On arrival in Lille we headed to our hotel (for background, see my previous post, and then had a bit of a wander. The centre is quite attractive, with numerous bars lining the large squares. There’s a huge war memorial, which commemorates all the wars of the 20th century involving France, the two world wars, plus involvement in Indo-China (Vietnam) and North Africa. Then the bars were calling us, and we chose one just under the Chamber of Commerce named (aptly) “La Cloche” (The Bell). A bit more of a wander around the old quarter, then bed.
On Saturday morning we headed back towards the station to pick up a hire car. Unexpectedly the car park exit brought us out onto a different road to where the car hire office was, throwing my carefully prepared maps into disarray, this would prove a bit of a them for the day, one way or another. Fortunately I guessed right that the signs for Paris would set us off in the right direction. We then set off down the A1 without further incident until reaching the 2000 metre warning sign for the Bapaume junction. Somehow though I then managed to sail straight past the junction itself, leaving us with no choice but to carry on to the next one.
From the bypass around Albert we headed north towards Pozières, hoping to get to Tank Corps Memorial and Windmill site before the road was closed for the Australian commemorations due to take place in the village later in the day. Driving through the village we seemed to get a glimpse of the reburial of three unknown Australians at Pozières British Cemetery. As we drove through the village, it became evident that the turning for Thiepval was already closed. We parked at the Tank Corps Memorial, marking the first employment of tanks on 15 September 1916. Just south of the memorial was a lovely verge, fittingly full of poppies and cornflowers (bleuets, the French flower of remembrance). Over the road is the site of the ancient windmill, standing on the highest point in the immediate area, finally captured by Australian troops on 29 July 1916, and now the site of an Australian memorial. From here we also got our first glimpse of “Mighty Thiepval” standing a few miles away East-North-East. The field adjacent to the memorial has just been inaugurated as the Pozières Memorial Park, and currently contains crosses arranged in the shape of the Australian Imperial Force’s Rising Sun badge, one cross for each Australian killed in the capture of Pozières. The badge points more-or-less toward Thiepval.
Knowing the turning in Pozières was already shut, we continued up the D929 towards Bapaume and then turned on to the D107 towards Courcelette, and then on to the D151 just short of Miraumont. About an hour after I’d intended we finally arrived at the Thiepval Memorial. By then it was almost time for the daily Last Post ceremony that’s taking place during the 141 day centenary period of the Battle of the Somme, so we took our place to wait for that. On this particular occasion supporters of Leyton Orient FC were taking a prominent part in the ceremony, marking the centenary of the arrival of 17th (Service) Battalion (1st Football), Middlesex Battalion on the Somme. The battalion contained several of the club’s players (then called Clapton Orient). They were accompanied by a band, I think this was the Bugles and Drums of the Stedfast Association a band comprising former members of the Boys’ Brigade, as they had Boys’ Brigade badges on their epaulettes (a very familiar badge to me as I was once a Boys’ Brigade bugler myself). It seemed several members of the band were O’s supporters, and had roles reading during the brief service too, led by the club’s chaplain. A wreath was also laid by an Australian MP, presumably shortly to head to Pozières. More explanation of the club’s links to the battalion, and video of the ceremony can be on the Royal British Legion’s website (there’s quite a long period before coverage actually starts, scroll to about 11 minutes in for the actual start).
The area of the memorial was clearly going to be busy immediately after the ceremony, so we headed back to the museum in the visitors’ centre. The museum itself is very new, and makes good use of modern audiovisual techniques to show how the war affected the area. The visit seemed worthwhile to me, very much helping to set the memorial in context, €10 buying a combined ticket for the museum at Thiepval and the Historial in Péronne. We came out to find that our plan hadn’t quite worked, there was now another band playing! Having googled the name on the banner they were carrying, this particular group seems to have rather a notorious reputation, and I must say I’m not entirely comfortable with them being there, though in a sense they represent an interesting strand of the Somme story, and (the island of) Ireland’s complicated relationship with the war.
