Somme Sunsets & The WFA 2014 Calendar

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I have a penchant for taking photographs of sunsets, especially on the Somme Battlefields (such as that above). The huge open landscapes make it particularly suitable for this type of photography, as well as the connection to events there in 1916.

I was therefore very pleased when the Western Front Association contacted me to use a few of my photographs in their new 2014 Calendar which contains photographs of the WW1 battlefields in France and Flanders as they are today. There are some amazing images from people like Andrew Holmes, Steve Smith and Nick Stone, among others.

The WFA is also a registered charity, so buying the Calendar really helps.

It can be ordered via this link.

The Somme Battlefields Secret Tunnels

Tonight BBBC4 will be broadcasting Peter Barton’s The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars which looks at the work the La Boisselle Group have been doing at the Glory Hole site over the past few years. This project has explored the whole network of tunnels beneath the allied lines close to the village of La Boisselle and near one of the largest British mine craters, the Lochnagar Crater.

The Somme battlefields were and are chalk downland. From as early as 1914 both sides went underground and constructed dugouts and later vast tunnel positions, often deep in the Picardy chalk. I first went underground on the Somme back in the 1980s when German tunnels in Beaumont-Hamel were suddenly opened up. When I lived on the Somme I was able to explore many other tunnel systems including a system of German dugouts at Guillemont. None of these were ever open to the public but the La Boisselle not only explored the Glory Hole tunnels on a grand scale but were able to make them accessible to the public and hundreds of visitors were able to get a glimpse into this fascinating aspect of the Great War.

Bouzincourt Tunnels

One system of tunnels that is open to the public on a regular basis, normally the first weekend in September each year, are the tunnels beneath the village of Bouzincourt. These tunnels cut into the chalk had been used to hide both villages and their cattle and then during WW1 they became a billet for troops. Spending long periods of time resting in the tunnels, British and Commonwealth soldiers covered the walls with memorials to their lost comrades and their own names and those of their units. Many of these fragile inscriptions are written in field pencil, while others are cut into the chalk. They are in amazing condition for hundred year old graffiti and while filming in them last February with Dan Snow, I happened to put details of one inscription online and within an hour we had a photograph of him! (see below)

G. Keatley inscription at Bouzoncourt

G Keatley 54th CEF

One regiment particularly well represented at Bouzincourt is the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment, the 1st Football battalion. Quite a few names of men from this unit cover the walls with the one below being particularly noticeable. The unit was there in the autumn of 1916 and one of those serving with it was Black footballer Walter Tull.

17th Middlesex Graffiti, Bouzincourt

Tonight’s look at the underground war on the Somme promises to be fascinating and engaging and Barton’s work will once again highlight this unique aspect of the Great War.

Somme 50th Anniversary: Veterans Return

I am currently digitising parts of a scrapbook kept during the 50th Anniversary period of the Great War. It contains a fascinating insight into attitudes at that time, and many letters to newspapers from veterans – some of them well known Great War authors – putting their view across. Much of this will appear at a later stage on my WW1 Centenary website, but as a first offering he is a small Somme piece from the scrapbook.

This article was published in the Sunday Times on 3rd July 1966 and was entitled ‘The Field Where 900 of one regiment died’. It was written by one of their correspondents who had travelled to the Somme to cover the event. The photograph above showed some of the veterans present and was captioned “The valley of the shadow of death: those who lived look now from a German strong-point across No Man’s Land to their own lines – and their comrades graves.”

The main body of the article is reproduced below. It gives an interesting insight into press attitudes to the Great War at the time – some of which, it seems, has little changed in fifty years. It has to be viewed in the context of the times, of course; on the reverse of this clipping is an article about raids on Hanoi and ‘hopes of peace’ in Vietnam. War, in a very different way to 1914-18, was still very much on people’s minds at that time.

“Thiepval is dominated by the Lutyens memorial, an ugly red-brick arch. Perhaps the ugliness was deliberate… Overcome by memories, the British veterans of the Somme have lost their national reserve. Many wept at the Thiepval memorial ceremony when two Canadian DC3s flew dramatically low to flood Flanders poppies over lines of British, French and Canadian troops, plus 500 best suited old campaigners.

In the drab estaminets of Albert and Bapaume, where even the most anarchic French teenagers have jostled each other to help the veterans in trouble with their excruciating Great War French, the atmosphere has been party-like. But every so often some reflexive memory of the Somme horrors has stopped conversations in their tracks.

“My brother, that was Sgt Moyrah Williamson, was killed on September 16 – I think at Ginchy. We managed to find his bones in 1931.” said Mr Phillip Williamson, a Preston poultry farmer who fought at La Boisselle.

“My brother disappeared somewhere at Ypres.” said Arthur Morris, another veteran, who comes from Stechford, Birmingham.

This kind of dialogue of death has been commonplace in the last 48 hours.

Colonel Roberts, of Birchington, Kent and his wife Nelly May… were counting names at Thiepval. “That’s where my men were murdered.” said the Colonel, pointing to the deserted field overhung by a haze of summer butterflies.

“I’ve counted 900 names in my husband’s regiment, the Duke of Westminsters.”, Mrs Roberts said. “We saw my brother’s name at the Arras Memorial.”

