Autumn Battlefields 2019 - Day Two: Aveluy to Mesnil-Martinsart

For my first full day on the Somme I decided to walk on an area of the battlefield I've not visited vefore. The weather forecast wasn't looking too favourable but, waterproofs packed, I set off for Aveluy.

Today's route was taken (and adapted) from Michael Stedman's Advance to Victory 1918 book, part of Pen and Sword's Battleground Europe series. I find these to be really useful books for reference, but unfortunately the route guide was not the most informative and does really require a bit of extra research to get the most out of it.

I parked up at Aveluy Communal Cemetery Extension, a surprisingly large cemetery, terraced on the hillside. This had been used by field ambulances between 1915 and 1917 and was later expanded to include burials from 1918, the year in which this ground was twice contested.

I stopped at the grave of Captain Charles Lewis Pennefather of the 2nd Rifle Brigade. Born into a military family from Pembroke Dock, his unit were serving in India at the outbreak of war, returning to the UK before arriving in France on 6th November 1914. He was wounded at the Battle of Fromelles in Ma 1915, before being gazetted Captain on 14th January 1916. He was killed shortly before the Battle of the Somme on 14th June 1916, aged just 22. His epitaph, taken from the hymn,  'Now the Labourer's Task is O'er', reads 'Leaving him to sleep in trust till the Resurrection day'.

While this epitaph takes a religious tone, his family had another written on a memorial plaque for him in their home village of New Romney, Kent. This one is more patriotic in tone, reading ‘There in the land of Fleurs de Lys / They sleep and take their rest / The Flower of England's Chivalry. / Her bravest and her best.’

From here I headed west out of the village and up the hill to Bouzincourt. Along this quiet road a whole panorama opened up, with Albert's golden Madonna downhill to the south and the tower of Thiepval Memorial rising above its woodland to the north east. I stopped along here to get my bearing and take a look at the guidebook.

The area I was walking today was all within British lines during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, protected by the Ancre Valley which separates this ridge from Thiepval Ridge. It provides a good vantage point for the front line, and would have been useful for artillery, but is otherwise away from the main action of that time.

In the German Spring Offensive of 1918 the Ancre was breached by the German forces and they advanced over this ridge, capturing this land up to the edge of Bouzincourt, just beyond Bouzincourt Ridge Cemetery to which I was walking next.

Surrounded by fields, this cemetery stands impressively on the brow of the hill. It's one of Blomfield's designs which you enter through a large archway. Relative to its size, its architecture is quite elaborate - moreso than Aveluy Communal at least, which was also designed by Blomfield.

In this cemetery is buried one of my local soldiers, Pte James Eli Lainchbury of 4 Orchard Street, Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire. Before the war he had worked as a gamekeeper but enlisted at the outbreak in Wotton. This would have been to join the Gloucestershire Regiment, but he was later transferred to the 7th battalion Norfolk Regiment, with whom he fought here in the Spring of 1918. He was killed on 27th March, leaving behind his wife Florence and son William.

Next I turned north towards Martinsart. Just as I arrived at Martinsart Military Cemetery on the edge of the village, the white cloud broke into drizzle so I didn't stay long here and only grabbed a couple of photos from under the tree. The headstones here are made from a darker stone, which the CWGC website says is either red Corsehill or Locharbriggs sandstone, although it doesn't give a reason why this is the case. The Cross of Sacrifice is the usual Portland Stone. I know of a couple of other cemeteries that use this stone, including at Courcelles to the north of the Somme, but there doesn't appear to be a readily available reason behind this.

Continuing north, the weather soon dried out and I reached the village of Mesnil-Martinsart. Mesnil Communal Cemetery Extension is another of the cemeteries constructed behind the British front in 1916 and was used through to the end of the war, when isolated graves were brought in.

In Mesnil I veered off of the book's route to make a detour up to Knightsbridge Cemetery, the best part of a mile to the north. This is located one field to the west of the Newfoundland Park at Beaumont-Hamel, meaning that it was used as a front-line cemetery for the dead throughout the infamous stalemate in this sector. The graves reflect that with a number of Newfoundland headstones dated 1st July 1916, as well as those of the Notts and Derby Regiment dated 3rd September.

