Number Two Company WG100 Leg Three – Arras, Hechtel and Brussels
The third and final Number Two Company leg covered two different campaigns of the Second World War. First was the Defence of Arras and the subsequent withdrawal to Dunkirk. Second was the Liberation of Brussels and the fierce fighting that took place around the village of Hechtel in north-east Belgium. For the first segment, the group was based in the city of Arras, the scene of a gallant but ultimately unsuccessful counterattack by the British Expeditionary Force 21 May 1940 against superior German forces. Upon arrival on a sunny Saturday afternoon it was discovered that the museum we had wished to visit, which had an excellent exhibition on the defence of the town, had been closed for a wedding. The rest of the day was therefore spent enjoying a somewhat bizarre local festival that seemed to have sucked in the population of the region.
With our first marathon planned for 31 August, the day before was designated for giving the group the context of what the Battalion had done in May 1940 and exploring some of the historical sights of the area. Firstly, we walked through the town with LSgt Lewis 88 and me describing what Arras would have been like for a Welsh Guardsmen in 1940. After a pause to pay respects at the Arras Memorial, the group drove to the location outside the town where Lt the Honourable Christopher Furness won his Victoria Cross. After explaining the action and getting different Guardsmen to read from the citation, we journeyed on to Vimy Ridge. Although our leg had a Second World War focus, much of the local sights were First World War orientated. Given Arras’s close proximity to one of the most famous monuments to the sacrifice of Allied troops in the First World War, it was too good an opportunity to miss. In beautiful weather the group looked at the stunning Canadian Memorial. Many of the Guardsmen were staggered by the scale of the battle, in particular the inscription that informed visitors that the Canadians had attacked four divisions in extended line, with a frontage of four miles. Such scale put into perspective the section or platoon attacks that the men are well versed in today.
LSgt Lewis 88 briefing the group on the bravery of Lt Llwewelyn and Four Platoon in the grounds of West Cappel chateau
The first marathon saw half of the group run from the village of West Cappel to the beaches at Dunkirk. We were joined by Capt Guillaume Nedellec of the Régiment de marche du Tchad, our partner French Army regiment. On arrival in the village and before setting off, we were given a tour of the chateau that stands in its centre. The chateau was valiantly defended by the men of Number Two Company against overwhelming German forces, including armour in strength. The damage to the chateau and the outbuildings was still evident, and the gardener showed the group carvings made by Welsh Guardsmen and also the propeller of a Spitfire that had been downed in the grounds. LSgt Lewis 88 gave the group an excellent talk on what had happened there over seventy years previously and the men were interested and moved by the actions of the direct forebears. After the tour had been concluded we proceeded to the small churchyard in the village, resting place of nineteen Welsh Guardsmen and more unidentified British soldiers. The men placed crosses at each of the graves and had a small, private moment of reflection. Minds then turned to the small matter of running a marathon.
Gdsm Adamson after laying the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The route was relatively flat, however some of the runners struggled and dropped out after strong efforts. The finish point was on the beach at Malo-les-Bains, scene of the main evacuation of British troops from France. Unfortunately the weather was awful which scuppered plans for a post-marathon BBQ on the beach.
The following day was taken up by transit to Brussels for the next leg of the trip and by pre-marathon admin for the other half of the group. We were joined for this leg by the Officer Commanding Number Two Company, Major Mathieson and Company Sergeant Major Owen. The second marathon was to take place in and around the village of Hechtel, the scene of fierce resistance by German Airborne forces against the advance of the Guards Armoured Division, with the Welsh Guards in the van. The marathon started in the village of Beringen and then proceeded through Hechtel and Leopoldsburg. This was the route taken by the troops in 1944.
Hechtel marathon finishers: Gdsm Jones 73, Company Sergeant Major, Company Commander and LCpl Campbell
The next, 3 September was the seventy-first anniversary of the Liberation of Brussels by the Welsh Guards. We were to take part in the city’s official commemoration of the event. The Company Commander, Company Sergeant Major, Major Davies, Padre Gillham and Gdsm Adamson accompanied a procession through the city from Place de la Liberation to the Grand Place, stopping at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where Gdsm Adamson had the honour and privilege of laying a wreath on behalf of the Regiment. The event was attended by senior members of the Belgian Army, city officials and the British Ambassador, all of whom were delighted to see the Welsh Guards represented at the event for the first time. Meanwhile the rest of the group were undertaking an arduous run through the city that would finish at the Town Hall in the Grand Place, slightly after the official procession had arrived. Just after 1130, the group entered the town hall to be greeted by a band and all of those who had taken part in the official procession. After the runners had met the City officials, the National Anthem was played and everyone was invited into one of the reception rooms for champagne and sandwiches.
Leg two at the Hechtel memorial post-marathon
After this had been concluded, the group had a meal together and then watched Wales beat Cyprus in a crucial qualifier for the European Championships. The night continued with visits to a couple of Brussels’s liveliest establishments and was enjoyed by all. The next day some sore heads got on the vehicles and travelled back to the UK, via Ypres and the Menin Gate.
The trip was a great success and met all requirements set out when WG100 was conceived. Two marathons were undertaken and the men learnt a great deal about their regimental history and I believe they enjoyed it a great deal.