17 July 2006

The Somme - Ninety Years On

The Battle of the Somme began in the early hours of the 1st July 1916. "The Big Push" that would throw the German Army back towards Belgium from the line running across Picardy. The offensive started with a huge bombardment to drive the enemy back from his forward trenches and cut the miles and miles of barbed wire that lay across no mans land. A partly successful barrage left many of the brave men that climbed out of their trenches that morning with nowhere to go and they were mowed down before reaching their objective.

At that time, the reserve and the next group of troops to move towards the line were still arriving. They moved by night so that air recon couldn't pin them down. My Uncle William was 26. Although born and bred in South London he found himself a private in the 7th Battalion Kings Shropshire Light Infantry.

They arrived on the Ancre River near Corbié on the 12/13th July. On the 13th, they moved into the line and then were to assault Bazentin Ridge. Once again the wire wasn't touched. At 3.30am they rose with the front and communications trenches at Bazentin Ridge, some 1500 yards away as their primary objective. The Battalion strength was 33 officers and 905 men, at 600 yards the en-countered uncut wire and heavy machine gun fire. They made no progress.

At 1100 they tried again making the front enemy trench. The 6 officers and 135 men that remained held out until relieved on July 20th.

Sadly my Uncle wasn't one of them. He was wounded and taken to the Casualty Clearing Station at Corbié where he died on July 16th.

And that's where I come in. Claire, my wife, and me taking a day trip on July 16th 2006 to see the area and to put a small memento on the grave to show that although a small family, we remembered.

Instead of the car we took our BMW R1150GS as transport. The out run was by motorway to Amiens, purely to get there quickly. As it was the Sunday after Bastille Day, the villages were like ghost towns. The motorway traffic light except for enormous queues at the petrol stations. French fuel was over €1.40 a litre for Unleaded. And hardly a café or restaurant open!

On arrival the GPS took us right to the cemetery.

Corbié Municipal Cemetery & Extension

We laid a couple of crosses and some silk poppies and had a few minutes of reflection sat on the wall under the trees that were planted new as saplings when the cemetery was opened. I left an entry in the visitors’ book to say that we had been there. The book is new for 2006 and a few pages are filled with names from people from across the globe.

William's grave marked by the crosses we laid

After our reflections, we set off for town in search of something to eat, plans thwarted, as I was too eager to get there rather than eat on the way. “Desolé” became the all too frequent reply.

We then headed for Vaux and the monument to the Red Baron, or rather the place where he was shot down. And couldn’t find it. The temps now about 38C.

Aborting we headed for Albert. Albert the “star” of so many WW1 pictures; the church with the Madonna and child at right angles to the build-ing. Then we saw it. From 15 kilometres there was a glow in the sky, then, as we got nearer, the glow became more solid. It was of course the gilded roof of the tower of the church. A wonderful sight.

As we entered the town we saw a petrol station open and dived in. The time we were there quite a few bikes came to fill up, all kinds of race-reps, but no other BMW’s joined us. We bought water and some waffles in case food was not going to happen, and it didn’t. The two café/bars open had stopped serving. So we ate the waffles and stood to cool off in the shade.

I programmed Doris to take us back via Arras and Arques as I wanted to scout out places to go on another trip we are planning. The cross-country run takes you along the D928, to the north of the big brick memorial at Thiepval. The cemeteries start to come thick and fast now, signposts overloaded with the green Commonwealth War Graves Commission signs…and along the road there are so many more to pass, some quite small, and some really too large for comfort.

Arras was skirted and then we worked our way to the N43 and turned northwards. We wasted a half hour in Arques trying to find the Ascenseur de Fontinelles. And then gave up riding around glass factories and indus-trial parks in the tremendous heat of the afternoon.

The last leg was through St Omer to Guines and into the Shuttle terminal a little early. The auto check in offered us a crossing immediately for no extra cost so we took it. Bad move. Due to a broken down train in the Tunnel we got away at about the same time we were ticketed for and we still had empty bellies!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Paul, the article on the Somme was really good. I would love to see that part of France. I hope you have seen Elena's rides around Chernobyl on her kiddofspeed site. She also dig in the Kiev fortification and find unbeliievable war momento as none of it has been cleared up as the west has. Ride safe, hope Julie and I see you next spring. Zukiman77@hotmail.com

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