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This is a 2 part blog I wrote for the Company website back in 2011 after my first visit to the Somme. I thought it was worth posting over here as it’s interesting to read this now as it pre dates writing the High Wood.
The pale limestone of the Garde du Nord railway station glowed in the morning sun giving it the appearance of an ominous mausoleum.The tricolours atop the towers bowed and the carved names of European destinations took on a different meaning today.Not the promise of travel adventures but the centres of past conflicts.
I sat in a sidewalk bar across the square with twin eggs, “cafe aux lait”, toast and marmalade ordered in stumbling French a breakfast chased down with a double cognac to steady the nerves for a meeting with destiny.I was about to walk in the footsteps of ghosts of strangers.
Even the station heralded my journey as I imagined the troop trains heading East to the Front and also delivering survivors and wounded from a carnage that raged less than a 100 years before.Inside the arches there was a chill before I embarked once again into the sunlight towards Arras and the fields of the Somme.
I was free of the tour and travelling alone.The others returned to Britain while I,thanks to the organisational skills of my brother Yatta,was sitting in a first class carriage staring out the windows at the gang tags shouting from the gleaming white concrete of abandoned factories and desolate buildings.Declarations of war by frustrated youth and unsung warriors proclaiming their territory and their existence to a world rushing by that was immune to their threats as it disappeared over the horizon leaving the sprawl of the Paris jungle behind locked in a memory.
My destination was 40 mins and 16 euros away through green countryside and blurred towns and villages.
My thoughts drifted to my 2 Grandfathers who had both served during the first World War, William Dick with the Royal Flying Corps and William Paterson with the Royal Scots.Both survived the conflict.Neither had spoken about it.
I had studied the period at school and had been mesmerised by it all.I had marched with the Boys Brigade on Armistice day,poppy ablaze on a blue uniform behind the ranks of fading veterans who would lay scarlet wreaths at the foot of the memorial in King’s Park and stand proud and straight in the long minute of respectful silence.Now those front ranks are replaced but the column on parade never diminishes.Even now I still hold my breath during the silence.
And on this day,the last of my 52nd year I am heading to the fields where the symbol of the poppy as a sign of remembrance was adopted
I exited the station into the harsh sun bleaching the square dominated by a 1914-18 war memorial ironically scarred by consequent battles of a following generation.Arras, a strategic town and the “scene of bitter conflict”, a cliche often used by narrators when describing incidents and places on the Somme and pointed out to me by my guide, Simon Moston who was meeting me together with his wife Cij and 2 daughters.
Simon had been urging me to visit the Somme for quite a while and I had never been able until now to find a space in the touring patterns to make it happen.It seemed spiritually appropriate and even bordering on the religious that I should make this pilgrimage now.
Simon is highly knowledgeable and well versed in the history surrounding the Great War and it has become a passion which has led him into becoming a willing guide for groups who want to discover more about the period at ground level. His wife and daughters share his enthusiasm completely and I admit to being slightly amused on occasions as they also volunteered information and identified munitions and artifacts that we would regularly discover amongst the furrows as we walked across the fields over the next 2 days.They would all turn out to be great company and I couldn’t have wished to have spent this time with a finer bunch of people.
Our initial encounter was slightly nervous as we met each other for the first time.Simon is also a die hard Fish fan but now he was with Derek and not the singer.Any awkwardness was quickly dispelled and we set off in his car after a caffeine injection to help us into what would be a long day.
As we drove past glistening cemeteries with their ranks of headstones I could feel myself immersing in the history.
We were staying at a B and B sited on what used to be no man’s land in front of the original British front line to the West of a small village called Beaumont Hamel which in 1916 formed part of the German front line.The collection of shell cases, bullets and cartridges,rusting weapons and other debris of battle inside the house left me in no doubt as to where we were and the period photos of uniformed strangers began to make the connection in my mind.
I admit to being wary as I knew I would have to build a wall around my feelings and attempt to close down my sensitivity settings.There was a danger of becoming overwhelmed by it all if I allowed my imagination reign.
The first foray along a dappled shadowy lane from Auchonvillers, or “Ocean Villas” as the British troops called the village, was walking into the past and in the footsteps of ghosts.The girls had elected to stay behind while Simon took me on a hike up the slopes to Hawthorn Ridge from the communication trench of which the lane was part of, through the site of the old British lines and into no man’s land and the German lines beyond.
