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.

No comments: