Steve and Nancy Binks of Colwyn Bay – Conway, in the UK – set off with a trailer in 2012. This was not a typical vacation, however. The Binks had made it their mission to visit the grave of every serviceman from the Commonwealth that was killed in World War I – all 750,000 of them.
“We wanted to do something to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, something that no one else would think of doing,” said Steve, 58, a tour guide who has a lifelong passion for World War One.
“First we thought we’d just go and visit every cemetery on the Western Front, but I thought it sounded a bit like trainspotting – just going in, taking photographs to say we’ve been, and then walking away. We wanted to do something more inspirational so I thought, why not stop at every headstone, read it and say thank you to the soldier.”
There are nearly 2,000 burial sites all over France and Belgium, making for a monumental task. After four years, the couple have visited 766 cemeteries and have thanked 461,012 soldiers. Besides reading the names on every headstone, they recite the names on memorials to the missing soldiers whose whereabouts are unknown.
“Most people don’t quite understand the level of detail and work that’s involved,” said Steve. “Some of the larger cemeteries took six-and-a-half days just to walk to the headstones because I make sure I stop, turn, and read each one. The huge Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Thiepval has been our biggest challenge so far. The sheer scale of trying to read 72,500 names with your neck stretched back, in an arch, with a cold wind blowing – it was impossible to do it in a week or two. We had to keep returning to it over a six month period and keep chipping away, saying thank you to every soldier.”
Nancy has multiple sclerosis, making it impossible for her to walk down every road in every cemetery. “I like to sit down and read the cemetery register,” she said. “I pick out the brothers; I find out the ages of the men and if they were awarded any medals. It’s such interesting reading.”
The couple splits their time between north Wales and the continent. They work chronologically. So far, they have visited graveyards with casualties from the first three years of the war.
The Binks keep written record of their trips. “We have 10 volumes of journals from day one,” added Steve. “We write down our thoughts and feelings about the trips, about some of the soldiers we’ve stumbled across, and about some of the cemeteries that no one has been to from a very long time. We take photos of anything that’s been left on a headstone. and where there’s a photo of a soldier on a headstone we photograph that as well. We were in one of the Somme cemeteries from 1915 and there was a letter and a pair of socks left on a grave. It was the soldier’s last letter home and he’d asked for a pair of socks so someone had left some there for him.”
It seems inevitable that certain graves attract more attention at cemeteries. For example, the most popular grave at Lijssenthoek in Belgium is Nellie Spindler’s. She was a nurse. The Binks aim to treat all servicemen and women equally.
“We try not to elevate anyone above anyone else, even my own relatives,” said Steve, who lost two great uncles in the war. “A captain or a private – to us, it’s irrelevant. Every one deserves to be remembered and every one deserves to be thanked.”
The project – named “Some Kind Hand” by the Binks – leaves little time in their lives for anything else. “It’s more than an interest,” said Steve. “It’s more than a passion, even. At the moment, it’s our life.”
“Some people do think we’re a bit mad,” added Nancy, “but I find it therapeutic. When I’m at home, it’s all about MS, but when I’m in France or Belgium, I get involved with everything and the MS takes a back seat. I’d rather be there, with the soldiers.”