Thoughts from the Somme – 2nd July 2016

IMG_2566Day Three saw a return to the battlefield, and another place to which I had never yet been. One of the most northern points on the 1916 front line, I had read about the events which took place at Gommecourt before. By the end of 1st July the fields around the first cemetery we visited – Gommecourt Wood New Cemetery (pictured) – were covered with the bodies of thousands of British soldiers who had suffered appallingly from German machine gun and artillery fire, a picture that was similarly manifest from field to field and ridge to ridge along the banks of the River Ancre.

The fact that I was on the Somme battlefield in 2016 allowed me to process this information with a much sharper focus. I believe I could understand far better what had happened one hundred years ago, now that the fateful opening day had passed the aforesaid significant milestone. It is hard to satisfactorily articulate what I mean by this. But in literal terms, I can explain it thusly. The old battlefield was now in appearance very similar to what the soldiers of both sides would have known a century heretofore: the fields were covered in thigh-deep corn; the crests of the myriad sloping ridges were accentuated by dark-Green woods; and the Sun was out with confidence, gleaming overhead and casting our thick shadows deep into the soil. All that was missing was the battle itself, and the chalk-white outlines of the vein-like trench systems. Since this early-July landscape was so similar, I felt I had a better understanding of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

IMG_2709Of course, the fighting itself is almost impossible to replicate in one’s mind with any degree of accuracy. But for me understanding an old conflict requires one to build up a mental picture of it; this may come about through reading books, learning survivor testimony or, in my case with this tour, standing on the old battleground in person. I now had a very good image of the terrain of 1st July. Previous trips had not generated such a vivid idea for me. Thus, as I said at the start, this trip touched upon my thoughts of the Somme with much greater precision than previous tours had done hitherto. I was walking on the battlefield much as the men of 1st July had seen it.

A member of the tour group then spotted some shrapnel on the side of the cemetery, which further highlighted what had happened around us one hundred years ago. Needless to say, I took it home with me.

IMG_2592Thereafter we ventured to Serre, where a number of famous Pals Battalions, including the Accrington Pals, went over the top on 1st July. This was another well-known site to which I had never been. The previous day had seen a service here, which included the erection of two new memorials to the men of Accrington and Barnsley who died in the fields in front and around the old trench system, much of which remains extant. On the walk up the ridge towards this old trench – now covered with grass, memorials and vegetation – our tour group straddled the side of the road looking for shrapnel. Once Gary started to find the odd piece of iron, we all went to it with great haste (pictured). I had already started my collection, back at Gommecourt, and was not to be dissuaded from sitting this one out. We started to trample on the plants – accidentally, I might add – and the fact that we annoyed only one French farmer is in my opinion somewhat of an achievement.

The number of nearby cemeteries illustrated hauntingly how bloody these fields had been one hundred years ago. There were at least four within eyesight, and on the coach journey here there had been another two only a minute away. The whole region of Picardy is full of these stark reminders of the maelstrom that devastated the land generations ago; the countless perfectly preserved graveyards mark the terrain like a nest of ants. In addition, they highlight very literally how much progress, or lack thereof, was made in over four months of fighting.

IMG_2586If (one day) I have enough time I will walk through every cemetery, look at every gravestone, and read every name. If I could put a face to each one I would be able to personalise the experience. But I can’t. Not only do so many gravestones mark the burial of an unknown soldier, but time is simply moving on. Alas, as the war has now left living memory these multitudes of headstones begin to lose the connection they once had with the living. It is a very real danger that this generation, which was decimated on battlefields like the Somme, are lost to the History books. You can imagine my delight, therefore, when I later heard about the sudden, highly emotive and striking appearance of over 1,400 men dressed in contemporary uniform hanging around stations and town centres across Britain.

What I saw on the Somme during these few days also warmed my heart. On the side of the path leading up to the preserved trenches lay 19,240 wooden crosses, each one representing a British life lost on 1st July. Later, at the Sunken Lane near Beaumont Hamel, a group of reenactors appeared and posed for photos with the group. This brings me on to the next destination – the Sunken Lane.

IMG_2696Two of the most well-known pieces of footage of 1st July 1916 came from the camera of an Army photographer Geoffrey H. Mallins. Both clips were taken within two hundred metres of each other. The more infamous of the two has recorded for perpetuity the detonation of the mine underneath Hawthorn Ridge. Ignited at 7:20 a.m. the mine was ominously ineffective at destroying the German lines. Such was its magnitude, numerous accounts exist from men who witnessed it explode that morning. But the greatest piece of evidence is by far and away the film of this blast. Unlike with regards most of the Battle of the Somme – 1st July and thereafter – this recording doesn’t require us to imagine what happened, thereby distorting the past and our perceptions thereof. Instead, it gives us what is essentially a first-hand account; it shows us the explosion; there are no historical interpretations to cloud our eyes. As such it is, in my opinion, one of the most important videos to come from the entire war. The crater is now surrounded by a cluster of trees on the ridge (pictured), but thanks to the film it is easy to find the spot from which Mallins filmed it. Unfortunately this is almost certainly on private land.

