Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Six: The La Boisselle Front - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Six: The La Boisselle Front

For today I threw out the pre-planned route and made it up as I went along. I had seen a few days ago that L'ilot de Is Boisselle (or to the British, the Glory Hole) were having an open weekend and knew that I had to take the opportunity to visit.

My first stop on the drive south, however, was to call in to the Thiepval visitor centre. I did my usual perusing of the book shop and bought a very interesting Military Atlas of the First World War, by Arthur Banks which is full of many great maps and diagrams. There was  nothing much new in  the information centre but I did sit and watch the information films. The commentary was largely generic, but there was some really good footage from around the Somme and of the soldiers.

Continuing south, I then stopped at Ovillers Military Cemetery, which sits on the bank of what was "Mash Valley". This was the opposite number to "Sausage Valley" which lay south of the Albert-Bapaume Road and which I would be visiting from La Boisselle. 8th Division had attacked Ovillers on 1st July from Usna Hill to the west, but it was not cleared until 17th July, by 48th (South Midland) Division, including the 5th Gloucesters. This was their first involvement with the Battle of the Somme.

As with so many cemeteries, Ovillers was expanded after the war. Particularly numerous here are burials from the Tyneside Scottish, who were cut down in the 34th Division's attack at La Boisselle. It was to their side of the Albert-Bapaume Axis that I went next.

The site known as the Glory Hole is a field on a bank to the right hand side of the village as you approach it. It is under private ownership and usually closed: Claudie and Derrick Llewellyn are a French-Welsh couple who own and maintain the land. Immediately noticeable here are several mine craters of relatively small size, compared with many others. It lay on the Allied front line, with the craters having been created under the French occupation of the village in the first year of the war.

When the British took over the sector, the French tunnels lay at 12m below ground but they began to tunnel under further, under the village's cellars which had been fortified by the Germans. No Man's Land was only a few hundred metres wide. In preparation for the Battle of the Somme two massive mines were prepared: Y Sap and Lochnagar.

In 2011 a group led by the historian Peter Barton began an extensive archaeology project here to to uncover the tunnels, resulting in a fantastic documentary 'Secret Tunnel Wars' (it's on youtube). Their website, laboisselleproject.com, is full of useful information, including some annotated aerial photos which are well worth a look. I am well aware of the controversy between the study group and the site's owners, but this is a fantastic historical site which was well worth a visit.

Of the tunnels dug by the archaeologists, one section of the entrance known as W-Adit is open today and we were lucky enough to be guided down by Claudie. The short section of tunnel runs diagonally down to a mine shaft which drops another 17 metres. About halfway along the passage, the original French tunnel crosses overhead. It was truly amazing to be able to go  beneath the Somme battlefield and to see where the Mancunian sewer diggers had worked in early 1916. On the whole site, so many of the original features still survive, I'm sure in part due to the limited access.

It was a really eye-opening experience to be able to enter the tunnel, although one can still barely imagine what it would have been like during the war. I spent a few hours here in total, talking to the owners and to a German gentleman who had brought a selection of war artefacts to display. It was a brilliant visit, and I'm very lucky to have been visiting over the period of the open weekend, as well as to have seen the advert for it.

From here, I drove a little way down the road to Lochnagar Crater, the result of the mine which had been dug from the Glory Hole. It is quite some distance across to the tunnel's entrance, and with the depth as well, it's impossible to imagine just how many tunnels there are underfoot. The crater was very busy with coach tours so I didn't linger long. I also feel that the site is becoming very cluttered with memorials that have little connection with the site, and while I appreciate the need for the wooden walkway, I think I much preferred it without.

The fields opposite the crater have been harvested and so I decided to walk across to Gordon Dump Cemetery, following the line of advance. Through Sausage Valley, the target for the 1st July had been Contalmaison a couple of miles to the east, but it wasn't for three days that La Boisselle was captured, when the 19th (Western) Division, including the 8th Gloucesters, took over the attack. Lieut Col Carton de Wiart won the Victoria Cross for his role in leading the 8th Gloucesters into the hailfire of the village. He dedicated his award to the men of his battalion.

