Somme 2016: Day Three - Kathryn's history blog

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Somme 2016: Day Three

(As with previous days photos will be on my twitter @kathrynww1) until I get to better internet)
Today has been perhaps the hottest of the week and the sun was bright from very early. I drove to Mametz from where I set out on a walk from Paul Reed's book. Mametz is at the south of the British Somme front, from where the 1916 forces attacked to the north (on much of the front, such as that which I covered yesterday, they attacked eastwards).

I parked at Dantzig Alley Cemetery just east of Mametz village, built on the on the ground captured by the British on 1st July. This was one of the most successful advances, initially fought by the 22nd Manchester and captured by the afternoon. In the field to the side of the cemetery a shell has recently been discovered and cordoned off by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who were doing work on the site while I was there.
Walking down the hill, I was in the footsteps of the British advance. Like most of the Somme, there was a series of rolling ridges, but with the added complication of many small woodlands and copses.
I next headed to the 38th Welsh Division Memorial which overlooks Mametz Wood. The division had attacked this area from the 7th July, using incendiary bombs to burn through the trees. The ground was won, but at heavy cost to the Welsh. The memorial, built in the 1980s, is of a bright red dragon, shreds of barbed wire in its claws. It is a lot more modern in style than other memorials but one which demonstrates the bravery of the Welsh attack.
Slightly further along the lane, I stopped at Flatiron Copse cemetery.  Here, two local men are buried and coincidentally they are right next to each other. Private Percy Woodward was a working class cloth carrier from Stinchcombe and Lieutenant John Atherton Parnell Parnell was originally from Berkeley before attending Wellington College and Oxford University. They died a month apart in autumn 1916 and would have had no real reason to know each other, so it must be assumed a coincidence that they are together.
Walking round Bazentin and Contalmaison the day was getting increasingly hot. I stopped for a rest in the shade of Contalmaison church, overlooking the Royal Scots Memorial. This is a memorial cairn built in 2000 using Scottish stone as a tribute to the men who captured the village in the Battle of the Somme. Several wreaths crowded the bottom of the memorial.
Just round the corner is a memorial to 2nd Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell VC, on a site which became known as Bell's Redoubt. During an attack near to this sport on 5th July Bell had bravely attacked German machine gun placements with grenades in order to save his comrades from the fire. He died 5 days later in a reportedly similar act of gallantry. He is considered to be the first professional footballer to have enlisted. A memorial wreath from his club in Bradford has been recently left.
Heading back to the car at Dantzig Alley, I stopped at a memorial to the 12th battalion Manchester Regiment. This unit lost over 1,000 men over the course of the war, many in this area. An information panel has been added by Lancashire and Cheshire Western Front Association, the branch I attended while in Manchester. The number of deaths sustained by the battalion is particularly striking as 1,000 men is the approximate size of a full strength battalion, meaning that throughout the war they lost an entire battalion's worth of men.
By now it was early afternoon and the sun was incredibly hot. I drove into Albert for lunch and to visit the supermarket and then headed back to the B&B.
Around 5pm I headed out again, this time by bike, on another of Paul Reed's routes. This one covered the ground of the Gommecourt diversionary attack from the 1st July, as well as the area in which the 48th South Midland Division, which included the 5th battalion Glosters & the Dursley Territorials, spent much of late 1915 and early 1916.
The losses in this area were heavy on the 1st July but the sacrifices of the men who fought here tell a complicated tale. Gommecourt was a diversionary attack, designed to draw the German strength away from the British objectives further south. In the initial stages, the British won ground here but without reserve forces they were soon outnumbered and forced to retreat. Did they die for nothing? It is difficult to say. The British Army didn't want the land they were fighting on and didn't equip the units to be able to consolidate any progress made. However, did their deaths prevent heavier losses further south? Without a doubt the diversion drew some of the German strength and firepower away from the main Somme attack but in the British tactical failings and the confusion which dominated much of the 1st July it cannot be categorically concluded as a worthwhile sacrifice.
At the eastern edge of the Gommecourt sector is the woodland where Chaplain Theodore Hardy won his Victoria Cross in spring 1918. He was commended for his bravery in comforting and helping those who had been injured in an attack on the wood, including under fire himself.
At Fonquevilllers (known as Funky Villas to the Brits) there is an interesting Exeter which includes two German graves in the same line as the British and to two members of the Chinese Labour Corps who died in 1919.
Cycling back round to Hebuterne I stopped at a British Observation Point which was used in the battle as it has a good view diagonally across the Gommecourt front. The concrete structure is largely intact and it was very interesting to see. There are very few of these structures still remaining in their natural state on the Somme. Many were demolished when the farmers returned or the villages were expanded so it is good to see this one still on site.
In Hebuterne itself is the cemetery which was started by 48th South Midland Division in 1915. It has an interesting layout, with the early graves all being arranged by Regiment. This gives the cemetery a slightly messy look, with different rows being different lengths but it does also mean that comrades are buried together.
As a day of two halves, spent at both the south and north ends of the Somme front, today has been thoroughly interesting. Tomorrow is the centenary of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette when New Zealand forces first entered the Battle of the Somme and when tanks were first used so I will be going to Longueval in the morning for the commemorations.
Kathryn

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