I couldn’t but help sense the echo of the past and imagine young soldiers taking this same route through the shaded safe hollow of the lane towards the front before the artillery barrages blew it all away and turned it into a wasteland over the months and years following the first battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916
I sucked a breath and we marched up the hill across fields to a small cemetery in front of Hawthorn Ridge.
On the way we had discovered a couple of bullets and a cartridge case glowing green with age lying atop the dark furrows that had been slightly dampened by a passing shower.Casual reminders of how deadly the ground over which we walked once was.A heavy shard of shrapnel which had once screamed white hot at over a 100 miles and hour from the sky rusted at the roadside.A shell case disturbed by the plough stood on the edge of the field placed by a farmer unperturbed by a find he had made so many times before as he turned the soil which to this day still throws up lethal surprises.
Once my eye became trained it was difficult to walk without constantly scanning the ground for finds and disappearing into another world.
Simon relayed the history and images rallied as we stood under a yew tree in the cemetery as another shower passed over.The numbers cascaded into my mind as the story evolved of the events shortly after 7.30 am on that July day when the whistles blew out and the battalions moved forward into no mans land believing the 7 day artillery barrage had blasted away the impenetrable hedges of barbed wire and the German trench system beyond eliminating their occupants and the machine guns that dominated the fields with them.
They marched out with confidence not knowing the enemy were dug in so deep in entrenchments and underground bunkers prepared since 1914 when the Germans had carefully chosen the ground from which to fight and prepared elaborate defences for the assault.Although deeply shaken and shell shocked by the bombardment the artillery had not acheived the result it had hoped for and the explosive display turned out in the main to be just that.
Hawthorn Ridge was turned into a huge crater after 18 tons of explosive detonated at 7.20 am eviscerating an unknown number of German soldiers and creating a massive chalk parapet that the Lancs Fusiliers assaulted across the expanse of no mans land in a mad dash to gain control of the ridge each carrying over 50 pounds of equipment and fighting through barbed wire that had not been completely removed by the artillery.
I had to swallow hard and turn my head away as Simon told the story of how the machine guns opened up and around 500 young men fell on the slopes where we were now standing.The numbers continued to mount and the events of that morning ran in my mind.I was finding it impossible to truly imagine the horror of it all.
The crater itself is a dank,desperate pit that must have been the bowels of hell on that day.The dry croaking of crows overhead and the straafing fat flies added to the desolate atmosphere as I stared down into the undergrowth through the twisted scrub of trees and thorns that guarded the depths where so many disappeared from the face of the earth.
We made our way along the slope and down to the “Sunken Lane” past the area where the “Public Schools” battalion was annihilated and where 600 men cowered before following the whistle to march through the hedgerow and into a hail of machine gun fire.
One of the most poignant moments was when Simon gave me an envelope and as I forced my way through the hedge I opened it to find a name and rank and destiny of a soldier who had been there on that very spot 95 years before. J.Mitchell,24, private, Lancs Fusiliers, missing in action.His body never found.
I exited the hedge into the bright sun on the other side into an open field facing a ridge that once held the German front line.A field that would have been covered with 400 corpses in the space of an hour soon after the whistles blew at 7.30 am.
It was an incredibly moving experience.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the old trench lines and visiting small cemeteries.Simon had done a lot of research and had discovered a number of gravestones where soldiers with my family name were marked. I was told that more often than not the names meant only that the bodies had been identified but were not necessarily buried on that spot.
Our family history is also vague and I couldn’t be sure that any of the Dicks mentioned on the stone were actually relatives as we scattered throughout central Scotland in the 1800’s.It’s an unusual enough name here so there was a possibility that there were blood ties with these soldiers.
Simon had brought poppies he collects after armistice day and rather than throw them away he places them on graves of people he has come across in his research.He gave me some and over the two days I added my own small tribute of remembrance to these strangers who I shared a name with.
Simon had old photographs, some of which I recognised from my own studies and reading,and it was fascinating to match up the exact spots where the photos were actually taken and to go through the identification of units and sometimes even individual soldiers.
The day provided me with a completely new insight of the battle of the Somme with the most startling and mind blowing awareness being that although we were only examining the conflict along an area of a few thousand yards this was repeated simultaneously along an 80 mile front.
