Hitching up with Aussies in the Somme… and trying not to get blown up…

 

For the solo traveller, especially one on a road trip with hundreds of miles to cover, it can be useful to break up both the solitude and the driving fatigue with an organised tour. I chose to hop a ride with a jolly bunch of Aussies, most of whom were in the middle of wonderful travel trips themselves. They were travelling through Europe having stopped off at London and Paris, and were making their way down to either the south of France or on towards Switzerland and Italy. 

I had the pleasure of their company for a whole day, lunch included. I also had the interesting addition of seeing the First World War from the Australian perspective. The tour was excellent, organised by Terres de memoire (www.terresdememoire.com). If you think that you know all there is to know about a part of history, try taking in a tour catering for visitors from a country other than your own.  You will soon find that your view of history is very one dimensional. Where yesterday, I had visited the places that my great grandfather, Arthur Greenhill had fought alongside his British comrades, today I learnt about the vital roll played by the Anzacs in breaking through the German frontline. I also learnt about the appalling loss of life on behalf of a nation which volunteered to fight alongside its Motherland, and how it marked the transition from a nation  being tethered to the British apron strings, to one creating its own history. They played their part in the theatre of war which occurred  along a 30km line, for a gain of 12km of ground, killing around one million people. 

1916 saw an impasse between Germany and Britain. Trench warfare had set in, with neither side being able to break through the other’s defences. Loss of life was high on both sides. Approximately 60,000 men died on the first day. The Australians came to relieve the beleaguered Brits whose numbers were dramatically depleted. Pozieres was the place that would see the Australians’ finest hour. 

Attacking during the night, from the low land up to the German high land vantage point, the Anzacs succeeded in breaking through the defences. Here stands the  Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. From here it can be seen just what a magnificent tour de force the troops must have been.

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From the memorial, even on this misty morning it’s easy to see what a triumph the Australian breakthrough was…
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70,000 missing Australians have their names engraved on the walls of this memorial…
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Sylvestre showing us the headstones of 2 soldiers. One died on 11th November 1918 (Armistice Day), the other the day after. Many continued to fight after the end of the War, as communications were poor. Many continued to die of injuries or disease…

The German army could see for miles across the French countryside, and as they were always in a defending position, and as they had prepared for months in advance, with carefully constructed trenches and defence mechanisms, the Australian victory cannot be underestimated. It also marked a psychological change in the German army. It demonstrated the fact that they could be beaten. In all, around 624,000 Allies and 500,000 German died at the Somme. The numbers are unimaginable. Environmental studies show that iron levels in the fields of the Somme and other battlefield areas continue to be significantly higher than average, due to the large number of casualties and the intensity of the shelling.

It was a joy to travel on a bus (luxury – being able to stare out across the countryside, and no trying to overtake tractors) in the company of those who shared my history but a different one. The French guide was friendly, informative and genuinely seemed to take delight in discussing all matters war. They were as curious about this solo female traveller as I was about them travelling halfway around the world. A wonderful lunch hour was spent in the company of people who thought I was a little bit crazy, but full of guts. 

One of the highlights of the day was when a lady found her great uncle, buried in one of the many Commonwealth and German cemeteries that we visited (she had emailed the guide beforehand with details and they managed to find him), and share in her tears of sorrow and pride. This was a memorable day for us all…

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A read of “All Quiet on the Western Front”  by Erich Maria Remarque  will show just how horrific the war was for Germans as well as the Allies…

 

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Many German soldiers were repatriated after the War. Those families who could not afford to pay for repatriation of the body had to leave them in France. There are 4 names on each cross. German cemeteries are not commemorated and are usually down side roads, away from the public gaze.
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German cemeteries have no flowers. They more closely resemble forest and woodland rather than gardens of the British/French custom… Here, a Jewish soldier is buried next to his Christian comrades. Anti Semitism had not yet reared its ugly head…

 

 

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The “Iron Harvest” continues to churn up WW1 relics on a daily basis.

Mooching through one  of the farmer’s fields, I came across some shrapnel.  The fields continue to give up First World War artefacts, with soldiers being found and sometimes identified, on a regular basis.

