By George E. Gullen III
On Friday September 16, 2005, we took the TGV (high speed train) from Paris to Arras. It took us less than an hour to cover the approximately 100 mile distance. We were pleased to find that our hotels, the Express by Holiday Inn and the Mercure Atria, were within easy walking distance from the train station. The eight travelers were Gail and Lance Barker, George and Judy Gullen, Kathy Gullen and Richard Bomer, and Carolyn and Neil Spink. George, Gail, Kathy and Carolyn are grandchildren of William Roy Gullen who was a member of the 1st Canadian Battalion from October of 1916 until the 3rd of May 1917 when he was killed in action in the battle for Fresnoy-en-Gohelle.
After settling into our hotels we went to the Hertz car rental office and rented a 7-passenger minivan and a 4-passenger automobile. Then we went to the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, north of Arras. It was a sunny but cool and windy late afternoon. We walked around the reconstructed military trenches and the craters in the Memorial Park and we had a guided tour of the Grange Underground. The tour was conducted by a young Canadian man named Zac. After the tour we went up the hill to see the great memorial itself. The memorial was completely surrounded by scaffolding and protective sheeting and could only be seen in small part by looking through Plexiglas windows placed here and there about the memorial. It is undergoing a massive restoration project to repair damage done by the elements. There were large huts erected around the memorial where the work is being done on stones removed from the memorial.
The Canadian guides recommended that we visit the German military cemetery which was not too far away. They gave us directions on how to get there. When we got there we were awed by what we saw. Instead of white headstones as in the British and Canadian military cemeteries, the Germans had rows of black metal crosses. On each cross there were usually three or four names. The crosses stood in a grassy field with no flowers as in the British and Canadian cemeteries. At the entrance to the cemetery was a partially open patio with a wall along two sides and a roof. There were memorial plaques there and someone had placed some flower wreaths along the wall. I discovered that this cemetery was directly across the road from a location called Maison Blanche (White House) near where our grandfather was billeted on more than one occasion.
The sun was low in the sky when we were at the German cemetery, so we returned to our hotels in Arras when our visit was complete.
On Saturday morning, September 17, 2005, five of us went in the minivan to the town of Camblain l’Abbe. Our grandfather Roy joined the 1st Canadian Division here in October of 1916. Then we followed the route of the 1st Canadian Battalion’s march from Camblain l’Abbe to Dièval. The battalion marched through Villers-Châtel, Mingoval, Béthonsart, Frévillers and la Comté. We tried to follow the exact same route in our minivan. We went through very pretty rolling agricultural countryside. On reaching Dièval we passed through town and looked for fields that might have housed the 1st Canadian Battalion and served as their training grounds. We stopped at a field just outside of town that appeared to be a likely site for those activities, and we took pictures and video. Our grandfather spent one month here and wrote 16 of the letters to members of his family that we have in our collection.
Next we drove to Bouvigny-Boyeffles. The 1st Canadian Battalion was billeted several times in huts in the Bouvigny Woods just south of town. We were a little hungry and thirsty when we arrived in town and didn’t know the exact way to get to the woods, so we stopped at a small tavern in town. It turned out to be a lucky move. In the place were a barman and two customers. We explained, in our minimal French, who we were and why we were in the region. The barman pointed to one of his customers and said, “Here is your expert.” The man he was pointing to was Monsieur Aime Clement who happened to be the secretary of the Historical Committee of Bouvigny-Boyeffles. M. Clement had his digital camera with him and showed us photos in the camera of military battlefields and monuments.
We asked where there was a restaurant nearby for us to have lunch. M. Clement said he would lead us to one. He got into his car and we into our van and off we went. He led us down a narrow paved road and into a wood. At a clearing on the left he stopped his car and pointed to a British military cemetery across a small field. Then he began to lead us across a meadow that was still pock marked with small craters from artillery shells. We went through barbed wire fences and into the woods beyond the meadow, not knowing exactly what our goal was. There in the woods were the remains of a ruined chapel. M. Clement indicated that the chapel belonged to a chateau that lay to the east of us. We discovered that Canadian World War I soldiers had carved their names, home towns or battalion numbers into the stone of the chapel. I am convinced that this is the chapel that belonged to the estate in Noulette Woods that our grandfather described in one of his letters. He said in his letter that he wrote his name on one of the apparently ruined buildings, and that its walls were covered with names. Later in the day we were unable to get into the site of this estate because it was closed off by a gate on which hung a sign indicating that it was private property. So it is fortunate that M. Clement took us to the chapel of the estate.
We went back through the barbed wire, some of us with torn clothing and scratches from the wire, got into our vehicles and followed M. Clement to a restaurant. We convinced him to let us treat him to lunch.
After lunch we traveled to the town of Hersin. It is in this town that our grandfather Roy was hospitalized for treatment of a carbuncle on his neck. On our way we passed by the large French military cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette and went down into the town of Ablaine St-Nazaire. In this town we stopped at the ruined church which even today appears much as our grandfather saw it when he marched with his battalion on his way to or from the trenches. At the town of Hersin we tried to guess which house served as the hospital. We found several likely candidates and took videos at two of them near a church. Then it was back to our hotels in Arras.
