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Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 1:27 pm

The pale limestone of the Garde du Nord railway station glowed in the morning sun giving it the appearance of an ominous mausoleum.The tricolours atop the towers bowed and the carved names of European destinations took on a different meaning today.Not the promise of travel adventures but the centres of past conflicts.

I sat in a sidewalk bar across the square with twin eggs, "cafe aux lait", toast and marmalade ordered in stumbling French a breakfast chased down with a double cognac to steady the nerves for a meeting with destiny.I was about to walk in the footsteps of ghosts of strangers.

Even the station heralded my journey as I imagined the troop trains heading East to the Front and also delivering survivors and wounded from a carnage that raged less than a 100 years before.Inside the arches there was a chill before I embarked once again into the sunlight towards Arras and the fields of the Somme.

I was free of the tour and travelling alone.The others returned to Britain while I,thanks to the organisational skills of my brother Yatta,was sitting in a first class carriage staring out the windows at the gang tags shouting from the gleaming white concrete of abandoned factories and desolate buildings.Declarations of war by frustrated youth and unsung warriors proclaiming their territory and their existence to a world rushing by that was immune to their threats as it disappeared over the horizon leaving the sprawl of the Paris jungle behind locked in a memory.

My destination was 40 mins and 16 euros away through green countryside and blurred towns and villages.

My thoughts drifted to my 2 Grandfathers who had both served during the first World War, William Dick with the Royal Flying Corps and William Paterson with the Royal Scots.Both survived the conflict.Neither had spoken about it.

I had studied the period at school and had been mesmerised by it all.I had marched with the Boys Brigade on Armistice day,poppy ablaze on a blue uniform behind the ranks of fading veterans who would lay scarlet wreaths at the foot of the memorial in King's Park and stand proud and straight in the long minute of respectful silence.Now those front ranks are replaced but the column on parade never diminishes.Even now I still hold my breath during the silence.
And on this day,the last of my 52nd year I am heading to the fields where the symbol of the poppy as a sign of remembrance was adopted

I exited the station into the harsh sun bleaching the square dominated by a 1914-18 war memorial ironically scarred by consequent battles of a following generation.Arras, a strategic town and the "scene of bitter conflict", a cliche often used by narrators when describing incidents and places on the Somme and pointed out to me by my guide, Simon Moston who was meeting me together with his wife Cij and 2 daughters.

Simon had been urging me to visit the Somme for quite a while and I had never been able until now to find a space in the touring patterns to make it happen.It seemed spiritually appropriate and even bordering on the religious that I should make this pilgrimage now.

Simon is highly knowledgeable and well versed in the history surrounding the Great War and it has become a passion which has led him into becoming a willing guide for groups who want to discover more about the period at ground level. His wife and daughters share his enthusiasm completely and I admit to being slightly amused on occasions as they also volunteered information and identified munitions and artifacts that we would regularly discover amongst the furrows as we walked across the fields over the next 2 days.They would all turn out to be great company and I couldn't have wished to have spent this time with a finer bunch of people.

Our initial encounter was slightly nervous as we met each other for the first time.Simon is also a die hard Fish fan but now he was with Derek and not the singer.Any awkwardness was quickly dispelled and we set off in his car after a caffeine injection to help us into what would be a long day.

As we drove past glistening cemeteries with their ranks of headstones I could feel myself immersing in the history.

We were staying at a B and B sited on what used to be no man's land in front of the original British front line to the West of a small village called Beaumont Hamel which in 1916 formed part of the German front line.The collection of shell cases, bullets and cartridges,rusting weapons and other debris of battle inside the house left me in no doubt as to where we were and the period photos of uniformed strangers began to make the connection in my mind.

I admit to being wary as I knew I would have to build a wall around my feelings and attempt to close down my sensitivity settings.There was a danger of becoming overwhelmed by it all if I allowed my imagination reign.

The first foray along a dappled shadowy lane from Auchonvillers, or "Ocean Villas" as the British troops called the village, was walking into the past and in the footsteps of ghosts.The girls had elected to stay behind while Simon took me on a hike up the slopes to Hawthorn Ridge from the communication trench of which the lane was part of, through the site of the old British lines and into no man's land and the German lines beyond.

I couldn't but help sense the echo of the past and imagine young soldiers taking this same route through the shaded safe hollow of the lane towards the front before the artillery barrages blew it all away and turned it into a wasteland over the months and years following the first battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916
I sucked a breath and we marched up the hill across fields to a small cemetery in front of Hawthorn Ridge.

On the way we had discovered a couple of bullets and a cartridge case glowing green with age lying atop the dark furrows that had been slightly dampened by a passing shower.Casual reminders of how deadly the ground over which we walked once was.A heavy shard of shrapnel which had once screamed white hot at over a 100 miles and hour from the sky rusted at the roadside.A shell case disturbed by the plough stood on the edge of the field placed by a farmer unperturbed by a find he had made so many times before as he turned the soil which to this day still throws up lethal surprises.
Once my eye became trained it was difficult to walk without constantly scanning the ground for finds and disappearing into another world.

Simon relayed the history and images rallied as we stood under a yew tree in the cemetery as another shower passed over.The numbers cascaded into my mind as the story evolved of the events shortly after 7.30 am on that July day when the whistles blew out and the battalions moved forward into no mans land believing the 7 day artillery barrage had blasted away the impenetrable hedges of barbed wire and the German trench system beyond eliminating their occupants and the machine guns that dominated the fields with them.

