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…

 

 

“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…