Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Two: Somme Firsts - Kathryn's history blog

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Autumn Battlefields 2018 Day Two: Somme Firsts

When I woke up this morning a thick fog had descended over the Somme, which was particularly frustrating as today was a cycling day. Luckily, the weather had lifted somewhat by the time I set off.

My first destination of the day was to Forceville Communal Cemetery Extension, in a village west of where I am staying (At the northern end of the Somme). This cemetery has the dubious honour of being one of the first three cemeteries to have been completed by the Imperial War Graves Commission after the war. As can be seen in this photo by Arthur Yapp of the YMCA, it had already been completed by January 1920.

The presence of the hedge prevents the same photo being taken today, although the view is largely unchanged in the century since. The only notable change is the construction of the German headstones in the foreground (in Yapp's photo these are the wooden crosses). Forceville was used as a field ambulance from February 1916 and as a result most burials here are men who died of wounds.

There are two local burials here, both coincidentally in the front row. Colin Blandford of Dursley (pictured) and Denis Ambrose Hoare of Uley died almost two years apart, yet are buried only metres from each other. Lance Corporal Blandford had moved south to Yeovil in the years before the war to open a drapers shop. Accordingly, he served with the Somerset Light Infantry and, according to local historian David Evans, only went over to France on 10th July 1916. He was killed a month later on 25th August 1916.

Private Hoare meanwhile served with the 17th batt Royal Welsh Fusiliers. It is likely that he was placed in this battalion later in the war, when less preference was given to a soldier's locality and more to which unit needed reinforcing. His battalion's war diary makes no mention of his death on 18th June, only that they attended a church service in Chelers which is about 40km north of Forceville. It is likely that he was wounded in the days previously and was evacuated here for treatment. His epitaph is touchingly personal, reading 'Dear Den, deeply lamented he died for us and his country'.

Leaving here, I was heading in the direction of Ulster Tower where I was booked onto a tour of Thiepval Ridge at 11am. In a slight miscalculation, I hadn't quite realised the distance of this ride and so had to pedal quite hard to arrive on time. I realised the gods were on my side however, when I passed the Ancre level crossing with five minutes to spare and the train approaching alarm started ringing just moments after! Then it was just a slog up the steep hill to arrive in the nick of time.

The tour of Thiepval Wood (which is closed to unguided tourists) was fantastic, and I can't believe I haven't done it before! Diane, who took the group, was a brilliant guide with 30 years' experience on the Somme. Sections of the trenches in the wood, from which the 36th Ulster Division attacked on 1st July 1916, have been restored rather authentically and the traces of others, as well as of shell holes can be seen throughout.

Diane also showed us artefacts from the wood, including this spoon, which had been placed in a soldier's puttees and had luckily prevented his leg from serious damage when it was hit! The tour was really worth doing, especially as the only cost is a donation to the Somme Association.

While my bike was locked up at Ulster Tower, I also visited the two cemeteries nearby, Connaught and Mill Road. Both of these are also ones photographed by Yapp in 1920. What is immediately striking about Yapp's photo of Connaught is that the wood behind has been entirely destroyed. Even in the years after the war, the landscape must have been completely devastated. A harrowing sight for those early battlefields tourists, and soldiers' families.

Mill Road Cemetey opposite stands on top of the Ulsters' target for 1st July, the Schwaben Redoubt. Due to so many tunnels being dug beneath it, some of the headstones in the cemetery lie flat. Yapp's photo of the cemetery is surprising, with the wooden headstones being so overgrown.

He also took another at Mill Road, of G Sherwood Eddy, an evangelist, who travelled with him in 1920. Here he is shown standing on top of a pill box, presumably for a better view. These no longer survive in this area.

My plan for the day was to head south so I stopped in at the Theipval memorial. I hadn't scheduled a visit as I have been many times before, but it felt odd to ride straight past it so I paid a quick visit.

Continuing south, my next impromptu stop was to Bazentin-le-Petit Military Cemetery. This village was taken by the British on 14th July and the burials here continue into the Autumn of 1916, including a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

This cemetery also shows the slightly different landscape of the battlefields south of the Albert-Bapaume Road axis. Here, there are several big, dense woodlands and the ridges seems larger and more rolling than the small twists and turns around Beaumont-Hamel. Outside of this cemetery, the neighbouring field also shows another remnant of war. Alternate fence posts are barbed wire stakes, designed to be silently twisted into the ground during the construction of a trench.


From here I continued on into Longueval to the Delville Wood Museum and South African Memorial. While I have visited this site many times before, I have never been able to catch the museum while it's been open - until today! The museum itself, behind the memorial wall, is star shaped and a replica of a South African castle. Inside there are several small exhibits, both to the fighting on the Somme and elsewhere, including the South African contribution to the Palestine campaign and the sinking of the SS Mendhi, when 607 native South African labourers drowned near the Isle of Wight, woefully far into their journey to France.

After a brief stop at the cemetery opposite, I continued south out of Longueval to Guillemont Road Cemetery, where Pembroke College alumnus 2nd Lieutenant William Hitchens is buried. Born in India, he was the quintessential middle class man, with his father (of the same name) working as a cotton broker. The family relocated to Cornwall and Hitchens was educated at Haileybury School and Pembroke College, Oxford. An obituary notes him as a talented artist.

Interestingly, an article linked on the Pembroke website states that Hitchens obtained a commission with 9th batt Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, which became a reserve battalion, but that he resigned it a year later to attend training at Sandhurst. He then returned to the regiment, where he joined 1st batt in 1916. I'm not sure what the reason for the training break was, but he was to serve, and die, on the Somme. He was killed on 3rd September 1916, leading his platoon in an assault. The commanding officer noted to his family that due to Hitchens' involvement, the 'attack was a magnificent success, and all our objectives were captured'.

Just along the road I briefly stopped at Bernafay Wood Cemetery, which really shows the rolling curves of the hills in this part.

Bernafay Wood itself was home to a YMCA hut after 1916, which was photographed by Yapp in 1920, as well as capturing Eddy in another humerous pose, this time being "knighted" by Miss Cauthorpe, who presumably worked in the hut. Due to the denseness of the wood, it is difficult to know whether any trace of this hut remain today.

Shortly after, I realised that it was already approaching 5pm and so I made for home, cutting diagonally across the Somme. As is typical, I rode into a headwind most of the way back and with the clouds looking ever darker ahead, I ploughed on without stopping at any further sites. Time really seemed to speed past today, but it was another satisfying day with discovering new things in what has become a familiar landscape.

Kathryn

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