Still, while it had still been rather grey and overcast when we first arrived, the sky had now cleared. I had a few people I wanted to look for though inevitably, faced with the walls of names, I forgot a few, including the composer George Butterworth and ringer William Charles Lee of Streatham, and time was a little shorter than I’d hoped. The first name I sought out was that of Frank Pickering (of Carshalton), whose centenary had fallen just the previous week. The process of finding the men was made much easier by using the new Thiepval app, this allows simple name searches, and then once you’ve selected the name of interest, it indicates the panel on a plan of the memorial, and another screen highlights the name on the panel (you can zoom in and out to help locate it more easily). The app also includes some of the stories behind the names (gathered by Pan and Ken Linge), information on the Battle of the Somme and various other features.
As I’d mentioned the trip in advance on Twitter I’d had a couple of requests to look out for names or graves. The first of these was Alfred George Webber, a ringer at Brent Knoll, on panel 1C. If only I’d realised that W C Lee was immediately behind me on 3A as I took the photo. I did remember to look for one of the Surrey men not actually named on the roll, Sidney Bowler Weatherston, who’s on panel 13C. That panel looks out over the British graves within the Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery. There are 300 British graves here in the shadow of the memorial, and the same number of French, most of unknown men.
I then wondered down into the cemetery. Given the high profile of the event on 1 July it was no surprise to find that the planting was looking magnificent around the headstones (and the crosses on the French side). The alignment and spacing of the stones is also beautiful. While wandering around the cemetery I noticed a very young lad from the second band (barely in his teens) in his uniform kneeling in front of one of the graves.
The Cross of Sacrifice was also surrounded by wreaths, and beyond that was a wildflower meadow (with a high proportion of poppies and cornflowers). One of the wreaths was from the DCMS team who had worked on the commemorations.
From the wildflower meadow was a beautiful view back past the Cross of Sacrifice to the memorial. Walking back through the memorial, I was struck by the raking light on one of the panels.
Time was moving on, but before leaving Thiepval I bought a wreath at the visitor centre. Given we were already behind schedule, I decided to drop a visit to the Ulster Tower – when I was initially planning the trip I still thought that my great-grandfather’s cousin, Denis Liddell Ireland might have fought on the Somme, but having since looked at his service record I’d discovered that he had been posted to Salonika with 26th Divisional Cyclist Corps in November 1915. This proved to have been a mistake. Although I’d done what I could to establish the extent of the road closures relating to the event at Pozières, it seems that perhaps the closure plans were changed after the awful events in Nice. On arriving in La Boiselle, we found that both the Old Blighty Tea Rooms and Le Poppy Bar were shut, as was the road to the Lochnagar Crater. Fortunately we had a few bits of food with us, so after eating a bit of that, we replanned again, and headed to Devonshire Cemetery, which had originally been further along the route I had worked out.
This cemetery marks the site of a trench held by 9th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, on 1 July 1916. The battalion (along with 8th Battalion) was badly hit by German artillery fire before leaving the trench. On 4 July, survivors returned to bury their comrades in their old trench. A board was erected bearing the words “The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still”. These are now engraved on a stone memorial at the entrance to the cemetery.
We then crossed the main road, and walked the short distance to Gordon Cemetery. This cemetery was again established in a support trench, but in this case the exact locations of most the graves could not be established after the war, so the headstones are in an unusual semi-circular arrangement around the Cross of Sacrifice.
From here we could double back to some of the sites we had missed out. The first was the 38th (Welsh) Division Memorial at Mametz Wood. Although Fred Holbrook served with the Welsh Regiment, as a member of the regular 2nd Battalion, he was not with that division, however, he passed through the wood shortly before he was wounded. We also recently realised that my wife’s great-great-uncle, William Sullivan, though a Londoner by birth, served with 13th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers which was part of 38th Division, and he would have fought in Mametz Wood. Unsurprisingly, the memorial takes the form of a Welsh dragon, looking towards Mametz Wood, and trampling barbed wire. It’s plinth bears the names and badges of the Welsh regiments in the division.
From here we set out to drive to the other side of the wood, it was in that area, between Mametz Wood and Bazentin-le-Petit Wood that Fred Holbrook was almost certainly wounded. On the way we stopped at Flatiron Copse Cemetery. The cemetery is named after a small copse just to the east of Mametz Wood, originally a small cemetery next to an Advanced Dressing Station, the burials from several other cemeteries were concentrated into it after the war.
