World War 1 – Somme

The photo above 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.

20150805_120541-2

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.

IMG_20150805_130323734-2

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..

20150805_143735-2

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

20150805_144532-2

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.

20150805_152818-2

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 may 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 may have 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.

20150805_162500-2

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.

20150805_161825-2

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.

20150805_162859-2

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.

20150805_164234-3

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.

20150805_170930-2

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

20150805_171847-3

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.

20150805_173124-2

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. The memorial was due to be the centre-piece of the commemorations for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on July the 1st 2016 so that is probably why it was covered in scaffolding when I visited in August 2015.

Centenary commemorations. On July the 1st 2016, ceremonies were held to commemorate the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme at the Thiepval memorial. In Britain, all radio stations observed a 2 minute silence at 7.28 am to mark the exact time the battle started. Ceremonies were also held in Westminster Abbey and York cathedral but in France, apart from at Thiepval, there were no other commemorations. That is probably because France lost relatively few men at the Battle of the Somme unlike the British and Commonwealth forces.

1st July 1916 was the worst day for casualties the British army ever suffered. By the end of the first day, over 20,000 British soldiers had been killed all to gain less than 1 km of territory. As well as 20,000 dead, the British Army also suffered a further 37,000 casualties. Some of these injured soldiers had to wait a week in no mans land before being collected by stretcher bearers and some only survived by eating the rations of their dead colleagues. The French only lost about 1,500 soldiers that day and gained considerably more territory than the British. The main reason they were more successful is that the French artillery kept firing all day ahead of the French forces whereas the British artillery stopped firing at 7.28am just before the order was given to go over the top.

British Army commander, Douglas Haig spent the day at his HQ. Meanwhile, the commander of the British forces was at his headquarters at the Chateau de Beaurepaire near Montreuil about 60 km from the Somme. Douglas Haig would have spent the morning reading messages from the battlefield but that afternoon went for a ride on his horse around the grounds of the chateau before sitting down that evening to a lavish dinner normally consisting of quail and fine wine. Haig had spent 3 months organizing logistics and his troops for this battle to “end all battles” and couldn’t understand the lack of progress. In the evening of 1 July, Haig wrote in his diary,

North of the Ancre, VIII Corps said they began well, but as the day progressed, their troops were forced back into the German front line, except two battalions which occupied Serre village, and were, it is said, cut off. I am inclined to believe from further reports that few of VIII Corps left their trenches.

In actual fact, VIII Corps had left their trenches and over 14,000 men became casualties. Haig had ordered that over a million shells be fired at the German lines and all week, 1,500 guns had been pounding the German lines night and day along the Somme. But at 7.28 am, the guns fell silent and the troops were ordered to go over the top. The British army thought that the German forces would have been decimated by the shelling but in actual fact, all that artillery had little effect on the German forces as they had deep bomb shelters dug behind their frontline trenches. When the shelling stopped, the German troops rushed back to their machine gun posts and then mowed down the advancing British forces. Of the 60,000 British casualties that day, 90% were caused by machine gunfire.

somme_map

Battle of the Somme after the first day’s fighting. Haig had hoped to break through German lines at Fricourt and then turn north to capture the key railway hub of Arras. The Germans had launched a major offensive against the French 200 km away at Verdun in February 2016 and Haig wanted to relieve the pressure on the French by attacking the Germans at another location. The Germans had expected an offensive against Alsace – Lorraine as it was lightly defended and at that time was part of the German Empire but instead Haig inexplicably targeted the Somme, which for almost 2 years had been heavily fortified by German forces. Philip Gibbs, a journalist, who was at the Somme on the morning of the 1st of July wrote ;

Before dawn, in the darkness, I stood with a mass of cavalry opposite Fricourt. Haig as a cavalry man was obsessed with the idea that he would break the German line and send the cavalry through. In front of us was not a line but a fortress position, twenty miles deep, entrenched and fortified, defended by masses of machine-gun posts and thousands of guns in a wide arc. No chance for cavalry!

Our men got nowhere on the first day. They had been mown down like grass by German machine-gunners who, after our barrage had lifted, rushed out to meet our men in the open. Many of the best battalions were almost annihilated, and our casualties were terrible.

A German doctor taken prisoner near La Boiselle stayed behind to look after our wounded in a dugout instead of going down to safety. He was a tall, heavy, man with a black beard, and he spoke good English. “This war!” he said. “We go on killing each other to no purpose. It is a war against religion and against civilisation and I see no end to it.”

No-one was more responsible for the slaughter during the Battle of the Somme than Douglas Haig. An attack on the Somme was Haig’s idea and he had spent 3 months personally organizing the preparations for the battle. Even after the murderous first day, he made no plans to scale back the offensive and instead ordered that army reserves be called up. When Australian troops landed in France in September, he insisted that they also be sent to the Somme only for thousands of them to be slaughtered in Pozieres. It would be November before he gave the order to halt the battle, apparently because it started snowing heavily. Had it been a mild winter in 1916, who knows how many more soldiers would have needlessly died. No-one is more responsible for the Battle of the Somme than Douglas Haig yet his name was barely mentioned at all during the centenary commemorations.

map-of-area-somme-battles
Source : Oldham Remembers

Battle of the Somme frontline. By the time the battle finished in November, over 1 million soldiers had been killed and the Allies had advanced only 11 km. Yet despite the slaughter, Haig was promoted to Field Marshal on January 1st 2017. Haig would go onto to command the British forces at an even bigger slaughter in 2017 at Passchendaele in the Belgian Flanders and yet incredibly, finished the war still in command of the British army. Haig died in 1928 and was given a full State funeral. But many of the men who had served under him were very critical of Haig and his tactics. For example, Private James Lovegrove wrote ;

“General Douglas Haig had no respect for human life and cared nothing about casualties. Of course, he was carrying out government policy, because after the war he was knighted and given a lump sum and a massive life-pension. I blame the public schools who bred these ego maniacs. They should never have been in charge of men. Never.”

It was only 50 years later that Haig was given the nickname the “Butcher of the Somme” but despite this, there are still numerous statues of Haig throughout Britain, including one at Whitehall in London.

20150805_174023-2

Ulster Tower memorial near Thiepval. Not far from the Thiepval memorial is a much smaller but arguably much more poignant memorial. 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 Ulster 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.

20150805_180320-2

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.

20150805_181057-2

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.

20150805_182627-2

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.

20150805_194623-3

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 white cross at the cemetery even appears to blend in with the white wind turbines in the background. This shot is one of my favorite shots from the whole of the 2015 Tour de Travoy as it depicts the old Somme of the past and the new Somme of the future side by side.

Advertisements