After an evening meal at the restaurant at “Ocean Villas” we headed back in the dark to our “billets”.
A few splashes of a German Riesling with Simon and Cij after the girls were off to bed and then I made to retire.
I couldn’t help but go out on my own to the garden to sit under a clear starlit sky and let my thoughts wander back,imagining the lonely sentry on duty on the eve of battle close to the very place I was spending the night.I looked at my watch.It was midnight.I was now 53 years old.
I let the immense peace and quiet envelop me and allowed the ghosts to wander undisturbed in the darkness.I felt very alive.
I slept soundly until around 6.30 and felt the morning chill through the open French windows of my room which looked out across the Beamont Hamel road to the old “White City” trenches on the British front line of 1916.There was a light grey mist hugging the ground giving the landscape an ethereal and dramatic feel.Dawn had broken but the sunlight wasn’t yet strong enough to burn off the hanging vapour.I lay in bed and stared out onto the battlefield.
We’d agreed to an early start.I lay in repose for another hour and at 7.30 on zero hour of a day gone by I rose, showered and went to meet Simon and his family.I hadn’t mentioned my birthday and was taken aback when Simon, Cij and their daughters Sammi and Cerys burst into song and handed me a present of a book, “The First Day of the Somme”, a relevant card and some badges all neatly wrapped. It was entirely unexpected and incredibly touching.I felt part of the family and was for once speechless.
We drove down to “Ocean Villas” for breakfast ( a highly unusual event of the day for me and documented for the F’s and Yatta by Simon with a photo).Ocean Villas is a bed and breakfast/tearoom/restaurant and well known meeting and stop off point for battlefield regulars and visitors.
Run by the enigmatic Avril Williams it’s a fascinating place with a rich history.Archaeologists have been digging around the site and a complete communications trench runs behind the building with entrances into the cellars that were used as a first aid staging post for the wounded carried from the field.The tearooms are adorned with memorabilia,battlefield artefacts, relevant photos of the area and of relatives of visitors who had fought there during the Great War.Avril is a no nonsense highly likeable character with reams of stories and anecdotes to entertain over a wine or too much and I was enthralled by her passion and visions of how she wanted to advance “Ocean Villas” into something far more substantial and dynamic.She was a woman after my own heart and I completely related to her thinking.We would have stayed at her property but the inn was full so we were with her sister down the road.
Chickens and sheep, cats and an affectionate dog called “Bonnie” ran the yard. The day before we arrived her brother had culled 12 noisy cockerels with a machete and her niece’s boyfriend was quite titillated as he showed us video on his phone of headless chickens bouncing around the garden.In a place with a history of violence it all seemed fittingly surreal.The remaining cockerel crowed gamely from the safety of a high wall as we demolished a full English breakfast before my pilgrimage continued.
I didn’t have to go far.
Simon took me down to the candlelit cellars of the farmhouse which had been used as the medical station and only discovered after Avril had purchased the property some years before.It had been rebuilt after the war as shellfire and demolition to avoid becoming an obvious target for German guns reduced it to rubble.It was the only surviving cellar in the neighbourhood and as it hadn’t been discovered until much later was pretty much as it was back then.The small shrines cut in the wall with crucifixes and flickering candles reminded me that this was also a place where men died as well as survived from wounds.It was a sombre place and the carved names,units and service numbers in the damp orange brick were testament to those who had passed this way.Back then there was only artificial light as the windows were blocked and the cellar strengthened against shellfire.It must have been an horrific environment.Chicken wire had been laid on the floor to stop soldiers slipping on the blood and viscera as they delivered casualties and performed emergency operations in order to keep the wounded alive for transportation back down the line to the hospitals in the rear where they could be treated.All in all the two rooms of the cellar made up less than 25 square metres of floor space with a ceiling height of just over 2m.Two of the three entrances/escape exits were now blocked off and I emerged into the daylight and the comms trench outside with a lump in my throat.
The story of a soldier who had been arrested and detained there after trying to escape from the carnage of the front line had hit hard.Only a boy he had obviously cracked in the holocaust. Accused of desertion he was to face a firing squad .He had carved his name on the brickwork as he awaited his fate.I could read it in the moving shadows of the candlelight.