There has been no chauvinism, no military pomposity and no hypocrisy at the Somme commemoration. The occasion seems to have defied anyone’s attempt to vulgarise it. Even commercial exploitation has been absent.

At the end of the Thiepval ceremony, the black staff cars drove off imperiously, carrying the British Ambassador, the French Minister for War Veterans, and a clutch of Generals, red-tabbed, red-faced and Sam Browne-belted.

“It’s just like old times,” said a veteran waiting with the others in the sun for their transport to arrive, “I always knew I should have joined the Staff.”

They went on waiting in front of the memorial on this turf so immaculately maintained by the War Graves Commission. Thiepval is the only place for miles where the flower beds don’t have a sign telling the public not to walk on them.

“They would be irrelevant here,” Mr Hoadley said, “I think everyone understands what this earth cost. The only people who really know about it are underneath. I think this anniversary will be the last. When it comes to 75 years, we’ll all be dead too, and the Somme will seem as abstract as Waterloo.”

I Came Out Willingly To Serve My King & Country

While visiting Hawthorn Ridge in the mid-1980s I happened to notice that one of the graves in Hawthorn Ridge No 1 Cemetery had a small plaque against it. Looking up the young officer whose grave it was, Eric Rupert Heaton, it seemed his family lived in Sussex, where I was living at that time. On my return home, some research put me in touch with his sister Irene, who shared some of her brother’s history which I later used in Walking The Somme.

Aerial view of Hawthorn Ridge defences, 1916.

Aerial view of Hawthorn Ridge defences, 1916.

Eric’s story is a short, and tragic one. He joined up in 1914 and was commissioned the following year, being posted to France in early 1916 where he joined the 16th Battalion Middlesex Regiment. He served with them on the Somme and the men of his platoon named one of their trenches, dug close to the village of Auchonvillers, after him. On the First Day of the Somme he led his platoon up the slopes of Hawthorn Ridge to their objective – the mine crater, blown earlier that morning. He was last seen falling into the grass with a leg wound. Posted as ‘missing’, for months the family hoped beyond hope that he was alive in a German hospital or prison camp, but his body was found when the battlefield around Beaumont-Hamel was cleared in the winter of 1916/17. His brother, an army chaplain, visited the grave in 1917 and sent a small snap of it home; this started something with Eric’s father, who only a few months after the war was over led the whole family to Eric’s final resting place; seen in the photograph above, with the parents standing behind Irene Heaton, kneeling at her brother’s wooden cross. They placed a small plaque against the cross on that visit in 1919, and it remains there to this day; a small symbol of one family’s grief and a beacon to the families who returned to the shattered landscape that was the Somme in the post-war world.

Eric Heaton 1915

Eric Heaton 1915

Eric had hoped to follow his father and brother into the priesthood. His was a life unfulfilled but he left behind a remarkable last letter home, written on the eve of the Somme before he moved up to take part in the Great Push.

‘I am writing this on the eve of my first action. Tomorrow we go to the attack in the greatest battle the British Army has ever fought. I cannot quite express my feelings on this night and I cannot tell you if it is God’s will that I shall come through but if I fall in battle then I have no regrets save for my loved ones I leave behind. It is a great cause and I came out willingly to serve my King and Country. My greatest concern is that I may have the courage and determination necessary to lead my platoon well. No-one had such parents as you have been to me giving me such splendid opportunities and always thinking of my welfare at great self sacrifice to yourselves. My life has been full of faults, but I have tried at all times to live as a man and thus follow the example of my father. This life abroad has taught me many things chiefly the fine character of the British race to put up with hardships with wonderful cheerfulness. How I have learnt to love my men; my great aim has been to win their respect which I trust I have accomplished and hope that when the time comes I shall not fail them. If I fall do not let things be black for you, be cheerful and you will be living then always to my memory.’

I never tire of reading that inspirational note, even more amazing when you consider the writer was only twenty years old.

Eric Heaton’s grave at Hawthorn Ridge No 1 Cemetery

The Somme Battlefields: A New Start

ADANAC Cemetery, Courcelette

“… here above the Ancre lie many of the most gallant of my regiment, men who were my friends, men whose memory I shall revere to the end of time. Some of them were soldiers by profession; others had turned aside from their chosen avocations in obediences to a call which might not be denied… they have passed into silence. We hear their voices no more. Yet it must be that somewhere the music of those voices linger…”, Charles Douie, The Weary Road (1929)

I first visited the Somme battlefields more than thirty years ago. During a hot summer as a teenager I walked the ground with my father; somehow the old Somme battlefields enchanted me and the voices of men like Douie (above) took me on many more journeys over the years; sometimes with veterans of the battle, more often with friends and finally I found myself living on the Somme in the days when that was a rarity; living in an old French farm house, bringing up a young family and living through times now long past that will no doubt one day fill a book.

The Somme has changed over the years but I have never stopped visiting those battlefields and never stopped studying them and as we approach the centenary of the Great War this site will replace an older Somme battlefields website that I had online for some years.

The site will feature photos, stories, contemporary images and maps, and information about battlefield sites across the Somme area.