Wildfire WW1 battlefield tour

Fresh from unveiling a gleaming new battle honours board, sailors from North London reservist unit HMS Wildfire headed to Belgium to learn how their forebears earned that distinction.

Almost 100 years to the day since their predecessors from the armed sloop HMS Wildfire turned their guns against the German Army in Flanders, members of today’s RNR unit in Northwood crossed the Channel to pay their respects – part of several days honouring the deeds of sailors in the Great War.

In October 1914 the previous HMS Wildfire was called on bombard German forces around Nieuwpoort to help the Belgian Army stop the enemy after the fall of Antwerp, the defence of which had involved the reservists of the Royal Naval Division.

Her actions were rewarded with a belated battle honour unveiled this autumn at today’s HQ: Belgian Coast 1914.

Nieuwpoort’s impressive Commonwealth War Graves Commission monument is mostly dedicated to Britons who died later in the war.

But at least 20 of the names belong to men of the Royal Naval Division, whose sacrifice was remembered with a poppy wreath laid by the reservists.

Among the names on the Nieuwpoort memorial is that of Sub Lt Edwyn Ridge of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (forerunner of today’s Maritime Reserve), posted missing in October 1914, leaving behind a wife and son.

His body was only found in the mid-1980s and reinterred in Cantincrode Cemetery in Mortsel on the southeastern outskirts of Antwerp – the next port of call for the Wildfire reservists.

The hurriedly-formed and ill-trained Royal Naval Division was thrown into the line at Antwerp in a desperate bid to hold it in the face of the Germans.

Sailors of Hawke Battalion defended Fort 2 in the wonderfully-named suburb of Wommelgem, where present-day reenactors gave a guided tour for the Wildfires to bring the events of 1914 back to life.

Further evidence of the odds the RND faced 100 years ago was provided in nearby Fort Kassel, where the reservists were shown the damage caused by German heavy artillery.

The Wildfire team paid their respects at memorials in Zeebrugge, Passchendaele and Tyne Cot Cemetery, the German cemetery at Vladslo, renowned for the The Grieving Parents by sculptress Käthe Kollwitz, and the grave of Lt Cdr Oswald Hanson at Dendermonde; the reservist officer was executed by the Germans October 10 1914 after he attempted to prevent them firing on his fleeing men.

No-one can visit the Western Front without seeing Ypres, and no-one can visit Ypres without attending the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate where the Last Post is sounded each night to the fallen of WW1.

The battlefield tour concluded with a return to the coast and participation in the ‘Lighting up the Front’ event , 9,000 Belgians carrying torches from Nieuwpoort to Ploegsteert on the French border, 50 kilometres in land.

Then the reservists were invited by civic leaders in Nieuwpoort to the opening of the Westfront museum. Among its displays, one on the Dover Patrol – to which the Great War HMS Wildfire belonged.

“This was the perfect ending to an emotional, educational, reflective and not-to-be-missed week of activities allowing current Reservists to better understand the military aspects of World War 1 whilst honouring the memories of their predecessors who made the ultimate sacrifice in that conflict,” said Lt Michael Quinn.