2015-08-05 Seraucourt-le-Grand – Boiry-Notre-Dame

Today’s photo shows the Guillemont Road cemetry near the small village of Guillemont in the Somme region of France. It was just one of about 50 cemeteries I passed by today. Most of the soldiers buried here were killed during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. The town of Guillemont was one of the key objectives for the British forces during the first week of the battle but it took until September to drive the Germans from the town. Of the 2,263 people buried in this cemetery, over 1,500 are unidentified. One of the graves here is that of Raymond Asquith, the son of the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.

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Today – 110 km. Total so far – 2470 km. The westerly wind made for tough going in the morning but the wind became more off a tailwind in the evening, which was a huge help in making it to Boiry-Notre-Dame before it got dark.

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Camping du Vivier aux Carpes. It was hot as I left the campsite but thankfully, it got cooler as the day went on. As I was leaving, 3 cars with caravans were pulling in. The campsite is obviously very popular and no wonder why as it is beautifully laid out and it certainly is a very relaxing location to stay being located right beside the river Somme.

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Map of the Via Francigena in the campsite reception. Seraucourt-le-Grand was visited by Sigeric on his 8th day in France on his epic trek to Rome from Canterbury. I had met an Australian tourist in Chalons-en-Champagne who was hiking the Via Francigena all the way to Rome just like Sigeric in 990. He told me he had blisters on his blisters and it would take at least another 3 months to complete his journey. Well, if I ever attempt the Via Francigena, I would hope to do it in 3 weeks by bike and I certainly would stop off again at the Vivier aux Carpes campsite as it is such a lovely place to spend the night.

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Sign for the departement of the Somme. The region of the Somme is named after the river Somme and will forever be associated with WW1. However, very little fighting actually took place along the river; most of the battles in the Somme were 10 km north of the river.

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Historial fort in Peronne. The chateau fort in Peronne has been converted into a museum dedicated to WW1. The fort was occupied by German troops for most of the war and it wasn’t until September 1918 that it was re-captured.The Australian flag is one of the flags above the fort because it was Australian troops that liberated Peronne. The poster above the main entrance is for an exhibition called “Face to Face” about medical care during the war and in particular, about plastic surgery that was carried out on soldier’s faces that had been disfigured during the war..

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Small church alongside the road near Curlu. I must have passed by 5 or 6 of these tiny chapels today.

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Poppies growing on verge beside the road near Hardecourt-aux-Bois. These were the only poppies I seen growing during my tour. Most poppies don’t bloom until September and October, so I was incredibly lucky to get this shot.

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Sign for South African museum and memorial at Delville Wood near Longueval. Compared to other countries, South Africa lost relatively few soldiers in WW1. Out of over 200,000 men, only about 30,000 were killed or wounded. Whereas out of about 300,000 Australian troops, over 200,000 were killed or wounded. Many of the South African troops would have fought in the Boer War, so I guess they were more familiar with trench fighting and maybe more battle hardened than other troops and that resulted in fewer casualties. Having said that, the cemetery at Delville Wood is one of the biggest in the Somme with over 5,000 graves, about 2/3 of which are un-identified. The high proportion of unknown graves probably reflects the lengthy period which elapsed before many of the bodies could be removed from the battlefield and buried.

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A WW1 crater near La Boiselle. Prior to the Battle of the Somme, about 19 tunnels were dug from the British line underneath the German trenches and then filled with mines. The longest and biggest of these tunnels was the Lochnager tunnel which was 300m long and filled with 50 tons of explosive. When these mines were detonated at 7.28 am on the morning of July 1st, it was said the noise could be heard in London over 300 km away.

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The frontline on the first day of the Battle of the Somme at La Boiselle. The Battle of the Somme lasted for 141 days and resulted in over 1 million casualties. But no day was as deadly as the first day of the battle, the 1st of July, when over 100,000 men were killed or injured. Almost 20,000 British troops were killed and 40,000 wounded on this day, which was the worst ever loss of life for the British Army in a single day’s fighting.

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Sign for Albert. Many of the troops that took part in the Battle of the Somme would have been transported to Albert by train and then marched about 5 km to the front-line. The town was occupied by Allied forces for most of the war until it was captured by the Germans in March 1918 during the Spring Offensive. The Germans managed to hold onto the town for 4 months until being forced to retreat due to Allied counter-attacks and the arrival of thousands of American troops to the Western Front. Albert was completely reconstructed after the war, which included widening many streets and a new town centre. The town’s Basilica, however, was accurately rebuilt according to its original design by Eduoard Duthoit, the son of the architect who had overseen its original construction in 1885–95.

