Somme 2016: Day One - Kathryn's history blog

Monday, 12 September 2016

Somme 2016: Day One

Today started at 4:00am French time aboard the ferry to Dieppe. I awoke, from a none too pleasant sleep in a reclining pleather seat, to get ready for arrival. Having had a lovely hot pain au chocolat and half-decent coffee I was feeling more awake than I thought I might have been.

The ferry docked at 5am and, following a gendarme's cursory glance at my passport, I was quickly on my way. Dieppe ferry port is small and on the edge of town so my first taste of French roads were easy to negotiate. The route cross-country to the Somme is approximately two hours but I would not have made it if not for the SatNav guiding me through the various towns and villages. As I headed eastwards I was greeted by the most spectacularly pink sunrise across the horizon beyond the mist-laden fields.

My first stop was at Heilly Station cemetery, west of Albert, where three men from the Dursley area are buried. This cemetery is on the site of a Casualty Clearing Station that was connected to the front line via the Amiens railway line. Many of the headstones here bear the names of more than one soldier each, reportedly due to more casualties being treated, and dying, here than had been anticipated before the Battle of the Somme. It is also interesting for the row of white German headstones at the centre, not separated like they are in many other cemeteries.

Frederick Cecil Bick is one local man buried at Heilly Station. He died of wounds on 2nd September 1916, while serving with the 10th battalion of the Glosters. He had previously worked at Lister's Churn Works and the family home had been at Bencombe in Uley. Frederick had a twin brother, Joseph Norman, who died five months later in Mesopotamia.

George Driver, of 3 Council Buildings, Dursley, had been among the first to enlist, at a public recruitment building held at Lister's on 3rd September 1914. He was 33 and had a wife, Alice. He died of wounds on 26th July 1916 having previously received wounds to his left arm and leg as the result of dropping a fuse which exploded over himself.

Edward William Smith was the son of George and Annie, a farming family from Coaley. He had got married in 1907 to Frances Augusta who was fifteen years his senior. She already had a daughter, Lily, and by 1911 the couple had had another daughter, Hilda,  of their own. The family had latterly moved to the Edge Hill area of Liverpool but the connection is not known. Edward enlisted in Dursley to serve with the 8th battalion Glosters. He died of wounds on the 24th July 1916.

By 9am I had arrived at the Thiepval Memorial. I stopped to take in the views across to the British front lines but due to the gardeners working I did not linger long.

I headed to the other side of the valley to the village of Auchonvillers. From here, I set out on the Beaumont-Hamel walk from Paul Reed's Walking the Somme book.  By now the sun was baking hot and walking out onto Hawthorn Ridge was sweltering. I was keen to grab every spot of shade I could! The walk covered 29th division's sector of the front line out from Hawthorn Ridge to the Sunken Lane,  before following up onto Redan Ridge which was held by 4th division.

The series of small front line cemeteries were all very interesting in the middle of the ploughed fields, but it was the lanes themselves that made the walk so fascinating. From the Old Beaumont Road to the Sunken Lane the farm tracks gave a real perspective of the attacking lines of the British divisions. Despite the now peaceful fields, there was something unsettling a out the views over the banks from the lanes, towards the German held ridges not too far in front.

Next to the Sunken Lane, I stopped at Beaumont-Hamel British Cemetery to pay my respects to Walter Bowers of Manchester who had died in the sector on 26th January 1917. Employed as a clerk to a workhouse, he lived at 45 Walmer Street, Rusholme; a few streets away from where I have lived for the past year.

The shadeless walk back into Auchonvillers was almost unbearable so I was pleased to get to Avril Williams' Ocean Villas Tea Room for lunch. Unfortunately the museum was closed but the paté baguette, orangina, and ice cream were all gratefully  received. The tea rooms is a very eclectic place and has become a staple of battlefield tourism on the Somme. The walls are lined with photographs and artefacts from the First World War, locally dug shell cases on glass covered book cases. Outside cats and chickens run under and between the tables.

Round the back is a preserved trench. It is the epitome of an eccentric enthusiast's back garden, ramshackle and lacking in any safety, the original trench has been reinforced to look more like a textbook example of a trench, with raised duck boards and corrugated iron rooves which give the trench a very safe and secure feeling. The information about the archeology on the site is very interesting, particularmy of the area reconstructed to look like a field kitchen. When the trench was originally excavated lots of pots and pans were found here which showed that a kitchen had once stood onot thathe site.

Next I drove back down towards the Sunken Lane to Serre Road 2 cemetery. With just over 7,000 graves, this is the largest cemetery in the Somme region, albeit overshadowed by the Memorial to the Missing. It is a concentration cemetery, established towards the end of the war from bodies found around the neighbouring fields. It is built into the hill, giving a great perspective from the impressive Lutyens arch at the roadrive entrance.

Here, I paid respects to David Miles of Brookend, Berkeley. Born in 1898, it is probable that he was conscripted on the event of his 18th birthday in 1916 and thus likely that he did not arrive in the Somme region until after the 1916 battle. He served with the 10th battalion Lancashire Fusiliers and died in February 1917. On his headstone is the Biblical phrase "Consider the lilies", referencing the faith in the care of God and trust to annul fear. As an epitaph it is simplistic and poetic, yet also carries a powerful message on the battlefield.

Exhausted by the early start and hot weather, I arrived at my bed and breakfast midafternoon. I am staying at La Martinierre in Courcelles-au-Bois, a small family run B&B in a converted farm building near the Gommecourt sector at the north of the Somme front. The room itself is lovely and spacious, cool in the outdoor heat and with a good ensuite shower. The big benefit is that there is also a communal kitchen where I can cook my evening meals to avoid having to seek something out.

I made the most of my comfy room and relaxed for the rest of the day, recovering from my early start and going over my maps and books to understand the lay of the land. 

Tomorrow I am cycling through the middle of the Somme front to Sheffield Park and Beaumont-Hamel as well as La Boisselle and Fricourt.

À bientot!
Kathryn

PS, I have had some problems uploading photos to this post so for the time being they will be on my twitter. @kathrynww1

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