I slept soundly until around 6.30 and felt the morning chill through the open French windows of my room which looked out across the Beamont Hamel road to the old "White City" trenches on the British front line of 1916.There was a light grey mist hugging the ground giving the landscape an ethereal and dramatic feel.Dawn had broken but the sunlight wasn't yet strong enough to burn off the hanging vapour.I lay in bed and stared out onto the battlefield.
We'd agreed to an early start.I lay in repose for another hour and at 7.30 on zero hour of a day gone by I rose, showered and went to meet Simon and his family.I hadn't mentioned my birthday and was taken aback when Simon, Cij and their daughters Sammi and Cerys burst into song and handed me a present of a book, "The First Day of the Somme", a relevant card and some badges all neatly wrapped. It was entirely unexpected and incredibly touching.I felt part of the family and was for once speechless.
We drove down to "Ocean Villas" for breakfast ( a highly unusual event of the day for me and documented for the F's and Yatta by Simon with a photo).Ocean Villas is a bed and breakfast/tearoom/restaurant and well known meeting and stop off point for battlefield regulars and visitors.
Run by the enigmatic Avril Williams it's a fascinating place with a rich history.Archaeologists have been digging around the site and a complete communications trench runs behind the building with entrances into the cellars that were used as a first aid staging post for the wounded carried from the field.The tearooms are adorned with memorabilia,battlefield artefacts, relevant photos of the area and of relatives of visitors who had fought there during the Great War.Avril is a no nonsense highly likeable character with reams of stories and anecdotes to entertain over a wine or too much and I was enthralled by her passion and visions of how she wanted to advance "Ocean Villas" into something far more substantial and dynamic.She was a woman after my own heart and I completely related to her thinking.We would have stayed at her property but the inn was full so we were with her sister down the road.
Chickens and sheep, cats and an affectionate dog called "Bonnie" ran the yard. The day before we arrived her brother had culled 12 noisy cockerels with a machete and her niece's boyfriend was quite titillated as he showed us video on his phone of headless chickens bouncing around the garden.In a place with a history of violence it all seemed fittingly surreal.The remaining cockerel crowed gamely from the safety of a high wall as we demolished a full English breakfast before my pilgrimage continued.
I didn't have to go far.
Simon took me down to the candlelit cellars of the farmhouse which had been used as the medical station and only discovered after Avril had purchased the property some years before.It had been rebuilt after the war as shellfire and demolition to avoid becoming an obvious target for German guns reduced it to rubble.It was the only surviving cellar in the neighbourhood and as it hadn't been discovered until much later was pretty much as it was back then.The small shrines cut in the wall with crucifixes and flickering candles reminded me that this was also a place where men died as well as survived from wounds.It was a sombre place and the carved names,units and service numbers in the damp orange brick were testament to those who had passed this way.Back then there was only artificial light as the windows were blocked and the cellar strengthened against shellfire.It must have been an horrific environment.Chicken wire had been laid on the floor to stop soldiers slipping on the blood and viscera as they delivered casualties and performed emergency operations in order to keep the wounded alive for transportation back down the line to the hospitals in the rear where they could be treated.All in all the two rooms of the cellar made up less than 25 square metres of floor space with a ceiling height of just over 2m.Two of the three entrances/escape exits were now blocked off and I emerged into the daylight and the comms trench outside with a lump in my throat.
The story of a soldier who had been arrested and detained there after trying to escape from the carnage of the front line had hit hard.Only a boy he had obviously cracked in the holocaust. Accused of desertion he was to face a firing squad .He had carved his name on the brickwork as he awaited his fate.I could read it in the moving shadows of the candlelight.
I phoned my parents from the garden as I wanted some information on my Grandfathers and to be honest I wanted to hear their voices on this day.They obviously knew where I was and understood why I was there.My voice was shaky on the phone as I talked to my Dad and on asking where his father was stationed with the RFC I broke and had to turn away from the others in the yard and find a place on my own.
William Dick served in Arras.When I told my father that I was staying there that night we both went silent and I knew he was crying with me.It was an incredibly emotional moment.
