On Monday 25th April I accompanied three of my FOBLC colleagues Geoffrey Thurley (the Chair), Mick Martin and Peter Mealing (the driver) across the channel, following the route that General De Gaulle once called the 'fatal avenue', the sweep of low lying country in Northern France heading towards the much visited Somme battlefield (the Somme is the name of a French department and river). The weather was unremittingly poor, with a freezing wind and driving rain, similar to the conditions that delayed the start of the battle whose centenary will be marked on 1st July 2016, which became the bloodiest day in British military history. We nevertheless managed to cover several of the most iconic battlefield sites that are forever associated with what at the time was seen as the 'Big Push' aimed at bringing the First World War to an end.
Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries lie dotted along roadsides, there are 242 in the Somme department, and provided a poignant reminder of the horrible losses sustained in the battle. We passed first through the village of Gommecourt at the northern extremity of the 22 mile battlefield, where the 56th (London) Division fought with particular heroism, before stopping outside the village of Serre, at which many of the 'Pals' battalions in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) recruited from the industrial towns of Northern England suffered terrible losses attacking German positions uphill from a series of copses, and whose sacrifice was captured in the memorable quote 'Two years in the making, Ten minutes in the destroying', Walking in what was once 'no mans land' with the sound of a skylark overhead and viewing the memorial plaques was a hauntingly memorable moment. The verdant landscape that surrounds the bronze Caribou statue at Beaumont Hamel (opened by Earl Haig in 1925), the scene of the Newfoundland battlefield park was perhaps the busiest of the sites we visited with parties of French and Canadians visitors much in evidence.
The monumental Thiepval Memorial to the missing, containing the names of 73,357 soldiers whose bodies were never recovered, is visible from afar and although we were unable to get too close as preparations for the centenary meant that it was part covered in scaffolding, we did ambulate it before moving onto Mametz Wood.
Arriving on a single track road at Mametz Wood was a particularly poignant moment, having earlier successfully campaigned for a maroon plaque to be erected at the birthplace of Poet and Artist David Jones in Arabin Road, Brockley, who as a private in the 38th (Welsh) Division was wounded there following a bloody action to capture the wood, an action launched on the 7th July 1916 and who later recounted his experiences in his masterpiece 'In Parenthesis'. We placed a wooden cross at the foot of the stunning Welsh dragon memorial (erected in 1987) and the photograph at the top of this post was taken shortly thereafter. Alighting for lunch at the much patronised 'Le Tommy ' restaurant in Pozieres- the scene of determined German resistance from the onslaught of Australian troops, due to its strategic importance, we then stopped at the Tank Memorial, three British tanks went into battle for the first time in the history of warfare on the 15th September 1916 before starting on the homeward journey to Calais.
Having arrived safely back in London , due to the commendable forward planning and able direction of our driver Peter Mealing, we were each left with so many powerful memories and recalled in muted conversation some of those remembered in Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries who fell on the Somme, which battle formally ended on the 18th November 1916, the Allies having advanced seven miles for truly enormous losses, before the war then entered another destructive attritional phase.
The friends group have two forthcoming events that will mark the Somme centenary in slightly different ways:
In the Ladywell cemetery chapel on : Tuesday 31st May at 7.30pm (as part of the Brockley Max festival) Dr Anne Price -Owen ( Director : David Jones Society) will present an Illustrated talk ' David Jones: Artist, Warrior, Author of In Parenthesis’ All welcome.
The Ladywell Chapel, Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery, SE4 (where David Jones is buried) - The evening of July 9th 2016
A performance of our David Jones In Parenthesis programme. This is another very exciting site-specific performance for the Company. Both these performances fall within the exact centenary dates of the Battle of Mametz Wood, which much of In Parenthesis is based on. (This event is subject to final confirmation)