Autumn Battlefields 2019 - Day Seven: South of the Somme - Kathryn's history blog

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Autumn Battlefields 2019 - Day Seven: South of the Somme


Continuing on from yesterday morning's theme, today I drove south onto the French front, this time going below the River Somme.

On the way I stopped at a couple of CWGC cemeteries. The first was Bronfay Farm Military Cemetery, which had initially been used during the Battle of the Somme for the burial of those who died from wounds. The neighbouring Bronfay Farm (from which the cemetery gets its name) was used as the main Dressing Station for XIV Corps who were based in this area throughout the second half of 1916, participating in, among others, the Delville Wood and Flers-Courcelette phases of the offensive.

The next cemetery I passed was Bray Military Cemetery. This sloping cemetery (yes, the above photo is taken on the level) also contains Dressing Station burials and others from the British rear lines. Interestingly, in a section in the far corner (behind the Stone of Remembrance) there are a number of Labour Corps burials, including those of the Egyptian Labour Corps, graves of which I've not seen before.These were predominantly dated 1917.

After crossing the river, I next stopped at the vast German military cemetery at Proyart. I came here to visit the grave of Julius Lowinsohn, the great uncle of Julian Schild, whose scholarship I hold at Pembroke. Killed in the Spring Offensive of 1918, he was the rank of 'Gefreiter', the equivalent of a Corporal. It was quite interesting to find a grave in a German cemetery. With the location information merely saying 1/680 I thought he would be difficult to locate, but the cemetery map held near the entrance gave a clear guide as to which numbers were buried in each row. The main difference from the CWGC system is that here numbers are continuous, rather than for each row, but with the map it was straightforward. Lowinsohn's grave also stands out as he was Jewish and therefore has a headstone engraved with the Star of David, rather than the black crosses that flank it on either side.

From here I picked up the route of Tour 3 in David O'Mara's book The Somme 1916: Touring the French Sector. It started in the village of Soyecourt, where there is a section of German front line trench preserved within a woodland. This village was at the southernmost point of attack on 1st July 1916, with these trenches not being invaded until the next phase of the offensive in September. Those first two months of the battle did, however, see increased shelling of these German positions as to protect the French trenches from being invaded away from their strategic targets. A number of shell craters can be seen in the woodland.

Next I headed to Vemandovillers German Cemetery. While Proyart had been a large cemetery, this one was even bigger and is recorded as the largest cemetery on the Somme. One cannot get a full sense of its true scale. Although there are 9,455 individual graves, a further 13,200 are buried in 15 mass graves on the far side. If all of these were also to have been buried individually, the land would have to be more than double the size.

Further south, near Lihons, I came to a small memorial park where there is a relatively recent memorial to Polish soldiers who have fought in the French Army. Behind it, however, is a grand tomb containing the body of Prince Louis Murat, the great great grandnephew of Napoleon I, who was killed on this spot on 21st August 1916. He had arrived in this sector just four days earlier and was killed by a rifle grenade just behind the French front line. His family purchased this land in order for him to have an individual burial, a privilege that wouldn't have been granted to him if he had been in the British Army.

Just behind this spot the remains of a quarry mark the site of an earlier battle. Christmas 1914 had not been a truce here, as it was in places further north. Instead, a small battle raged from 24-26th December, as the French fought to recapture Chaulnes, just behind the German lines. They were unsuccessful and despite sporadic fighting throughout 1915, here the front line remained until the Battle of the Somme.

On the other side of Lihons I visited my first French cemetery of the day. French cemeteries are generally a lot more concentrated than British ones and, like Vermandovillers German Cemetery, this one also contained ossuaries of mass burials, meaning that not only was this a huge place, it in fact contained far more bodies than there were headstones. In total, 6,500 French soldiers are buried here as well as 5 Commonwealth graves.
Image result for alan seeger
Among those buried in the ossuaries is the American poet Alan Seeger. Living in Paris at the outbreak of war, Seeger volunteered for military service with the French Foreign Legion. He wrote his most famous poem 'I Have a Rendezvous with Death' on the First Day of the Somme, dying four days later on American Independence Day in action at nearby Belloy. There is a small memorial to him on the verge next to the parking spaces.

