Legends – The Battlefields of the Somme
“Before the blackness of their burst had thinned or fallen the hand of time rested on the half-hour mark, and all along that old front line of the English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave climbed up the parapets, in tumult, darkness, and the presence of death, and having done with all pleasant things, advanced across No Man’s Land to begin the Battle of the Somme.”
(The Old Front Line by John Masefield)
At 7.30 on the morning of the 1st July 1916, 13 British and 11 French Divisions went over the top of their trenches to begin what became known as the Battle of The Somme, by that evening they had suffered 57,470 casualties of which 19,240 were killed.
Earlier this year (2010) along with 3 good friends I again made the short hop across the channel in mid July to pay my respects to some real Legends. This is the story of that visit.
An hour and a half drive from Calais, the Somme Battlefields were very different from the Ypres Salient. Instead of being flat below sea level, they are quite hilly and mostly chalky. Like the Salient however,they are rural in nature.
The region has been fought over for years, there is a spot just outside Delville Woods where Julius Caesar is reported to have addressed his troops before giving the Gauls a good kicking. Later the Prussians invaded, then of course there was the Great War.
Afterwards the area came under the jackboots of the Nazis before liberation in 1944. Nowadays the only unrest would appear to come from angry French Farmers. Thankfully they are reasonably tolerant of people visiting the battlefields.
The Cemeteries’ themselves differ from those on Passchendaele because they are often what is known as “concentration” cemeteries. This means that they were created from scratch after the war when the battlefields were cleared, there are several notable exceptions to this as we will see later. This quite often means that the men are buried miles away from where they fell. The Cemeteries on the Salient are similar but more often the concentration element is centred around an original cemetery. Either way they will move you to tears.
One major point that both the Somme and The Salient have in common is that the Germans nearly always held the high ground. In the case of the Somme they had held it for 2 years and because of the chalky ground they had dug in and created quite considerable fortifications.
Our plan was to tour the Battlefields from North to South.
Our journey through the battlefields begins in the North at Serre. Here we visited Sheffield Park which is centred on the site of 4 small Copses, Matthew , Mark, Luke and John which today are now one wood. In the wood are several memorials. The first of which is to The Accrington Pals who attacked here on the 1st July 1916.
The view from the Trench towards the front line. The cemetery beyond the tractor is Queens Cemetery, its situated roughly mid way in No Mans Land. Front this shot you can see that, as I said earlier, the attack took place up hill with the Germans holding the high ground.
The Cemetery contains 107 UK burials. It’s so named because in 1917 after the battle moved onwards into German held territory, a narrow gauge railway was laid along the old front line, roughly along the line of the farm track in front of the trench in the earlier photo.
About 100 yards north of Sheffield Park is Luke Copse Cemetery. A small cemetery of 72 burials of Sheffield City Battalion men. Including brothers L Cpl F and Pte W Gunstone, this marks the furthest north of the attacks on July 1st 1916. The men are buried in 1 long grave (a trench?) with the headstones staggered so that each man has his own.
If you turn and look the other way, its just possible to make out the line of the trench system in the bean field beyond. This view looks back towards Sheffield Park and I have marked the probable trench line on it.
Up the hill as we saw earlier lies the Queens Cemetery. It contains 311 graves, many of which are Accrington Pals. A large proportion of them are unidentified as this part of the battlefield was fought over between July and November with little or no chance made to clear it of bodies.
The final Cemetery in this locality is Serre Road Number 3. Here we found some of the Iron Harvest waiting to be collected, in this case and Artillery Shell that doesn’t appear to have been fired, or was a dud. We didn’t touch it, but some got closer than others!
Heading back towards the main road, on the corner of a farm building is a memorial to the lost.
Back on the main road we stopped at Serre Road Cemetery Number 1. Here 71.6% of the 2412 burials are unidentified, one of the highest proportions on the Somme. The original burials are to the rear with the remainder being concentration after the war.
