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The Silk Route - World Travel: Sheffield Park, July 1st 2016, Serre, France
americas asia pacific africa & middle east europe

Battlefields of Northern France - The Somme and Vimy
1992, 1997

Serre Newfoundland Park Thiepval Memorial Albert Lochnagar Maricourt
Delville Wood Martinpuich Gueudecourt Butte de Warlencourt Vimy Places to Eat
Serre Road Cemetery No. 3

This account is a combination of two visits made in September 1992 and May 1997. The first visit included sites related to the Accrington Pals and their attack on the first day of the Somme, other significant events which occurred on that morning, and Vimy Ridge. The second visit included places significant to William Hill of the 2nd Green Howards who was killed on October 17th, 1916, and to whom this site is dedicated.

These visits were arranged independently, but there are many Battlefield Tour Operators who will help.

It rains a lot in Northern France - on our second visit it rained almost continuously! I thought that at least I was experiencing the same weather conditions as the soldiers in the trenches on July 1st, 1916 - the first day of the Battle of the Somme - but, in fact, it was a fine morning then, the attack having been delayed to see out the bad weather.

 

Serre

The Memorial to the Accrington Pals in Sheffield Park
The Memorial to the Accrington Pals in Sheffield Park

Of all of the battlefields on the Somme I find this one the most atmospheric. Both visits here took place on clear, cold sunny days. It was very quiet. A support trench, a short distance behind the front line from where the Accrington Pals attacked, is still clearly visible, the German front line so close - 250 yards of gently sloping ground.

The Accrington Pals Memorial is appropriately constructed of Accrington brick. In the foreground of this photograph, on the tree to the left, can be seen a plaque which commemorates the Chorley Pals (one company of the Accrington Pals). The soldiers in the front line trench would move out to the left and up the slope. On their left was the Sheffield City Battalion and on their right the Leeds Pals. Behind the Sheffields and Accrington Pals were the Barnsley Pals, and the Bradford Pals were behind the Leeds.

These Pals battalions formed the whole of the attack on Serre that day - the pivotal point of a British offensive which stretched for a further 15 miles south to Maricourt.

Serre Road Cemetery No. 3
Serre Road Cemetery No. 3

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme the British suffered about 20000 dead and a further 40000 wounded. Typically in the Pals Battalions 5 in every 7 men were casualties.

Serre was not taken that day, and fighting on the Somme carried on until November of that year. It was February 1917 before the British walked into the village.

 

Newfoundland Park

Here, where the Newfoundlanders attacked, the land has been left alone so that it is possible to walk in trenches and follow the course of the battle. The ground is pockmarked with craters and slopes down, in the direction of the attack, toward Y Ravine. The monument at the top of the battlefield is to the Newfoundland Regiment - a magnificent caribou; lower down can be found a memorial to the 51st Highland Division.

 

Thiepval Memorial

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing

The Thiepval Memorial is a Memorial to the Missing - those with no known grave. It commemorates 72,085 men who died in the Somme sector up until March, 1918, the eve of the final German push. Over 90% of the names inscribed on the piers of the memorial belong to men who lost their lives in the battle from July to November 1916. The Memorial was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens and is located 8 km north of Albert, a little south of the village of Thiepval, on a ridge overlooking the battlefield.

The Thiepval Memorial includes the names of British and South African soldiers; the national memorials for the missing of Australia, Canada, India, Newfoundland and New Zealand can be found at Villers-Bretonneux, Vimy Ridge, Neuve Chapelle, Beaumont-Hamel and Longueval respectively. It also commemorates the joint Anglo-French offensive of 1916 on the Somme, further recognised by the Anglo-French cemetery in front of the Memorial.

 

Albert

The town of Albert is becoming evermore popular due to the increasing numbers of people who come to visit the First World War battlefields. The restaurants have greatly improved in recent years, and the town now has a fascinating museum. It is one of the few places to visit which is undercover, but the exit leaves you a good way from where you started out! This is because it is laid out in a tunnel which was itself put to use during the war. Now it is lined with tableaux, photographs, letters, articles and a thousand interesting artifacts. The entrance lies just beyond the cathedral with its famous Golden Virgin statue. Soldiers were superstitious and believed that when the Virgin fell the war would end; the statue was finally felled by a British shell in the advance to victory in 1918.

 

Lochnagar

It was common practice for both sides to employ tunnellers who would dig their way under the enemy lines to lay mines. Several were laid to be detonated just before the attack on the first of July and one of the largest of these was at Lochnagar. 60000lbs of ammonal explosive was in position beneath a German strongpoint close to the village of La Boisselle and exploded 2 minutes before the commencement of battle. Today the huge crater - 300 ft wide and 90 ft deep - is preserved as a memorial to all those who died in the Battle of the Somme - it is dedicated to the Sue Ryder Foundation whose homes care for the sick and disabled.

 

Maricourt

At Maricourt, the end of the British line and beginning of the French, the 2nd Green Howards attacked on the 1st of July. In tracing the last months in the life of William Hill, a private in the Battalion, I have been helped greatly by the staff of the Regimental Museum, and have also benefitted from correspondence with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as well as studying the Regimental History and researching at the Public Record Office in Kew.

North of Maricourt

The photograph was taken north of Maricourt, approximately on the site of Headquarters Avenue trench, looking to Machine Gun Wood - on 1st of July the 2nd Green Howards would have advanced in the direction of the track seen on the left, towards the wood.

