Autumn Battlefields 2019 - Day Three: Cycling the Somme - Kathryn's history blog

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Autumn Battlefields 2019 - Day Three: Cycling the Somme


This morning the weather had lifted to reveal beautiful sunshine so I set off on one of my favourite things: cycling the battlefield. Starting from my B&B in Montauban, I cycled up through Pozieres to Thiepval, where I made my first stop of the day. I have, of course, been several times before, but a) it always feel right to make a visit to the Memorial to the Missing on each of my battlefields trips, and b) I wanted to walk here using the Great War Digital trench maps.

After visiting the memorial itself, I walked out to the small woodland which marks the spot where the formidable Leipzig Redoubt once stood, protecting the German position from the attacking British.
Looking back across the German line
Standing on the corner of the German front line it became clear why the trenches were positioned where they were, making an almost right angle with the turn around the redoubt. From my position, everything on the British side seemed to slope away in all directions, giving a real impression of dominant ground. Walking across the old No Man’s Land to the British line, the gradient is almost imperceptible, yet it is enough to give a real difference in view from the two positions.
File:Leipzig Salient 1st July 1916.jpg
The Leipzig position - I walked out to the corner labelled 'The Naze' (source)
The track back towards the memorial follows the German line until it veers off into the field to the left on the other side of the wood. From the maps I could link up the route of the front across to the Schwaben Redoubt by Mills Road Cemetery and in the other direction along the edge of the ridge. I've always found this bit of the battlefield really interesting, yet it was even better to be able to match everything up with the aid of the maps.

Next I cycled down the hill and over the railway to Ancre British Cemetery. This cemetery is really striking as you come down the road towards it as it is built up on the bank. As you arrive, all you can see is a big wall with two sets of stairs, and the Stone of Remembrance placed at the top. Up the steps, it's a really nice cemetery, in which the special memorials for the soldiers 'known to be buried' within the cemetery are arranged in two semi-circles in the middle of the space.
Photos of the lost members of the Ayre family in the top row (source)
I came here to visit the grave of Captain Eric Stanley Ayre of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, who was killed on 1st July as part of the attack at Beaumont-Hamel. Eric is part of a sad tale for the Ayre family, which lost four members on the First Day of the Battle of the Somme. Eric and his cousins Wilfred (whose grave I visited yesterday) and Gerald (whose memorial I would come to shortly) were all killed while fighting with 1st Newfoundlanders. Eric's brother Bernard, who served with 8th Norfolk Regt was also killed. One can only imagine the devastation to the family from their loss. The grief felt back in their hometown of St John's is described in this poem:
In Memoriam - The Ayre Brothers
The burning tears are coursing down
A mother’s care-worn face,
The joy she felt a while ago
Today to grief gives place.
A father’s head is bowed in woe,
He sees in fancy’s glance
A lonely grave, in which his son
Lies, killed “somewhere in France”

Oh Father, who in Heaven reigns,
Send down Your balm to heal
The sorrow of those parents
Which today we know they feel.
Look on them with a pitying eye
For love of Your dear Son
Sustain them now to bear their loss
Until life’s race be run.

The Thebens in the days of old,
When aroused by mighty Mars.
Sent forth to battle from their gates
Two hundred chariot cars.
The Spartan mother gave her boy
A shield, and to him said,
“Return back this with victory,
Or come back on it dead.”

On such wealth as the ancient Thebes
Our Island do not live,
And unlike the Spartan mother,
Sure we had no sword to give,
But we gave “Our Boys” our blessing,
And we knew that they’d be true,
When in the fight for freedom
‘Neath the old red, white and blue.

They were four among that number,
That daring gallant band,
Whose names will be forever
Handed down in Newfoundland.
They will live in history’s pages,
And no name will shine more fair,
To be read down through the ages
Than the noble name of Ayre.
James Murphy, July 10, 1916
Back on the bike, I cycled up the hill (which actually didn't feel too bad today!) to Beaumont-Hamel and went into the Newfoundland Memorial Park. This is another place that really benefited from using the trench maps as, even though there are preserved trenches in the park, the maps really help tie it all together. I decided while I was here that I would wait and join the next guided tour as I hadn't done this since I came here on a school trip. In hindsight, this probably wasn't worth doing as the tour focused more on things I already knew, like how the trench system worked, than it did on the 29th Division's attack from here. Nonetheless, Nicolas, our Canadian student tour guide, did give an interesting talk and I think it is something that would be worthwhile for someone less familiar with the battlefields.

While at the park, I stopped at the Newfoundland Memorial to the Missing to find the name of Gerald Walter Ayre, who was killed here aged 25. The family came from St John's, the capital of Newfoundland, where an identical Caribou Memorial to this one stands, creating a connection between the two distant places. Further Caribous are located across the Somme in Gueudecourt, and in Belgium.