During WW2 the CWGC gardener (an Englishman) used his shed at the rear of the cemetery to hide downed aircrew. By the war’s end Mr Ben Leach had helped 32 airmen escape the clutches of the Nazis.
The next day we donned our walking boots to walk the front line.
Day 2 walking the front line.
On day 2 we walked from our base at Avril Williams superb B&B at Auchonvillers (or Ocean Villas as the Tommies called it) towards Beaumont Hamel. At the side of the road the Poppy and Cornflower grow together. The British and French symbols of remembrance in their natural environment.
A short walk down the road and we arrived at an interesting section of the old opposing trenches and the site of one of the most iconic images of the War.
Just outside the village of Beaumont Hamel, on top of the ridgeline on the southern side of the road was the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt. Ten minutes before Zero Hour on 1st July 1916 a mine which had been tunnelled under the Redoubt was exploded. It consisted of over 18 Tons of high explosive. Its deliberate early detonation gave the game away.
There were a number of mines along the front line, the plan being to explode them at Zero Hour (07.30am) and for troops to rush them and capture the rim thus giving cover for further attacks on enemy lines. The decision to explode this one was made because it was so large that it was thought the ground would need time to settle. The 10 minutes notice allowed the Germans to capture the rim and as the men of the 29th Division were attacking up hill (once again) they became easy pickings when they moved 10 minutes later. They managed to gain a foothold on the crater’s edge and this was the only success on their front, sadly even this had to be abandoned later in the day under intense German counter attacks.
This picture is an overlay of the mine as it is today with an original photo taken about 2/3ds of the way through the explosion. My modern image was taken as close as possible to the original. Literally standing in the footsteps of history.
Opposite the crater on the opposite ridge line at the entrance to the famous Sunken Road (more of this in a bit) is the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Memorial. This marks the spot where this unit attacked so successfully in November of 1916. It is located roughly at the mid point of the July 1916 No Mans Land.
It’s interesting to see that the well known historian Andy Robertshaw did a similar thing on a History Channel programme. He used 6 men a mobile video viewer and GPS guided surveying equipment with which to mark out trenches. I used a mobile phone with a photo of a page of a book on it. We were within 10 meters of each other!
The Sunken Road is to the left of this memorial. It from here that the Lancashire Fusiliers departed on the morning of the 1st July. Walking up it the remains of trenches dugouts and tunnels can clearly be seen. The front line runs parallel to this road.
This is the view looking up (away from the front line)
Rather than continue towards the German Lines, at this point we turned and walked up the hill towards the Hawthorn Ridge Crater, part way up we looked back and this is the view back over the battlefield.
At the top, this is the view down into the crater. Its risky to go down into it, mainly because the sides are so steep. In fact its two craters as another mine was exploded here in November. The descent is do-able but we had lots to do and I certainly didn’t fancy being stuck in a mine crater! More importantly, its still a war grave.
Just beyond the crater lies Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery Number 1. It contains 153 burials from 1916,17 and 18 and was created during a lull in the fighting in 1917. The bodies of the dead from 1916 would quite possibly have been removed from the battlefield where they died, others would have come from makeshift graves. 42 of the men here are from the 16th Middlesex Battalion which was a New Army Battalion raised from Public Schoolboys. The Battlefield knew no Class boundaries.
Continuing on across the fields, making sure to keep to the tractor tracks so as not to damage the crop and avoid any, erm, Ordnance that may be lying around (if the tractor doesn’t go bang we should in theory be safe) we arrived at the rear entrance to Newfoundland Memorial Park, on of the most emotional and memorable stops of the whole trip. Purchased by the then Newfoundland Government after the war, it contains the complete trench systems of July-Novermber1916; 3 Cemeteries, and 3 memorials. It stands in memory of the Newfoundland Volunteer Battalion which launched its ill-fated attack an hour after zero hour on 1st July 1916.
Next along the path is Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery number 2. Containing the graves of 214 men who perished on the 1st July 1916,
including Private William Masters of the Newfoundland Regiment. Most of not all of the Newfoundland Graves have the Canadian flag on them.