On Sunday morning, September 18, 2005, six of us went from Arras on highway D 341 to Ranchicourt, and then reversed our direction to follow the route of the march by the 1st Canadian Battalion on March 9, 1917. Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, reviewed the troops on this march, probably between Ranchicourt and Estrèe-Cauchy. The 1st Canadian Battalion trained for the Battle of Vimy Ridge at Estrèe-Cauchy from March 10 to March 28. As we drove through this town we looked for fields that were likely those training grounds.
Our next destination was the location of the German-held Labyrinth trenches that were raided by a party that probably included our grandfather on the night of April 5, 1917. My map indicated the presence of craters in that location, but when we got there it appeared to be fairly level agricultural fields. There were occasional slight depressions which may be the remains of big craters formed by the mining by British troops and the setting off of large explosives under German trenches. This was a common tactic by both sides, especially in the year 1916. I walked out into a recently plowed field to the exact location of one of the former craters, according to my GPS receiver. Our grandfather commented in one of his letters about being out in “No Man’s Land” near a large water-filled crater. Since this one was the closest to the location of the trench raid it may have been the same one.
These travels took only half a day. We spent the afternoon exploring the city of Arras. Among other activities, Gail and Lance lit a candle in the cathedral of Arras in memory of our grandfather.
Our travels on Monday, September 19, 2005, were primarily aimed at visiting the sites of our grandfather’s major battles, the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the battle for Fresnoy. First, however, we went back to the Canadian Memorial Park. Downhill from the Canadian Memorial we located the site of the intersection of a front line trench with a communication trench called Central Ave. On at least one occasion our grandfather came up the communication trench with his battalion to occupy the front line trench. According to my GPS receiver, we were about 60 feet from this intersection. There was a Canadian military cemetery nearby. The rest of the ground was still pockmarked with artillery craters and we saw what we thought were the eroded remains of the trenches. It was obvious how the Canadians were at a great military disadvantage by occupying the low ground while the Germans occupied the heights of Vimy Ridge.
Next we drove to a location southeast of the town of Thelus that was called the Blue Line by the Canadians in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Aided by the GPS receiver we found the exact location on the Blue Line that was captured by our grandfather’s Company D at 10:50 on the morning of April 9, 1917. From there we could see the location of the triangle of trenches that Company D was sent back to occupy. And we could see to the west in the distance the location of the Red Line at which our grandfather’s battalion “leapfrogged” through other battalions to take the lead in the attack. Prior to coming to the Red Line his battalion had been in the second wave of attackers.
Our next destination was the site of the trenches east of Arleux-en-Gohelle from which the 1st Canadian Battalion began the battle for Fresnoy on May 3, 1917. After locating the site of the jump-off trenches we drove towards Fresnoy and found farmer’s lanes in the fields north of the road. Using these lanes we were able to walk back to the jump-off trench site and follow the path our grandfather took on that fatal day. The field immediately north of our path had been freshly plowed. It was obvious that we were walking in an old battlefield for we passed by several artillery shell casings and one unexploded artillery projectile that the farmer had apparently unearthed in his plowing.
Upon reaching the site which was the military objective of Company D of the 1st Canadian Battalion, we stopped and held a memorial service for our grandfather. Gail’s husband Lance is an ordained clergyman. He had asked me earlier in the week if a funeral or memorial service had ever been held for our grandfather. I told him that I had never heard of such a service being held. Further, I believed it was unlikely because the family appeared to have been in denial for quite a period of time. I had heard stories of Uncle Fred going to interview returning soldiers who were injured or shell-shocked and couldn’t communicate or remember their names. He obviously was hoping that one of them was his brother Roy. So Lance and Gail prepared a memorial service to be held in the field where our grandfather died.
Led by Lance and Gail, we sang “Our God Our Help in Ages Past” and “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” listened to the 23rd Psalm and excerpts from our grandfather’s letters. Lance asked us if we could talk directly to our grandfather Roy, what we would say. Several of our group contributed here. Then, finally, we laid down, one at a time, eight white roses. The first rose was in memory of our grandmother Mary Bell, and the seven other roses were for the seven children of Roy and Mary Bell. It was a moving service and was held probably within yards of where our grandfather fell in battle.
From this battlefield we moved to the Orchard Dump Cemetery near Arleux. It was in this cemetery that our grandfather’s brother Frederick C. Gullen caused to be placed a memorial cross dedicated to the memory of William Roy Gullen. It took considerable effort by Uncle Fred to make this happen. Much correspondence passed between him and the Imperial War Graves Commission in London, England, before the cross was finally installed. Today there are no crosses for individual soldiers in British military cemeteries. There are uniform headstones for soldiers whose bodies lie in the earth below. Canadian soldiers whose graves are unknown have their names inscribed on the Canadian Memorial on Vimy Ridge.
We wandered through the cemetery and noticed a large number of graves of unknown Canadian soldiers. It is possible that the body of our grandfather is buried here. It is the closest cemetery to the battlefield in which he lost his life. We also noticed the graves of soldiers from the 1st Canadian Battalion who had also been killed on the 3rd of May 1917. This reinforces my belief that our grandfather’s body may be buried here. Finally, we took some photographs of our group at the spot where we believed the memorial cross had formerly been. (We were guided to this spot by the photographs Uncle Fred took in August 1922 in this same cemetery. Then we got into our cars and headed back to Arras.