Wednesday 13 June 2012

France 2012 - Day Three

Saturday 2 June
In blazing sunshine our first call was at the enormous Lochnagar Crater. The Lochnagar mine was an explosive-packed mine created by the Royal Engineer tunnelling companies which was detonated at 7:28 am on 1 July 1916. The Lochnagar mine was the largest ever detonated and reputedly was heard in London. The explosion was witnessed from the air by 2nd Lieutenant C.A. Lewis of No. 3 Squadron RFC:

The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris.

The description is of a man-made volcano and that is exactly what the aftermath looks like. The crater is absolutely enormous, a deep bowl scooped out of the chalky soil as if by some giant hand. From Lochnagar we visited the final resting place of a Bradford sportsman who had evaded our attention on the previous year’s trip – Bradford Northern’s Harry Ruck. He is buried in the large Caterpillar Valley Cemetery at Longueval. The cemetery is within sight of the infamous trio of Delville Wood, High Wood and Mametz Wood. Harry played for Bradford Northern at their former Birch Lane ground at West Bowling – two decades before Odsal Stadium was developed. He was the only Rugby League player from Bradford killed in the Great War. We laid a cross on his grave and will be passing photographs of his final resting place to our friends at the Bradford Bulls. Caterpillar Valley Cemetery also had the New Zealand memorial to the missing on one wall and there was an empty grave from where the body of an unknown New Zealand soldier was exhumed and taken the Wellington where he now lies at the centre of the country’s memorial to the Great War. The now empty grave informs visitors, in both English and Maori, how the solider was randomly selected to become New Zealand’s unknown warrior.

The multi-national nature of the British Empire troops who fought on the Somme was a theme that continued when we moved onto the South African National Memorial Museum at Delville Wood. The impressive museum is situated along a grass walkway among the re-grown trees of Delville Wood – or Devil’s Wood as it was nicknamed by the soldiers. Among the trees the ground is still pock marked with shell holes and behind the museum is the only tree to have survived the battering the wood received. The South African Memorial Museum is a stunning piece of architecture and is one of the best memorials on the entire Western Front. It is based on a Cape fort, from the outside there are thick stone walls, but once inside the visitor is faced with a circular structure with full length glass panels that overlook an inner court yard. The story of the South African’s in the Great War, and beyond, is related in a series of display that guide the visitor in a clockwise direction. The museum is sited in Delville Wood in order to preserve the memory of the three South African battalions that captured the wood, but were almost wiped out in the process. To read such a story of bravery and sacrifice and then to walk into the woods today, where only the birdsong disturbs the tranquillity, is a moving experience.

We were making such good progress that we decided to make some additional unplanned stops. First was at the Footballers’ Battalion Memorial which was unveiled by the Football League in 2010. The Battalion were part of the Middlesex Regiment and it contained many professional footballers including Bradford City’s Frank Buckley. They, alongside the South Africans, took and held Delville Wood, albeit with fearful casualties. Beneath the memorial were wreaths from numerous Football League clubs. Had we known about the location of the memorial we would have added one from Bradford City – perhaps another day? We moved onto Mametz Wood and viewed the vivid red dragon memorial to the 38th (Welsh) Division who suffered 5,000 casualties in taking the wood.

We returned to our planned itinerary and the huge obelisk memorial at Pozières to the 1st Australian Division. They were the original 'ANZACS' - members of the Australian Imperial Force that fought at Gallipoli in 1915. They took part in the capture of Pozières, which was secured in heavy fighting on 25th July 1916, and in the subsequent fighting around the village and towards Mouquet Farm. In doing so they lost 5,285 men. While many of our party went for lunch at Le Tommy Cafe in the village a small number walked alongside the main road to the huge Pozières British Cemetery that contains the graves of 2,756 soldiers and the memorial to the missing that surrounds the graves and has over 14,000 names inscribed on its walls. There are many Australians buried so far from home at Pozières. I walked around the cemetery and tried to read as many of the names as possible. It’s a strange feeling, but a compelling one; you feel the need to remember as many as possible of them. Perhaps by reading their names you bring them back to life for a few seconds? We rejoined the rest of the party in Le Tommy and found a group of Australian visitors already taking refreshment. We were later joined by a small group from Northern Ireland. The Somme should be, and in some ways is, a shrine that links the English speaking peoples.