The old trenches are untouched since the war apart from the grass. Indeed just after the war there was even the wreckage of a tank visible but this is long since gone. The barbed wire spiral posts are still there though.
At the bottom of the Hill is the Y Ravine Cemetery. Made in 1916 and containing the bodies of 366 men. It was here that I very privately placed a cross on the grave of a Newfie and contemplated the sacrifice they made. It wasn’t their fight (they weren’t part of Canada at that point) but they came anyway. And didn’t even make the front line on the opening day. The German front line is a few years beyond the rear wall.
Retracing our steps we made it to the memorial. It is surrounded by Trenches, many of which can be walked along. In 1916 they were some 2 ft deeper and had fire steps cut into the edges but they are a close as we can now get to how they were.
The Newfoundlanders were attacking from behind us. They were in the second wave and so were in a trench to the rear, their way was blocked by the dead and wounded so, rather than delay and clear way they went of the top from a second line trench. The German machine gunners simply cut them down, mostly before they made the front line. Indeed many of the German Divisional histories make no mention of the Newfies because they never came across them, they were all dead behind their own lines.
In order to get a better view, I walked into one of the trenches and set up my tripod. By this time I was on my own and we had split up to all get different shots. There were at least 4 Tawny Owls in the woods calling to each other and the local farmer was shooting rabbits. One of my companions was wandering around the woods using a flash on his camera
It was then that the lights went out!
That was the longest 20 seconds of my life.
We took a slight detour to visit the Sucrerie Military Cemetary. This is situated on the main route from Colincamps to the front line where there was a small Sugar Beet Factory (hence the name). The tree lined track alongside it has hardly changed since the war.
It was in this Cemetery that we discovered a tragedy. The Grave of Rifleman J Crozier of the Royal Irish Rifles who died at the age of just 19 on 27th February 1916. The means of his demise is not record on his grave or in his record, nor would his family have been informed.
He was shot at Dawn.
Rifleman Crozier would vist us again.
The Thiepval Memorial was built after the war to record the names of 73,357 missing of The Somme between 1915 and 1917. The vast majority being from the July – November 1916 battle. Its position was chosen so that it would be visible from the entire length of the front (before the woods grew back that is). It is the “Menin Gate of The Somme”. In addition to the missing there are the graves of 300 French and 300 English troops, placed there to symbolise the joint efforts of the two armies.
I was there on a mission. A work colleague has a relative commemorated on the wall and I had promised to find him. Company Serjeant Major William Henry Wolstenholme (21758) of the 23rd (Service) Battalion, The Manchester Regiment, sometimes also known as the 8th City of Manchester Battalion. The 23rd Manchesters were a ‘Bantam’ battalion and formed part of the 35th (Bantam) division, so named as it was made up of men who were below regulation height. When we did we had to laugh at the irony of a member of a the Bantam Battalion being so high up.
My Travelling companion Andy Jones has carried out some research
On the 20th July 1916, the 35th Div were tasked with an assault in the area of the village of Guillemont.
At this distance in time it seems difficult to actually establish what their objectives actually were. Although it seems a section of trench between ‘Arrow Head Copse’ and Maltz Horn Farm was to be cleared of the enemy, it could also have been to support a French attack on the right at Maurepas. Whatever the objective, the attack went nowhere and cost the 35th Div. 450 casualties from combined rifle, machine gun and shell fire.
My guess is that CSM Wolstenholme died somewhere in this attack.
As I said earlier the base for our stay was with Avril Williams at her B&B at Ocean Villa Tea Rooms at Auchonvillers. The cellar of the house was used as a dressing station and surgery. If you are staying, Avril will show you down there.
Photography is difficult and Avril would rather you do not dwell there. She has a great respect for what went on down here and is anxious that it is preserved so visits are brief. But they are no less special for that.
