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Back to the Somme: Part 6

Posted By on August 31, 2023

Walking the Mill Road, Somme, France. (P. Ferguson image, April 2007)

Walking the Mill Road, Somme, France.
(P. Ferguson image, April 2007)

Delicate Hope

Its been a long while…our last visit to the Somme.

This day we end our Somme series (for the time being)…no doubt there will be a return. The last actual walk was August 2018 – a drive from Ypres to the Somme with friends and family…Rosemary…at long last has learned why this ground continues to provide reflection for her other half.

Rosemary knows me well – of my struggle to recognize the peace in this beleaguered ground I walk. I search the conflict in the peace as well as peace in the conflict. Subtle differences these words. Close together – contrasting effect.

It is this juxtaposition of words that guides each step, a slight jog to the left or right. There are smaller things to find. A new path to take. Not just the fields of lives too short, markers of too few words, or memorial sites too small for the lives they embrace and yet too large a record of stories lost somewhere deep within their engravings. While here within the conflict we find the peace – a flower bloom across the field – cornstalks rising skyward. It is more than the shards and stonework of the Great War. Delicate hope for this tortured ground…and peace in the conflict.

Back to the Somme: Part 5

Posted By on July 30, 2023

Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. (P. Ferguson image, September 2017)

Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.
(P. Ferguson image, September 2017)

Remembrance on the Somme

A visit to the Commonwealth War Graves website begins Close to 150,000 Commonwealth casualties are buried in close to 350 sites on the Somme. They range from large cemeteries with thousands of graves to individual graves in churchyards and burial grounds.

There are eight memorials to the missing of the Battle of the Somme including Beaumont-Hamel. I have visited Beaumont-Hamel at times but on this one occasion in 2017 more poignant knowing I came to fulfill a family request to picture from one panel – two names who remain somewhere in France.

This was the most recent visit but an earlier visit in 2006 was equally poignant as I heard from one fellow interested in the Devonshire Regiment and their thoughtful encounter with this place of memory…the Devonshire Cemetery..and its memorial tablet…

Devonshire Cemetery Tablet, Somme, France. (P. Ferguson image, September 2006)

Devonshire Cemetery Tablet, Somme, France.
(P. Ferguson image, September 2006)

The Inscription

The Devonshires Held This Trench
The Devonshires Hold It Still

1st July 1916
The 8th and 9th Devons
Suffered Very Heavy Casualties
As They Left Their Forward
Trench to Attack

Later That Day
The Survivors Buried Their Fallen
Comrades In That Same Trench
And Erected A Wooden Memorial
With The Words Which Are
Carved In The Cross Above

Semper Fidelis

Back to the Somme: Part 4

Posted By on June 30, 2023

Lochnagar Crater, South of La Boiselle, Somme, France. (P. Ferguson image, September 2010)

Lochnagar Crater, South of La Boiselle, Somme, France.
(P. Ferguson image, September 2010)

The Mines

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), 19 mines were detonated. Eight large and eleven smaller charges prepared by tunneling units of the British Army exploded on the German frontline. Both the mines at Lochnagar (detonated at 7:28 AM) and Hawthorn Ridge (detonated at 7:20 AM) were, at the time, the largest mines ever detonated. Both craters remain intact.

The Lochnagar mine was privately purchased by Richard Dunning in 1974 and preserved by the Lochnagar Crater Association. At the time, Lochnagar Crater was in danger of being filled in. Y Sap mine, at Picardy, also detonated 1 July 1916 was filled in 1974 and is now no longer visible.

The famous mine crater at Hawthorn Ridge is well known as its detonation was filmed by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell. In 2018 the crater site was leased from its owner by the Hawthorn Ridge Crater Association.

I have managed to visit both sites and was especially interested to arrive at Lochnagar when a number of students arrive which provided a reflection of magnitude based upon the size of the visitors to the depth of the crater. Lochnagar is the site of several commemorations and one is able to walk a path around its edges. At Hawthorn Ridge I was pleased to stand at the camera site of Malins and McDowell. For an in depth view of the work of the Hawthorn Crater Association visit their website. I look forward to a return to both sites.

