I was about six years old when I decided I wanted to join the Army. I think my decision was influenced by my Forces background – I had cousins in the Royal Navy, my dad was in the Army, and my granddad had also served.
As soon as I finished school at 16, that was it. I went straight from my home town of Seaham, County Durham, to the Army Foundation College in Harrogate for a mixture of civilian college qualifications and basic training. That was 42 weeks, so the best part of a year when you include leave.
It was my first long stint away from home but as much as it was hard at times, it was nowhere near as hard as some of the things I saw during my visit to the Somme.
I first met my 40 travel companions at the Victory Services Club in London, when we set off on a coach to the battlefields of the First World War. The four-day tour was organised like clockwork by the Legion’s Remembrance Travel team, and included visits to numerous cemeteries and attendance at the Battle’s End service at Thiepval, which marked the final day of the Battle of the Somme.
It was at the Thiepval service on the second day of the trip that I was introduced to John and Kath Anderson, who are members of the Somme Branch and had kindly agreed to look into my family’s ties to the Somme. These wonderful Legion members have dedicated a significant amount of their time to researching men from Seaham (their hometown too) and the local area who served their country during the First World War.
Liam with Kath and John Anderson at the Thiepval memorial
They shared their findings with me and explained how to research my family’s connections to the war further – using resources such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website – and showed me a list of men from Seaham who have no known grave and are therefore on the wall at Thiepval. Knowing where these people had served and ultimately died for their country, and the fact that, 100 years ago, they lived on the streets I grew up on… that was a really emotional moment for me.
Kath and John’s readiness to give up their time to share what they’d found with me sums up what being a member of the Legion is all about. Members share a real sense of comradeship and a willingness to work together – even though they now live in a different community in a different country.
The following day, I set myself the task of trying to get around and look at every single grave in the cemeteries we were due to visit on the tour – looking out in particular for soldiers from the Royal Tank Corps or the Royal Norfolks (both having connections for me because of my old regiment, the Light Dragoons, and also where I now live in Dereham, Norfolk).
As we approached the end of the stop at Delville Wood Cemetery, I looked at my watch and a wave of emotion came over me because I knew that I couldn’t achieve my aim. It just came over me – this massive amount of grief – and I had to stop myself from crying.
Liam documents his travels at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L’Abbe
This occurred again when I saw the grave of a young Royal Norfolk lad who was just 17 years old when he died. I photographed his grave and then, looking at the picture, thought of myself at that age, learning to drive a tank in Bovington. This guy was sat in a trench, far from home, waiting to go over the top. It completely opened my eyes to the reason why people go to these sites and what it means to them.
"I’ve come away from the trip having learnt a lot... It’s something I’ll never forget"
Everyone on the coach had come on the trip for different reasons – some had family or community ties, like me, while others I spoke to had no connections whatsoever – they just felt that they should come and do it – but we were all there essentially for the same purpose: Remembrance. You don’t need to have been in the Armed Forces to feel like this, and that’s something I tell people whenever I’m helping with the Poppy Appeal. Remembrance, and the Legion on the whole, is more than just a club for veterans – it’s for people who have a shared interest and shared values.
If I had to describe the tour in one word, it would be ‘wow’. It was a complete emotional rollercoaster from the word go. I went with an open mind, and came away with a lot more knowledge, but at the same time a lot more emotional memories because of doing things that I didn’t expect I would – such as meeting Kath and John. You get an enormous sense of scale just being there. I’ve read books, I’ve watched documentaries, but I’ve come away from the trip having learnt a lot more. It’s something I’ll never forget.
Since returning home, I’ve set myself some tasks that I want my local branch to help me carry out. One of these is to get out and about in the Dereham and District area, take photographs of all our First World War memorials and graves, and make sure they’re all maintained with the same respect they are in France. For example, I know there’s a young guy from the Royal Norfolks buried in Swanton Morley church who was killed in 1918. In 2018 I want to be able to say, ‘I’ve contacted his family, his relatives and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, everybody is pleased with what’s been done, and here’s what we’re going to do next.’
I feel this isn’t only the Legion’s job, it’s a public service as well. It’s a responsibility for those of us who have been lucky enough to live during the lifetimes of those who fought in the First World War – to keep their memories alive.”
Remembrance Travel arranges pilgrimages and tours to battlefields, war cemeteries and memorials across the world.
For more information on future tours, visit Remembrance Travel.