Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Seven: High Wood and Peronne - Kathryn's history blog

Monday, 17 September 2018

Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Seven: High Wood and Peronne

This morning I set off for my last walk on the Somme to the area around High Wood. As with my other walks, this is one from Paul Reed's brilliant 'Walking the Somme' book. These are probably the books I would most highly recommend for battlefields touring as the routes are all really well described, both in terms of history and directions, and following the walks gives a brilliant perspective of the different battle fronts.

Today's walk set off from Bazentin-le-Petit, a village south of the Albert-Bapaume Road which I cycled through earlier in the week. The first stop en route was Bazentin Communal Cemetery Extension, which is tucked away down a lane. This cemetery contains graves from the Dawn Attack on 14th July 1916, through to September when High Wood to the north east was to ally captured. The area here is beside a small quarry, giving it a protective wall from the battle up behind. For that reason, it was particularly well suited to serving as a field ambulance.

In the communal cemetery next door there are also two British graves, which locally are considered, according to Reed, to have been buried after the war by returning villagers. It is perhaps for this reason that they haven't been moved into the CWGC plot. One of these men is Lieut Lionel Griffin, who served with the 10th Gloucesters and came from Cheltenham.

The first half of the walk was gently uphill, broadly following the line of the British attack. It took the British Army two months and one day to traverse this ground, slowly clawing their way up to High Wood. The battle started here with a cavalry charge that made some progress to the wood but was not completed until tanks were used two months later, demonstrating this transitional period from old to new forms of warfare.

In one of the fields off the track, a farmer has recently dug up one of the barbed wire posts from the First World War: a very large find for the iron harvest!


At either end of this track was a crucifix. The first predates the war and is one of the many roadside calvaries built by the French, mostly in the late-19th century. This is the original, which has survived shell fire and bullet damage from the war. At the other end is a wooden Calvary. This one is designed to look like a typical French memorial, but is in fact placed by a British family, in remembrance of Capt Houston Stewart Hamilton Wallace. It was near this site that he was reported missing on 22nd July 1916, with his body never recovered. His aunt organised this memorial in the early 1920s for his commemoration. The Thiepval Memorial where his name is now recorded was not built until 1928-1932 so it would have been quite natural for the Wallace family to have wanted their own alternativeto a grave site in the immediate post-war years.

High Wood looks formidable today, as I approached the dense woodland from down the hill, so it must have been terrifying for the men subjected to the artillery fire and machine gun sprays from within the German strong point.

On 15th September, as the battle was renewed with the Flers-Courcellette phase, the 47th (London) Division were finally able to capture the wood. On the approach they established a cemetery in one of the many shell holes. After the war this was expanded to become the London Cemetery and Extension, with burials from across the area. At the far end it was again extended to include Second World War burials from across the larger region. The burials here both date from around the Dunkirk evacuations in May-June 1940 and from September-October 1944.

On the edge of High Wood itself are a number of memorials. The first of these is relatively modern, to the Glasgow Highlanders, and takes the form of a Scottish cairn albeit with more concrete. It comprises of 192 stones, representing the 192 killed in the battalion (about a fifth of the strength). From behind here there are also good views into the now private wood.

The next memorial is a replacement of a much older one to 47th London. The 102nd anniversary of their success has recently been marked and their were flowers laid at the memorial. I was here two years ago for the centenary, when I attended the remembrance ceremony at nearby Caterpillar Valley.

The view from here is that which the Germans would have commanded over the British. It is certainly a very beneficial high ground, with clear site for quite some way. The valley at Bazentin-le-Petit is deep enough that it would have offered some protection from the Germans' sight, but this would not have helped avoid artillery being fired down upon them.


The final memorial at High Wood is to the 1st Cameron Highlanders for their efforts in September 1916. It is another memorial representative of Scotland, with the saltaire across it.

Around the side of here is a large mine crater which was blown on 3rd September in support of the Camerons, in one of the many failed attacks. Although it is on private property, some Scottish visitors who had arrived just before me showed me that it was easy enough viewable. It is now a vast pond surrounded by trees. An unexploded shell lies at the edge of the water.

