Marching Into WWI History

An artist's impression of the Arch at The Leas in Folkestone Credit: Step Short

Plans have been unveiled to build a memorial arch in Folkestone in Kent to honour the millions of First World War soldiers who marched through the town on their way to the battlefields of France and Belgium. The arch will be built in time for the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War in 2014.

The project is part of Step Short, a charity set up to remember the role of Folkestone as a transit point for the estimated nine million men who boarded troop ships and crossed the English Channel. Thousands of them signed visitor books at a cafe in the harbour, set up by two elderly sisters to give cups of tea to departing soldiers. Among other signatories, Winston Churchill, the King and Queen of Spain, Arthur Conan Doyle and Admiral Jellico.

Historian Michael George said: '''This was the principal port from which the soldiers travelled to the western Front. Folkestone was perhaps the last time that the soldier would have set foot on English soil, it was the last farewell to Blighty, bearing in mind that many of them didn't make the return journey.''

Step Short hopes to raise £1.5 million privately to build the arch, and a new visitor centre.

Phil Gearing, the designer of the Arch said: ''The inside will contain a hundred LED lights, one for every 100 000 people who marched through it along the leas, and on the inside will be a statue, a soldier or a Red Cross Nurse looking out to the coast of France, like a sentry.''

Those passing through the town were not just British. An estimated 40,000 were Canadians who were billeted in Folkestone, and 200 are buried in the cemetery at nearby Shorncliffe Camp. A lesser-known role for the town was as a sanctuary for 64,000 Belgian refugees who landed there soon after the declaration of war in 1914. They were taken in by local families and churches.

'Step Short' was the command given to the soldiers as they marched down the steep hill to Folkestone Harbour and the troop ships that would take them to the Western Front. Today, that hill is named the Road of Remembrance.

Damian Collins, the Folkestone and Hythe MP and Step Short chairman said:''It is a journey we have been on for the last few years and we are taking steps towards the role Folkestone can play in the First World War centenary. We are able now to share what we can create in the town to mark that centenary but also something that will make Folkestone a real centre for the commemoration of the first World War for generations to come.''