Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Five: Advancing into 1918 - Kathryn's history blog

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Five: Advancing into 1918

This morning I set off on my bike, heading east from Hebuterne and following the British advance to the Canal du Nord of September 1918.

Before I left the Somme however, my first stop was at Gommecourt Wood British Cemetery. The men buried here took part in a diversionary attack on 1st July 1916 north of the Somme, designed to draw German resources away from the main Somme objectives. The attack was costly, with the British not able to provide enough artillery or support to the soldiers. Particularly numerous here are the graves of the Notts and Derby Regiment: The 5th and 7th Sherwood Foresters were with the 46th (North Midland) Division in the attack. The cemetery here is built up off the road, giving it the impression of looking out over the battlefield.

Continuing north-east my next stop was at Douchy-les-Ayette, the first of the towns I'd be visiting today which were involved in the fighting of 1918. The town had been in British hands since the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917, but a year later they had been able to advance back as far as the communal cemetery, but were only able to hold it very briefly. The British Cemetery was begun in August 1918, during the Hundred Days Offensive. After the war, more graves were brought in from nearby.


Cyril John Osbourne Bridges of Cam was one such man, having been killed in the area on 26th May 1918. At the outbreak of the war he was only 16 so it is likely that he joined the Coldstream Guards later in the war. He also most likely came in to the unit when they were requiring reinforcement, as it does not seem that it would have been his natural path in life. Before the war, he had been a mill worker.

Also buried here is the Rev. Charles Henry Bell, the first of many chaplains I would be visiting today. Educated at Charterhouse and Christ's College, Cambridge, he was ordained in 1913. Three years later he was appointed as a chaplain on 1st August and was attached to 1st Royal Berkshires from March 1918. He won the MC for his service, having assisted the wounded soldiers in the line during battle. He was killed at Moyenneville on 23rd August 1918 and his letters and papers survive him in the Imperial War Musuem. (Info from charterhousewarmemorial).

My next destination was Mory, another village in the area which was taken by British in March 1917, lost in March 1918, and regained in August. Many of the burials here belong to the 62nd (West Riding) and Guards Divisions who had recaptured the village.

Also notable is the large section of German graves. The British had begun the cemetery here in 1917 and when the Germans took over the village they began burying their own fallen, before it was taken over once more by the British. It is interesting that the German graves here have not been moved to a concentration cemetery elsewhere and I don't know the reasoning behind that decision.

My next stop, in a noisy spot beside the A1 was the morbidly named L'homme Mort Cemetery - literally The Dead Man. This is a small cemetery, created during the 100 Days Offensive when this ground was one for the last time. One headstone that stands out here is that of Captain Pulteney Malcolm of the Grenadier Guards, whose epitaph and personal information certainly exceeds that permissible by the War Graves Commission. His father Lieut General Malcolm, or potentially his grandfather General Sir Malcolm, must have been in influential positions to ensure that he was remembered.

Next to the cemetery there is another memorial to Malcolm and his men, constructed by the family. It remembers their successful attack here on 25th August 1918.

Riding north-east again, I passed the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt where the Australians had suffered in the spring of 1917. I have visited here before (we stayed just up the road for the centenary last year) so I didn't stop again, but instead continued, crossing the Drocourt-Queant Line between Hendecourt and Cagnicourt. This defensive line was breached by British and Canadian forces on 2nd September, in a twilight attack supported by tanks and aircraft. Having crossed the line by 5am on the 3rd, by the end of the day the Germans had retreated and the British were able to move across to the west side of the Canal du Nord, which was the direction I was travelling in.

At Cagnicourt I stopped at the British Cemetery which is right on the edge of the town. Here another chaplain is buried: Rev. WH Tomkins,  a Baptist Minister from Doncaster. Nicky Bates has transcribed and digitised the articles from the Rushden Echo about Tomkins. His initial posting as a chaplain was to Macedonia in January 1917, before spending 14 months in Palestine. He had only been in France a few months at most when he was killed on 28th September 1918.

He is reported to have been a very dedicated chaplain, going into the line with his men from the South Staffordshires. He was killed while sleeping in the line when what was described as an "accidental explosion" of a German bomb went off nearby, injuring him in the head. He was buried here, six miles from where he had been killed.

My next destination was another cemetery started in the same battle, the Queant Road Cemetery. After the Germans evacuated on 3rd September, this area became a casualty clearing station for the British. It is also another cemetery greatly expanded after the war. One of the reinterred bodies was that of Rev. The Hon. Maurice Berkeley Peel MC, chaplain in the 7th Division. He was the son of Viscount Peel, the Speaker of the House of Commons andwas educated at Winchester and Oxford. He graduated in 1895 and worked with the theologians of Oxford House in Bethnal Green, while holding a commission in the 4th Volunteer Battalion of the Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment. He was then ordained in 1899 and went on to serve as a chaplain from the outbreak of the war.