We completed our visit to the Somme sector by viewing the tank memorial which commemorates the site where tanks were first used as a weapon of war on 15 September 1916. Directly opposite was another Australian Memorial on the site of Pozières Windmill – a strategic site which was captured by the Australians. Apparently nowhere else on the Somme did the Australians fall as thickly as at the Windmill. So it is appropriate that soil from the site was scattered on the coffin of the grave of the unknown Australian soldier buried at the national memorial in the capital of Canberra. We drove the Butte de Walencourt, the limit of the advance of 1916 and looked back at the Somme battlefield. It had been a sobering and thought provoking visit, but we were following in the footsteps of the Bradford Pals and so we followed them from the Somme and to the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

At the nearby Vieille-Chapelle Cemetery we gathered around the graves of the two Bradford Pals shot for desertion: Herbert Crimmins and Arthur Wild. There was an air of sadness and forgiveness. We cannot imagine the horrors that they had been through and it does appear that their desertion was not premeditated but was simply the result of having one too many drinks. I wrote in the cemetery visitor book that they were forgiven in Bradford and I hope that many share my sentiments.

We than had another unexpected visit when we stopped at the fabulous Indian Memorial. A circular memorial that contains that names 4,743 Indian soldiers and labourers who died during the conflict and have no known grave. The high walls give a great sense of peace when you are inside memorial, but outside the walls are pockmarked with bullet holes from the Second World War. A couple of minutes’ walk up the road is the Portuguese Cemetery and Memorial. There are around 2,000 Portuguese soldiers buried in the cemetery. While the graves are maintained it wasn’t to the very high standard of the British Cemeteries and it gave us cause to be thankful for the continued work of Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The final stop on our tour was one that was unrelated to the Great War, but when I saw it I realised we simply had to stop and pay our respects. The two Bradford Pals shot for desertion were executed in the village of Lestrem. In the Second World War this was the location of a notorious massacre. In 1940 the Royal Norfolk Regiment were stubbornly holding back the German advance on the evacuation beaches of Dunkirk. They fought until they ran out of ammunition and eventually surrendered. Unfortunately their captors were an SS regiment. The men were taken to a barn and 97 unarmed men were murdered by the SS with machine guns. Astonishingly two men survived and were hidden by the villagers. After the war the testimony of the survivors ensured that the SS officer who ordered the massacre was hung for his crime. We visited the graves of the brave Norfolk’s, while there an elderly villager told us that he had met many of the British soldiers in days leading up to the massacre and he told us exactly where they had been shot. Thus our final pilgrimage was at a roadside overlooking the barn wall where the men had been lined up and executed. It was a sobering end to a sobering trip.

We returned to Lille and the following day we boarded the Eurostar and bade a fond farewell to northern France. In London we enjoyed a refreshment stop at the Betjeman Bar on St Pancras station before heading north on the Grand Central service direct to Bradford Interchange. The final act came when a small group of us had a farewell pint in the City Vaults. There we toasted Herbert Crimmins and Albert Wild.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

France 2012 - Day Two

Friday 1 June

The morning saw our coach waiting, with our Belgian friends the Depoorter family, outside the hotel. Within an hour we were in sight of the huge Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. It has 72,202 names inscribed on its wall. Among them are hundreds of names from the West Yorkshire regiments. This year many of the group had researched individual stories of soldiers from the two Bradford Pals battalions who suffered so grievously on the first day of the infamous Battle of the Somme. A name cast in stone was brought to life, with an often familiar street name, place of work and family story. Here were men who walked the same streets as us, drank in the same pubs and, in some cases, watched football from the Valley Parade terraces. As was related last year, one of the names is Bradford City’s England international midfielder Evelyn Lintott, killed by machine gun fire while leading the Leeds Pals on 1 July 1916.