From here, I cycled up to the Ocean Villas Tea Rooms for lunch (a Somme must). The battlefields seemed really quiet today, but apparently I had just missed two coach loads, so maybe I was just striking it lucky with my visits.

My next stop was to the Sunken Lane, another place that could be reinterpreted with the help of the trench maps. Thanks to the Mallins footage of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers waiting here before Zero Hour on 1st July, this is one of the places that has gone down in the legend of that infamous First Day. I always find it a really atmospheric place, where it almost feels like those young men have a lingering presence.

One of the names I had researched for this trip was that of Lieut Col Meredith Magniac who had commanded the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers here. He had been in the dugouts behind the Sunken Road when he was ordered to re-attack at 12:30, following the initial 7:30 push. As told in Hugh Sebag-Montefiore's Somme: Into the Breach, Magniac replied to the orders: 'I have in sunken road now 75 men and 1 officer. In other trenches I have about 50 men. / I have tried two advances covered by Stokes and Lewis guns. Both have failed. We are mown down by Machine Gun fire, and only get a few yards beyond sunken road. / If you wish, I will of course attack ... I consider it is bound to fail. Machine guns are behind debris in village and rake the front.’ The response, which would have called off the attack, was received late and the men had to move forwards to attract machine gun fire away from Hawthorn Ridge. In total that day there were 500 Lancashire casualties for no ground gained.
Photos don't really do the crater justice
Just down the road I walked up onto Hawthorn Ridge, where the vast Hawthorn Crater has been recently opened up by a volunteer group. This crater was blown just before Zero Hour on the 1st July and its detonation was captured in another piece of Mallins' film. The work here has been really well done and the crater is definitely worth visiting to give a sense of the scale of the war's destruction on the landscape. It is much larger in diameter than Lochnagar Crater, although the scale of this is difficult to interpret by standing on the rim as trees grow up from within it. It is instead best seen by walking into the bottom of the crater (this is permitted here, unlike at Lochnagar), from where you can really get a sense of its depth and size. The hole seen today is larger than the one blown on 1st July 1916 as it was re-mined and exploded later on, which is what has made it so vast.

From here I cycled south into Grandcourt to visit a couple of cemeteries that I haven't been to before. When planning the route, I thought they were just off the main road through the village but once I got there, they were signposted off down a small lane which had been surfaced in sharp loose gravel. I hate gravel at the best of times when cycling, but this was really jaggedy so I had to take it really steady on the approach to Stump Road Cemetery.

This is a battlefield cemetery made by 7th Buffs after they took over this ground in February 1917. It was on the line of advance for the 36th (Ulster) Division on 1st July but they had not been able to hold it. The cemetery is really densely arranged, with at least two men remembered on each headstone, all who fell between the attack of July 1916 and the capture.of February 1917.

Further along the gravel track I next came to Grandcourt Road Cemetery. It may have 'Road' in its name, but it's about as far from a road as a cemetery can be on the Somme. First the gravel road got worse, then I turned up a grass path, before this gave way to a narrow passage in a turnip field. There was no way that I could have cycled all the way up to it.

Like at its neighbour cemetery, the burials here are also densely packed, having been created during battlefield clearance following the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in early 1917. Buried here is local soldier Pte A Parsons of 68 Summer Street, Stroud, Gloucestershire. He had served with the 13th Royal Sussex Regiment and was killed on 21st October 1916 during one of the many unsuccessful attempts to advance on this ground during the Battle of the Somme. 

After I made it back to the grass track I decided that I couldn't face riding back up it into Grandcourt so I continued along, to what I thought would be a farm track from which I could make my way back to Thiepval. I wasn't expecting a wonderful surface on the next road, but I was expecting at least some road surface. Instead, it was a completely grassy track. However, I decided that this wasn't going to be any worse for my tyres than the previous lane so I continued, until this too inevitably turned back to gravel, with big potholes that I also had to avoid. 

It was far from ideal for my road bike, although by some miracle I did get away without any punctures, yet these tracks are definitely worth walking across as they do give a really interesting view of the Somme front from the German perspective. The importance of Thiepval Ridge can really be seen from here and, coupled with yesterday's walk on the Aveluy side of the valley, I do feel that I've gained a much better perspective of the Somme terrain on this trip. While visiting memorials like Thiepval are certainly very interesting and important for the memory of the First World War, I think there is a lot more to be gained from venturing off of the main routes to see things from different angles and to walk the different lines of advance.

And with that, I cycled back down to Montauban through the glorious early Autumn sunshine.

Kathryn

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