We missed the three pairs of brothers, each pair in adjacent graves, in this cemetery, highlighted by this tweet.
— PRH191418 (@QMGS191418) August 4, 2016
In trying to understand exactly where my great-great-uncle had received the wounds that would prove fatal I’d run into the problem that Mametz Wood lay right on the border of two British trench map sheets, the split between the 1:20000 sheets 57C.SW and 57D.SE neatly dividing the wood in two (see the collection of trench maps digitised by the National Library of Scotland-hopefully this link should take you to an overlay of 57C.SW on modern maps). Fortunately, there are some sketch maps in the war diary of 2nd Battalion, Welsh Regiment, and the regimental history History of the Welch Regiment, Part II, 1914-918, Major-General Sir Thomas O. Marden, p385, has a map that covers the whole of Mametz Wood, and shows the German positions that were to be attacked on the night of 15-16 July 1916. As the map in the history states it was reproduced by permission of HMSO I believe it was then Crown Copyright, and as the history was originally published in 1932 that copyright has now expired:
The track shown running down the western side of Bazentin-le-Petit Wood is still there, so I pulled off the main road onto the start of the track:
It was almost certainly somewhere out on this ground that Frederick John Holbrook was wounded on the night of 15-16 July 1916. Now it was time to head to Heilly.
On the way we passed through Fricourt, and realised that there was a German cemetery on the left. After a quick U-turn in a junction, we parked opposite. We had previously visited the German cemetery at Langemark, so we had some idea of the different setup in these cemeteries, in comparison to those of the CWGC. This was the original burial place of the Red Baron, who actually crashed just over the hill from Heilly Station Cemetery, but he was subsequently reburied elsewhere (well, successively in two different places in fact). Most of the grave markers (metal crosses) have four burials around them, two in front, and two behind. The cemetery is also dotted with a few headstones, marking the graves of Jewish personnel, these single graves contain 5,057 men. At the far end from the entrance there are four mass graves, containing a total of 11,970 burials. While there are several large trees in the cemetery, there is none of the herbaceous planting that marks CWGC cemeteries.
After one further minor route finding problem on the way to Heilly Station Cemetery we drove through Heilly itself, over the level crossing by the station, and past the field on the left where I believe No 36 Casualty Clearing Station was based in July 1916, in front was the cemetery just over the cross roads. The road leading to the cemetery has a no entry sign, with a plate reading “Sauf riverains” – “Except residents”. I’d decided that the presence of my great-great-uncle in the cemetery gave me a reasonable claim to be visiting a resident.
The cemetery is entered through a large brick pavilion, with a loggia looking out on to the cemetery. The normal CWGC box containing the cemetery register and visitors’ book is just inside the entrance. We took a quick look at those (noting the visit of my friend Deborah earlier in the week to the same grave), and then went to find grave II.D.11.
We paused half way across the cemetery to look over to the Cross of Sacrifice.
Then we were at the grave.
As I mentioned in my original blog post on Frederick John Holbrook the inscription on his headstone “Sleep on beloved, sleep and take thy rest” is taken from a hymn. Presumably quite well known at the time, though less so now (in many years of singing in church choirs, boy and man, I’d never come across it). The headstone schedule on his CWGC entry suggests the inscription was chosen by his elder sister (my great-grandmother) Florence Emily. She had married Frederick John Underdown at St Saviour’s, Roath, in November 1915. I’d taken a copy of the hymn, and read it through to myself at the grave, and chose words from the third verse “Until the shadows from this earth are cast, Until He gathers in His sheaves at last;” to write on the card of the wreath I had bought at Thiepval.
Some further photos to put the location of the grave into context within the cemetery:
Again, I’d been asked by a Twitter contact to look for the grave of Pioneer David Jones, a member of the Royal Engineers’ Special Brigades – in other words one of those using gas as a weapon.
From the edge of the cemetery, I looked back over towards the station.
From there we went back into the loggia, ready to write in the visitors’ book, but also to examine the regimental badges that line the outer wall of the loggia, placed here where they could not (as in the case of Holbrook’s grave) be fitted on the headstone.