A short drive from Thiepval took us to Mill Road Cemetery where many Bradford soldiers have found their last resting place. Just across the fields was the imposing Ulster Memorial which served as a reminder that it was here that Bradford City reserve Ernest Goodwin was mortally wounded whilst serving with a Belle Vue based West Yorkshire territorial battalion who were supporting the Ulster Division on that fateful morning of 1 July 1916. The difficulty when visiting the Somme battlefields today is making the mental leap from the beautifully tended cemeteries and rolling green fields to the killing fields guarded by barbed wire, lashed with machine gun fire, strewn with the dead and dying. The Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont-Hamel helps the visitor make the connection. Seventy four acres of trenches and battlefield has been preserved as a memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment which was all but wiped out during their attack on 1 July 1916. It is the largest section of the Somme battlefield that has been preserved. Although now covered in lush grass, the trenches and no man’s land are intact. Young Canadian guides show visitors around the site free of charge. Our guide was a law student taking a summer sabbatical to work at the park. He helped bring to life the battle and explained why the people of Newfoundland felt moved to purchase the site as a memorial to the 780 men of the regiment of whom 90% became casualties. As he explained it was the second biggest loss of any British regiment – the worst being the 10th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, attacking west of Fricourt village. He mentioned that fact specifically knowing we were visiting from West Yorkshire. It wouldn’t be the last time in the trip when we were reminded of our ties with the many nations who took part in the horrendous actions during the Battle of the Somme – brothers in arms and blood.

We lunched at Auchonvilliers. Known as ‘Ocean Villas’ to the British troops, today it is a tea room and bar run by British woman Avril Williams. There is a preserved trench in the back yard and a cellar beneath the tea room which was used by the French and British as a dressing station. Apparently, a British solider who was shot at dawn spent his last night in the cellar. It was here that we were met by the mayor of the village of Bus les Artois. City fan Mick Kirby had arranged for the mayor to meet and dine with us. His village was the place where the Bradford and Leeds Pals had been billeted in the nights leading up to the Battle of the Somme. Later we would drink in Bus les Artois' only bar where so many Bradfordians would have enjoyed their last night before marching towards the guns and going over the top on 1 July 1916.

First we went to the place where the Pals attacked on that fateful morning, Serre. We walked up a dirt track to the tiny Serre Road Number 3 Cemetery and the location of the British front line. To our left was the Leeds trench, from whence the Leeds Pals attacked, including Bradford City’s England international Evelyn Lintott. Just behind the Leeds trench was Bradford trench from where the 1st Bradford Pals emerged. The majority of them did not even make it as far as the British front line before being mown down. The 2nd Bradford Pals followed and suffered an almost identical fate. Of the 2,000 Bradfordians who emerged from their trenches, around 1,770 were killed or wounded. A generation of young men were gone and Bradford would never be the same again. To be stood on the very ground where the history of our city was changed forever was humbling. We were a world away from the sound of the Town Hall bells, terraced houses, mill chimneys and looming moors, but, to borrow a hackney phrase, here was a corner of a French field that is forever Bradford.

Just a couple of minutes’ walk away is the wooded valley that contains the Sheffield Memorial Park, where we discovered memorials to various northern Pals regiments: Accrington, Barnsley and Sheffield. Nailed to a tree near the beautiful Railway Hollow Cemetery was a small brass plaque remembering the Bradford Pals. I wasn’t the only one who thought that it seemed wrong that such a miniscule plaque was the only reminder of the 1,770 Bradfordians who became casualties over the course of a couple of hours on 1 July 1916. However, how we view the First World War is different to those who actually survived the horrors of the trenches. Apparently, many of the Bradford Pals who returned home did not want a memorial. They thought it was best forgotten.

We walked back to the Serre Road Number One Cemetery where we found the graves of many of the Bradford Pals killed in the assault. Finding soldiers who were born, or lived, in the vicinity of Valley Parade is fairly easy. But it is impossible to know whether they were actually City fans – or so we thought. I began researching the life story of Manningham born Arthur Greenwood. I discovered that his family had moved to Great Horton and that he had followed his father’s career as a barber. Arthur’s shop was at 386 Great Horton Road – which today is part of the Mumtaz restaurant. A keen swimmer Arthur was treasurer of the Bradford ‘Water Rats’ Swimming Club. He was one of first one thousand to enlist and was therefore in the 1st Bradford Pals (16th battalion Prince of Wales’ Own West Yorkshire Regiment). Naturally, Arthur became the battalion’s barber and was well known to all the men. Arthur went over the top with his best mate Charlie Lee at Serre. In a letter to Arthur’s parents Charlie described the attack thus:

