Tuesday, September 8, 2015

On the Somme

Well I don't mean to come across as a bit of a "gadabout" and forgive a second post without fishing, and feel free to look away, because I need to write this one for myself more than anything, but we've just conducted a 48 hour whistle stop tour of World War One sites in Northern France.

I may have made mention before, but throughout my secondary school education, I did not receive a single History Lesson. The "Mad Monk" Keith Joseph was in charge of education at the time, and history was deemed to be a bit of a duff subject with no relevance to the future.

Keith was known for this kind of thing, give him a google he said some interesting things.

Anyway, we received a kind invitation to tour the WW1 sites from a couple well versed in such matters, which we were keen to accept. Because yes Keith, History is not only interesting, it is important, and was sourced firstly from Ladybird books (no longer available) through Asterix (thankfully available) to the miracle of internet (one of its principle virtues)

Under the tunnel just after dawn, we tooled on down the coast to Wimereux, to take in the grave of Lt Col John McCrae.

A Canadian, he had been inspired to write "In Flanders Fields" after the death of his pal at Ypres in 1915. McCrae died of Pneumonia in 1918, while in command of a military hospital at Boulogne, and the visit was particularly apposite for Madam as they had been studying the poem at school only last year.

On down to Etaples, a new name on us, but the site of the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France. It's of Lutyen's design and of the 11'500 soldiers interred, over 10'000 were casualties of WW1. The area was the site of many military hospitals and many nations from both sides are represented.

Beer, Frites and Coffee in Le Touquet and a quick peruse of a super market, before the heavens opened and we made our charge for Amiens. Where we filled the car with diesel and wine, ate an excellent meal alongside the Somme, slept, breakfasted before resuming our tour at 8.32am the next day.

The Newfoundland Memorial first, where a Newfoundland regiment, plus a heap load of Highlanders suffered many casualties in July 1916 attempting to breach German lines.

An artillery barrage had not had the desired effect on the lines of wire fronting the German trenches and as the Canadians and Scots crossed No Man's land, hundreds and hundreds of soldiers were cut down by enfilading machine gun fire in very little time at all. It's an evocative site and set the tone for the rest of the day.

Remaining in the Beaumont-Hamel environs, we drove to the Sunken Lane. Give it a google and look into the eyes of the guys, bayonets fixed, in readiness to attack. George Malins was on hand with his camera to record the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers as they prepared to assault the wood fifty yards away across open ground.
He also has a film on You Tube of the detonation of the mine at Hawthorn Ridge, but the eyes in the faces of his stills convey far more feeling, coupled with the knowledge that many of them were gunned down by machine guns in the wood within an hour and lie in the cemetery equidistant between the two lines.

The Ulster Division Memorial next, the genesis of the UVF, and Orange men arrived to parade as we took tea on board in the cafe. The Division lost over five thousand men in the first forty eight hours of the battle of the Somme, but achieved their objectives, War correspondent, Phillip Gibbs, described their actions as "one of the finest displays of human courage in the world"
Of the 9 VC's awarded to British soldiers in the battle, 4 were awarded to soldiers of the Ulster Division.

A short way up the road to Thiepval, passing the points at which the Salford Pals, and Grimsby Pals were pinned down by German positions in buildings on the brow of the hill,

to the monument that dominates the skyline and commemorates the soldiers with no known grave, obliterated, unidentifiable, or yet to be found.

Over seventy thousand soldiers are commemorated, and the scale of the thing is quite affecting. Of Lutyens design, it is currently being buffed up for next year's centenary, but despite the poles and scaffold the impact remains. I couldn't find the chap I was looking for, my Grandad's brother, J Ismay, but I picked out Percy Jeeves, who was in the same regiment, was professional cricketer and the inspiration for the P.G Wodehouse character of the same name.

A brief pit stop at the Tank Corp memorial, before lunch at Tommy's bar in Pozieres and then on past Sausage Valley (careful if you google this one, not to miss off the "v") and Mash Valley to The Lochnagar Crater.

On the first day of the battle of the Somme, several mines were detonated beneath the German front lines. The logistics of setting these mines are incredible, with tunnels being dug with small hand tools over a distance of many hundreds of yards, and the spoil generated disposed off without detection from spotter planes.

The subsequent explosion was heard at home, and the substantial crater remains as an inverse monument to the first day of the Somme. The accompanying photograph does not do justice to the site, it is very difficult to take a photo of a big hole in the ground without the use of an aeroplane, helicopter or kite for which I apologise.

And so to Delville Wood, and the South African Memorial. The scene of intense fighting throughout the summer of 1916, it's worth a google (and well done again the internet) after a couple of months of fighting, like so many places on the Somme it was reduced to muddy holes and a series of stumps.

Today the site has been replanted with oaks out of Stellenbosch, many South Africans died here in the empire's cause, and the site is now full of wild life, mature trees which match the monument as a symbol of remembrance.

On our way out we passed the memorial to the professional footballers who fought in the area and we left the Somme, and pitched up on Vimy Ridge,

parked near the memorial honouring the role of the Zouaves who fought bravely in a fez,

and made for the memorial to the four Canadian Divisions who successfully took the ridge in 1917 after a brilliantly planned and courageous attack in which three and a half thousand Canadian soldiers lost their lives and twice as many were injured.

Half way through the afternoon, I went a little quiet.

Now this has sometimes been interpreted as sulking, or a sure sign that the lunchtime beer is wearing off. But not this time, because my head was starting to spin. I'd hoped to try and make a little sense of it all, find some answers so to speak, that could be applied to mankind's mess that it is currently creating for itself. The sheer scale of the slaughter is mind boggling, you could spend months visiting different cemeteries in the Somme alone, and the conditions and courage that existed in the trenches is difficult to comprehend.

Ok it was a case of new technology causing carnage on outdated methods of making war. Machine guns, gas, aeroplanes and tanks, made a decisive cavalry charge which had served in many battles throughout the previous century redundant and was replaced with defensive attritional warfare as methods of coping with this new means of waging war were hastily devised. Communication was obviously key and, and the "send reinforcements we're going to advance, - send three and four pence, we're going to a dance" parable seems to have some truth about it.

I seem to have come away with even more questions, rather than the few answers I had hoped for. The one thing that does stand out, is that a few circumstances conspired in a short space of time to shape the course of much of the last century. Countries were forced to take sides, go to war, millions died, and when the war ended, a movement was begun in the defeated nation whose populace had been brought to its knees, and out of the German Socialist Party, sprang the Nazi movement and the die was cast for a repeat performance.

Apologies for another post completely free of fishing, but this guff started out as a means of remembering what I am supposed to be doing from day to day, and I had to write something down for no other reason than for myself. If the tone slipped into the flippant at any point, I apologise, but flippancy and irreverence are qualities that I value about living in a "Free Society" and for that I give thanks, and will now, never forget.

A million words wouldn't do justice to the actual impact of visiting these places and once again, well done The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

If anyone needs a guide to these places, I can recommend our hosts. Driver McGyver delivered us to each destination directly and smoothly and the chap in the passenger seat who is a defunct decorator to the "Rich and Famous" and is now breaking new ground in the world of breakfast beverages with a crossover cuppa whose actual recipe, like that of Coca Cola shall remain under lock and key, but whose principle components comprise a teabag in a cup of coffee. (Many in the room raised their eyebrows at this concoction, but the seers amongst us quickly singled this out as a "Dr Pepper" moment and the future of liquid refreshment). was a mine of information for laymen such as ourselves, just don't ask him to source a trolley in a French Supermarket - completely bamboozled.
Thanks again it was a terrific trip, and I hope this proves that I was listening.

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