The Battalion was in support of the 18th King's and the 19th Manchester's, responsible for occupying and consolidating the German front and support lines north of Maricourt. Today the battlefield is farmland, the tracks leading from NW of Maricourt pass from the site of Headquarters Avenue Trench - the jumping-off point for the 2nd Green Howards - over No-Man's Land to the German front line trench which was taken and held that day. On the 8th the 2nd Green Howards made an attack on Trônes Wood and suffered many casualties - during the course of the week a total of 433 casualties all ranks out of a total of 712 officers and men who went into action.

In May 1997, on the banks of the sunken lane, a single poppy flowered.

Private William Hill survived this week.

 

Delville Wood

Part of Bronze Panel

A famous battle was fought at Delville Wood in July, 1916. For a week the South African Forces held out against an enemy outnumbering them by five or six to one to hold the wood and protect the flank of the British offensive. At times the bombardment of the wood reached a rate of 400 shells a minute - an unimaginable level of noise and destruction. When finally relieved at 6pm on the 20th of July, the brigade numbered 5 officers and 750 men - the losses were 121 officers and 3032 men.

The magnificent South African National War Memorial at Delville Wood commemorates not only this tremendous achievement and sacrifice, but all of the 25000 South African volunteers, men and women of all races and creeds, who laid down there lives in two world wars and Korea.

An avenue of South African oaks leading to what is possibly the most beautiful of miltary museums. The building itself is a hollow pentagon - the central space occupied by the Cross of Consecration. The five linked passageways form the display areas of the museum - the first of these at the entrance being an engraved glass panel depicting the wood after the battle. The beautiful bronze panels in the four remaining passageways were created by South African artists Mike Edwards, Danie de Jager, Jo Roos and Tienie Pritchard, and depict scenes from South Africa's roles in both world wars and Korea.

Four of the bastions, where the passageways meet, contain further exhibits of South African operations, each against a backround of a large batik created by South African Louis Steyn.

The wood lying behind the museum has remnants of trenches and shell-holes and two plaques on the sites of the South African HQ and the place where the South Africans entered the wood. After the battle only one tree remained - a hornbeam which can still be seen today.

On a more mundane level, there is a little cafe next door to the Memorial, a shop and toilets (there aren't many in this area!), plenty of parking and picnic tables.

 

Martinpuich

German bunkers at Martinpuich

All but flattened during the course of the war, this well-fortified village was important to the German defences. Today one of the most interesting remnants of the war is visible on the outskirts of the village - a German double command bunker; it is on private land but visible from the track running alongside.

A rather nice legacy is the school playground in the village whcih was designed and presented by the 47th Division, who took High Wood on 15th September, 1916, as a lasting Memorial ("When the Barrage Lifts", Gerald Gliddon; Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd.).

 

Gueudecourt

The name of William Hill inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial

The Battle of the Transloy Ridges took place at Gueudecourt between the 7th and 20th of October 1916.

The 2nd Green Howards attacked on the 18th October, having experienced five days of almost continuous shelling. It is possible that the shelling was responsible for the death of William Hill on the 17th - he has no known grave and his name is inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial. The Battalion attack was largely unsuccessful - in the War diary the reasons were given as exhaustion due to the heavy shelling, a shortage of officers - only 7 available to lead three attacking companies of which five had been hit by the time they were in a position to charge their objective, and rifles becoming clogged with clay. Great bravery was shown by Lieut. R.A. Field who led a sub-section of Battalion Bombers in an attack through the trenches.

 

Butte de Warlencourt

shells lying on the battlefield

Lying just south of the Albert-Bapaume road near the village of le Sars, the Butte de Warlencourt was of great strategic importance being one of the very few pieces of high ground in the area. It was the scene of many furious battles, most famously those involving the Durham Light Infantry in November 1916. The Butte was so strongly fortified and fiercely defended that the British were never able to hold it for long and only occupied the site when the Germans withdrew in February 1917.

The 6th, 8th and 9th DLI all erected crosses on the Butte, the 151st Bde erecting a cross on the summit. After the war a single cross was erected and the four original crosses returned to Durham, where at least one resides in the DLI chapel in the cathedral.

Here, as all over the battlefield, spent and live ammunition can be found, shrapnel balls in abundance, and by the sides of the tracks arrays of shells, barbed wire and their curled supports, trench tools, and lumps of unidentifiable metal. Mostly these are dug up by the farmers ploughing the fields - who knows what still lies waiting to be discovered only metres below the surface?

 

Vimy

The Memorial at Vimy

Vimy Ridge was the site of a big Canadian attack in April 1917. The Canadians pushed forward 4,500 yards, taking 4,000 prisoners, but at the cost of 10,600 casualties. 250 acres of land on the ridge were given in perpetuity to the Canadian people by the French. The shell-torn landscape is dominated by a vast memorial to the Canadian dead inscribed with the names of 11,500 soldiers with no known grave.

 

Portions of the front-line trenches have been preserved in concrete, and the Canadian Grange Tunnel - littered with war debris - is open to the public.

 

Places to Eat

Albert has several places to eat - we had a good meal at "Hotel Restaurant de la Basilique" 3 and 5 Rue Gambetta tel 22 75 04 71, two menus, one bottle of Morgon and two coffees for 366FF (1997). On both trips to this area we have had good meals at "La Taverne du Cochon Sale" in Authuille - in 1992 I had a lobster first course and we both had filet mignôn + wine and it only came to 330FF; in 1997 a three course meal for two with a bottle of Crôzes Hermitage was 322FF. In Arras we had an excellent meal, a bit more expensive, at "Restaurant Aux Grandes Arcades", three courses and a bottle of Brouilly for 512FF (1997).

Finally, if you have your own transport you probably want to take wine back with you - we found the Maxi-Coop on the Route de Bapaume in Albert had an excellent well-priced selection.