For over twenty years from the middle of the 1960s, Frontiersmen made regular trips to Belgium and France to pay their respects to the Fallen of both wars. They gained introductions through the Amicale, the Anglo-Belgian Club, then of Belgrave Square London, and the Legion’s association with the 3rd Belgian Lancers. For some years Amicale was the HQ of the Commonwealth Frontiersmen who aimed to visit Belgium every year.
In 1966 the Frontiersmen still had a number of First War veterans among the membership and in late 1965 the Leeds Squadron of Canadian Division determined to visit France for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, at which some of them had fought. Leslie Thurston T.D., who commanded the Leeds Squadron contacted the British Legion, the local press and the Lord Mayor’s office to see if any other old soldiers would care to join them, but there were no takers. Possibly this was due to the advancing years of the veterans and possibly also due to the cost. The Leeds Frontiersmen needed to raise £36 per person to cover the costs of the trip, and that was a lot of money for a pensioner or even a working man in 1966. The Frontiersmen wanted to travel in uniform so “in view of past experience contact was attempted with Ministry of Defence, London, for permission to wear our uniform. The application apparently had the Ministry of Defence, Canada House and the French military attaché in a flap for no-one would risk giving the necessary permission…” 1 With a week left before departure they wrote in desperation direct to the Secretary of State for Defence, Denis Healey. He was a Labour M.P. with a reputation of holding left-wing views, so might have been thought likely to disapprove of such a uniformed organisation as the Frontiersmen. However one-time Major Denis Healey of the Royal Engineers had a distinguished war record and held the Military Cross. He wrote to Thurston apologising and set wheels in motion. Contact was made with Paris by telephone and 3 days prior to departure Denis Healey wrote “Major, travel in uniform and enjoy yourselves. You have earned it.” 2 Another problem arose in the form of a seamen’s strike. The Frontiersmen were not to be beaten so went to Tilbury and sailed on a Swedish boat to Calais on June 28th 1966. The Jubilee was commemorated in ceremonies at Amiens, Thiepval, Albert, Peronne, Bapaume and Arras. They travelled in Thurston’s car proudly flying a Canadian pennant.
The same summer the Commonwealth Frontiersmen were visiting the Belgians at Brussels and the Tomb of the Belgian Unknown Warrior. The following year they visited Blankenberge. We have the written account of the Canadians visit to the Somme commemoration although no photographs but have the photos of the Commonwealth Frontiersmen in Belgium with no account, so we have decided here to feature the Commonwealth photographs and tell the story of the Canadians’ trip.
The Canadian Frontiersmen made their base at Armentieres. They went to Nieppe to visit Thurston’s friends of many years before.
“This was the road to Armentieres so well known, indeed we were now living in the past and could see the mud, ruins, plus death we knew so well… Yes, we were indeed on duty again, our L. of F. uniforms requesting respect, and my word, we were loved by all, photographed again and again.” 3
On the Thursday they travelled to Ypres and on the way visited the Canadian Maple Leaf Cemetery at Romarin (Nieppe). At Ypres Town Hall, the Frontiersmen were received by the senior Alderman as the Burgomaster was away and were treated with honour and presented with souvenirs of Ypres. From there they went to Poperinghe, to the HQ of Toc H and the Old Military Cemetery at Poperinghe. On the following day they visited “…the wonderful awe-inspiring Monument at Vimy Ridge; to stand near this great stone Monument at Vimy Ridge makes the ordinary person feel like a dwarf…” 4 There they happened to meet an ex-o.c. of the Commonwealth’s Newcastle, England Squadron, Lt.-Col. S.W. Warwick, who was also visiting. From there they went to Pommier and called at a farm house where they were yet again greeted and were royally treated as it was place where Thurston had been billeted during the First War. The best wine was brought up from the cellar for the guests. After leaving Pommier they went on to take part in a large parade and Memorial Service at Thiepval Wood Cemetery. The Royal Canadian Air Force dropped thousands of poppies at the end of the service. There was a major parade and inspection on the Saturday at Albert with a number of holders of the Victoria Cross present. They met members of P.P.C.L.I. and had a long discussion with the Canadian Military Attaché. They visited many more military cemeteries until the final parade of the Somme Tour of Remembrance at Ypres where the ‘Princess Patricias’ beat the retreat, and then to the Menin Gate for the sounding of the Last Post. On returning home they wrote that the total distance covered on the pilgrimage was 1742 miles. Five of the six Frontiersmen were over 65 years of age and the sixth not far short of 65. It was a trip that remained in their memories for the rest of their lives, but also brought back memories of the past, some of which were very painful.
In 1968 Frontiersmen, including Les Thurston, were again in Belgium as part of the official torch-bearer party at the 50th anniversary of Armistice Day.
By the mid 1970s the Commonwealth Frontiersmen and Canadian Division were teaming up on visits to Belgium. In May 1975 they travelled to Ostend where they were met by the Town Band and greeted by Madame Caes and her husband, both of whom had been awarded the Order of Leopold for their work in the Belgian Resistance in WW2. Madame Caes and her husband had both been made Honorary members of the Legion of Frontiersmen and became friends of many Frontiersmen. The Frontiersmen then went by coach to Blankenberge, which was to be their base. After the evening meal they were “invited to the Café Metro owned by Madame Caes, and used by her during the German occupation as a H.Q. for the agents of the Resistance working with her.” 5 On the next day, a Sunday, at 10 a.m. the Frontiersmen assembled for an official Parade through Blankenberge to the War Memorial for a Memorial Service. The townspeople had lined the streets and applauded with enthusiasm the Frontiersmen marching through. The Burgomaster then took the Salute on the steps of the Town Hall and the Frontiersmen were invited inside for an official Reception and presentations. In the evening the Frontiersmen were guests at a banquet at the Blankenberge Casino. To everyone’s surprise late in the evening the then uncle of the King of the Belgians, Prince Charles, arrived and, accompanied by General Raemaekers, made a brief speech and insisted on meeting every Frontiersman. In the following two days visits were made to the Waterloo Memorial and Museum and to Bruges. On the final evening the Frontiersmen were again guests at the Café Metro and entertained by the Neptunus Kinderen band of Blankenberge.
This is just a brief account of two of many visits made to Belgium due to the close links between the Legion of Frontiersmen and the Belgians. Over the years there were many more visits, including to the 3rd Belgian Lancers. It is to be hoped that those who attended some of those many memorable visits will put pen to paper and describe their own reminiscences to be preserved in the official archives.
1 ‘Canadian Frontiersman’ January/February 1967
2 ‘Canadian Frontiersman’ January/February 1967. Denis Healey, b.1917 (who later became Baron Healey of Riddlesden) was Secretary of State for Defence 1964-70 in the British Labour Government.
3 ‘Canadian Frontiersman’ January/February 1967
4 ‘Canadian Frontiersman’ January/February 1967
5 ‘Canadian Frontiersman’ July/August 1975
Quotations are from Legion of Frontiersmen Canadian Division magazines held in the Legion of Frontiersmen archives at the Peel Special Collection in the Libraries of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and are acknowledged with thanks.
©Photographs are from the official Legion of Frontiersmen archives held by Countess Mountbatten’s Own Legion of Frontiersmen.
The article above was originally published on http://www.frontiersmenhistorian.info in August 2012 and has since been revised and updated.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.