IMG_2691The other recording was made by Mallins a couple of hundred metres to the left of the aforesaid film, an hour or so earlier. It shows men of the Lancashire Fusiliers relaxing in a sunken lane not long before they were to go over the top; the field on which many of these Pals were soon to be killed or wounded was atop the bank just behind them. It is a profoundly evocative piece of film, and one of the very few to show the first wave of British troops just before they attacked, on the morning of 1st July. I had been to this place once before, but I hadn’t had the time to walk up the old lane and turn to view it from the very location wherefrom Mallins took his famous footage. Now I could and of course, I did. I also took the time to climb out of the old front line trench and walk onto the old No-man’s Land (pictured). Except the cemetery one-hundred metres ahead of me, nothing visible remained to highlight what happened on this field a century ago. Indeed, without prior knowledge of what landmarks such as the Sunken Lane and Hawthorn Ridge were, one would have absolutely no idea of what took place in this area. It is very easy for even a seasoned traveller to get disoriented on this battlefield.

Next, we went to the Ulster Tower Memorial Park near Theipval for lunch, during which an Army Band appeared and performed to a rapidly-growing audience. They seemed to be dressed in contemporary clothing. The music was very moving and played effortlessly. Just prior to getting off the coach to watch this, I stood in a nearby field and took myriad photos of the blooming Poppies. I did this throughout the tour. Poppies had sprouted everywhere, making this trip even more evocative than usual.

IMG_2842Thereafter we ventured to one of the most infamous parts of the Somme battlefield and a place to which I had been many times before. The earth of Beaumont Hamel would see bitter fighting from 1st July all the way to 13th November. But undoubtedly the most tragic episode was the very first. Attached to 88th Brigade for the attack on 1st July was the Newfoundland Regiment. They found their first-line trench, and all the routes thereto, full of the bodies of the first wave. As a result, the men of the Newfoundland Regiment were forced to launch their attack from the second-line trenches. Alongside this, the 1st Essex – the other assaulting battalion – were delayed. The Newfoundlanders thus attacked alone, and further back from their designated starting point. They attacked at around 7:30 a.m. and after two hours the whole attack of 29th Division had failed. The Newfoundlanders had lost 710 men, the second-highest casualty rate of any British battalion on 1st July. Along the freshly-cut path tourists now take across the old killing field is a small tree – the ‘Lone Tree’ (pictured). It is believed that no soldier made it beyond this stump on 1st July – a very sobering thought since the tree is only a stone’s throw away from the front-line trench. The German lines meanwhile are at least a hundred metres away ; the aforementioned Hawthorn mine crater lies just behind.

I have been three times before this latest visit, and so I was very familiar with the site. That notwithstanding, I was still eager to walk around the old trenches. You always learn something new when you visit the battlefields. One can never visit too many times.

As we arrived we saw that the stands and tents from yesterday’s centenary commemorations were still up. Unfortunately, we spent too much of our allocated time in the on-site Museum, which we visited first and which I have also been to before. Our guide, Gary, liked seeing as much as possible, often to the detriment of larger spots such as Beaumont-Hamel. We thus had too little time to get around. Although we didn’t help ourselves in this regard. Gary clandestinely ushered us towards a marquee tent that had been left behind from yesterday’s centenary commemorations, and in his perfectly pertinent cockney swagger pointed to a number of cardboard boxes, in which there lay a number of ‘free’ items we could purloin. The pens and pencils were undoubtedly acceptable to take, but the tablecloth probably wasn’t. This is what happens when British people find free stuff. Heck, the tent itself would have seemed a decent acquisition with the right numbers of thieves present (the scene of this heinous crime is not pictured). By the time we had awarded ourselves with these gifts we had to leave for the next site, which was Albert itself.

IMG_2908.JPGThe main road that bisects the Somme battlefield links the towns of Albert and Bapaume, which were always behind the British and German lines respectively during the 1916 battle.

Even in 1915, the Golden Virgin on top of the Basilica could be seen from almost the whole battlefield. The British came to believe that if she fell, whoever occupied Albert at the time would lose the war. The Germans also attributed great importance to the statue, as they believed it offered the British an excellent artillery observation post. Therefore they shelled the Basilica, and the town of Albert, throughout the battle. In order to prevent the statue from falling, engineers fixed it down with scaffolding, thereby securing it and reassuring British soldiers. In the spring of 1918, during the Germans’ last major offensive, Albert fell into their hands. British artillery then deliberately targeted the basilica and the statue fell. The statue, along with the Basilica, has since been fully restored (pictured).

After quickly eating my late ice-cream I rushed to the coach, which was parked near to Albert train station. Gary had again given us a restricted amount of time. We drove along the road up to Bapaume, and stopped off at Pozieres Cemetery, as one of our number needed to search for a couple of names inside. I had only been there once before, so I quickly jumped off to have a look too. There are 2,760 burials in this cemetery, 1,382 of which are unidentified. Many who lie here died in the fighting around the area in 1917 and 1918. Additionally, the surrounding Memorial lists the names of over 14,000 men who died in France during the Fifth Army’s retreat on the Somme from 21st March to 7th August 1918, and who have no known grave. Many men died in the nearby village of Pozieres, which was attacked on 23rd July 1916 by the 1st Australian and 48th (South Midland) Divisions, and was taken on the following day. It was lost on 24th-25th March 1918, during the German advance, and recaptured by the 17th Division on the following 24th August.

IMG_2985.JPGAfter roughly ten minutes we were back on the coach and off to ‘the Windmill’, which is unsurprisingly the site of an old Windmill that used to stand on the battlefield. There was fierce fighting around it in July and August 1916; it was finally taken by the Australians on 4th August. More Australian soldiers died in the fields around the Windmill than anywhere else in World War One, including Gallipoli. The preserved Memorial included what was left of the building, surrounded by shell holes and craters. Across the road lay a statue that commemorated the first use of the Tank, which took place nearby on 15th September 1916. This was perhaps the last stop at a prominent site on our journey, and indeed the whole tour. Tomorrow we were going home.




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