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.

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