On the walls there are various names carved into the brickwork. These were made by the Soldiers who were treated there. These are mostly from 1916 and the Royal Irish Regiment. On one was there are the initials JC carved in a shield. This was done in memory of Rifleman J Crozier probably by a friend. He was held here the night before he was shot. We found his grave by chance and before he went there himself he was held below our feet. All very sobering.
A view across the Back Garden. Your stay there will be “rustic” but the breakfast is English and should you have an evening meal there then the food is simple French fare with good wine and is very good value. Her website is www.avrilwilliams.com its an essential stopping point.
Avril also has a small museum over the road and a good view of the battlefield can be gained from its car park. The museum contains exhibits from most of the conflicts in this area .
We set out again into the Battlefields. Our first stop was Ovillers Military Cemetery.
Situated in No Mans Land it contains 3436 British and 120 French burials and was started like so many as a result of deaths at a Dressing Station. The majority of the men there come from post war concentration burials. This is a view across no mans land, in the distance can be seen the Golden Madonna on the tower of La Basilique in Albert.
We were here to find the grave of Captain John Lauder who was the son of the music hall artist Harry Lauder who was killed on 28th August 1916. It is reported that he was not well liked by his men and the shot that killed him may have come from the rear. There are a few reports of scores being settled like this on the Battlefield.
The Lochnagar Mine was exploded 2 minutes before zero hour on July 1st. It was made up of 26.8 tons of ammanol and was exploded under the front of a German position knows as the Schwaben Höhe. It’s the largest mine crater on the Western Front. Crater is a war grave for the remains of the Germans who occupied the position.
The size of the person standing by the cross gives some scale to the hole. Here is the cross.
There is an interesting memorial near the rim
It is for Pte George Nugent whose remains were found during clearance of the area in 1998, he is now at Ovillers Military Cemetery.
Our next location was a bit different. We stopped at the German Cemetery sat Fricourt. This is the only German Cemetery near the British part of the 1916 battlefield.
and 11970 in 2 mass graves to the rear
There are a few stone headstones for Jewish burials and these, as is normal, have pebbles placed on them by visitors.
The bodies of many more Germans still lie under the battlefields as the victors normally took more care over the graves of their own men than they did of the enemy.
Nowadays the lost and missing of both side are remembered.
Just outside of and overlooking the village of Mametz lies as small wood called Mansel Copse. In this wood was a trench network that was held by the 9th Devons. Their task at Zero hour would be to leave the trenches and turn practically 90 Degrees and attack along the road between their position and Mametz.
One of their Officers Capt D L Martin was very concerned that a German Machine Gun position at the Shrine in the village Cemetery would cause them heavy casualties. His concern came from the fact that because of the direction of the attack it would be firing into their right flank.
Captain Martin had made a model of the area to prove his point to his superiors . They agreed with his assessment and told him he was going whether the gun had been destroyed or not!
It wasn’t, and Captain Martin’s prediction came true and the 8th and 9th Devons suffered heavy casualties.
Afterwards 123 men of the 9th and 38 of the 8th were buried in part of the old front line trench they left that fateful morning in what became known as Devonshire Cemetery.
He is buried like many of his comrades, in a shared grave. Effectively the trench became one long mass burial.
THE DEVONSHIRES HELD THIS TRENCH
THE DEVONSHIRES HOLD IT STILL
As one of our travelling party remarked, if that doesn’t get you then you haven’t got a pulse.
we moved on to an appointment with the men of Ulster and the Pope!
The Irish the Pope and a Windmill.
All around the battlefield there are many memorials, some formal others less so. We were driving near Triangle Point which is a spot that gives a good view across the battlefield and specifically the woods in the southern sector. We got out to have a look round and I noticed what appeared to be a familiar tin can at the base of a tree. Next to it was a Poppy cross. On checking the guide books we realised that we were near the furthest point of the advance of the 13th Manchesters on 1st July.
Boddingtons isn’t sold on The Somme. This was a touching and informal tribute to those men.
