History buff Mark tells Ben Ireland how he makes battleground tours personal for guests with First World War connections.
How do you start your day…
I go for breakfast with my guests, ask if they’ve slept well and do a quick headcount. I check the names I’ve been given are the names guests like to be called; it’s a challenge to remember names and use them at every opportunity. But my work, in terms of research, starts well before I meet the guests.
I became a tour leader because…
I had a specific passion I wanted to share. My interest lies in the battlefields of the Western Front; Back-Roads was running tours to that area of Belgium and France. My knowledge and understanding of the subject placed me in good stead and over the years I’ve grown that knowledge through getting to know my guests, who usually have an interest themselves. There is always more to learn. I’ve been in my job since 2008, so this is my 11th season.
The most challenging part is…
Trying to incorporate guests’ personal requests with no prior knowledge of them and when they know very little. The internet can only help so much. Sometimes you have to resign yourself to the fact you can’t magic up information without an accurate source.
Has the level of interest in battlefield tours grown with the First World War centenary?
Absolutely. The key thing is whether this level of interest will be maintained after November 2018. I think it will but, perhaps understandably, not at quite the same level. For those captivated by the subject, anniversaries are not the be all and end all.
The most rewarding part is…
Allowing guests to make connections with family members who fought in the war and taking them to where it occurred. Often, guests have done a lot of detailed homework and know the story of the man they wish to remember in great detail, so getting them to a specific location – where he was wounded in action or recognised for bravery – is special. It’s also very touching if they share this with the group, which more often than not they do.
What is the most remarkable connection you’ve managed to help a guest unearth?
Me and my partner managed to build the story of a raid by a small group of Australian soldiers in April 1918 which led to the relative of my guest dying from his wounds. They knew only his name, Billy Willmott, and where he was buried, but had no idea where the cemetery was. I got this scant detail at the start of the tour, but within 48 hours I knew more about him than they did, and 72 hours later I took them to where the raid took place and found photos of Billy and some of his mates who were killed in the raid. The next day, we visited his grave at Vignacourt British Cemetery, north of Amiens. They were flabbergasted. But this was an exception to the rule, and only possible due to my partner’s fabulous research skills – she scoured the Australian archives online.
My favourite destination is…
The battlefields of the Somme in France. Ypres Salient, in Belgium, is a close second.
The most common questions are…
What made you so interested? Where are the German soldiers buried? And what do you do when you’re not guiding?
Do you have a family connection?
My paternal grandfather was in Canada in 1914 and, as a British-born male with no wife, among the first to enlist at the outbreak of war. He arrived in Britain in October 1914 and was posted to France in February 1915. Along with many Canadian troops, he helped repel the German advance at Ypres in April 1915 when chlorine gas was first used. With many of his comrades, he was overcome and taken as a prisoner of war and not released until 1919.
The worst thing at work is…
Having to deal with the occasional dissatisfied customer. I always try to resolve issues immediately so they enjoy the rest of the tour.
To relax I like to…
Spend quiet time on my own at home. Being happy in your own space is vital to rejuvenate.
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