I phoned my parents from the garden as I wanted some information on my Grandfathers and to be honest I wanted to hear their voices on this day.They obviously knew where I was and understood why I was there.My voice was shaky on the phone as I talked to my Dad and on asking where his father was stationed with the RFC I broke and had to turn away from the others in the yard and find a place on my own.
William Dick served in Arras.When I told my father that I was staying there that night we both went silent and I knew he was crying with me.It was an incredibly emotional moment.
He passed me over to my Mum and I asked about William Paterson who had served with the Royal Scots.I had forgotten his battalion number.She told me that it was the 8th and I knew he was on the Somme in 1916.They were both proud that I was there as no one in my existing family had ever returned to France.I shared some of my stories and I composed myself before giving Simon the information he needed to discover where Private William Paterson had served.
It didn’t take long to check the book containing the battalion line ups in the history of the Somme.
To say the discovery took my breath away was an understatement.In 1916 his battalion was part of the 51st Highland Division and was involved in the fighting only a short distance away from where I was staying.Although not in the July offensive he was involved in the November battles where the 51st earned their honours.It was as if their spirits had drawn me there for some reason and to be on the Somme on my birthday gave it even more resonance.This was a special day in every sense of the word.I was walking in the footsteps of my Grandfathers.
The morning was spent visiting more cemeteries, uniform glistening white headstones standing to attention in rank after rank, their inscriptions,names, ages and battalions reaching inside and opening my imagination to a brutality and inhumane waste of youth and life as two forces collided on the orders of politicians and generals who never experienced the horror of the trenches and this despicable warfare.
I saw the headstone of the youngest soldier ever to die on the Somme, Private Horace Iles, 1784 of the West Yorkshire regiment who died on the 1st July age 16. Surrounding him were the headstones of other teenagers and men in their early 20’s, numbers to be repeated in every cemetery I visited.
It was difficult to take on board that these young men had hardly been out of their own villages,towns and cities never mind in another country
and here they were marked out in “the corner of some foreign field”.It was harrowing to imagine their fear and horror being transported into the cauldron of an unforgiving and cruel battle so far away from home and loved ones.
The Scottish regimental graves had extra resonance with me as I recognised family names.Simon pointed out men from Haddington one family who lost 4 sons on the field, one later to gas injuries and another suicide on discovering all his brothers had perished.
We followed the battle lines in the car stopping off at prominent sites where Simon would relate the historical relevance and the dramas they contained.
The Newfoundland Memorial park with it’s bronze stag atop a mound roaring at the German lines where machine guns cut down 684 officers and men as they charged over comms trenches crammed with wounded from the first disastrous assault wave and were cut to pieces before they even reached the British front line.A few brave souls made it through and vainly attempted to carry on the attack but it added to the high list of casualties on a day declared as the worst ever day in the history of the British army.
Walking the park which still has well defined trench lines visible and again marked out the superiority of the German defensive positions,served to remind me of the futility of the losses.I agreed with Simon that poor communications,bad intelligence and in a lot of cases bad tactics and timing had a lot to blame but the question was why were they there in the first place.Empirical egos and aged military swagger.We were not prepared, the army was in the main inexperienced and we served up a countries youth as cannon fodder.
There were gains on that day in July.There were successes.But was it worth the cost?
The Highland Division memorial in the same park stands proud as it marks the November campaign where huge gains were made, lessons learned and losses although still great were nowhere near the severity as the July debacle.
The inscription on the Highland memorial is “La a’ blair s’math n Cairdean” – friends are good on the day of battle.It sank into my mind as the most defining and profound soldier’s comment and summed up the comradeship that must have existed as they fought their way out of a hell on earth.
In all honesty there is too much to relate here and the second day of my tour began to blur around the edges as there was just so much to take in.
The Lochnaglar mine crater blown 10 minutes after the Hawthorn Ridge mine but with more success as soldiers were lying prepared in no man’s land ready to rush the newly created defensive rim of blown chalk subsoil.Staring down into the blank tomb gave me vertigo. In July fully laden troops charged down there to rush the other side.When the German artillery ranged in it became a meat grinder.