Heading back towards our B&B (for an excellent dinner and wine, and maybe more wine) we stopped at the Ulster Memorial Tower near Thiepval. It was built on the German Front line that was taken by the Ulster Division on 1st July.
It stands in memory of the men of the Ulster Division who died in the assault. The tea rooms (excellent cuppa and great cakes) have an impressive amount of battlefield detritus on display.
Just down the hill, along what because known as The Bloody Road on account of the number of dead on it at the end of the day, is a small German machine gun post known as the Pope’s Nose. It was positioned to allow a clear shot over the advancing men. It was made out of concrete, probably a small bunker. Because of its location it was shelled heavily.
In this spot as with many others on the battlefield, it is easy to pick up shrapnel including the lead balls contained in Shrapnel Shells like this one.
We walked back up the hill to the Mill Road Cemetery. The original part of this Cemetery was built over old German trenches and dugouts , all part of the Schwaben Redoubt. The headstones are laid flat because the ground underneath is so unstable.
The upright headstones were part of concentration burials after the armistice.
Again, Thiepval maintains its silent watch over the battlefield.
Just outside the village of Pozieres are two memorials that lie opposite each other on the main Roman Road.
First is the Tank Memorial. This is the Memorial to the Tank Corps and is surrounded by some superb scale cast metal models of the tanks used in the first Tank Battles of 1916.
One of the models bears the scars of a strafing attack during the Second World War and still has a .50 cal bullet embedded in it.
Across the road are the remains of the Pozieres Windmill. This is the highest point of the 1916 battlefield. Its now an Australian Memorial to the troops who “fell more thickly on this ridge than on any other battlefield of the war”
As with all of the Great War battlefields, it is a place of pilgrimage for people from across the world. Here an Australian School has left a memorial to one of their old boys at the windmill
It too is under the watchful eye of Thiepval.
Our final day of travelling the battlefields would take us to the Woods.
The Woods – Mametz
The story of the southern sector of the Somme Battlefields will always be remembered for the Horseshoe of woods there. We visited 3 of these on our visit Mametz Wood, High Wood and Delville Wood.
Mametz Wood will always be linked with the 38th Welsh Division. After an initial half hearted attack on the 7th July a more concerted effort to take the woods was launched. This was the largest wood and contained a battalion of the crack Lehr Regiment. As with all woods on the Somme, it was very dense.
This is a view of the woods taken from just below the 38th Welsh Division Memorial, facing the direction of attack.
The memorial itself was erected as late as 1986, what else could it be but a Dragon, standing defiantly facing the woods.
A view with the woods beyond
The road to the memorial and onwards is just a farm track nowadays. In the war it was the main supply route for this sector of the battle and thousands of men marched along it. From the main road to the memorial it was known as Happy Valley, onwards it became known as Death Valley. We continued along it and this is a view of our next objective taken from the road on Death Valley
Flatiron Copse Cemetery (named for the small piece of woodland in front of it) has headstones made of soft granite rather than the normal Portland Stone. It was the site of a dressing station and now contains 1522 men (after concentration burials).
It is notable for the burial of Corporal E Dwyer VC who won his VC at Hill 60 near Ypres (which I visited last year, more of that anon). He was killed near Guillemont in September 1916.
We moved onwards towards Longueval and stopped at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery. It stands directly on Longueval Ridge and its rear wall is on the line of the main German trench which was captured by the 12th Royal Scots and 9th Scottish Rifles on 14th July.
The Cemetery contains the New Zealand missing memorial, containing the names of 1205 men. It was from this cemetery that the body of an Unknown New Zealand soldier was taken for re-burial at the New Zealand National War Memorial.
Standing at the entrance to the Cemetery there is one thing that dominates the landscape, High Wood.
The Hell that was High Wood.