This cemetery contains the dead largely from July 1916 and the advance on Contalmaison. It includes another VC winner, 2nd Lieut Donald Bell, a footballer who attacked a machine gun post on 5th July. He was killed five days later. I have previously visited Bell's Redoubt, a memorial to him, which is another field over on the edge of Contalmaison.

Having returned to the car I popped in to the Old Blighty tea room in La Boisselle for some refreshment. Like many of the cafes around the Somme, it is full of the artefacts of war. I then walked to a few memorials within the village. The first, on an island in the road is the village's memorial to its war dead. It takes the form of a French soldier, standing with his rifle and the inscription 'to our children and allies'.

Opposite the doors of the church is the 19th Division's memorial, a simple and sturdy stone cross. The battalions of each brigade are listed around the base.

On the edge of the village is another divisional memorial, with this one to the 34th. This division suffered the highest casualty rate of any on the 1st July. The memorial is the goddess of victory (minus the missing laurels) and looks very grand in a corner of a field. However, it is very hidden away and I would not have found it if not for the Holts' Guide.

Next, I drove on to Contalmaison, following the advance to 11th July. And this was all within the plan for the first few hours of 1st July! The main street in the village had been closed, in the very French style of a tractor parked at each end. I parked and walked through the fĂȘte, past the table top sale where you could buy anything from entrenching tools, shell cases, brewing equipment, and sacks of walnuts.

On the edge of the village I visited Peake Wood Cemetery, which was a small roadside plot, with burials from the July 1916 advance. There were a large number of artillery men buried here, including these three all killed on 21st July and buried together. I assume that they were all operating the same gun.

On a farm track near here there is a small memorial to Captain Francis Dodgson, who was killed near here on 16th July 1916. The Holts' Guide reports that after the war his body was moved all the way up to Serre Road No 2, but that on a visit to this site, his mother discovered his original wooden headstone cross in the ground. The memorial she had placed here was her commitment to honouring her son's memory, just like the one placed by the Malcolm family that I visited yesterday. It demonstrates the grief of families and how they wished for the individual memory of their loved one to be remembered and honoured, by making something unique, as opposed to the thousands of rows of uniformed headstones.


Driving north from Contalmaison towards Pozieres, I visited two small cemeteries that are quite come way down a farm track. Sunken Road Cemetery and 2nd Canadian Cemetery, are from the final months of the Battle of the Somme, with most dating from September and October 1916. All of them are either Australian or Canadian from their advances up the Axis of the Somme.

Somehow today time had flown by and as I walked back to the car I noticed it was approaching 5pm so I headed back in the direction of the B&B, making a few stops along the way.

Just the other side of Pozieres I stopped at Mouquet Farm - Moo Cow to the Aussies- which had withstood attacks for more than a month before it could be captured on 16th September. Today it looks like your typical peaceful farm on the brow of a slight hill, so it is difficult to envisage it being such a thorn in the side of the Australian and Canadian forces who fought to capture it.
From here there was also a good view back across to the Thiepval Memorial.


In Thiepval village, I stopped by the church to visit the memorial plaque to Carton de Wiart. This is relatively modern, placed since the year 2000, and I hadn't known about it until I came across it in the Holts' Guide. He was a remarkable figure, who commanded the 8th Gloucesters having lost his left hand in 1915, and survived being shot in the skull and ankle on the Somme. His career is amazing, spanning from the Boer War to the Second World War, where he escaped a prisoner of war camp.

My final stop was back in Courcelles where I am staying. The Communal Cemetery Extension here is largely filled with burials from towards the end of the Somme. The headstones here are surprisingly a terracotta brown. I have no idea why this is, but it does make them very striking.

And just like that, I'm at the end of my sixth day, with only one to go. My time here is absolutely flying by and I am finding it all so interesting. I think going into the tunnels of the Glory Hole will be one of the highlights of this trip, especially as it wasn't something I expected to be able to do.

Kathryn

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