we grow older, there’s a natural tendency to reach out to our past and learn about relatives that died long before us. That’s one reason family research websites such as findmypast.com.au and ancestry.com.au are so popular. But for the more adventurous of us, there are battlefield tours.
Battlefields expert Andy Steel specialises in personal guided tours through the battlefields of Europe. His unique tour includes visits to specific cemeteries that are not listed on the standard battlefield itinerary. He caters to people wanting to pay their respects to a fallen relative or family friend.
Steel’s Back-Roads Touring request family history details from travellers ahead of time, so he can research their war history and actually locate the grave site of a relative, as well as providing background on how they came to be at a particular cemetery.
Steel told Huffington Post Australia his passion for the Battlefields came from his personal connection to war
“All of my ancestors are Scottish. My grandfather served in the trenches in France and then flew with the Royal Flying Corps and he survived. My great uncle was at Gallipoli and, after being evacuated, fought in Palestine and was killed just outside Jerusalem where he lies buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery,” Steel said.
“During the last war, my father was with the Gurkhas in India and Burma, and my mother, as a Wren, was at Station X, Bletchley Park, working, like many others, at breaking German U Boat Codes. I have all their diaries and letters at home for safe keeping.
Steel is a former police officer, hostage negotiator and a former Detective Chief Inspector working out of the British Embassy in Paris. It was during his time in Paris that Steel researched his grandfather’s history, who had served near Bethune. His friends asked him to take him up to the western front and he decided to turn his passion for battlefields into a business.
On the standard Western Front tour about 80-85 per cent of the group are Australian. The ANZAC tours are, of course, nearly all Australian or New Zealand.
Steel said there’s nothing more rewarding than being able to take people to the exact place their relative fought and perhaps died.
“It can be very emotional and simply heart breaking. Particularly for Australians and New Zealanders whose forefathers had come such vast distances from across the oceans to be there. Normally I recite a poem at the graveside and then leave the family to quietly grieve in private.
“It just wasn’t possible for mothers and fathers to visit the grave of their son, it was too far away and much too expensive. Often the visitors that I take to these graves are the first family relatives to have completed the pilgrimage. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a superb organisation and the gardeners do a magnificent job maintaining the cemeteries, they are beautifully kept and always serene.”
“It’s not difficult to research an individual’s war service, particularly in Australia or New Zealand, where the records are so comprehensive. The British Records are more difficult because many of them were destroyed by the Germans during the Blitz in WWII.”
“What is more difficult is locating the Unit War Diaries, interpreting the entries and transferring them onto a trench map and then onto a contemporary map in order to able to ‘walk the ground’ three dimensionally. I use the internet, reference books, original trench maps and then a complete set of modern 1/250 Belgian and French Maps.”
Steel believes the Battlefield tours provide closure for families and it reassures them when they see how beautifully the cemeteries are kept.
“It’s also fantastic to be able to stand in a field in the middle of the French or Belgian countryside and interpret what happened there about hundred years ago and bring the whole event to life.”
“It is very important to remember the huge cost and the sacrifice of others. It’s like being on a stage really. Perhaps I should have been an actor! One day, I’ll visit my Great Uncle’s grave near Jerusalem.”
An Andy Steel Battlefield Story
1. A lady came up to me whilst we were on tour, I think she had probably seen me do some research for other clients on the same tour. She asked me if I was able to tell her anything about her three Great Uncles who died during the First World War, apparently her Grandfather was the only one of four brothers to have returned to Australia. She knew their surname of course, but the barest of details.
Luckily, the surname was quite unusual and I was able to trace all four brothers before the tour finished. The brothers served in the same Australian Battalion and her three Great Uncles died on the same day - September 3, 1916 - in the same field.
I took the group up a small track to the same field just north west of Pozieres and told them the story of what happened on that day and read my favourite poem in memory of the three of them.
The most poignant part of the story is that as far as we know two of the brothers remain in that very same field, their bodies were never identified, nor probably ever recovered. It was extremely moving and poppies were left on the side of the field in memory to the fallen.
The third brother lies buried at Courcelette Commonwealth Cemetery, a short distance away, and we visited him afterwards. I often visit him in that wonderful cemetery surrounded by rolling fields and think about that day and the terrible impact it had on that one family so many miles away on the other side of the world. Whenever I visit him the sun is always shining.
The Beersheba Centenary Tour
Another battlefield tour is held by war historian Mat McLachlan who has launched a new ‘Beersheba Centenary Tour 2017’ from Tel Aviv, to commemorate the centenary of the historic battle. The charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, Israel on 31 October 1917 was one of the last great cavalry charges in history, and one of the greatest victories for the Allies on the Middle Eastern Theatre of World War I.
“This tour allows Australians to retrace the actions of the Light Horsemen in this famous battle, and provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to walk the ground where the charge took place on its 100th anniversary,” said McLachlan.
The fully-guided tour, led by Australia’s leading historians together with local guides, will take in Tel Aviv, ancient Nazareth, Tiberias, the Jordan Valley, Jerusalem and Beersheba.