Visit to the Somme – part 3

26 October 1916 was the day my Granny’s cousin Noel Bramwell Hall died in WWI.  He did not die at the Somme where he had served in the 19th Battalion of 4th Brigade during the Canadian capture of Courcelette from the Germans.  Instead his Brigade, part of the reserve army, was moved out of the Somme area at the beginning of October and marched north to relieve British forces fighting between Lens and Bethune.  As an infantry unit they walked the distance.

26 October 2016 dawned very foggy in the Somme, common weather for that time of year in the area.  So retracing Noel’s steps in the Somme before the march north meant venturing out in the very low cloud.  We went in search of Sausage Valley.

Becourt Chapel on a foggy morning

Becourt Chapel on a foggy morning

In the War Diary of the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Canadians for 25th September to 4th October the Brigadier-General mentioned Sausage Valley several times.  On the 25th the Brigade was moved back from behind the lines near Albert where they appeared to have been stationed for a few days.  They were moved back to the battlefields to help with operations around Pozieres.  The 19th Battalion were moved to Tara Valley in readiness for being called forward however because of heavy shelling overnight on other Battalions and other movements on the battlefield the 4th Brigade wasn’t called into position and was returned further behind the lines, so 19th moved from Tara Valley to Sausage Valley along with the 18th Battalion early on the 27th September.  The following day they were on the move again:

The 19th Battalion under command of Lieut-Colonel W. R. Turnbull was moved up to GUN PIT ROAD during the night and came under the orders of the G.O.C. 6th Brigade.  Early in the morning of the 28th September, this Battalion was ordered to push forward from GUN PIT ROAD in the direction of a Line from DESTREMONT FARM to the SOUTH PRACTICE TRENCHES and to establish a Line well in front of the PRACTICE TRENCHES.  This operation called for caution and at the same time, a fixed determination to attain the objective, in spite of opposition from the numerous small hostile parties suspected to be firmly holding hidden strong points in the area which the advance had to be made.  The movement was carried out with dash and splendid gallantry and our position advanced over a thousand yards with few casualties.” (War Diary, September 1916)

70th Brigade (23rd British Division) managed to occupy Destremont Farm just south west of Le Sars after heavy fighting over the next 2 days and the War Diary continued:

Under incessant and increasing machine gun fire from the direction of LE SARS and the high ground to the North and West, the leading Platoons of the 19th Battalion pushed forward and took up a new position about 400 yards north of the PRACTICE TRENCHES. A support trench about 150 yards in rear and a reserve trench were also hastily constructed.  Flank protective trenches were also provided.  Lewis Guns adn Bombing posts were quickly prepared and during the day all ranks worked steadily improving the postiion.  By noon the Battalion had completed a continuous front line trench, 4ft deep, and established observation posts and direct telephone communication with Battalion Headquarters.  Much valuable information was sent form these advanced observation stations.  A message was received fromt he G.O.C 2nd Canadian Division extending his congratulations to the Units taking part in this splendid achievement.  This much appreciated communication was promptly transmitted to all Ranks engaged.” (War Diary, September 1916)

Apparently on the morning of 29th September some scouting parties were sent out – one such party from the 19th Battalion discovered 3 Germans in a dug-out and killed them, later that day another group discovered others in a Gun Pit who surrendered and another patrol under Lieut Dunn of 19th Battalion found an unoccupied German trench 500 yards in front of the advanced line which contained their equipment, bombs and ammunition, they immediately set up their own post in the trench of bombers, Lewis gunners and Snipers.  19th Battalion were relieved by 20th Battalion during the night of 30th September/1st October, with the 19th going into support.

Nicholson, G. W. L. 1962. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Queens Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, Canada.

Nicholson, G. W. L. 1962. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Queens Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, Canada.

Before being relieved by the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Canadians, all Battalions of the 4th Brigade took part in some more trench digging during the night of 2nd October.  The War diary explained:

This order also required the 4th Brigade to dig a “jumping off” trench forward of our position in some sections, and called for the work being completed during the night October 2nd/3rd or before relief.  he men were very much exhausted from want of sleep, heavy shelling and continuous rain.  As these trenches were required for further offensive operations contemplated by the Army, and every man realised the importance of pressing the advantage we had already gained over the enemy, the work was undertaken cheerfully, notwithstanding the exhausted and worn out condition of all ranks.  Every Unit in the Brigade contributed to the working parties and by noon the following day, a further advance had been made in our general line.  By joining some disused portions of enemy trench, and pushing forward a series of posts our Battalions had been able to gain in some places two hundred yards of additional ground.” (War Diary, September 1916)

During this time they also buried some of the dead.

Information about Becourt Chapel

Information about Becourt Chapel

The 4th Brigade was relieved during the night of 3rd/4th October and moved to Sausage Valley and subsequently to Bouzincourt and rest billets.

The work of the Brigade was appreciated by the Army Commander who intimated to the Division in a special message, his pleasure and satisfaction with the work done by all Ranks.” (War Diary, September 1916)

The bottom end of Sausage Valley which is just south of Le Boisselle ends at a village called Becourt.

The large bomb crater Lochnegar is alongside the top end of the valley.  We didn’t visit the crater but instead headed for Becourt.  There we discovered that the Chateau had been severely damaged during the war but that a Red Cross station had been established in the Chapel and in the basement of the Chateau.  This made sense – those of the troops stationed in the valley who were wounded would have been taken for treatment to the Chateau and if they died they were buried in the Cemetery which was established nearby (Norfolk Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt).