Standing on the highest ground in the area, High Wood dominates its surroundings. Not because it’s the largest wood in the area its more because of what it holds. It was attacked by two battalions of the 7th Division and the 2nd Queens (the West Surreys) and the 1st South Staffords along with the 7th Dragoon Guards and the Deccan Horse. They were repulsed by heavy machine gun fire and the Germans moved in force to defend it. Many of the bodies of the fallen remain in the wood to this day.
It is a dense foreboding wood (how I imagined Mirkwood to be in Tolkien’s book The Hobbit). Its private property and visitors are not welcome.
It is however possible to walk around the edge of the wood and there are several memorials. Among them was a special one for our party, the 47th London Division Memorial. It was where we laid a wreath to the memory of Captain Sidney Wheater, 24th Battalion the London Regt who was killed on 15th September 1916.
We also passed the memorial for the Cameron Highlanders.
A little further on, and easy to miss, is the crater of two mines blown under a German Trench here in early September. Its unique as it’s the only crater on the Somme that is filled with water.
On our walk, we were followed round by a beautiful Swallow Tailed butterfly, he was quite persistent and didn’t leave us until we entered the shade on the far side of the woods. Here is our guide resting on a thistle. Apt considering the number of Scots who still lie here.
There are more ominous aspects as well, this barbed wire stake was sticking just above ground level. Who knows what lies below it.
It looks just like a stone, but its resting on a yellow sweet wrapper for a reason. This still live Mills Bomb is awaiting collection my the Bomb Disposal teams. The sweet rapper is for conspicuity. Its very corroded, but who knows if the fuse will still work.
Walking on and nearly having completed our circumnavigation of the woods, there are more clearings which show the disturbed ground still present after the fighting.
High Wood still holds its Men within its grasp, it always will.
Across the road from High Wood is the London Cemetery and Extension.
It contains not only burials from the Great War but also the beginning and the End of the Second World War as well as several allied airmen.
It is watched over by a furry guard. A Stoat who lives under the arch and keeps the place mouse free.
We headed now to Delville Wood but not before we searched out a private memorial to 2nd Lt George Marsden-Smedley who died here but his body was never found. It is in a field to the north of the Combles to Albert Road behind a farm in the fields. It took some finding but it was worth it. He was 19 Years old when he died.
This is the view of Delville Woods from the Longueval Road Cemetery. A small cemetery of 171 burials, local legend says it is built on the site where Julius Caesar addressed one of his Legions before the invasion of Gaul.
Delville Wood is where the South African Brigade (attached to the 9th Scottish). They were instructed to take and hold Delville Woods at all costs.
It is now owned by South Africa and is the site of the South African National memorial. It is both a memorial and museum and its simply stunning!
There is a map of the horseshoe of woods
As an aside, on my visit Ypres last year I found a relative on the Menin Gate. There is a book of remembrance inside the door to the memorial, its quite a thick book, but whose name do you think was at the bottom of the open page?
Private W B Blacow, of the 2nd South African Inf, from Morecambe in Lancashire.
Its possible to walk around the woods, they are quite beautiful on a summers day. How much of a contrast was the day of our visit to conditions in 1916.
There is a single tree surviving from the original wood. After the battle it was left a shattered stump, somehow it and re-grown and re-generated itself.
In the woods as with all the others, trenches and defences remain. These woods seem less dense however.
It was in this trench, opposite the monument above that the 4 of us sat for a while and put the world to rights. Just us 4 and the South Africans. What did we discuss? Well what was said in the wood, stays in the wood.
Our tour guide was, yet again, a butterfly. This time a Red Admiral who didn’t want to stop and pose. If I was superstitious then I would think it meant something!
The South Africans were told to capture and hold the woods at any cost. Of the 3153 Officers and men who began the attack on 14th July. 143 walked out on the 20th. They “own” the woods now.
Finally a portrait of the travellers.
Going back to the day 1, on our journey to Serre we drove from the English Front Line to Beaumont Hamel. It took us 30 seconds. On day 2 it took us 10 minutes to walk it. In 1916 it took them 3 months to fight it!
Thanks for reading, I hope its been interesting.