He won his MC at the Battle of Festubert in 1915, reportedly leading a battalion into the attack, with just his walking stick! He was severely wounded in four places, but saw that the injured soldiers were attended to before him. He was invalided for a year before returning to France in 1917. He lived in the line with his men and would follow them over I  the third wave of an attack to tend to the injured. In doing so at the capture of Puisieux he won a bar to his MC.

On 14th May his bravery shone through once again, but he was killed by a sniper near Bullecourt. He got out of the trench during a German counter-attack to assist a wounded man when a sniper caught him in the chest. It was reported in the Times that a Wlesh Fusilier followed him out to stay with him in his final moments. The unit buried him a yard from the spot where he fell two days later and the senior chaplain, Eric Milner-White attended to give him a funeral. Milner-White noted that it was Ascension Day and used the Collect in the funeral, which he stated was something Peel always did. (Thank you to winchestercollegeatwar.com for the research).

Next, I made the same advance as the British on 27th September 1918 and crossed the Canal du Nord near Buissy. Behind here was the Germans' last prepared defensive line, which the British broke within a few days. I was by now 30 miles from my B&B so instead of following the route of the advance, I turned down the canal path and crossed back over above Inchy.

A few small cemeteries lie at the side of the road here, with burials from the Canal attack. The first of these, Triangle Cemetery, is oddly a triangular cemetery, containing largely Canadian soldiers. There are also a number of Royal Air Force graves, as aeroplane cover was provided in the battle.

The next cemetery was Moevres Communal Cemetery which includes a memorial wall to the Germans buried here before the September 1918 battle. British burials here are from throughout September and while I couldn't find any killed 100 years ago exactly, there was one private killed on 14th September 1918.

Next I cut west along the main Bapaume Road over a number of large ridges. I stopped at the Cambrai Memorial and Louverval Cemetery some way along. Here, my route was cutting the northern end of the Battle of Cambrai, a November 1917 battle. Douglas Haig trialled a new strategy at Cambrai, not using a preliminary bombardment to allow the attack to be a complete surprise. Tanks were instead used to break through the wire. The initial breakthrough had been so successful that church bells were rung in Britain in celebration, but as had become typical, the battle later ground to a halt.


The memorial here commemorates the 7,000 men with no known grave. I think that my visit here marks me having visited all of the British memorials to the missing that are on the Western Front (although I could be wrong). The memorial is a typical one, although it does have two interesting carvings of trench scenes. In the one on the left a man is seen using a periscope while other men run over his head. The periscope doesn't seem much use here: he'd only be looking at his chum's boot!

In the adjoining cemetery there is another chaplain burial, that of Rev. TJ Shovel. He wasn't one I had come across in putting my research together (or maybe I'd missed him), but he was a Wesleyan minister who died of wounds.

From here I continued west and slowly rode up the very long drag up to Vaulx hill. Once in the village, I was only slightly south of where I had been at L'homme Mort. There are many graves here from the final months of the war, including that of Lieut CH Sewell VC. His local rugby club had visited recently, laying a wreath and some photos.

I hope the above photo is clear enough to be able to read how he won his VC. In this remarkable act, he sought to rescue a stranded tank crew from their burning whipped without cover, and was then killed while aiding a wounded member of his own crew.


This village has a distinctly ANZAC feel, with both Australians and New Zealanders buried here. Across the village is the Vaulx Field Ambulance Cemetery which was used between the Hindenburg retreat and the Spring Offensive. The Australian presence here also extended to a YMCA being established here as this cartoon shows.


Riding back north of Bapaume I stopped off at Favreuil Cemtery which is surrounded by some very impressive trees. One machine gunner's grave here bares the patriotic epitaph 'died a British hero for England, home and duty'.

In nearby Sapignies I paid a visit to the German concentration cemetery. I could find very little information about it online, despite it being marked on the map, but it is hidden away between some trees opposite the Mairie. The access is from a side road. Like other German cemeteries, this one is shady with small metal crosses, each with two to four names on. The dappled light was pretty but with the falling leaves, this cemetery really did have a sense of being unvisited.


My final stop of the day was to Achiet-le-Grand Cemetery, located near a rail head and a casualty clearing station. The headstones here were really densely arranged and it felt more muddled than many British cemeteries do.

Here is buried another chaplain, the Rev. EW Barker of Devon. He was attached to 176 Infantry Brigade and it is not known how he was killed on 18th March 1918, although presumably he died of wounds.

I'm not really clear on why today's route visited so many chaplains, where there is only one buried on the Somme. It may be that as the war progressed the chaplains were becoming more involved and serving further up the lines. I haven't really done the research to back this up though.

From here, I rode the last ten miles of my route back through Puisieux, up the Serre Road again and back into Courcelles. This was a really interesting 62 mile/ 100km route which took me on some lovely lanes across country which was fought over 100 years ago to this day. I luckily only went the wrong way once - and that was in Ayette, a town I already knew! I also managed to avoid going down any farm tracks with deep gravel, which really is an achievement in this part of France.

Kathryn

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