Culdrose fliers’ Great War battlefield pilgrimage

Two small crosses freshly adorn the grave of Corporal Charles Hollister in Belgium’s Artillery Wood Cemetery, left by the sailors of 824 Naval Air Squadron.

Renewed interest in the Great War around the 100-year anniversary of the conflict’s end prompted nearly 30 engineers, aircrew and trainees from the Culdrose-based helicopter squadron to spend a weekend paying homage on the Western Front.

The first stop was the Arras Flying Services Memorial. a tribute to WW1 aviators with no known graves. Some 990 Great War aviators – mostly Royal Naval Air Service (forerunner of the Fleet Air Arm) and Royal Flying Corps are listed on the huge memorial.

“A palpable sense of respect hung in the icy air as the group contemplated the risks taken and the sacrifices made by the people whose names are etched into the memorial,” said trainee pilot Lieutenant Lewis Randall.

A palpable sense of respect hung in the icy air as the group contemplated the risks taken and the sacrifices made by the people whose names are etched into the memorial.

Lieutenant Lewis Randall RN

“Those on the Flying Services Memorial paved the way a century ago for aviation in the military and whose legacy continues to inspire members of the Fleet Air Arm today.”

From Arras, it’s just a 20-mile drive to the heart of the Somme battlefield, where sailors fought alongside soldiers during the bloody five-month battle in 1916 – then again as the tide of the war began to turn in the summer of 1918.

The missing are commemorated by the largest British cenotaph in the world: the imposing Thiepval Memorial remembers more than 72,000 men whose bodies were never identified.

The tour continued back on Belgian soil at Mons where the war symbolically began and ended for British forces – made all the more poignant by the sudden appearance of a local resident who showed the group a photograph of the last casualty of the war.

The bulk of the British Army’s fighting in Belgium between 1914 and 1918 took place in the Ypres salient: one million soldiers from 50 nations on both sides of the line were killed, wounded or posted missing.

Charles Hollister fell at the height of the second battle in 1915 in the bloody struggle for Hill 60. The 34-year-old left a young wife behind in Jersey.

A century later, his great-great grandson Lieutenant Matt Le Feuvre is training to become a Merlin pilot with 824, so a visit to Artillery Wood cemetery north of Ypres allowed him to pay his respects – and place a small commemorative cross at the grave.

A short distance from Cpl Hollister’s last resting place is the large German cemetery at Langemarck, where more than 44,000 soldiers are buried.

“Many of the group found it hard to grasp how such large numbers of casualties could be possible in a single area of the front,” said Lt Randall.

Student aircrewman Leading Seaman Will “Biscuit” Brown added that the entire group returned to Culdrose with a much deeper understanding of the conflict and how it helped to shape today’s world.

“I think we will all come away from this feeling significantly better informed about the conduct of World War 1, but also feeling immensely more privileged to be embarking upon a career that was only made possible by the brave actions of all those who fought and sacrificed.”