While retracing the steps of Cpl Noel B Hall of the 2nd Canadians at WWI we visited the village of Courcelette after spending a bit of time at the memorial to the Canadians on the Albert-Bapaume road. The village is small – a church and about 30 houses. 19th Battalion didn’t fight in the village however I’m fairly sure they would have passed through it or very close to it later, based on the information from the War diaries of 4th Brigade.
The road layout has remained the same even though the fighting and shelling during WWI destroyed or badly damaged most of the buildings. The village still looks old as the houses have been rebuilt, often using the same materials and designs.
In the centre of the village is the church and a small green which has become the war memorial for those of the village who died fighting. There is also a memorial to the Canadians and an information display showing a map and description of what happened. The small, old trees around the green have hand-made large poppies strung from their branches in places. It is clearly a place of pilgrimge for many people.
After visiting Courcelette we found our way to the nearby British Cemetery. I was intrigued to discover that the memorial entrance to the Cemetery was designed by Sir Herbert Baker who also designed St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town where I grew up.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries are all immaculately maintenained with the graves in neat symetrical rows, like a military parade. It was very sobering reading the number of headstones inscribed with the simple words “A solder of the Great War – known only to God”. We came across the grave of a Canadian soldier who died on the same day as Noel and was the same age, though at the Somme rather than near Lens.
The descriptions of the Somme battles showed that this peninsular of farmland between Bapaume, Albert, the rivers Ancre and Somme was hotly contested, taken and retaken at various times during the 4 1/2 long weary years of war and that early graves were often pulverised in later battles which meant that many bodies were never found or were unidentified. Sometimes bodies are still uncovered during farming or building operations, when possible they are identified, they are always reburied with full military honours in one of the military cemetaries. And the farmers are always ploughing up shrapnel, spent ammunition casings, shovels, cooking utensils and personal belongings.
Next we made our way to the Thiepval Memorial as I needed to find out if they could explain a place name I had come across several times in the War Diary of the 4th Brigade but could not find on a map. The Brigadier-General had used local place names as well as nicknames for the newly dug trenches in his descriptions of events and I wanted to find Sausage Valley as it seemed to be a place where the troops were sent back to from the front line for a temporary rest.
At the Thiepval Memorial they have an information desk by the main entrance door to the Visitors Centre and this was run when we arrived by a very helpful person (she was English but lives long term in France) who looked it up in a detailed map guide book she had under the desk. She was able to give me exact co-ordinates for the valley – 1000 metres south of La Boisselle and gave us the electrifying information that there was also a Mash Valley on the other side of the village 600 metres west of La Boisselle. We had a good laugh about the British sense of humour which must have resulted in those two valleys being given such names by the armies who used them. She also photocopied a map from her book showing the positions of these valleys.
We asked the Thiepval guide about visiting actual trenches and she told us about Beaumont-Hamel nearby. So rather than look at the museum at Thiepval that afternoon we made our way into the Ancre river valley. The river flood pools in the valley inspired JRR Tolkein’s descriptions of the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings as Tolkien fought in the Somme in 1916. The valley is quite wooded, though maybe 100 years ago many of the trees were destroyed in the war which would have added to the ghostly atmosphere.
Beaumont-Hamel is a rocky hilltop and valley battlefield riddled with trenches which have been preserved under grass. So many of the 1st Battalion Newfoundlander Soldiers died there on the first day of the Somme (70% of their number) it is treated as one large war grave – a sacred site. It contains 3 CWGC cemetaries.
At the entrance and the top of the site the area is wooded and there are plenty of trenches, half filled in. We spotted fungi and a couple of red squirrels, so immediately thought of Ellie, who would have been delighted to see them if she had been with us.
At the edge of the trees is the dramatic Caribou monument on a stone cairn overlooking the ridge and the valley. There is a trench at the top of the ridge, it has a boardwalk and is usable. The path leads downhill into the valley to the British frontline trench which still contained some of the metal side wall supports. Further on we saw the metal stakes used for holding the large coils of barbed wire which would have been stretched along the top of the trenches.
In the valley beyond the Wellington Trench and close to the German frontline (which was just over the other side of the ridge leading down to Y Ravine) is the Y Ravine Cemetery.
We walked up the hill to the German front line trenches and the heavily fortified Y Ravine. These trenches were roped off as not safe to walk in as there is still plenty of ammunition embedded in the ground. There was a place to look into the Y Ravine immediately opposite the 51st Highland Division monument. Beyond this monument was the Hunter’s Cemetery, a circular memorial which used a bomb crater as a grave pit.
It was a short walk to the Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No. 2 which contained gravestones closely fitted side by side, often with double burials.
We were back under the trees again, maple leaves floating down as we walked along Maple Walk back to the Caribou monument.
As we walked towards the museum building we saw the remains of a Gun carriage, it made me think of Noel serving a gun and the dangers posed to soldiers if they made a mistake or if ammunition was faulty. There was also a poem by John Oxenham inscribed on a plaque beside a tree inviting those who visited to think about the sacrifice of those soldiers and the responsibility future generations have to uphold peace.
Although Noel had not fought at Beaumont-Hamel, seeing preserved trenches (even though grassed over) brought the realities of the battle into focus.
After we left Beaumont-Hamel we drove down into the Ancre valley again and to Albert, past the Basilica in the centre of the town and on to the hotel. In the evening we returned to the centre of Albert for a meal and I photographed the Basilica which had been fully restored after suffering terrible damage during the war, the golden statue ‘The Leaning Virgin’ standing once more on top of the tower after being knocked sideways during the early part of the war and later knocked right off near the end of the war. There was also a statue of a Scottish Highlander near the restaurant which I couldn’t resist photographing if only for its nickname.
It had been a long and fascinating day discovering the Somme and putting Noel’s story into context but there was more to explore the next day including Sausage Valley, to be covered in Part 3.