ONE hundred years on from the First World War, Nigel Dunkerley a pharmascist from Glossop, runs a business that takes people to the sites of the Great War. Joe Wilkinson finds out why he does it.
“We were just driving with a caravan and we got a puncture. A bit fell off the car and we had broken down.
“It was a British car so they had to fly parts out to us, we had to stay in France for five days and we were actually on the Somme. I was only about 15 or 16 and I had never really heard of the Somme before.
“So we spent about five days marooned in that area. It just kind of ignited something in me that has stayed ever since.
That was how Nigel Dunkerley, 43, tells how he first fully became interested in military history.
Sat in his front room, it would be easy for anyone to realise that someone in the house has a special interest in the First and Second World War. Although he has a very normal home, a quick look around and you quickly notice the bookshelves full of military history books.
He said: “It’s just my passion, I’ve got hundreds of them on it.”
There were only two bookcases downstairs, which were full, but Nigel assured me that there were two even bigger ones upstairs.
He added: “My wife goes mad. She’s a nurse and is not interested at all in military history. I’m always buying books!
“I took her on one of the trips just after we married. She’s only been once and I think she enjoyed it, but I don’t think she’s particularly keen to go again.”
“I was always interested in it because of my granddad, and my great-granddad, who fought in the First World War. But the pivotal moment for me was on the family holiday in France. “
— Battleground Tours (@BattlegroundT) March 24, 2014
The first thing that strikes you about Nigel is the enthusiasm he exudes about the subject. When I met him, we would often wander off the topic, chatting at great length about different issues of military history. Although, when I think back, the fault may be mine. But his enthusiasm for the topic left me wanting to pick and prod his knowledge on the subject with the time that I had with him.
Nigel, a pharmacist of over 20 years, admits that his job is not his real passion. His company, Battleground Tours, is a fairly young company. Founded in 2012, Nigel runs the company in his free time, as well as being a consultant pharmacist based in Oldham. His company takes groups to the battlegrounds of the First and Second World War. On the trip, his tours only concentrate on one battle to make it a detailed and specialised trip.
He said: “That’s the dream really; to one day run the business full time.”
“I took my first commercial trip last July, where we went to the Somme. The group that came was great; they were a fantastic bunch of people.
“There are a lot of memorials where all the tourist groups go to, but because this is a small company, I can tailor it to what anybody wants. I can make my own agenda as long as I get the main things in.”
IMAGE: Thiepval memorial, listing the names of 73,000 missing men on the Somme. People often want to go to a very specific place because they know someone who had fought or died there. Something Nigel prides in achieving and being able to provide a personal touch for those who tour with him. He said: “I can do private tours for a small group, or I do planned tours which are advertised on the website. Some don’t want to go to see what’s there; the big places like the Somme, some want to go exactly where granddad fought or where granddad died. They need a bit more research. “One of the things I do is try and do some research, and find out about their relatives records.” Speaking of the last group that went on tour with him, he said: “The ages of them ranged from younger than me, to the late 70s. They all had their own reason for going which was really good. One particular one, wanted to go to see her uncles grave. She was the first of her family to go. “She told this story about her Dad, who was only around two when his brother was killed in the Somme, and he couldn’t really remember him. What he did remember was that his brother used to give him this hapney and then he would chase him around saying ‘give me my hapney back!’ “When we went out there, we took her to the grave, and I told her what had happened to him, and where he was an everything, then I saw her bending down, and I said ‘what are you doing?’ “She said ‘I’m giving him his hapney back.’ There wasn’t a dry eye really; he’d got his hapney back. Everyone was really emotional. They were the first people from their family ever to have gone there. “I really enjoy being able to take somebody there, to tell them what had happened, and then to witness them be at the graveside.” Nigel seemed to take great pleasure in telling that story. Although his interests and passions for military history make the trip worthwhile regardless, it is not hard to imagine that emotive moments like that make it even more rewarding.
The Tank Corps Memorial at Pozieres on the Somme in France pic.twitter.com/QPdLsORLYX
— Battleground Tours (@BattlegroundT) November 28, 2014
Speaking of the battlegrounds, he said: “It’s still a dangerous place. There are still lots of shells lying around.
“In France and Belgium, what they do is they put the ones people find at the side of the road. Then the bomb disposal unit come along and get rid of them. There are piles of shells all lined up on the side of the road, just ready to explode.
“Once, when I was with my wife, she was backing the car up and I was guiding, and all of a sudden I was shouting ‘stop!’ She was inches away from an unexploded bomb. She nearly ran over it in the car!
“There are always people being killed from the bombs. There are gas shells that you only have to touch, you don’t need to inhale them, and it will give you all kinds of skin conditions and breathing issues.
“But now, you get people who are trying to pull things out the ground and they touch them sometimes. It’s not safe at all. You have to be very careful what you do, what you pick up and touch. You can’t just go wondering over fields unless you know what you’re doing.
“Just before the Battle of the Somme started, they fired a million shells at the German lines and a lot of them failed to go off, so a lot of them are still there. They’re probably more dangerous now. They become less stable over time, and are more likely to explode.”
A hundred years on from the First World War, Nigel talks about how wars and the feeling of the war have moved on.
“Its effects are still being felt on families in the UK. The advent of accessing records online easily and cheaply means that we can find out about the war service of our relatives in a way not previously possible.
“Also, because there are now no survivors from the First World War and a dwindling number from the Second, it means that the nature of remembrance is changing to a more collective appreciation of their sacrifices rather than a personal remembrance of a lost individual. “
Nigel doesn’t want to rest on his laurels, and wants to expand his business and knowledge of military history.
“There was nearly a million war dead from the first world war, that’s a million stories.”