This year, Step Short’s annual march along the Leas in Folkestone (Sunday 6 August) will honour those lost in the Battle of Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres.
The notoriously muddy, bloody battle in the West Flanders region of northern Belgium began on 31 July 1917 and continued until 6 November the same year. One of the defining campaigns of the First World War, it is estimated that at least half a million Allied and German soldiers were wounded or died in the hellish battle of attrition – which finally resulted in Allied gains of just five miles.
During the offensive the flat landscape, churned up by months of shelling and flooded by the heaviest rain in 30 years, became a deathly quagmire. Along with well-established German defences and Douglas Haig’s misplaced confidence, this led to a futile struggle in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers, horses, mules, tanks and weapons were lost to the mud.
The huge massacre occurred just a year after the horrors of the five-month long Battle of the Somme in northern France in which more than a million men were killed.
On 6 August, Step Short, Dymchurch British Legion and other local groups will meet outside the Leas Cliff Hall at 10.30am before marching along the Leas to the Memorial Arch for a remembrance service at 11.00am. All are welcome.
A group of Canadian and French visitors will settle down to tea and cake at the Mole Cafe, Folkestone Harbour Arm on Wednesday 29 March 2017 as part of a 20-day First World War centenary trek marking the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Marching across Canada, England and France in the footsteps of Canadian Private John Arsenault, the event has been organised to honour all Canadian veterans of the Great War, and the enduring relationship between Canada and France.
The tour began on 19 March in Chéticamp, Arsenault’s hometown on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, and will end in Givenchy-en-Gohelle, Pas-de-Calais (site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial) on 8 April.
On arrival in Folkestone on Tuesday 28 March 2017, the group will attend a reception at the Town Hall (1.30pm). They will take a walking tour of Folkestone the following day to include the Memorial Arch on the Leas and the Harbour Arm.
The Mole Cafe is being opened especially for the occasion at 10.30am, ahead of its official opening for the summer season on Saturday 1 April.
John Arsenault was a coal miner who enlisted in the 85th Canadian Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) on 5 October 1915. He passed through Folkestone on 10 February 1917 on his way to Boulogne and on to Artois. Arsenault fought in the landmark Battle of Vimy Ridge (an opener to the British-led Battle of Arras) in April 1917 in which all four Canadian divisions fought together for the first time.
The Canadians successfully achieved their objective of taking the German-held ridge, though John Arsenault died on 9 April 1917 during consolidation work after the battle.
Our trusty volunteers are busy preparing for the 2017 opening of the Mole Cafe and Visitor Centre at Folkestone Harbour.
Folkestone Harbour Arm reopens on Friday 31 March, with the Mole Cafe welcoming its first visitors of the season on Saturday 1 April.
Located on the old railway pier, the First World War cafe (or Harbour Canteen as it was also known) will serve up tea, coffee and cake between 10am and 4.30pm every weekend and bank holiday until the end of October.
Step Short volunteers in period dress recreate the canteen, which was the last stop for British servicemen and nurses before they sailed across the Channel to the Western Front during WW1.
More than 40,000 men and women enjoyed free refreshments and signed their names in visitors’ books provided by the Folkestone women who established the cafe. Today visitors can still sign a guest book.
Our Visitor Centre at the bottom of Tontine Street reopens on Wednesday 12 April at 9am. Here visitors can read about life in Folkestone during WW1; view wartime artefacts and memorabilia; and become supporters of Step Short for just £10 a year. Check with our volunteers for specific opening times throughout the season.
Tontine Street in Folkestone has had its ups and downs over the years. Many local people will be unaware of its lofty origins as an upmarket Victorian shopping thoroughfare, and more familiar with its gradual decline to deprived urban street. Today it’s on the up again and a key location at the heart of the Creative Quarter.
A century ago, while the Great War raged on, Tontine Street was a bustling hive of enterprise, lined with colourful shopfronts, street vendors and shoppers. And on Friday 25 May 1917 it became the site of the First World War’s largest single incident of civilian casualties outside of London.
This devastating event has been largely forgotten since then except by a handful of local historians, artists and the families of those involved. As we approach the 100 year anniversary of the Tontine Street Air Raid, it is time to remember.
A New Kind of War
WW1 was a new kind of war in many ways, not least because of the long-range German Gotha planes and the threat they brought to normal people, miles from the frontline. At the end of May 1917, Tontine Street was packed with local people shopping for the long Bank Holiday weekend. It was payday and there were rumours of a prized potato delivery at Stokes Brothers greengrocery. Late into the day, mums, children and workers thronged the street in the warm spring sunshine.
Just like today, the locals were accustomed to the sounds of the army training so paid no attention to bombs heard in the distance. At 6.22pm, without any warning, a single bomb fell outside Stokes Brothers, opposite Gosnold Brothers Drapery.
Horror at Home
The injuries, deaths and aftermath were horrific. Ten men, 28 women and 25 children were killed and more than 100 injured on Tontine Street that evening. Greengrocer William Stokes and his youngest son Arthur were among the dead. Frederick Stokes died from his injuries a year later.
Gotha planes returning from an aborted daylight bomb raid on London (the first ever) had decided to shed their load on the Folkestone area. At Shorncliffe, 18 servicemen were killed and there was substantial damage to Central Station; but it was Tontine Street that took the brunt.
The change in German plans had not been detected by the air raid warning system and with no anti-aircraft guns to protect the town, the people hadn’t stood a chance. The English Channel could no longer keep the war at bay, and the community was in complete shock. Many suffered long-lasting emotional, mental and physical problems after the bombing.
To allay public fears following the tragedy, the Mayor set up the Air Raid Relief Fund which helped to install anti-aircraft guns, sirens and shelters in the town.
