Out of everything that we experienced here, it was the glorious countryside that has stayed with us. That is not to take away from the remarkable insight into the experience of the young soldiers that fought in the First World War. Not even a Century ago, and yet, such a different kind of war to what we are now familiar with. I know quite a lot about the Second World War but less so the first, and this was a good moment to reflect on the huge loss of life and the horrific circumstances the men fought in, and the respect that they all command.
We were there for Anzac day. There is an enormous love for the Kiwi and Aussie soldiers who were a part of the Commonwealth force, fighting to push back the German occupation in France. I’ve taken a few quotes from leaflets and plaques, for the sake of accuracy below.
One thing that had never occurred to me, was how the cemeteries came about. I had expected, one or two large cemeteries, but as the documentation I found in the little cabinets at each cabinet explains:
Beaumont-Hamal was attacked by the 29th Division on the 1st July 1916, but it could not be held. It was attacked again and taken on the 13th November 1916 by the 51st Highland and 63rd Royal Naval Divisions. Frankfurt Trench British Cemetery is named from a German Trench about 1.6km North-East of the village, which remained in enemy hands until the German retreat early in 1917. The cemetery was made by the V Corps after the retreat, when their units cleared the Ancre battlefields, and it was known as V Corps Cemetery No 11. There are now over 150 1914 – 1918 was casualties commemorated at this site. Of these over one-fifth are unidentified. The cemetery covers an area of 427 square metres and is enclosed in a concrete curb.
So, once fighting had ceased, soldiers had to find, dig out, gather up the bodies, identify them if possible and then choose somewhere nearby to bury them. And those places are all over the countryside, and now in the middle of arable fields.
We, and the other visitors we spoke to, were hit by the emotion of it all, but also by the care and attention paid to these cemeteries. And we come across a team who were looking after them. They wore uniforms and earmuffs and each had different sized lawn mowers, and looked strangely out of place.
Another piece of official information:
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established by the Royal Charter of 21 May 1917. Its duties are to mark and maintain the graves of the members of the forces of the British Commonwealth who died in the two world wars, to build and maintain memorials to the dead whose graves are unknown and to keep records and registers. The cost is shared by the partner governments – those of Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa – in proportions based on the numbers of their graves…The lands in France occupied as Commonwealth War Cemeteries or graves were generously provided by the French Government under the terms of the war graves agreement, signed in Paris on 31 October 1951.
Alan and I cycled around to visit some of the cemeteries and made it to the Canadian Memorial, which gives you an idea of what the trenches were like. Deep, over head height – for obvious reasons, and thin at the bottom. Horrible to imagine the squalor – trench foot killed a lot of men.
We also went to Theipval, and the section below is from a plaque there:
The First World War saw fierce fighting along what was known as the Western Front – a battle line extending from the Channel coast to Switzerland.
The Battle of the Somme was a major offensive launched on 5 July 1916 that met fierce German resistance from strong defensive positions unbroken by a seven day bombardment. With a few exceptions, the attack was a failure and the offensive developed into a series of major battles that ended with the onset of winter and exhaustion of the troops in November 1916.
The Thiepval Memorial commemorates by name some 72,000 men who fell in the Somme sector up to 20 March 1918 and who have no known grave. It is the largest of the Commonwealth’s memorials, standing on the site of one of the most heavily defended German positions to be attacked on the first day of the battle, when commonwealth casualties – killed, wounded and missing – numbered more than 60,000.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for the maintenance of graves and memorials in some 150 countries which commemorate around 1,700,000 members of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. The war dead commemorated here and elsewhere include those of several different faiths and of none.
The most important moments for me, has been the bits of information that people have left here on there visit. Snippets of the lives of individuals that are buried here, printed off from the internet, an old photo with a note from a great niece, or a school trip paying their respects to 11 of 15 members of their rugby team of the time. It was good to see the soldiers first names, rather than than just initials, and who their mum's or brothers were and the village they were from. It reminds you they weren't really soldiers, just guys caught up in something vicious.
I felt a real sense of pride and connection and since I believe it is really important to learn from the past and not make the same mistakes over and over, it was good for me to see some of this. A rather sombre (seriously, no pun intended) entry, but a necessary one for me.