Heading east towards Maucourt, I stopped at another French cemetery, this one containing 5,300 burials. What is noticeable here is just how flat and featureless the landscape is. The guidebook notes that in recent decades the village of Maucourt had been proposed as a site for an international airport, indicative of the open and relatively empty nature of the land here. The plans were fortunately scrapped, or these huge French cemeteries would have had to have been moved.

The plain landscape does also make it more difficult to understand the nature of the battles that were fought here. There are no clear defensive positions or targets for attack. Maucourt was the southern-most village in the Battle of the Somme and the French advance was put under pressure by the German machine guns who were able to sweep across the flat expanse of No Man's Land from protected positions in concrete emplacements. However, this was not enough to deter the French advance of September 1916 as 2e and 136e Regiments surrounded the village of Chilly with it falling within three days.

While the French side of the Battle of the Somme was largely a success, it was far from easy fighting. There were three months of almost continual fighting around the heavily fortified town of Chaulnes, which the French hoped to capture for its railhead, an important junction on the Paris-Cambrai line. Troops fighting over from Lihons repeatedly ground to a halt in the surrounding woodlands which were destroyed in the battle. By the end of the battle in December, it still could not be taken.

Continuing north, I next drove up to Villers-Carbonnel military cemetery, which is much smaller than the previous two French ones I've visited today (although still pretty large). Interestingly, the village's war memorial is built in the centre. One thing I really noticed today is how much less personal French cemeteries are compared to those in the care of CWGC. The plaques on each of the headstones is only very small, with no space for regimental insignia. Each grave also bears the same epitaph, 'mort pour la France', rather than anything personal or chosen by the family. Moreover, I think they also look a lot plainer. In part, this can be put down to their huge scale, but also that there is no planting in front of the headstones, as one would find in a Commonwealth cemetery.

From here I joined on to part of Tour Two in my guidebook and drove up to Fay, which isn't far from Soyecourt where I started Tour Three earlier. On the edge of the village are the preserved remains of the original village, which was destroyed over the course of the First World War. From the Autumn of 1914 the German Army had started to fortify Fay, with the French repeatedly trying to drive them out. Between April 1915 and January 1916 mine warfare dominated, but it wasn't taken until 1st July 1916. After the war, the village was rebuilt adjacent to these preserved ruins, which include the footprint of St Martin's Church.

Leaving here, I continued to drive north back towards the Somme river. It was over this ground that the French VI Army made their successful attack on 1st July 1916, advancing over this featureless countryside. It is only as I got back towards Frise and the River Somme that the rolling hills returned, breaking up the wide open fields. Although this wasn't the most interesting visually (I didn't take many photos of the landscape today), it was good to see this sector of the Somme and to understand the landscape changes from those small ridges in the north around Thiepval, to the gentle rolls and woodlands near Montauban, the steeper "Chapeau" by the river, and then the flat plain down to Maucourt and Chilly.

In many ways, it felt like today not only rounded off a good trip to the Somme, but also rounded off my understanding of the battle at large. I have now visited the whole front, and while I could certainly look it all in a lot more depth, I now feel more like I have a broad understanding of how the 1916 Offensive worked and the different units fit together. I definitely think it is worth taking a visit to the French sector while on a Somme trip and I would definitely recommend David O'Mara's guide to help you round.

Tomorrow I head home from what has been a wonderful week exploring the battlefields. As ever, it feels as though it has gone by all to quickly, yet at the same time my first couple of days exploring Fromelles and Aveluy feel like forever ago. On Saturday I return to uni ahead of Michaelmas term and after a few weeks away, I'm really looking forward to getting stuck into my research again and spending lots more time in the library.

Thank you to everyone who's taken the time to read my blog during my trip and especially to those who have sent lovely messages. Be sure to follow me on twitter, where I'll be posting more battlefields photos over the next few weeks, and I'll be back on the blog from Sunday with my usual weekly posts.

Kathryn

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