Walking back south, the views opened up on the other (east) side of the ridge, demonstrating the panoramic view so crucial to the position. Past the impressively stacked hay bales I could also see across to the spire of the New Zealand memorial near Longueval.


The walk then cut back west along a track to Bazentin, just below Guillemont Road which I visited the other day. Instead I visited Thistle Dump Cemetery, a small secluded site some distance off the road. Right in the centre of the burials here is 2nd Lieut John Handyside, a philosopher from Liverpool University.

This is in the part of the line invisible to the wood. Its view north is simply the field in front.

From here I returned to my car and drove off for the second half of my day in Peronne, a town to the south east of the British Sector, on the banks of the  River Somme.

I came here for the Historial du Grand Guerre, a museum to the First World War and the Somme area. It is situated in the repaired castle and was a really interesting museum which sought to demonstrate the war from French, British and German perspectives, with everything marked in three languages.

The layout of the galleries was somewhat different from anything I have seen before, with flat-lay displays in pits on the floor. This was quite nice as it meant you could have an up close look at the artefacts without having to peer through glass. The museum wasn't extensive, with only really three galleries but it is worth a visit as they have some interesting items. There was also a good documentary about preparations for the Somme which, although the commentary was in French, had some brilliant footage of the French and British troops.

Some of my favourite artefacts were:

The German pre-war printed lightbulb representing the German and Austria-Hungarian Alliance

The hand made  French violin from an old tin


The mobile shield designed to be used in No Man's Land

The tiny Christmas tree posted to a German soldier by his wife in 1917

And of course, the YMCA mug which was right in the centre of the display of a British soldier's kit. Interestingly, it was only in the British display that the maintenance of soldiers' morale (particularly through films) was mentioned.


There was also a separate exhibition of the liberation of Peronne by the Australians in September 1918, with some brilliant photos. As I was leaving here I picked up a leaflet with an Australian trail to follow and so
headed off in the direction of the town.

However, the large church in the middle of the leaflet was not the one in town and the whole route was a bit confusing (it turned out to be on the road out to Mont st Quentin and wasn't walkable at all). Peronne is a large town but it was entirely closed on a Monday afternoon, which was a little frustrating. Luckily I did manage to find the Aussie-named "Roo de Kanga"; a brilliant play on the French street names.


On the drive north out of town I found the memorial which had been listed in the leaflet. The large metal Australian stands broodingly over the main road on a giant plinth. At the time of its installation in the mid-1920s and unveiling by Marshal Foch it would have had amazing views behind it, but these have been hidden by the growing trees. Marking the 2nd September centenary, a large number of wreaths from Australia, France, Germany, and Britain have been placed.

Slightly further north there was a statue of Foch himself. The village of Bouchavesnes was sponsored by the people of Norway after the war, Foch having decided that this was the worst affected village in the area. The village's name was changed to Bouchavesnes-Bergen in thanks, and the Norwegian organiser also donated a memorial of Marechal Foch. It was rather backlit by the bright sun on my visit, but it's a very impressive sculpture by a French artist.

And that seems like a fitting place to end my battlefields tour of 2018, with the General who commanded the advance to victory. I may have time for a brief YMCA stop in Dieppe tomorrow morning, but I'm not yet sure.

Thank you to everyone who had read my daily blog posts and has 'liked' posts and sent me messages on Twitter. If you're keen to read more, my diaries from my last three battlefields trips are also on this blog, as well as articles on 5th Gloucesters and some of my religion/ YMCA research.

I'm a little sad to be heading home, but at the same time I am very excited as in a week's time I will be moving in to university! I've been working on a few things for my blog over the last few months, so hopefully once term starts and I'm being a full time historian, I'll be posting more regularly. There's a button on the right which allows you to subscribe for updates by email, or you can follow me on Twitter (@kathrynww1) or Facebook (@Kathryn1418).

Kathryn

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