Somme 2016: Day Four - Kathryn's history blog

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Somme 2016: Day Four

Today, 15th September,  marks 100 years since the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, a phase of the Battle of the Somme. It marks 100 years since the New Zealand forces first fought on the Western Front and marks 100 years since the tank was first used in combat.


To commemorate such an occasion,  I attended the New Zealand memorial service at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval. Prince Charles attended and gave a speech,  as did the New Zealand Defence Minister and ambassador to France. It was wonderful to see so many people from New Zealand, France, the UK and elsewhere there remembering the battle. Wreaths were laid by the Allied countries, as well as by Germany, and there was a spectacular fly past by two First World War planes (unfortunately arriving at the moment a teenager from Germany was trying to give an address). Representatives from the modern New Zealand forces performed a traditional haka and sang Auld Lang Syne in Maori.
Due to the event's security I had to take a bus from the village to the cemetery, meaning that this took up much of the morning. As I returned to the car park the cool wind turned to spots of rain; very different from the last few days!
To avoid the rain I drove into Albert to visit the Musee Somme. This has been constructed in the tunnels beneath the beautiful basilica and walks you through different aspects of the battle.  I liked that it was an artefact-heavy museum, showing the weaponry and equipment of soldiers at the Somme rather than so much of the story of what happened. It was simply put together but very interesting. One of the best displays was of trench art, including a windmill made from shell cases and two small metal aeroplanes.
When I left the museum it was now pouring with rain so I popped into the basilica, which is a reconstruction of the one which was destroyed in the First World War. It has been very sympathetically done and while you can tell from the structure inside that the brickwork is less than a century old, it has been repainted as it was, depicting scenes from the Bible and with the stages of the cross on pillars around the nave.
The rain now easing, I next drove up to Pozieres to visit the tank memorial. Wreaths had been left earlier today for the centenary and it was quite busy with visitors.
Opposite was the site of the Pozieres Windmill, now a grass mound with Australian commemorative banners and crosses. It was easy to see why this was of such strategic importance, with a commanding view north towards Thiepval. Looking out across the fields, with the Thiepval Memorial just peaking out above the woodland, it was one of the more atmospheric places on the Somme,  where the countryside is not obscured by buildings and thus giving a good idea of the challenges the landscape gave to the men of 1916.
I then drove round to the Thiepval Memorial which was heaving with coaches. As I parked in one of the last free spaces, I realised that something must have been happening. Behind me, drums and red army jackets were being unloaded from one of the coaches. I had managed to arrive just in time to see the British Army's commemorations of Flers-Courcelette. This was a brilliant 45 minute service accompanied by the magnificent band of the Royal Scots Guards. I have never before cried on the battlefields, but when they played Elgar's Nimrod from the base of the memorial I couldn't help it.
During the service the weather turned foul and all view from the ridge was lost but it was wonderful to have been able to hear the commemorations, particularly as I had only chanced upon them.
While at Thiepval, I also visited the on-site museum. I wasn't overly impressed by the exhibitions, which relied heavily on boards and pictures. When written in three languages, this becomes muddled and did not include much new information that could not be got from a book or the Internet.  There were some interesing photos and a replica of Guynemer's plane but it was not the best museum I have visited.
Now approaching 6pm and much colder than it has been all week, I drove back to the B&B. I have just a few hours tomorrow before I must drive back to Dieppe so I will see what I can fit in to make the most of my trip.
Kathryn

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