As a military historian, battlefield enthusiast and all-round history nerd(!) I take great pleasure in going to the Western Front with and without groups to discover new places and new stories. As a battlefield guide, I have spent many a rainy and windy day telling students about the First World War and hope to do so for a long time to come (as soon as pesky COVID gets sorted out!) For the last few months, google photos has been very helpful in reminding me of many tours that I have been on and reminding me how much I miss being out on the ground. But in the last few weeks particularly, I have been reminded of tours that have taken place in the month of October. Of course, I am biased as my birthday is in this month, but I do believe that October is the best month to be on the battlefields – it’s certainly my favourite time of year to be out there!
As Henry Ward Beecher put it ‘October… is the month of glory, of ripeness. It is the picture month.’ And in this regard, he is certainly correct. Aesthetically, October suits the battlefields well. When the sun is shining in a particular way, it catches the leaves on the trees, the fields and cemeteries and memorials, causing them to almost glow. The light sits just over the battlefields in a soft glow that you don’t get in the heights of summer or the depths of winter. It certainly makes for some wonderful photographs and some wonderful memories of the battlefields.
As a battlefield guide, October is arguably the most practical month to be guiding a group. Whilst summer allows for plenty of time to guide, the heat sometimes can be too much. On the other hand, as soon as you hit the winter, the conditions whilst atmospheric and very helpful when trying to build a picture about conditions in winter on the Western Front, can be a distraction as well, and the fast fading light limits exactly what you can talk about without being rushed. But October has the perfect balance of not being quite cold enough for the heavy duty coats that anyone who has visited the battlefields knows are required in winter, and not so hot that it’s uncomfortable. Also, it is usually still fairly dry in October, making guiding far easier as you don’t spend a majority of your time hiding in shelters with a group of shivering and/or wet students! Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but I have been fortunate in the fact that I have not encountered poor conditions in October!
From a personal perspective, I really enjoy being on the battlefields in October because there’s a good chance that I’ll be lucky enough to spend my birthday out on the ground. Who wouldn’t enjoy being able to spend their birthday in some of their favourite places in the world? Last year, I was out on a three day tour around my birthday, and on the day itself, I was lucky enough to be down on the Somme. Whilst we did visit the usual sites of Lochnagar Crater, the Sunken Lane and Thiepval, we were also lucky enough to be able to visit Caterpillar Valley Cemetery and Memorial for the purposes of the pilgrimage of a student. I took the opportunity to talk about New Zealand during the First World War and the taking back to Wellington of the Unknown Warrior. Being able to take our group to visit a site we unfortunately don’t get to go to enough and give them a different aspect of the First World War, on my birthday, with the sun setting over the fields of the Somme battlefields, really highlighted to me, how lucky I am to be able to do what I do as a battlefield guide.
Whilst it has been what feels like a long time since I was last on a battlefield – a brief swing by the Portuguese Cemetery and Neuve Chapelle Memorial in February of this year – seeing these pictures again has reminded me that I will be back there before too long. It is of course impossible to know when that will be, but it will happen one day. And I am not exaggerating when I say the thought of that day fills me with so much joy.