The monument to Macrae’s Edinburgh battallions who charged 5 miles or so from Tara hill to take ther objectives at heavy cost.Hearts and Hibs players and supporters with others from Falkirk ,Raith Rovers and other Scottish teams who joined as volunteers and stood and died side by side on the battlefield. I placed a poppy on the memorial only consecrated last year with money raised in the city.
The monument to the 23 000 Australians and New Zealanders who died between Windmill and “Mucky Farm” in the heaviest losses ever suffered in a specific small area of less than a couple of thousand yards.The small memorial flags placed by visiting relatives fluttered noisily in the afternoon breeze.Made even more poignant as today was Anzac day..
The tank memorial by the Windmill, the highest point on Pozieres ridge marking the first ever action with tanks in 1916.The bullet holes from a straafing US P38 shooting up a column of Germans in 1944 again marking the wounds of 2 wars across generations.
The British cemetery at Ancre where the Ulster division was decimated charging across the shallow valley, a 100 metres or more through barbed wire piled 2m high, routes blown by British artillery and sealed again by German artillery leaving the troops hung out in the wire at the mercy of the enemy who took their time dispatching the survivors.
The Thiepval monument on top of the heavily contested ridge, a truly massive brick built monument to honour the 80 000 missing in that area was overwhelming. I walked around the pillars and read the inscriptions on tablet after tablet of those whose bodies were never found.Every wall of every pillar was covered in names from regiments from all over Britain and it’s commonwealth.
It’s horrifying to think that so many bodies were never recovered or identified.
And these were the missing of the victorious armies.The Germans also suffered in equal numbers but their dead have never been provided with the same forms of remembrance, often buried in massed graves with few markers.All soldiers performing their duties and like our troops had no real wish for battle and killing if they had a choice.All caught up in the machinations of kings, emperors, archdukes and politicians.
The place I found most threatening to the soul was the High Wood where 8000 men went missing in action, blown to smithereens by blanket after blanket of artillery rounds and where viscous hand to hand fighting occurred to hold a strategic position on a high ridge.The barbed wire fencing in the private property dealt it an even more evil air and the dark confines we could see from the car suggested a presence that still lurked menacingly amongst the trees.
My grandfather William Paterson was attached to an entrenchment battalion there and was a machine gunner with the Royal Scots.
I identified with his silence as this was a place where the souls of survivors were mortally wounded.
The day was tiring out and we spent the last hour wandering a recently harrowed and seeded field all 5 of us in line scanning the soil for uprooted relics.Simon’s youngest daughter Cerys won the day with a shell cartridge and German bullets.I managed some British shrapnel and topped it with the centre plunger of an 18pounder British shrapnel shell.
It was time for the Moston’s to head for home but not before they dropped me off at Arras where we visited the last cemetery of the trip.The RFC memorial. Another emotional moment and I walked a while on my own thinking of my Grandfather Dick and what he must have experienced out here.I never really knew him as he died when I was very young.I wished my father had been with me and I hope to be able to bring him with me when I next return as I know I will.
I bid fond farewells to Simon, Cij, Sammi and Cerys and thanked them as much as I could, and it will never be enough, for a beautiful two days and the best birthday I had had for a very long time.It was an incredible experience and one I will never forget. I can’t really relate all the images and thoughts here as there are far too many to communicate.A wonderful caring and generous family. I envied their closeness and love for each other and their mutual passion for discovery and investigation of a time in history that means so much more to me than it ever did before.I was genuinely sad to say goodbye as they drove off to the channel tunnel and Blighty.
I checked into the Hotel Du Angleterre and spun off into town.I wandered through the old centre with it’s vast squares stopping off at yet another sidewlak cafe to nurse a beer or two in the fading sunlight.It was strange to think that William Dick and most probably William Paterson had walked the same covered walkways and heard the same bells chiming on the cathedral.
A fold in time.
I ate alone in a restaurant.Garlic soup, snails in a cheese fondue under pastry and scallops with duck breast on skewers washed down with a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse and topped with a couple of large Armagnacs and coffee.
The table next to me was occupied by 2 Dutchmen visiting the area.As always a conversation developed and it turned out one was a publisher and the other a war correspondent who had been in Bosnia in the 90’s.But that is another story.
This one ends with a Scotsman sitting on his own on a war memorial in an empty town square, a big smile on his face toasting 2 men who came home and without whom he wouldn’t be here today on his birthday.
La a’blair s’math a Cairdean