Remembers - 2002
By Ian Rice
Day 1 Day 2 p.2
3rd April 2002 - Day 2 (Part 1)
We were up by 07.00, quickly showered and down for breakfast. It was the usual French hotel buffet of bread, cooked meats, cheeses, etc., with fruit juice and plenty of coffee.
We were due to depart at 09.00 but when we all got on the coach we discovered that Jack was missing. It transpired that, after returning from the bar last night, he and his room-mate had decided to open a bottle of scotch that they had bought on the ferry. Apparently one thing led to another and they ended up consuming the whole bottle, hence Jack's delayed start to the day. However, by 09.15 we were on our way to our first stop of the day.
The weather continued to surprise us by its clemency. The sun was out and as the day progressed it became ever more warm. It was to continue to shine on us for the rest of the trip. Considering the time of the year, most of us had packed enough layers of clothes to keep us warm through the deepest freeze. We had not anticipated a heat wave but we decided to make the best of it and gradually the coats, fleeces and sweaters disappeared and shirtsleeves were rolled up.
Partially retracing our tracks of yesterday we passed through the town of Albert. In 1916 this had been a major hub of the supply chain to the trenches. It had been well within the range of the Germans' big guns and had suffered accordingly. On top of the church in the centre of the town was a golden statue of the Virgin. As the dome of the church was repeatedly hit this statue developed an alarming list and threatened to topple into the street below but, seemingly miraculously, it remained poised at the most precarious angle over the town. The ever-superstitious Tommy came to believe that as long as the Virgin remained then there was a chance of Allied victory but should she fall, the war was as good as lost. To ensure victory, the Royal Engineers were ordered to wire up the statue and do all in their power to prevent its collapse.
Passing through the small town of Beaumont-Hamel we stopped at a crossroads. It was here that Ray's grandfather had received the wounds from which he later died. It was strange to stand there on the very ground across which the HLI had charged on 1st July, 1916. The HLI had to cross a wide swathe of no-man's-land between their trenches and those of the Germans. Beaumont-Hamel was newly won but the Germans had prepared formidable defences on the ridge overlooking the town. As seems to have been usual on that fateful day, the Scottish troops charged uphill towards a wall of machine-gun fire, slowed down by the slope and the heavy burden of equipment they were required to carry into battle. It is probable that Ray's grandfather never fired a shot nor even saw a German before shrapnel from an exploding shell sliced into him. He fell somewhere near where we stood and, as we had learnt yesterday, was eventually evacuated to the casualty clearing station where he died. Remarkably and very movingly, Ray was able to find a spent bullet from the site to add to his collection.
Our first cemetery of the day is known as Serre No. 1. From this cemetery it was possible to see at least three others. At first this seemed strange but over the next few days we became accustomed to the number and closeness of the cemeteries in this region. Some were small with only a few dozen graves while others were enormous with thousands of bodies laid in their regimented rows.
In this particular cemetery Andy took us to a grave that bore the names of the two Destrube brothers. Their bodies had been found in a shell hole after the fighting. It appeared that one brother had been badly wounded and the other had stayed with him as he died and had, himself, fallen to either a sniper or a burst of shrapnel. They had been discovered in each other's arms, a final brotherly embrace, and it had been decided to leave them together in death. Now they continue to keep each other company under the one white headstone. It was hard not to think of the devastation the news of these two dead brothers must have had on their parents back in England. Andy's mother read a short article from a young woman who had lost her father in the Great War that reinforced this feeling.
We next walked towards a small group of cemeteries a short way from the road. As we entered the farm track that led towards them, we noticed, at the side of the path, a group of old, rusty shells. The farmer was busy in a nearby field with his harrowing and he had clearly unearthed these still-dangerous objects that morning.
Continuing along the track, past three more cemeteries, we came to Sheffield Park and Railway Hollow. On the edge of the Park it is still possible to make out the trenches in which the young men of several Pals Battalions awaited their first blooding in battle. As Andy reminded us, not having ever been in battle before they were totally unprepared for what awaited them. They had been told that the long barrage would have destroyed the yards of barbed wire in front of the German trenches as well as ensuring that few of the enemy would be left alive to defend them. One can only imagine their horror as they emerged from their trench into a hail of machine gun bullets and found the wire almost completely untouched. And yet wave after wave of these untried troops followed each other into the growing carnage, their loyalty to each other driving them on when sense and natural fear should have forced them to seek cover.
Kicking about in the fields on the way back to the coach I uncovered several small pieces of bone that looked very human. From then on I was much more circumspect with my field walking. This was reinforced when we got back to the head of the lane to find that in our absence the farmer had unearthed another batch of shells.
Our next stop was only a short distance away along the old front line at Newfoundland Memorial Park. At the gate is a plaque that, in three languages, reads:
Nearby another plaque records that the Newfoundland War Memorial Park at Beaumont-Hamel embraces the ground over which the Newfoundlanders fought on the First of July 1916 and was purchased from funds raised by the Government and women of Newfoundland.
Within the park the old front lines of both the Newfoundlanders and their German enemies are conserved. Today they are slightly shallower and the grass and time have softened their outlines but the network of trenches with their meandering bays is still clearly discernible. The battle left the area a desert, every tree or bush destroyed by artillery and machine-gun fire. Today it is surrounded and dotted with several proud trees, all natives of Newfoundland, transplanted over to France to provide shade for the lost soldiers. Standing guard over the whole park, on a low, rocky knoll, is a life-sized statue of a female caribou, her head thrown back as she calls mournfully for her lost young, who can no longer hear her. Of all the moving sights we saw during our visit to the Somme, it was this one of the eternally forlorn vigil of the Newfoundland caribou that brought me closest to tears. It somehow summarised all the fruitless loss and suffering this pointless battle cost, not only to the troops involved but to the countless thousands at homes all over the world that were left without sons, husbands, brothers or fathers.
We walked along the old trench system to where the Newfoundlanders would have 'jumped off' on that fateful day. As we moved forward into no-man's-land, it was all too easy to see why the casualties had been so terrible. Over a completely open field that in 1916 would have been made even more difficult to traverse by barbed wire, shell holes and the heavy packs being carried by each man, they had to advance down a slight slope up which the German machine-gunners had an unopposed field of fire. It is not surprising that the Park contains so many cemeteries.
Driving on from Beaumont-Hamel the coach passed the Ulster Memorial Tower. It was close by that the 36th (Ulster) Division gave up its share of men to the slaughter. It is said that these men died for more than just the few feet of ground in front of them. The day of the assault, 1st July, was also the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. On 1st July, 1690 36,000 Protestant troops under William III defeated a force of 25,000 Irish Catholics under the exiled King, James II. It was the battle that ensured that Protestantism became the dominant and official religion of Northern Ireland for the next three hundred years. By the time of the Somme battle there was much pressure back in the United Kingdom to grant the island of Ireland at least a degree of self-government, if not complete home rule. The 36th (Ulster) Division contained Pals Battalions from the north of Ireland, almost each and every man a member of the Orange Order and strongly opposed to any divorce from government from London, especially if that meant giving power to Catholics. Back home they had formed an unofficial militia to defend the interests of the Protestant minority. As they advanced on 1st July 1916 many of the troops wore over their uniform, or waved in their hands, their orange sashes, the insignia of the Orange Order and proof of their adherence to the Protestant faith. Their battle cry was the old paean of the Boyne, "No surrender!"; their deaths, defending the United Kingdom, did much to ensure the collapse of the Home Rule Bill that would have created a more independent Ireland, the consequences of which we are still paying for today.
Day 1 Day 2 p.2