From outside the cemetery I took a photo of the field opposite, where I believe No 38 CCS was based in July 1916.
Then I walked back down to the crossroads, and took a series of photos of the surrounding fields, in one of which Frederick Holbrook died in 1916.
With that it was time to head for Amiens to find our hotel, and then some food. The following morning we decided to return to some of the areas that the road closures around Pozières had blocked us from reaching the previous day. First was Lochnagar Crater, created by one of the mines blown on the morning of 1 July 1916, under the German lines. Surrounded by golden wheat fields, also glinting in the distance was the golden dome of the Basilica in Albert, this is topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary. During the war, the statue was almost toppled, so became known as the Leaning Virgin.
Now we headed to Contalmaison, and the sunken road towards Pozières where Butterworth was killed. We also stopped at the two Sunken Road cemeteries, Sunken Road Cemetery and 2nd Canadian Cemetery, Sunken Road. The two cemeteries are almost opposite other, just off a tiny track. I’d pulled off onto the track to Sunken Road Cemetery, but not quite right off, and despite the relatively remote location of these two cemeteries two other cars came by while we were in the cemetery, leading to a quick jog back to the car to get it out of the way. The first of those cars was another visitor, but the second was obviously local. Both cemeteries have a high proportion of Commonwealth troops, particularly Canadian.
The plan now was basically to head to the Historial Museum in Péronne, and then back to Lille to return the car and catch the Eurostar back to London. On the way I wanted to visit the grave of one of the Surrey Association ringers in Foucaucourt-en-Santerre Communal Cemetery, one I’ve previously described as having the saddest epitaph. We headed down through Bray-sur-Somme and Proyart to pick up the D1029 (originally a Roman road). The cemetery is just to the west of the village. There are just 8 British graves in this village cemetery, in the south west corner. The first, that of Surrey Association member, Ernest Attwater was actually made by the Germans in March 1918. He had died during the German Spring Offensive, defending the crossings over the Somme, somewhat to the east, in Brie. It’s not quite clear why he ended up buried in Foucaucourt, as there is at least one larger cemetery (at Villers-Carbonnel) closer to where he died. One possibility is that his Machine Gun Company managed to transport his body that far after he was killed, their war diary does show they were there, and decided at that point, with the allied withdrawal becoming increasingly desperate, that they would have to leave him after all. Attwater is set slightly apart from the other CWGC burials, all from later in 1918, in a grave by himself. I had been surprised, but pleased, to find that Attwater’s grave is mentioned as part of one of the Somme tours mentioned by Major and Mrs Holt in their Battlefield Guide to the Somme, largely due to the epitaph. They mention that he is commemorated on the Arundel War Memorial (in front of what was his father-in-law’s butchers shop, his father-in-law was also a town councillor there), but not any of the many other places that he is commemorated.
The other burials suffer slightly from being very close to a large yew tree, leaving their headstones rather dirty.
Now we continued to Péronne. In the outskirts we realised we were passing another CWGC cemetery. Fortunately there wasn’t any traffic behind me, and there was a large layby in front of the cemetery, so I was able to make a sharp stop. This was La Chapelette British and Indian Cemetery. As the name suggests there are a number of burials of Indian troops here, the Lucknow Casualty Clearing Station was here from May 1917 until March 1918 (when the area was retaken by the German army during their Spring Offensive). Most of the Indian burials seemed to be members of the Indian Labour Corps, rather than from fighting units. Their headstones also show the variety of religions practised within the Indian Army. At the time we visited the sun was on the back of the headstones, making them difficult to photograph.
We carried on to the town centre, and parked just opposite the Historial. Having missed out on lunch the previous day we were determined not to this time, so we picked one of several restaurants around the square (Louis XI), where we had a couple of very good omelettes. Then a good wander around the Historial. Some of the rooms are currently undergoing refurbishment, but we were still very impressed. It gives a great overview of the war in the area, and a reminder of how the initial crisis of 1914 led to war.
Then it was time to head for the motoray and back to Lille for the Eurostar. The journey was largely without incident, except for slight confusion as we came off the motorway in Lille, and missing the entrance to the car park, leading to a couple of quick U-turns to get back to it.