One Newfoundlander buried here is 2nd Lieut Wilfred Douglas Ayre. An article published on CBC News in the run-up to the First World War centenary shows copies of the photographs Ayre had taken during his time at training camp, most likely in Scotland. They're a wonderful selection of informal shots of Ayre and his comrades, showing them in more casual and realistic settings than many of the staged studio photographs of soldiers. Ayre was just 20 when he died. He had enlisted at the outbreak aged 18, and went over the top in that ill-fated attack on the First Day of the Somme, never to return.

His family, based back in Newfoundland, made enquiries about his resting place and were sent this photograph of his original grave marker (also from the CBC article). It is interesting to be able to see and compare the two, both the original and the permanent remembrance for Wilfred Ayre.

Just opposite this cemetery is the smaller Mesnil Ridge Cemetery, which includes just under 100 graves. Like its neighbour, it too contains burials from the Summer of 1916. You can see that it was a battlefield cemetery by the disordered lines of headstones, unlike those that were brought in and placed in orderly lines after the Armistice.

I then walked back down the track into Mesnil. This had been the line of the light railway which supplied the British front, off of which communication trenches ran to the east. At the village I myself headed east round the top and side of Aveluy Wood. From here there are brilliant views across to Thiepval, with the memorial standing proudly on the ridge, the Anglo-French Cemetery in front of it.

The last cemetery I visited on this walk was Aveluy Wood Cemetery. I came here last year but as I was passing by, I stopped in again. Here there is a large concentration of Royal Naval Division graves, reflecting their involvement in the Battle of the Ancre phase of the Somme Offensive, 13-18th November 1916, along with their continued presence in the area the following year.

The walk back into Aveluy felt like it went on forever, but that was probably just because it was down one straight road, the view hidden on either side by the woodland. While the route from the book wasn't the most interesting - it gave very little insight into what I was walking past/ things to look out for at cemeteries - it was a really worthwhile visit, from which I got to see another part of the Somme battlefield. I really do think that to properly understand the landscape of a battle you have to walk it, and on this one I was able to understand both the Bouzincourt and Mesnil Ridges, but also to get a fresh perspective on Thiepval Ridge and the view from the British rear lines heading into the attack of July 1916. It was also interesting to compare that with the German advance of 1918 in which this whole area was captured, before being retaken by the British that Autumn.

On my way back to the B&B I decided to stop in at Bapaume Post Cemetery. I've been here a few times before, but I wanted to pay my respects at the grave of Raymond E Knight, one of my "favourite" soldiers. A Gloucester man and  Pembroke College alumnus, Knight was a close friend of the poet FW Harvey, with whom he served in the Fifth Glosters. I've written about them a few times, and what really shines through in the documents about them is their sense of humour, in which they were always able to find light in the darkness of war. I sat in the cemetery and re-read Harvey's poems about Knight, his 'dear, rash, warm-hearted friend', including 'A True Tale of the Listening Post' which ends with the wonderful couplet:

"Men are quaint things world over, willy nilly,
But REK - you take the - Picallili."

While I was here I got out the Great War Digital trench maps of the area from June 1916, in which this whole area is criss-crossed with British trenches leading up to the front. I decided to follow them round to La Boisselle where I also stopped off at Lochnagar Crater. No matter how many times I come here, it always surprises me just how deep the mine crater is, especially as you can't fit it all into one photo.

I was reminded of a passage I recently read by Sir Arthur Yapp, the YMCA's General Secretary upon his first visit to the area at the start of 1917: 'We stood at the edge of the vast crater of La Boiselle that inaugurated the first battle of the Somme and saw in its depths several of those little symbols of our Christian faith, but looking away across the desolation of the battlefield one marvelled at the efforts of nature to hide up the ravages of war.' 

For today, nature has all but hidden the ravages of war. It is man who must maintain their memory.


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