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The Notre Dame basilica in Albert and how it looked in 1916. At the top of the basilica, there is a golden statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus up to God. During the early days of the war German artillery had shelled the Basilica, trying to knock its tower down and prevent the French artillery spotters from using it. They had only succeeded in dislodging the statue of Mary, which by 1916 hung at a precarious angle just below the horizontal. This was all too visible for the soldiers passing through the town and the Legend of the Leaning Virgin was born. One version of the legend was that the fall of the Virgin would signal the end of the war. The statue eventually fell in April 1918 after being struck by British artillery to prevent the Germans using the tower after Albert was captured by them during the Spring Offensive. But the legend did not prove prophetic as it would be another 7 months after the statue fell before the war came to an end.

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Crucifixion cross on road to Thiepval. These crosses are dotted throughout the Somme.

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Poignant stories of some locals who fought in WW1 on the church in Authuille. This poster tells the story of Georges Henot, who was killed on 13th September 1914 during the Battle of the Marne. There were posters about another dozen or so locals, all of whom were killed during the war. Authuille itself was the scene of fierce fighting during the Battle of the Somme. But all the French soldiers on the posters were killed elsewhere as it was mostly British and Irish troops who fought the German forces here in Authuille. The WW1 cemetery in Authuille has almost 500 graves but all of the graves are of soldiers from the UK  and India, and none are from France.

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Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Unfortunately, the monument was being repaired and was covered in scaffolding when I visited. The monument has the names of over 72,000 British and South African soldiers of no known grave inscribed on it. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the memorial was built between 1928 and 1932 and is the largest British battle memorial in the world.

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Ulster Tower memorial near Thiepval. The Ulster Tower was one of the first Memorials to be erected on the Western Front and commemorates the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and all those from Ulster who served in the First World War. The memorial was officially opened on 19 November 1921 and is a very close copy of Helen’s Tower which stands in the grounds of the Clandeboye Estate, near Bangor, County Down. On 1 July 1916, the Division attacked the Schwaben Redoubt, a fearsome strongpoint with commanding views, near where the Ulster Tower is now. They managed to take the Redoubt but were later forced to retreat due to German counter-attacks and ended up suffering over 5,000 casualties on that one day. It is sobering to think that more men from the North were killed in one day in one small patch of land in France than were killed in 30 years of the Troubles.

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Australian memorial in Pozieres. Over 25,000 Australian troops were killed here at the end of July 1916 trying to capture this town from the Germans. Indeed, Australia lost more men here than they did during the whole of the Gallipoli campaign.

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Frontline on 1st September near Courcelette. Between the 1st of July and the 1st of September, the Allied forces advanced only about 3 km from La Boisselle to here.

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Frontline on 20th November near Le Sars. It only took me 15 minutes to cycle 5 km between this sign and the previous one. In 1916, it took the Allied forces nearly 3 months to travel the same distance.

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Route 66 cafe near Sapignies. Elvis has not left this building just yet on the main road between Bapaume and Arras.

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Another Mini with DL number plates. The Mini in Saone had the number-plate DL-581-GR. That means there have been roughly ((998-581)x26x26) or about 282,000 vehicles registered between the first Mini and this one. With over 3 million vehicles in France registered annually, this Mini is roughly a month younger than the previous Mini.

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Gravel track at Fontaine-les-Croiselles. The main road between Fontaine-les-Croiselles and Cherisy was closed for re-surfacing so I either faced a 10 km detour or 1 km on this gravel track. I was so tired I chose the shorter distance and ended up having to walk most of the way as the track was very rough…

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Sun Quarry cemetery near Cherisy. Sun Quarry is only a small cemetery with no more than 200 graves, most of them Canadian. The cemetery is right beside the road with just a stone wall around it. Unlike other cemeteries which have elaborate domes and other memorials, this one has just a simple white cross and 2 small trees in addition to the gravestones. The basic nature of the cemetery and its location right beside the road add an extra poignancy to the graves. Indeed, in this photo, the cross at the cemetery even appears to blend in with the wind turbines in the background.

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La Paille Haute campsite in Boiry-Notre-Dame. It was after 8 when I arrived at my campsite for the night. I had cycled over 40 km from Pozieres in about 2 hours and only just made it to the camp before nightfall. The camp was very busy but I managed to find a patch of grass opposite an empty mobile home to pitch my tent just as it was getting dark.

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