On the way to the largest British Memorial to the 70,000 British soldiers still unaccounted for, in the Somme alone,  we met a lovely 82 year old lady called Madame Christine. Her late husband was a farmer and would regularly come home with empty shell cases that he had ploughed up:

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Thiepval Memorial
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Mme Christine’s (empty) shell cases…

 

 She also had 2 live ones:

 

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Mme Christine’s (not so empty) explosives… Sylvestre adopting the “So what?” pose of the French macho man…

The Département du Déminage, an arm of the French government operates in as much secrecy (to allay citizen concern) as possible to eliminate the unexploded shells which litter Northeastern France. This department has, since 1946, collected eighteen million artillery shells, ten million grenades, six hundred thousand aerial bombs and six hundred thousand underwater mines (this figure does, of course, include ordnance from W.W.II) and cleared and reclaimed two million acres. The department also receives about two million calls for the pick up of unexploded devices per year; these include grenades, mines, shells and bombs.

Mme Christine spoke no English but seemed to be able to understand me when I asked if she would mind having her photo taken with me, and adored the fact that my name is Victoria. She lives alone, her only regular contact with the outside world being the occasional group of tourists that turn up to admire her collection of war memorabilia, courtesy of the lovely tour guide Sylvestre. I would have loved to have shared a French brandy with her and discussed past times (with the help of a translator…Sylvestre perhaps?)

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Ah, Victoria, your French is excellent! (At least, I think that’s what she was saying…)
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What a wonderful lady 🙂
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“The men lived in slits in the ground…”

 

I imagine that the smell of the wild garlic would have got up my Great Grandfather’s nose long before the Hun did. For a man whose life before 1915 had been submersed in the iron foundries of the Black Country, central England, the sounds and smells must have been new and strange.

Driving through  the fighting fields of the Somme, it seemed as though the whole area was asleep, but not a peaceful sleep.  I switched my radio off. It seemed incongruous to witness acre after acre of battlefield whilst whistling along to “I get by with a little help from my friends” .  The deaths of so many men in such a small area have rendered the whole of this part of France to be permanently shell shocked.  A total of 1,304,000 men died here. The earth seems to scream silently at man’s inhumanity to man, yet only birdsong is audible. Whilst many soldiers were exhumed and reburied in war graves, the majority proved to be unidentifiable and indistinguishable from one another. This band of brothers lived together and died together. Nationality was no barrier to destruction. Everyone lost.

 

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2,263 British soldiers are buried here in one of many roadside cemeteries. Two thirds of them are “Known only to God”.

 

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A fraction of the numbers of those who died during the battle for Guillemont.

 

 

Farmers toil the land now, rich in the nitrogen left behind by the lifeblood of the fallen; providing nutrients for the crops. British ex-pats are busy converting barns into holiday homes. Local children go to school, and then move away with the need for employment and prospects. Life does carry on here, but a walk in the fields and through the woods surrounding the villages, and it’s easy to imagine the pounding of the machine guns, the screams of the men and horses and the groaning of the land, ripped apart and bleeding to death. I wandered how long it took for the birdsong to reappear…

There are few old buildings in the local villages. Everything is 20th century made. Each village has its own war cemetery, honouring both foreigners and locals alike. Monuments mark the sacrifice made by groups of  British guys who marched off to war together, such as the Manchester and Liverpool Pals. The only time I can imagine that these two fiercely rival cities would be happy to have their names carved side by side.

 

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My Great Grandfather fought to liberate Guillemont, an unassuming village but vital to breaking through the defences  of the German line on the Western Front. Little remains of the Guillemont that he would have marched/crawled into; the village was virtually razed to the ground thanks to the monthly pounding of machine gun fire and the constant shelling from both sides. On the crossroads outside of the village sits a memorial stone to the Twentieth (Light) Division who played a key role in the liberation. It took 4 attempts from July 1916, and the use of the new tanks between 3rd-6th September  1916 (and massive loss of life) to finally capture Guillemont from the German army.  By the end of August 1916, British casualties were 251,000 men. How my Great Grandfather survived, is a miracle. But with what consequences? The conditions were tough:

 

 

“Preparations for the attack were being pushed forward. Unfortunately just at this time, bad weather set in, and this, together with the continued and heavy hostile shelling in which gas shells were largely used, made the work extremely difficult. The trenches were deep in mud and water and were constantly being blown in…both No Man’s Land and the ground behind the trenches were covered with dead bodies which had been lying out for weeks, and the state of the whole line was foul.”

