Wednesday, 8 October 2014
Ypres And The Somme
My visit to the battlefields of France and Belgium was really good, so affecting and memorable in so many ways. The picture above is a reconstructed trench at the museum at Passchendaele. During the Third Battle of Ypres British troops attacked uphill, through mud, for several months. The combined casualty figures for both sides totalled over half a million. The village is now home to Tyne Cot, the largest British and Commonwealth war graves cemetery in the world, containing the remains of nearly twelve thousand men and the names of thirty four thousand whose bodies were never found or never identified. 8367 of the graves bear the inscription 'A soldier of the Great War'. Siegfried Sassoon wrote 'I died in hell- they called it Passchendaele'.
While walking up a track by a farmer's field on The Somme we were warned to look out for battlefield debris. These three unexploded shells were lying by the side of the path, uncovered by the farmer and awaiting removal by the French army. The one on the left was a very recent discovery, it had wet mud on it. They look quite small in the picture but the middle one was as long as my foot. Not that I was putting my foot anywhere near it.
This place left me quite shaken- Beaumont Hamel, the Somme. On July 1st 1916 British troops advanced on the German front line, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I took this picture from the German position. The British front line was where the trees are. You can walk it in about five minutes today. As the British advanced they were mown down by German machine guns. A petrified tree about 50 yards in front of the British front line was the furthest anyone got. After two hours volunteers from Newfoundland were sent in. They were wiped out. I've read about the Battle of the Somme, this particular part of it, and seen pictures but walking this small part of the battlefield, understanding the topography of the land and how it affected the battle, and standing where such slaughter took place was humbling. It really struck me.
This is a field near Serre. Behind me was a copse and a natural dip in the ground where on July 1st 1916 the Accrington Pals assembled, waiting to go in. At the crest of the rise in the picture, just in front of the tree line were six German machine guns. As the Pals, all Kitchener volunteers, walked out of the copse and advanced into this field the machine guns opened up, firing at waist height. You can see how much cover the Accrington Pals got in this field. None. Of the 700 men who started the day, 235 were killed and 350 wounded in about half an hour. Many of them are buried in a cemetery down in the dip. To stand there, walk across the land, be where they were, on a lovely day 98 years later- difficult to put into words really.