He passed me over to my Mum and I asked about William Paterson who had served with the Royal Scots.I had forgotten his battalion number.She told me that it was the 8th and I knew he was on the Somme in 1916.They were both proud that I was there as no one in my existing family had ever returned to France.I shared some of my stories and I composed myself before giving Simon the information he needed to discover where Private William Paterson had served.
It didn't take long to check the book containing the battalion line ups in the history of the Somme.
To say the discovery took my breath away was an understatement.In 1916 his battalion was part of the 51st Highland Division and was involved in the fighting only a short distance away from where I was staying.Although not in the July offensive he was involved in the November battles where the 51st earned their honours.It was as if their spirits had drawn me there for some reason and to be on the Somme on my birthday gave it even more resonance.This was a special day in every sense of the word.I was walking in the footsteps of my Grandfathers.
The morning was spent visiting more cemeteries, uniform glistening white headstones standing to attention in rank after rank, their inscriptions,names, ages and battalions reaching inside and opening my imagination to a brutality and inhumane waste of youth and life as two forces collided on the orders of politicians and generals who never experienced the horror of the trenches and this despicable warfare.
I saw the headstone of the youngest soldier ever to die on the Somme, Private Horace Iles, 1784 of the West Yorkshire regiment who died on the 1st July age 16. Surrounding him were the headstones of other teenagers and men in their early 20's, numbers to be repeated in every cemetery I visited.
It was difficult to take on board that these young men had hardly been out of their own villages,towns and cities never mind in another country
and here they were marked out in "the corner of some foreign field".It was harrowing to imagine their fear and horror being transported into the cauldron of an unforgiving and cruel battle so far away from home and loved ones.
The Scottish regimental graves had extra resonance with me as I recognised family names.Simon pointed out men from Haddington one family who lost 4 sons on the field, one later to gas injuries and another suicide on discovering all his brothers had perished.
We followed the battle lines in the car stopping off at prominent sites where Simon would relate the historical relevance and the dramas they contained.
The Newfoundland Memorial park with it's bronze stag atop a mound roaring at the German lines where machine guns cut down 684 officers and men as they charged over comms trenches crammed with wounded from the first disastrous assault wave and were cut to pieces before they even reached the British front line.A few brave souls made it through and vainly attempted to carry on the attack but it added to the high list of casualties on a day declared as the worst ever day in the history of the British army.
Walking the park which still has well defined trench lines visible and again marked out the superiority of the German defensive positions,served to remind me of the futility of the losses.I agreed with Simon that poor communications,bad intelligence and in a lot of cases bad tactics and timing had a lot to blame but the question was why were they there in the first place.Empirical egos and aged military swagger.We were not prepared, the army was in the main inexperienced and we served up a countries youth as cannon fodder.
There were gains on that day in July.There were successes.But was it worth the cost?
The Highland Division memorial in the same park stands proud as it marks the November campaign where huge gains were made, lessons learned and losses although still great were nowhere near the severity as the July debacle.
The inscription on the Highland memorial is "La a' blair s'math n Cairdean" - friends are good on the day of battle.It sank into my mind as the most defining and profound soldier's comment and summed up the comradeship that must have existed as they fought their way out of a hell on earth.
In all honesty there is too much to relate here and the second day of my tour began to blur around the edges as there was just so much to take in.
The Lochnaglar mine crater blown 10 minutes after the Hawthorn Ridge mine but with more success as soldiers were lying prepared in no man's land ready to rush the newly created defensive rim of blown chalk subsoil.Staring down into the blank tomb gave me vertigo. In July fully laden troops charged down there to rush the other side.When the German artillery ranged in it became a meat grinder.
The monument to Macrae's Edinburgh battallions who charged 5 miles or so from Tara hill to take ther objectives at heavy cost.Hearts and Hibs players and supporters with others from Falkirk ,Raith Rovers and other Scottish teams who joined as volunteers and stood and died side by side on the battlefield. I placed a poppy on the memorial only consecrated last year with money raised in the city.