"We left the trench at 7.30 on Saturday morning, July 1st, after waiting all night. I shall never forget it. He was very cheerful. As soon as we got out our corporal was killed. Then Arthur and I took the lead. We kept together until we got just behind the front line. There we found we were the only two left. We got into a shell hole. There were a lot of killed and wounded in the hole, our captain being amongst them. It was here that Arthur got hit with shrapnel. He said as I was leaving, for I had to go on, ‘Well good luck Charlie lad, I shall creep out alright’. That was all he said and I heard nothing more until late at night, when I was told he had been found where I left him. Another shell had burst and killed him before he could get out of the shell hole. I have lost a true pal."

We visited Arthur’s grave at Serre Number One Cemetery and placed a cross beneath his headstone. It was quite a moment, for here lay a man who stood on the Valley Parade terraces watching that great Bradford City team in the years leading up to the Great War. How do we know this? Well, in April 2011 one of his descendents sold some of Arthur’s personal effects on eBay. Among them were six postcards of Bradford City team groups, including one of the FA Cup winning squad of the 1910/11 season. From Serre we drove the matter of a few minutes to Euston Road Cemetery. The Bradford Pals marched past Euston Road en route to the front line the night before the attack and saw large mass graves being dug. Today, many of the men who looked, undoubtedly in some trepidation at the sight of the waiting graves, lay in Euston Road. One Pal there is Norman Waddilove. The son of a millionaire, whose family founded Provident Finance whose headquarters today overlook the newly opened City Park, Norman nevertheless joined up, and died, as a private solider. His uncle was chairman of Bradford Park Avenue between the wars and was a great supporter of the Bradford Cricket League.

Another short drive saw us revisiting the Bradford Pals memorial plaque on the churchyard of the village of Herbuterne. The location was chosen for the memorial as forty four Bradford Pals were killed in the nearby Rossignol Wood. We found their last resting place at Owl Trench Cemetery. It’s a peaceful spot alongside a quiet road with the woods overlooking the cemetery on a slope. I reflected that it was an odd spot for lads from Bradford Moor and Idle to have ended up at. We walked back down the road to the Rossignol Wood Cemetery which, unusually, housed seventy German graves. We wanted to see if the German’s were the involved in the fight with the forty four dead Pals, but the dates were significantly different. You do come across the occasional German soldiers’ graves in British and Commonwealth cemeteries. Their headstones are instantly recognisable as they are pointed as opposed to the smooth semi-circle that surmounts the British graves. However, the vast majority of German casualties were repatriated to Germany.

So it was onto the village of Bus les Artois and what turned out to be the highlight of the trip. The night before the Battle of the Somme opened two Bradford Pals, Private’s Herbert Crimmins and Arthur Wild, went for a drink in the bar in Bus les Artois. They got drunk and slept it off in a field, missing the bloody 1st of July as a result. They were arrested and later shot for desertion, despite pleas for clemency from their commanding officer. The mayor of the village showed us graffiti carved into the soft stone of the local church by British troops. We then went to the local pub where the two Pals had their fateful night on the drink. The villagers had turned out in good numbers to meet us and City fan Mick Kirby, who had done a fabulous job setting up the meeting with the mayor and arranging for the bar to be opened for our arrival, made a speech in French to the villagers, which was greeted with warm applause. We were undoubtedly popular visitors, not least because the bar had recently closed and the locals were taking the opportunity to revisit their bar, but there was also a recognition of our shared history. Two locals surprised us by bringing along their copies of David Raw’s book on the Bradford Pals. One villager told us that his father had become friends with a Bradford family whose son had been killed whilst serving with the Bradford Pals. They began visiting Bus les Artois between the wars and subsequent generations have kept in touch with one another. The entente cordial was aided by free beer for visitors and locals alike – I smiled wryly when I noticed that the beer was German. I wondered what the Pals would have made of that fact! An impromptu football match broke out between some local children and a number of our party. It was a fairly even game as the youthful Gallic enthusiasm was offset by the higher (if somewhat breathless and alcohol impaired) skill levels of the visitors from Bradford. The former owner of the bar, a lady in her nineties and now wheelchair bound, was handed the majority of the presents brought from Bradford which were intended for the mayor! The joy on her face was infectious. We eventually left for our overnight stop at Albert with waves and hearty au revoirs, the link between Bus les Artois and Bradford had been thoroughly re-cemented ninety six years on from when the Pals marched away from the welcoming glow of the local bar towards the sound of the guns.

