Great Pilgrimage 90 Update

St James’ Branch GP90 Report

The Great Pilgrimage 90 (GP90) took place from Monday 5th August to Thursday 8th August 2018 and culminated in the parade of over 1100 RBL standards and the same number of wreath bearers to the Menin Gate at Ypres.

 

The St James branch sent two representatives, John Robson Standard Bearer and Treasurer and Tod O’Brien Branch Secretary to the event. The trip was organised in conjunction with Leger Holidays and the members received excellent communications and administration from the RBL and Leger prior to the departure.

 

The journey took the form of coach travel throughout via Dover to Calais and during the two days prior to the parade members were treated to two days of battlefield and cemetery visits.

Day 1.

 

We visited Thiepval cemetery, Delville Wood the scene of a desperate South African engagement and the memorial to the fallen and Vimy Ridge memorial. These were deeply emotional visits. Not until one sees the rows and rows of tombstones and names of the fallen etched into the walls in their thousands can one truly appreciate the scale and sense of the loss. Wall after wall of memorials, to the long forgotten regiments of the line. Every name was a person. Every person had a family and friends. The immense destruction of human life is truly unforgiveable. Then onto Arras and the Vimy Ridge memorial. Truly humbling.

Day 2.

 

We visited the Passchandaele museum followed by Tyne Cot cemetery. After the first day I thought we had been shocked. Tyne Cot numbed me into disbelief. 12 thousand graves and 35 thousand names in the memorial walls for those who had no last resting place. This was beyond the use of words to describe the enormity of what had happened in these rolling pastures and sunlit woodlands. So peaceful now and yet less than three or four generations ago had seen such carnage and destruction as never seen before. Flanders field visitor centre run by young Canadian interns. Ever smiling, ever helpful to assist in understanding the loss and sadness. For me one poignant moment reading the famous poem of Canadian John Macrae, Surgeon in the field.

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
 
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
 
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.
 
We may or may not concur with the sentiments of his last verse but can certainly understand it as soldiers, airmen and sailors.
 
At Tyne Cot we also met several young interns from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. (CWC) Young people from the U.K. who volunteer to assist visitors to find relatives, research the cemetery and are always helpful and smiling. To any young person I would certainly recommend this as an internship prior to university or embarking into the workplace. A meaningful and humbling experience for anyone. I encouraged them to join the RBL. I hope they do.
 
Lastly Hill 60. The scene of the tunnelling by the allied tunnellers, who worked tirelessly to overcome the enemy emplacements, which were so hard to break down through conventional attacks and who inevitably saved lots of allied lives.
 

Day 3.

 

 
This was the culmination of our pilgrimage, where over 1100 standards of the Royal British Legion Branches and the same number of wreath bearers paraded in Ypres town centre to the Menin Gate. Famous for it’s continuing homage daily to the fallen. It was a proud moment to see all the blue and gold standards flying in the brilliant sunshine through the narrow cobbled streets of Ypres and the red poppies shining brightly on the wreaths as we made our way to the Menin Gate. It didn’t feel sad or emotional, but everyone was full of pride at being part of such a commemoration and was welcomed with open arms by the local people.
 
Perhaps though there are some lessons for us as an organisation that holds the covenant for all Armed Forces beneficiaries so dear to our hearts. There was much discussion in our group at our hotel as to what had been achieved for the Royal British Legion. There must have been at least a £1000,000 spent on this project. There were no members of the Royal family at the service. The commemoration at Amiens on the same day seemed to overshadow the Ypres event. Hence there was no national media coverage, although there were lots on social media. It felt to me as though we had been a little cheated of recognition by the mainstream media and the Patrons of our charity.
 
Did we attract any new younger members? Surely a part of the strategy of such a huge cost of such an event will have been to bring us to the attention and piqued the interest of a new tranche of younger members. I fear without the necessary patronage and media coverage this will be very unlikely. We are likely, as the generations who fought a hundred years ago to secure our freedom, to become an anomaly and associated with a forgotten period as it fades into the distance and memory of the public consciousness.
 
As the Royal British Legion we need to do more to raise our profile and become much more relevant to today’s more recent conflicts and the real trials and tribulations of the thousands who have fought and are still fighting for our peace and security. If there is a torch to be passed, as John Macrae the famous poet intimated, it is the one that the Royal British Legion now needs to grasp firmly and make relevant to all our communities and refresh our importance to the country and not just at Remembrance.
 
Tod O’Brien. Secretary. St James’ Branch