(Captain V E Inglefield “The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division”, 1921).

 

 

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Unassuming woodland surrounding Guillemont. All new growth as the entire area was flattened…

 

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Monument at a crossroads to the Twentieth (Light) Division and their role in the liberation of Guillemont. One of thousands of monuments. My great grandfather, one of hundreds of thousands of men…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t mention the War…

 

For me, the First World War was something that happened to other people. There were no accounts of family members’ involvement in any battles; no Victory medals proudly on display, or ornaments made out of old shell cases, fashioned by a bored  Tommy. In fact, no one really seemed to speak of the Great War where I lived. My parents didn’t speak of Grandfathers who went off to war. I grew up thinking that you had to be special to have a family member in the war – maybe we were too common? Both of my grandfathers were dead and my grandmothers spoke little of their childhoods.

Paternal Grandma Kate was born in 1908 so was 8-10 years old when her father was apparently gassed at Ypres (all I’ve managed to glean so far – still conducting research). Maternal Grandma Beatrice was born in 1915 whilst her father was in France. Her middle name was Louvain, presumably after the  place in Belgium whose population was the victim of war atrocities and which was razed to the ground. One of the first casualties of the War to end all Wars. Louvain had been ransacked months before Beatrice’s father Arthur Greenhill went to France.

I have O levels and A levels in British and European History. I was taught not one single nugget of information about either the First or Second World Wars. For a post 60’s UK generation, the fight for freedom had been won long ago; we could vote for whoever, had a free health service, free education, a welfare state and an acute knowledge of our rights. We had scant little appreciation of what was sacrificed to live in our world. We made jokes about old people always going on about the war and couldn’t see the relevance of any of it to our lives.

 I remember an old man with one leg who used to wheel himself around my local shopping centre in the 70’s in one of those bath chairs with a steering wheel. He was always alone. I guess he was a war veteran. And I remember wandering whether the Haig of the annual poppy day was a distant relative of  one of my teachers – known as Mr Hague (the only Hague I was familiar with). 

So it was to my surprise when, 20 years later, courtesy of ancestry.co.uk, I discovered that my maternal great grandfather, Arthur Henry Greenhill fought in the Somme. To my great astonishment, and thanks to the British Army WW1 Service records,  I was able to discover which regiment he was in. He was in the Twentieth Light Division. At the beginning of the war, in 1915, he was in the Cyclist Division. This was later incorporated into the First Tank Division (I guess war machinery moved on very quickly from being blown up on a bicycle, to being incinerated in a tank). I was even more surprised to discover that he actually survived the war and came home, to live until he was 82. I never met him, he was never really spoken of and I guess there’s some family stuff going on there…

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Great Grand dad Arthur Henry Greenhill. Fought with the 20th (Light) Division at The Somme, 1915-1918. Survived.

The internet is a wonderful thing. Through the vast numbers of websites available, containing information regarding soldiers of the First World War, I was able to obtain a map (Mr and Mrs Holt’s Battle Map of the Somme). This, together with the publication of “The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division by Captain VE Inglefield (an intriguing compilation of official records and field notes) meant that I was able to follow the course of my Great Grandfather’s battle, as he and his companions dug in the mud, up to their waists in blood, sweat and tears as they fought to free French villages  such as Guillemont from the German army. Moreover, I was able to visit those villages. So today, 100 years later I found myself in Guillemont, north east of Amiens; a scene of heavy fighting and loss of life, in the middle of the Somme…

 

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Imagining the sound of boots marching on to Guillemont – my great grand dad amongst the men…

 

As far as I am aware, I am the first member of my family since Great Granddad Arthur, to visit the French fighting fields. I am surprised at how strongly I feel for these innocent young men of all nations, caught up in something of which they must have had such little understanding. Such sorrow. And such enormous pride. Thank you Great Granddad, for what you and your comrades did for me and my fellow citizens. I salute you xx

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Poppies still grow freely in the fields of the Somme…