Back to the Somme: Part 3

Posted By on May 30, 2023

Light gauge railways delivered ammunition to the frontlines. (Imperial War Museum image)

Light gauge railways delivered ammunition to the frontlines.
(Imperial War Museum image)

The Artillery Barrage

Light gauge railways delivered ammunition to the frontline. Prior to the attack on 1 July 1916 a seven-day barrage fired 1.5 million shells. Of these it is estimated 1/3 of them were duds. The Canadian Expeditionary Force’s battalions took part in the Battle of the Somme but much later than the events of July 1916. However, Canadian gunners took part in the barrage 16 July 1916 at Thiepval.

Ordnance on exhibition at Ulster tower. (P. Ferguson image, April 2007)

Ordnance on exhibition at Ulster tower.
(P. Ferguson image, April 2007)

Ordnance on the Somme continues to be encountered. Found in the furrows of farmer’s fields or haphazardly torn from the earth to the surface. Today’s bounty competes for attention amidst the rusted iron shards and unexploded charges. The plough wrenches these iron harvests and after years underground the inedible harvest is despatched for destruction by Ordnance experts. Others, the duds, the unfired rendered inert find their place in exhibitions of the Great War. There appears to be an appetite for destruction – not lost to this wanderer.

German concrete fortification. (Imperial War Museum image)

German concrete fortification on the Somme.
(Imperial War Museum image)

Bombardments, the barrage, often failed to cut the wire which in many locations was 20 yards deep necessitating the use of wire cutters to individually cut through single strands of wire so the infantry could advance. Barrages seldom destroyed the deep German dugouts some of which were 40’ deep cut into the chalk landscape. Similarly German concrete fortifications and gun positions were able to withstand this iron battering. Despite the onslaught of artillery against their enemy, British and allied forces were faced with the daunting task of taking well established enemy positions.

Back to the Somme: Part 2

Posted By on April 30, 2023

The Somme. (WW1battlefields.co.uk)

The Somme.
(WW1battlefields.co.uk)

The Commanders

The Somme was where the British and French armies met occupying a 25-mile front mostly to the north of the River Somme. The battle of 1 July 1916, was the largest operation of the Great War and started with 500,000 men, mostly volunteers of the Pals battalions. The Pals did not have the training of the British regular army whose ranks had been depleted by the summer of 1916. These men of Kitchener’s Army, the Pals, were recruited in local area drives and served with men they knew rather than being allocated to battalions to which they may have no personal affiliation. The inexperience of this new British Army meant there was little flexibility in changing plans.

General Joffre. (Wiki Image)

General Joseph Joffre.
(Wiki Image)

The ground and the timing was not of the British Army’s choosing but the battle was insisted upon by General Joffre head of the French Army who also drove allied strategy. Haig wanted to attack in August but Joffre was not impressed by the suggestion. If the British Army did not attack in July Joffre felt the French Army who had been defending Verdun since February 1916 would no longer exist.

Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. (Postcard Image)

Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig.
(Postcard Image)

Haig whose position was not subordinate to Joffre had recently taken over from British Field-Marshall Sir John French. The Somme was Haig’s first campaign in command of the British Army and his leadership continues to be be the subject of considerable debate. Haig was not inclined to listen to subordinates. His tactics favored the unlimited quick breakthrough with cavalry passing through the line.

General Sir Henry Rawlinson. (Postcard image)

General Sir Henry Rawlinson.
(Postcard image)

Sir Henry Rawlinson was one of Haig’s senior army commanders, a subordinate, leading the British Fourth Army. Rawlinson’s command was the main British force of the Somme campaign. The Fourth Army was formed in February 1916 and eleven divisions attacked on the 1 July 1916. Rawlinson in contrast to Haig preferred the tactic of bite and hold – to pulverize the enemy, and occupy trench to trench. The tactics of Haig and Rawlinson clashed and led to strained relations.