Looking at the floor display at Thiepval Museum

Looking at the floor display at Thiepval Museum

We drove to Thiepval Memorial and visited the museum.  There we saw photos of the damage to Albert and Courcelette and read some of the personal accounts of soldiers who had fought in the Somme.  The display of artefacts found in the battlefields in the 100 years since the war was stunning and sobering – it was placed under glass in the floor along with screens of photos and videos with captions, as if ‘finding’ those pieces of evidence at ground level like the farmers and reconstruction workers will have done, rather than seeing them displayed in wall mounted cabinets at eye level as in most museums.  Most were rusted, distorted and encrusted with mud – the horrible reality of trench warfare.  We walked quietly along, pausing frequently to read, examine and reflect on the terrible waste and destruction of lives and property.

We also saw an early aeroplane in the museum which had been used in the first air warfare, however we could not linger long as we needed to attend the daily ceremony at the Thiepval memorial itself.  So we went outside and walked to the Memorial which loomed in the fog in a massive ghostly shape, very evocative of the many lost souls it records on its thick bastions.

first view of Thiepval Memorial in the fog

First view of Thiepval Memorial in the fog

I had a short discussion with the person leading the ceremony who confirmed that he had put my poem reading at the start rather than the end as another group were also taking part and had names to read out.

I had requested to read a poem but had not chosen one of the well known war poems (in Flanders Fields would have been appropriate as it was written by a Canadian and I have sung Liz Lane’s beautiful setting of that poem in The Open University Choir).  Instead the Royal British Legion gave permission for me to read my own poem, written in 1986 on my way home from school.

It was introduced as follows:

We will now hand over to Anna Page who together with her family is commemorating Corporal Noel Bramwell Hall, 2nd Canadians 19th Battalion 4th Brigade. She will read her poem “We were so young”.

It is dedicated to the many young men and women who went off to war, and is about how they might have been sustained by childhood memories in the worst of the conflict when reality was very different from their idealistic expectations. 

We were so young (by Anna Herbert, aged 17)

I hear the laughter in children’s voices,
I remember their plays, I know their choices,
I see their childish summer games,
I remember all their innocent aims
And I think:
We were so young.

Our view of life was young and kind
Hardly a conflict can cross my mind
That was as cruel as those we were yet to know,
Or as frightening as places toward which we go
And I realise:
We were so young.

The Winter has come for those summer joys,
The sun has set on our babyish toys,
We must face the future as we did in those days,
Backed with golden summer memories
Of the days
When We were so young.

The Act of Remembrance followed with the Bidding Prayer:

Let us remember before God and commend to his sure keeping: those who have died for their country in war; those whom we knew, and whose memory we treasure; and this day especially those who gave their lives in the Battle of the Somme.

Exhortation

They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them.

All:  We will remember them.

Last Post (which was a recording broadcast over the sound system)

Two Minutes Silence

Reveille

Then three men came up to read the names of all those from their town and surrounding villages who had died in WWI.  It was hard to read those names without choking up especially as the list was long and there were several with the same surnames. I had found the fourth line of my poem difficult though managed to keep going.

Beside the poppy wreaths at the Thiepval Memorial

Beside the poppy wreaths at the Thiepval Memorial

The act of remembrance ended with the Kohima Epitaph – When you go home tell them of us and say: ‘For your tomorrow we gave our today.’

Afterwards we explored the monument and the cemetery beyond it which was filled mostly with unidentified British and French soldiers.  Although I would have liked to have seen the memorial in brilliant sunshine (as depicted in photos) seeing it in the fog gave a very strong sense of a shadowy army of lost men forever honoured in that place. It was an intensely moving experience.

At the entrance to the Visitors Centre and Museum are two large banks of earth covered in grass and remembrance crosses and poppies with messages. We bought a cross with a poppy on it to take to Noel’s grave.

We drove from Thiepval to Grandcourt, Miraumont, past Courcelette then back down the Albert-Bapaume road and across the Ancre river at Aveluy, covering some of the ground where 4th Brigade had spent their last few days in the Somme.  It was still foggy so not worth taking any photographs and there was little time to stop as we had to embark on the last part of our journey – retracing 4th Brigade’s march to Calonne and the visit to Noel’s final resting place.

See also Visit to the Somme – part 1, Visit to the Somme – part 2 and Visit to the Somme – part 4

References:

War diary – Operations of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade at the Somme, Sept 25th – October 4th 1916, Brigadier-General R. Rennie, MVO. D80, Commanding

Nicholson, G. W. L. 1962. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Queens Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, Canada.  Found at https://18thbattalioncef.wordpress.com/18th-battalion-unit-action-battles/somme-battles/brickfields-and-death-the-battle-of-fler-courcelette/

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Visit to the Somme – part 2

Courcelette Church

Courcelette Church

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.

See also Visit to the Somme – part 1, Visit to the Somme – part 3 and Visit to the Somme – part 4

References:

War diary – Operations of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade at the Somme, Sept 10th – 17th 1916, Brigadier-General R. Rennie, MVO. D80, Commanding

War diary – Operations of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade at the Somme, Sept 25th – October 4th 1916, Brigadier-General R. Rennie, MVO. D80, Commanding