The monument to the 23 000 Australians and New Zealanders who died between Windmill and "Mucky Farm" in the heaviest losses ever suffered in a specific small area of less than a couple of thousand yards.The small memorial flags placed by visiting relatives fluttered noisily in the afternoon breeze.Made even more poignant as today was Anzac day..
The tank memorial by the Windmill, the highest point on Pozieres ridge marking the first ever action with tanks in 1916.The bullet holes from a straafing US P38 shooting up a column of Germans in 1944 again marking the wounds of 2 wars across generations.
The British cemetery at Ancre where the Ulster division was decimated charging across the shallow valley, a 100 metres or more through barbed wire piled 2m high, routes blown by British artillery and sealed again by German artillery leaving the troops hung out in the wire at the mercy of the enemy who took their time dispatching the survivors.
The Thiepval monument on top of the heavily contested ridge, a truly massive brick built monument to honour the 80 000 missing in that area was overwhelming. I walked around the pillars and read the inscriptions on tablet after tablet of those whose bodies were never found.Every wall of every pillar was covered in names from regiments from all over Britain and it's commonwealth.
It's horrifying to think that so many bodies were never recovered or identified.
And these were the missing of the victorious armies.The Germans also suffered in equal numbers but their dead have never been provided with the same forms of remembrance, often buried in massed graves with few markers.All soldiers performing their duties and like our troops had no real wish for battle and killing if they had a choice.All caught up in the machinations of kings, emperors, archdukes and politicians.
The place I found most threatening to the soul was the High Wood where 8000 men went missing in action, blown to smithereens by blanket after blanket of artillery rounds and where viscous hand to hand fighting occurred to hold a strategic position on a high ridge.The barbed wire fencing in the private property dealt it an even more evil air and the dark confines we could see from the car suggested a presence that still lurked menacingly amongst the trees.
My grandfather William Paterson was attached to an entrenchment battalion there and was a machine gunner with the Royal Scots.
I identified with his silence as this was a place where the souls of survivors were mortally wounded.
The day was tiring out and we spent the last hour wandering a recently harrowed and seeded field all 5 of us in line scanning the soil for uprooted relics.Simon's youngest daughter Cerys won the day with a shell cartridge and German bullets.I managed some British shrapnel and topped it with the centre plunger of an 18pounder British shrapnel shell.
It was time for the Moston's to head for home but not before they dropped me off at Arras where we visited the last cemetery of the trip.The RFC memorial. Another emotional moment and I walked a while on my own thinking of my Grandfather Dick and what he must have experienced out here.I never really knew him as he died when I was very young.I wished my father had been with me and I hope to be able to bring him with me when I next return as I know I will.
I bid fond farewells to Simon, Cij, Sammi and Cerys and thanked them as much as I could, and it will never be enough, for a beautiful two days and the best birthday I had had for a very long time.It was an incredible experience and one I will never forget. I can't really relate all the images and thoughts here as there are far too many to communicate.A wonderful caring and generous family. I envied their closeness and love for each other and their mutual passion for discovery and investigation of a time in history that means so much more to me than it ever did before.I was genuinely sad to say goodbye as they drove off to the channel tunnel and Blighty.
I checked into the Hotel Du Angleterre and spun off into town.I wandered through the old centre with it's vast squares stopping off at yet another sidewlak cafe to nurse a beer or two in the fading sunlight.It was strange to think that William Dick and most probably William Paterson had walked the same covered walkways and heard the same bells chiming on the cathedral.
A fold in time.
I ate alone in a restaurant.Garlic soup, snails in a cheese fondue under pastry and scallops with duck breast on skewers washed down with a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse and topped with a couple of large Armagnacs and coffee.
The table next to me was occupied by 2 Dutchmen visiting the area.As always a conversation developed and it turned out one was a publisher and the other a war correspondent who had been in Bosnia in the 90's.But that is another story.
This one ends with a Scotsman sitting on his own on a war memorial in an empty town square, a big smile on his face toasting 2 men who came home and without whom he wouldn't be here today on his birthday.
La a'blair s'math a Cairdean