Monday 11 June 2012

In the Footsteps of the Bradford Pals: France 2012

In the wake of last year’s successful trip to visit the graves of the eleven Bradford footballers who perished in the Great War the bantamspast museum organised a return to the battlefields of France and in particular the Somme region. Last year’s visit to Serre, where the Bradford Pals attacked on that fateful morning of 1 July 1916, was by necessity brief, but many expressed a wish to return and walk in the footsteps of the Bradford Pals. Hence on 31 May a group of City fans found themselves gathered on Bradford Interchange station readying themselves for a trip to France.

Day One
Thursday 31 May

We spoiled ourselves this year and travelled first class on Grand Central’s direct service to London King’s Cross. As the majority of the group travelled together the previous year the miles fairly shot by as we caught up with one another and made new friends among the five who were fresh faces. As we had one hour and forty five minutes to make the short walk from King’s Cross to St. Pancras we had ample time to admire the ongoing transformation of King’s Cross. Although it will never be able to replicate the glamour of St. Pancras, the new departure hall of King’s Cross is a stunning piece of architecture. Another new addition, the Parcel Yard public house (a Fullers pub situated on the upper part of the departure concourse), naturally attracted our attention. I would like to say that this was our first refreshment halt of the day, but it wasn’t as a small number of our gang had decamped to the Turls Green (or Lloyds bar) in Centenary Square at half nine in the morning. It reinforced the feeling that these trips were becoming rail borne versions of the infamous CTC 73 away trips.

It still seems odd that the Eurostar journey to Lille is significantly shorter than the rail journey from Bradford. We raced through the Kent countryside at 186mph, a quick twenty minutes in the Channel Tunnel, and one hour and twenty minutes after leaving London we were in the French city of Lille. A brisk ten minute walk and we were at our hotel in the inner-suburb of Romarin. The bar next door to the hotel was rapidly invaded, but shocked at the 8pm closure, we had to decamp into the city centre. En route some of our party learned that you have validate your tickets before boarding the tram, others learned you had to actually purchase a ticket! Less said the better. A crash course in French menus later and we had all dined and enjoyed the delights of Lille at night.

Monday 4 June 2012

Jubilee Thoughts

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her diamond jubilee over this weekend and bank holiday. Only on one other occasion has a Monarch reached such a landmark, Queen Victoria in 1897. As part of those celebrations Victoria granted city status to Bradford. As our current Head of State reflects on sixty years on the throne, we remember Her Majesty’s visit to Valley Parade in 1997. 

As part of the Maundy Monday visit to Bradford, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opened Bradford City’s new Midland Road stand on 27 March 1997. The Queen arrived by Royal Train at Forster Square station. The first part of the visit was distributing Maundy Money at Bradford Cathedral, before officially opening Centenary Square in the city centre. Large crowds braved a rainy day to greet Her Majesty as the motorcade passed along Market Street en route to City Hall and a civic reception. In the early afternoon the motorcade made its way up Manningham Lane to Valley Parade. A red carpet stretched from the Main Stand across the pitch to where the players and dignitaries awaited. Among the guests were former players Bobby Campbell and Stuart McCall, members of the Football Association and Justice Popplewell – whose report into the Valley Parade fire had such vast implications for the game. Bradford City chairman Geoffrey Richmond led the Queen down through the Main Stand and out onto the rain soaked pitch. A Royal aid ensured that Her Majesty remained dry under an umbrella, but the waiting players were lashed with gusty blasts of rain. Apparently, Prince Phillip told manager Chris Kamara that his team would have to improve somewhat if they were going to avoid relegation! A plaque marking the historic occasion was unveiled and the Queen and Prince Phillip took their places in specially constructed seats in the Midland Road to watch a pageant produced by Bradford based Stage 84. It told the centenary story of the city of Bradford – including a reference to the FA Cup win of 1911. Afterwards, the Royal party made its way onto the Midland Road where the motorcade whisked Her Majesty off to Yeadon Airport and London.