A Day on the Somme (Spring battlefields 2017: Day Two) - Kathryn's history blog

Monday, 10 April 2017

A Day on the Somme (Spring battlefields 2017: Day Two)

This week I'm visiting the battlefields of France with my parents and grandparents for the centenary of the Battle of Arras. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for more updates.

This morning we drove west to the battlefields of the Somme, in part to avoid the expected crowds around Vimy Ridge. This was my parents' first time visiting the area and I think they were somewhat surprised at the scale of places like Lochnagar Crater and the Thiepval Memorial.
Our first visit was to Lochnagar Crater which never fails to demonstrate the gravity and difficulty of the attack on the 1st July. Not only the explosion itself, but also the months of tunnelling to create the mine and the subsequent route of attack for the 11th Suffolks and 10th Lincolns who had to advance through the devastation. 

We followed 101st Brigade's attack east to Gordon Dump Cemetery, where local man Fred Gardner and VC-winning footballer Donald Bell are among the buried. Fred had died while on service with the 10th Glosters who were consolidating the ground around here on 12th July and Donald in an assault a few fields further east in Contalmaison.

It was to here that we drove next, to the site which was dubbed by the Green Howards as 'Bell's Redoubt' in memory of their comrade. Bell had won the Victoria Cross on 5th July for throwing a grenade which took out a German machine gun which had been causing devastation. He referred to the incident in a letter to his wife as the 'biggest fluke alive', but it was an action which involved great bravery and saved countless lives. Five days later, in almost the same place, Bell carried out another great act of bravery. He again took aim on the Germans with grenades and was himself hit a few times before falling back and succumbing to his injuries. He was buried at Bell's Redoubt before being moved to Gordon Dump Cemetery after the war. It was on this day that Contalmaison, a target for the first day's attack, finally fell to the British.

From here we drove up to Thiepval Memorial where we visited the names of those who fell from the Gloucestershire Regiment. One man, Arthur Victor Alder from Cam in Gloucestershire, had worked at Cam Mills where my dad now works (it is now WSP Textiles). He is remembered on the company's war memorial, having died in  the 8th Glosters' attack at La Boisselle on 3rd July. He was aged 20 and had an elder brother, Leonard, who had been killed in November 1914.

We then walked out to Leipzig Salient (the small copse of trees directly ahead as you follow the path from the visitor centre to the memorial). I find this one of the most interesting places on the Somme front. Although there are no remaining traces or memorials to the war (save for the bit of shrapnel Dad found), it shows just how close the British and German front lines were on the 1st July yet also how difficult the job of the British was to attack up the hill into the impregnable defences.

Having strolled back across the ridge which was of such great importance to the British, we drove up to Newfoundland Park in Beaumont-Hamel. We had a quick stop for a picnic lunch before going into the memorial park. Although measures had been put in place to cope with greater than normal numbers of visitors, it was thankfully not too busy when we arrived. Extra staff had been brought over and they were all very helpful and enthusiastic about their work. We were able to walk through the trenches, which are a great demonstration of how the network of trenches operated, with a number of horizontal trenches connected by communication lines. I think my family found this of particular use for understanding how the trench network operated and perhaps I had taken this for granted in the number of maps I have seen this layout in.

We did the park circuit and this was the first time that I had visited Hawthorn Ridge 2 and Hunter's Cemeteries. Hunter's was very interesting as it was built into a crater, in which men from the 51st (Highland) Division were buried after their final Somme attack on 13th November. Having seen the line of attack for the 1st July, it is telling that this cemetery for the 13th November is in the same position. Such is the difficulty of the Y-Ravine crease which now lies at the bottom of the park.


Next, we drove on round to the Sunken Lane and the Argyll and Sutherland memorial, where we watched the footage taken by Mallins of the Lancashire Fusiliers before their attack. Standing in the lane, one can't help but think about the fear in those men's minds before they climbed the bank and into battle.
By this stage everyone was getting a bit thirsty and weary and so we doubled back to Avril Williams' Tea Rooms for a cuppa. The trenches in the garden now contain sheep, in addition to the chickens which were running around as ever.


We next visited Mill Road Cemetery which is next to Ulster Tower. This is a cemetery I hadn't previously visited but it gave a wonderful perspective to the value of the Schwaben Redoubt atop Thiepval Ridge. The view is wonderful, and it must have been even more impressive and important during the First World War with the absence of trees. A quirk of this cemetery is that a section of the headstones are led flat, just as they are in places like Gallipoli. It is reportedly due to the subsidence suffered in the area, as a result of the tunnels dug into the Redoubt which have weakened the ground.



Our final stop of the day was to another high point, the Australian Memorial at Pozières. Although the view here isn't quite so wide, it is certainly an important vantage point for which the renewed attack on 23rd July was worth. Here, there is also the Gibraltar bunker. Although now in ruins, it gives an indication of the density of the German defences as well as the length of time they had to be able to properly make and reinforce them. With neat and even steps down into the ground, below deep concrete, it is a wonder the British artillery was able to make as much damage as it was.

We returned to our holiday cottage with the fighting of 1916 firmly in our minds as we look ahead to tomorrow when we will be exploring the Vimy Ridge and the battle of 1917 (as well as touching on the French 1915 attack).

Kathryn

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