They marched out with confidence not knowing the enemy were dug in so deep in entrenchments and underground bunkers prepared since 1914 when the Germans had carefully chosen the ground from which to fight and prepared elaborate defences for the assault.Although deeply shaken and shell shocked by the bombardment the artillery had not acheived the result it had hoped for and the explosive display turned out in the main to be just that.

Hawthorn Ridge was turned into a huge crater after 18 tons of explosive detonated at 7.20 am eviscerating an unknown number of German soldiers and creating a massive chalk parapet that the Lancs Fusiliers assaulted across the expanse of no mans land in a mad dash to gain control of the ridge each carrying over 50 pounds of equipment and fighting through barbed wire that had not been completely removed by the artillery.

I had to swallow hard and turn my head away as Simon told the story of how the machine guns opened up and around 500 young men fell on the slopes where we were now standing.The numbers continued to mount and the events of that morning ran in my mind.I was finding it impossible to truly imagine the horror of it all.

The crater itself is a dank,desperate pit that must have been the bowels of hell on that day.The dry croaking of crows overhead and the straafing fat flies added to the desolate atmosphere as I stared down into the undergrowth through the twisted scrub of trees and thorns that guarded the depths where so many disappeared from the face of the earth.
We made our way along the slope and down to the "Sunken Lane" past the area where the "Public Schools" battalion was annihilated and where 600 men cowered before following the whistle to march through the hedgerow and into a hail of machine gun fire.

One of the most poignant moments was when Simon gave me an envelope and as I forced my way through the hedge I opened it to find a name and rank and destiny of a soldier who had been there on that very spot 95 years before. J.Mitchell,24, private, Lancs Fusiliers, missing in action.His body never found.
I exited the hedge into the bright sun on the other side into an open field facing a ridge that once held the German front line.A field that would have been covered with 400 corpses in the space of an hour soon after the whistles blew at 7.30 am.

It was an incredibly moving experience.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the old trench lines and visiting small cemeteries.Simon had done a lot of research and had discovered a number of gravestones where soldiers with my family name were marked. I was told that more often than not the names meant only that the bodies had been identified but were not necessarily buried on that spot.

Our family history is also vague and I couldn't be sure that any of the Dicks mentioned on the stone were actually relatives as we scattered throughout central Scotland in the 1800's.It's an unusual enough name here so there was a possibility that there were blood ties with these soldiers.

Simon had brought poppies he collects after armistice day and rather than throw them away he places them on graves of people he has come across in his research.He gave me some and over the two days I added my own small tribute of remembrance to these strangers who I shared a name with.

Simon had old photographs, some of which I recognised from my own studies and reading,and it was fascinating to match up the exact spots where the photos were actually taken and to go through the identification of units and sometimes even individual soldiers.

The day provided me with a completely new insight of the battle of the Somme with the most startling and mind blowing awareness being that although we were only examining the conflict along an area of a few thousand yards this was repeated simultaneously along an 80 mile front.

After an evening meal at the restaurant at "Ocean Villas" we headed back in the dark to our "billets".

A few splashes of a German Riesling with Simon and Cij after the girls were off to bed and then I made to retire.

I couldn't help but go out on my own to the garden to sit under a clear starlit sky and let my thoughts wander back,imagining the lonely sentry on duty on the eve of battle close to the very place I was spending the night.I looked at my watch.It was midnight.I was now 53 years old.

I let the immense peace and quiet envelop me and allowed the ghosts to wander undisturbed in the darkness.I felt very alive.
Thanked: 20

Re: Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 1:47 pm

Beautifully written and very moving. Thank you.

Re: Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 1:49 pm

I wish everyone absorbed history like you did ! Beautiful tribute to the experience - cheers Fish. 8-)
Thanked: 1

Re: Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 2:10 pm

I was there a month ago, and spent 2 days going round all that area, its very moving, did you stay at the B+B in Beaumont Hamel run by the English lady with the trench in her back garden ?

Re: Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 2:21 pm

jesterhud wrote:I was there a month ago, and spent 2 days going round all that area, its very moving, did you stay at the B+B in Beaumont Hamel run by the English lady with the trench in her back garden ?

We ate & drank at Avril Williams' tea room & guest House at Auchonvillers (Ocean Villas), and yes - she has an original communication trench in her back garden ! (running to a cellar which I suspect you'll hear more of in Pt 2).

As it was Easter weekend - she was fully booked so we ended up 'sleeping' at her sisters B&B 'Les Galets' (closer to Beaumont Hamel) - a crackin spot sitting just behind 'Esau Way' trench (leading to Jacobs' Ladder) and very close to the Sunken Lane.
Last edited by Moston on Tue May 03, 2011 2:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 2:23 pm

An exceptional piece of writing-and Thanks for telling it to us at stratford- re grandparents, and the link with Haddington. And full credit to Simon. Thankyou both.

Re: Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 2:56 pm

I'm happy for you Big Man...

Re: Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 3:17 pm

Great experience and a great read! I miss the blogs... but this will do in the meantime.

Now Fish, if you ever need a qualified and experienced Marine Biologist to guide you through the rocky shores of East Lothian - just give me a shout!! Then I might not be so jealous of Mr. Moston! :D

Re: Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 3:28 pm

Beautifully written. Its hard to imagine what those young men went through and the horrific sights they obviously saw. My mother was recently given my great grandfathers dog-tags and pocket watch, which he had in the 1st world war. I felt quite emotional when I saw my children holding them - thanks for such a moving account

Re: Waiting on the whistle to blow - The Somme (part 1)

Tue May 03, 2011 4:02 pm

An absolutely beautiful read. Very moving. - The writing transported me. - Looking forward to reading part 2. :)

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