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

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Cycling on the Somme (Spring battlefields 2017: Day Five)

Today is our last full day in France so I made the most of it by cycling to the Somme to visit some parts that I haven't been to before.
My first stop of the day was to the Butte de Warlencourt, an ancient mound which had been used by the Germans as an observation point in the latter stages of the Battle of the Somme. Although many attempts were made during October and November 1916, the Butte was not captured by the British during the battle, with the front line just behind it. 

The Butte is now owned by the Western Front Association and is a great viewpoint from which to see the eastern Somme. A short distance back up the road,  further behind the German front line, there is a cemetery to those who died in the assaults on the mound.


I next continued along the D929 to the village of Le Sars where, tucked away amongst a farm, there is a surviving German memorial which had been built during the Battle of the Somme. It is a block in shape, with a dedication to the 111 Infantry Regiment on the side.
I then headed towards Longueval, stopping en route at High Wood and its associated memorials. This large woodland had been assaulted by the British on the 14th July, and although cleared of occupying Germans, it was not consolidated and as a result lay empty. It was to be the Germans who made the first move and retook the wood which would not fall again to British hands until 15th September. 



47th (London) Division were the eventual capturers of the wood and the burials at the front of High Wood Cemetery reflect this, as well as the divisional memorial in the edge of the wood which was built in 1996.
On a crossroads towards Longueval there is a memorial cross to the 12th battalion, Glosters, the Bristol recruits, who fought in the area. Just a simple wooden cross in design, it has a good view back across the fields on which they fought throughout the Somme.

On in to Longueval, I visited Delville Wood with its South African memorial and museum. Unfortunately, as it was Good Friday, the museum was closed  (just as it was when I visited last September!) but it was interesting to see the wood in which the South African Brigade had spent four days from 15th July attempting to break through the wood under heavy attack from the opposition. They were forced to retire on the 19th, unable to take the wood and at a loss of more than 2,000 men; 2/3rds of the attacking force.


Next, I cycled round to Guillemont Road Cemetery. Like much of this area, it had taken the British a prolonged assault before Guillemont village, with its station, could be taken. Among the buried here is Lieutenant Raymond Asquith, the son of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith who had died in September 1916.


Riding round past Mametz, another of the great woods of the south-east Somme sector, I then headed up for lunch at Tommy's in Pozières. I'm still not sure if I actually like this café/ restaurant but it was on my route and I wasn't sure what else would be open on Good Friday.
From here I rode up to Mouquet Farm, or Moocow Farm as it was known to the Australian soldiers who captured the hilltop position in August 1916. A commemorative plaque has been put marking the position but it was difficult to imagine the now-working farm looking like a decimated field of shell craters as I have seen photos of from 1916.

I cycled up Thiepval Ridge and past Beaumont-Hamel to Serre Road, where Lieut Thomas Moore, on of the 5th Glosters, is buried at Serre Road No 1 cemetery.  He had been killed in a trench raid in the autumn of 1915 and having read the 5th Glosters' war diary and the Fifth Gloster Gazette, it almost feels as though I know more, or at least know of his character. I have also visited his plaque in Tewkesbury Abbey where he is remembered alongside his brother Lionel who died the following year on the Somme. Lionel is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. 

I followed what was loosely the line of the Fifth Glosters' front before the Battle of the Somme from Serre up to Hebuterne. They spent more than a year in this area throughout 1915 and early 1916, with Hebuterne almost becoming their home at the front. I wrote a blog post back in January about the Glosters who are buried in Hebuterne cemetery, but what I hadn't realised at the time was that there were three rows of Gloster burials, not one. I'll update that post soon.

From here, I cycled east into the Gommecourt sector to Rossignol Wood to where Chaplain Theodore Hardy had won his VC during the Spring Offensive of 1918. On the road past the wood there are two small cemeteries. The first, Rossignol Wood Cemetery, contains as many, if not more, German burials than British. Those on the British side all date from 14th March 1917, during the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, while the German graves are from the Spring Offensive.

 The neighbouring cemetery, Owl Trench, similarly contains British burials from one attack, 27th February 1917. Although there are very few headstones here, many contain the names of up to three soldiers on them.


Taking the north-east road past the wood, I rode back towards the Arras sector, to Ayette Cemetery for the Indian and Chinese Labour Corps. The Indian burials date predominantly from 1917 and early 1918 while the Chinese are from the tail end of 1918 and majoritively from 1919. The Indian burials are from a range of religions, and it is interesting that the graves of the unknown Indians are plain and do not bear the cross or Kipling's words as other unknown graves from the Empire do. 



This was the final stop of my day and I then rode the ten miles back to the holiday cottage at Fontaine-lès-Croisilles, the sun finally beginning to come out. In total, I cycled about 60 miles through the east and north of the Somme front.
Kathryn

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