HMS Scotia honours the fallen at the Menin Gate

Reservists from HMS Scotia travelled to Ypres, Belgium to learn about the significance this area played in the First World War and to participate in the Menin Gate Ceremony.

PO Simon Johnson of Tay Division, reflects on the visit, below:

Throughout 2016, there had been a lot of enthusiasm within Tay Division about organising a battlefield tour.  We wanted to compliment a foreign tour with a group act of memorial - such as laying a wreath in Dunkirk for HMS Scotia (a cross channel transport ship sunk during the evacuation in 1940) or paying our respects at the Somme.  After a bit of research we discovered it was the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as Passchendaele, so Ypres seemed like a worthy candidate for our visit. This was especially significant since the forerunner to the Royal Naval Reserve, the 63rd (Royal Navy) Division, took part in the battle.

Surg Lt Cdr Michael Wilson took on the role of organiser and with overwhelming interest, plans for the tour went ahead.  PO Garry Brown suggested using Talbot House in Poperinge for accommodation and this was an excellent choice.  During WWI, this small city was used as a garrison town, with thousands of British soldiers passing through when going to and returning from the front.  Talbot House was rented from a local family and rebuilt into a club house open to all soldiers.  It is now open to all to enjoy its authentic, historic atmosphere and unique location.

When the day finally arrived, members of the unit travelled far and wide to Edinburgh for onward air travel.  We finally managed to negotiate all our uniform onto the plane and after a quick hop over the channel, we landed in Brussels.  Everyone crammed into two small mini buses and off we drove into the sunset.  It took an hour and a half to get to Poperinge and Talbot House lived up to its reputation, as the perfect base for our stay. Run by volunteers, it was welcoming, spotlessly clean and full of history.  The excitement about the weekend’s events was underway, with poignant discussions about why we were here and what it meant to all of us.  I particularly enjoyed taking a moment with AB Mollie Osbourne, reflecting about those who had stayed in Talbot House during the Great War and those who had fallen near to here.

Off we went to a restaurant booked by Lt Tom Heinowski.  First class choice!  It was the restaurant’s ten year anniversary and they foolishly offered us a special deal - after watching us eating all of their food I’m not sure this deal was ever offered again! AB Gordon Brand gave a moving talk on Lt Cyril Aldin Smith, the only member of the Naval Service recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial of 55,000 names.  Lt Smith was a Royal Naval Reservist.

Next day, we were up early(ish) and piled on a hearty breakfast, enjoyed by all.  Following a quick brief by Surg Lt Cdr Wilson, we headed to Ypres to meet our guide.  The three hour tour was outstanding and something I will never forget.  As a veteran of a few of battlefield tours, I must say this one was the best I’ve experienced.  One point that made the brutality of the war all the more real to me was the fact that for every second on the battlefield, there were 12 projectiles fired at allied troops, every minute, in every hour.

After the tour some of the group stayed in Ypres to visit local museums, while others returned to Poperinge. Talbot House was a hive of activity with uniforms being located, shirts ironed and kit being organised to the highest standard.  I certainly felt the growing sense of pride and noticed the extra effort that everyone was putting into getting themselves ready.

At 1800 hours, we piled into our transport and set off to the Menin Gate.  Credit is due to Lt Cdr Bill Smith, Parade Commander, who gave us a quick but comprehensive run through, before mustering us in the main parade area.  By this time, the road to the memorial was closed and there were many spectators gathered in and around the monument, all of them looking at us. When Lt Cdr Smith brought us to attention, two things happened: firstly, all the onlookers went silent and secondly, with a sense of pride and remembrance radiating from our squad, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

The ceremony itself was a wonderful, fitting and sombre event. The people of Ypres genuinely thanked “us” for our service.  AB Mollie Osbourne did herself, the unit and the Royal Navy proud, laying a remembrance wreath. It’s worth a mention that Lt Cdr Tim Haddow was originally going to lay a wreath but at the last minute, he graciously suggested that Mollie might want to experience the honour.

Sunday was the biggest risk for the weekend from my point of view.  18 matelots on hired bikes left to roam the countryside - this had disaster written all over it!  My fears were almost justified when I saw PO Craig Messer mount his “steed” for the first time. PO Messer had done a sterling job as Coxswain, making sure everyone was at the right place at the right time - however, when he tried riding a bike, he had all the grace of a newborn foal!  We were split into two groups (damage limitation!) with Lt Cdr Niall Bennet and LH Richie Averiss leading a group each.  We visited two more sites and squeezed in a visit to a museum - fantastic stuff.  Back at Talbot House we thanked our hosts, who complimented us on our courtesy and welcomed us back anytime.

Normally on weekend trips, the mood on the return journey is quite quiet as people are tired and looking forward to going home.  I was sitting in the front of one of the mini buses and listening to everyone animatedly telling stories about their weekend and saying how much they had enjoyed it. I think that was the barometer of the success of the tour.  Special mention has to go to Surg Lt Cdr Wilson, without whom this visit would never have happened - his fluent French and sense of humour made a big difference on this fantastic trip.  PO Brown did a great job snapping ‘phots’ over the weekend, some of which are included with this article to bring my words to life.”