A Poignant Tribute
Margate artist Roy Eastland has been intensely moved by the Tontine Street bombing and for a number of years has worked on a piece called “They looked like silver birds. The sun was shining on them…“ – the title based on quotes from eyewitnesses at the time. This series of detailed images (small silverpoint portraits with handwritten text) tells the stories of the people who were there, and includes poignant personal detail. Roy continues to work on these drawings.
100 Year Memorial Service
To raise awareness of this tragic moment in Folkestone’s history and to remember those who were lost, Frederick Stoke’s great granddaughter, Margaret Care, and local historian Martin Easdown, author of A Glint in the Sky, are organising a memorial event.
The centenary of the Tontine Street bomb will be marked at 5pm on Thursday 25 May 2017 at the Methodist Church, Sandgate Road, Folkestone with a memorial service. It will be followed by the unveiling at 6.22pm in Christchurch Memorial Gardens of a plaque listing the names of the 81 killed on Tontine Street and the surrounding area.
Refreshments will be available in the Methodist Church from 2pm on the day, where information about the raid will be on display. Margaret and Martin welcome any stories and details that relatives of the families affected would like to share.
Don’t forget that there are a number of events taking place in Folkestone this November to remember the servicemen and women lost during past and more recent conflicts.
Armistice Day on 11 November 2016 will be marked at Cheriton Rd Cemetery, Folkestone. The Machine Gun Corps Ceremony consists of a short service and two minute silence held at 11am.
Step Short will also hold a service at the Memorial Arch on the Leas between 10.30 and 11.30am.
A live webcast of the Royal British Legion’s ‘Silence in the Square’ event on Armistice Day from Trafalgar Square, London will also be available on the British Legion website.
The annual Remembrance Day Parade in Folkestone takes place on Sunday 13 November at the War Memorial on the Road of Remembrance from 10.45am to 11.30am.
On Saturday 19 November at 11am, Poppies on the Leas will mark 100 years since the end of the bloody Battle of the Somme. Local schoolchildren will plant 1,000 symbolic metal poppies close to the Folk Stones artwork on the Leas. Mark Wallinger’s piece features 19,240 numbered pebbles representing the British men who died during the first day of the battle.
On closer inspection he discovered that this was in fact one of eight memorial windows presented by the Royal Canadian Army to the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SECR) in 1919. The donation had been made in recognition of the role played by Shorncliffe railway station during the Great War. The windows also feature the SECR coat of arms and Kentish hops.
Originally the windows were installed in the Refreshment Room at Shorncliffe Station, now Folkestone West Station. Today they are part of the National Railway Museum’s collection in Yorkshire.
During the First World War, more than 100,000 railway royal engineers served the front by keeping supplies and troops moving by train. The SECR railway played a key role in the war, with 556 of the company’s men lost whilst serving during the conflict.
The National Railway Museum exhibition Ambulance Trains opened in July 2016, and shares the largely forgotten stories of the trains carrying millions of injured soldiers from the battlefields to safety between 1914 and 1918.
Tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers based in Folkestone during WW1 had a huge impact on the seaside town. As well as training hard to do their job on the frontline, they were an exciting addition to the community. More than 1,000 local girls married Canadian soldiers and later returned with them to Canada!
Every year the community continues to honour the Canadian troops on 1st July (Canada Day) at a special service at Shorncliffe Military Cemetery, which holds the bodies of 305 Canadian soldiers who died during the Great War.
On July 1 more than 200 people gathered at the Step Short Arch in Folkestone to remember the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.
The service began at 7.15am with an introduction by Councillor Jan Holben, Shepway District Council Chairman, and a talk on the bloodiest battle in British history by Deputy Lieutenant of Kent, Dennis Bradley.
A whistle was blown poignantly at 7.30am, precisely when British troops were ordered to go over the top 100 years ago. A roll call of local people who died during the battle was read by Mr Bradley. Bugler Bryan Walker then played the Last Post and Folkestone and Hythe MP, Damian Collins read a classic verse from poem For the Fallen by Robert Laurence Binyon:
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.”
Two minutes’ silence followed and then Mr Collins spoke again before The Reveille from the bugler. The lament Flowers of the Forest was played on the bagpipes by piper Ben Millbery. Reverend David Adlington, St Mary and St Eanswythe Church vicar, said prayers and finally, wreaths were laid and handwritten wooden crosses with the names of the fallen from the local area were planted in the memorial flower beds.
The Somme centenary was remembered in services across the country and France last Friday. In a moving arts project to mark the anniversary, First World War ‘ghost’ soldiers marched throughout towns and cities, including Folkestone. ‘we’re here because we’re here’ was a national event created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in partnership with Rufus Norris of the National Theatre, commissioned by 14-18 NOW.
On Saturday 2 July, a new war memorial was unveiled in nearby Aldington after a 60-year campaign by resident David Hughes to honour the village’s fallen from World Wars I and II.
The Mole Cafe has reopened for the 2016 summer season, welcoming visitors to Folkestone’s revamped Harbour Arm with lashings of tea and cake every weekend.
Volunteers in First World War period dress man the eatery, housed in its original location on the old railway pier. It first opened to the public last summer when the first stage of the Harbour Arm restoration was completed, both proving a runaway success.
This year the Harbour Arm is open for food, drink and entertainment from Friday to Sunday every week and on weekdays during school holidays. The cafe starts serving from 10.00am and closes around 4.30pm at the weekends.
Established by local women in World War I, the Mole Cafe (also known as the Harbour Canteen) was the last stop for servicemen and nurses from across the British Empire, and their final taste of Blighty, before sailing across the Channel to the front line.
Of the millions who passed through the port during the Great War, more than 40,000 men and women tucked into the free refreshments and signed their names in poignant visitors’ books.