Posts Tagged ‘La Boisselle’
Last weekend I had the pleasure of guiding nine gentlemen around the Somme and Arras battlefield on bikes. As a keen cyclist I try and take my bike when visiting the battlefields but this was something different in that it was the first organised specialist cycling trip I had put together.
Our base was the delightfully comfortable Les clés des places in the heart of Arras. The Somme was our destination on Friday, leaving the neglected battlefields of Arras for the Saturday.
Day One – The Somme
Friday morning dawned with beautiful weather. With the bikes fixed to the cars we headed south, crossing the ground voluntarily given up by the Germans as they pulled back to the Hindenburg Line in 1917. Parking at Serre Road Cemetery No.2, we got the bikes ready and headed off.
I had sent our proposed route to the group beforehand so everyone was aware of the distances involved. After an introduction of the battle and practices of the CWGC at Serre Road No. 2 we headed across Redan Ridge with its isolated ribbon of battlefield cemeteries to the small village of Beaumont Hamel. As one of the Somme’s most well visited sites with a highly evocative story the Sunken Lane offered our first chance to get to grips with the actions of July and November 1916. After hearing a 1st Lancashire Fusiliers officer, Lt E.W. Sheppard’s description of the 1 July attack we rode via Auchonvillers to Newfoundland Memorial Park where we had a good walk around the trench system, visiting all three cemeteries. The descent to Hamel was fun; infinitely more so than the climb up the Mill Road to the Ulster Tower! One of the group had previously served in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment so I was able to show him the Pope’s Nose and discuss the 1/5th Battalion’s attempt to capture the position in September 1916.
After a visit to Lutyen’s imposing Thiepval Memorial and our first (and only) puncture of the day we headed via Mash Valley for lunch at the Old Blighty Tea Room in La Boisselle. Subsequent stops included the Lochnagar mine crater, Becourt, Fricourt and Mametz.
From the bottom of Dantzig Alley Cemetery we surveyed the undulating ground in front of us, a familiar view to the British in July 1916. Dominating the landscape is Mametz Wood, scene of so much heartache and horror for the 17th (Northern) and 38th (Welsh) Divisions. Our tour continued up to Montauban and Trônes Wood before a stop at Guillemont Road Cemetery where we paid our respects at the grave of Raymond Asquith, 3rd Grenadier Guards.
Raymond, the son of the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith has been described as ‘one of the most intellectually distinguished young men of his day’. He had been mortally wounded at the start of the Guards’ attack on 15 September 1916 and died on his way to a dressing station.
One of our group was a former Coldstream Guards officer and so we deviated from the original plan, heading to the Guards Memorial between Ginchy and Lesboeufs. The exposed position on the ridge to Lesboeufs is in the centre of the ground over which the Division fought in the second half of September 1916.
Our route back across the battlefield took in Delville Wood, looking a perfect picture of peace in dappled sunlight – the polar opposite of summer 1916.
Next up was High Wood where I described the ferocious fighting that had raged there through the high summer of 1916. The wood and Switch Line proved such a bulwark to advance that British efforts resorted to siege warfare techniques; employing Vincent and Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors in the wood along with the use of tunnellers to plant a mine under German positions. In the late afternoon light of a perfect spring day it was hard to imagine the carnage in these quiet mellow fields and woods.
Crossing the Roman road we headed via Courcelette to Miraumont, along the Ancre valley to Beaucourt before a gentle climb up past Ten Tree Alley en route back to the cars. The conversations that night over a much-needed dinner and drinks all touched on the benefits of cycling in helping everyone’s appreciation of the battlefield.
Day Two – Arras
We awoke the next morning with slightly aching legs and for some, aching heads. There was no need for cars as we would be setting out directly from our hotel. Whilst the touristy spots of the Somme were packed with coaches and school groups the empty fields around Arras are a very different proposition. I assured our travellers that other than farmers and locals we would have the Arras battlefield to ourselves. Heading south via Beaurains (a bike path runs alongside the road for much of this) and London Cemetery we rode to Neuville-Vitasse, a village which in April 1917 was wired into the German defences with the main Hindenburg Line running just behind it.
Heading up the bumpy track to Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery was fun. From its dominating position I spoke of the 30th Division’s attack on 9 April 1917, the start of the Arras battle. The closely packed graves of the cemetery are predominantly made up of men from the 2nd Wiltshires and 18th King’s (Liverpool Regiment) who suffered grievous losses attacking across this ground.
I explained the connection with Hugh Dennis’s grandfather, Godfrey Hinnels, whom I had researched for the television programme, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Godfrey’s unit, the 1/4th Suffolk Regiment were tasked with salvage and burial duties in the days after the main attack. As such, it was likely he had been involved with the burial of the men that now lay in the cemetery’s walls.
Next up was Cojeul British Cemetery which is the resting place, amongst others, for two Victoria Cross recipients – Horace Waller, 10th KOYLI and Arthur Henderson, 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.
Climbing Henin Hill we visited the remaining German pillbox (MEBU) before our next stop, the isolated and beautiful Cuckoo Passage Cemetery. This small battlefield cemetery, full of Manchester Regiment killed on 23 April 1917 lies at the limit of the Manchesters’ advance. I read aloud an account by Private Paddy Kennedy who served with the 18th Battalion describing events that day. Many of his comrades lay around us within the cemetery walls.
We returned back towards Heninel before picking the road up to Chérisy where I discussed the terrible events of 3 May 1917, the Third Battle of the Scarpe. Described by Cyril Falls in the Official History as ‘a melancholy episode’ the attack that day was an unmitigated disaster for the attacking British forces. British dead for the day reached nearly 6,000 for very little material gain.
Why cycling the battlefields is best…
Travelling by bike is by far the best way to appreciate the landscape; you feel every rise, every dip, every change in gradient. What would be a simple drive in a car takes on more meaning when on two wheels. Your thoughts turn irrevocably to the men whose footsteps still echo through the ground as, stealing a line from Sassoon, ‘they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack’.
Continuing towards Hendecourt our focus changed for a short time as I described the Canadian successes of August and September 1918. Stopping at Sun Valley Cemetery I pointed out the formidable obstacles of Upton Wood and The Crow’s Nest (the latter captured with great daring by the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada) on the morning of 1 September 1918). Passing Quebec Cemetery we dropped down for our picnic lunch at the idyllic Valley Cemetery between Vis-en-Artois and Chérisy. This spot is the final resting place of a number of highly decorated officers and NCOs of the 3rd Battalion, Canadian Infantry who were killed nearby at the end of August 1918. Amongst the 3rd Battalion men buried here is the 23 year old Lieutenant Edward Slattery, DCM, MM & 2 Bars. From the decorations received whilst serving in the ranks and his tender age he appears to have been quite some soldier.
Suitably refreshed we headed back towards Guémappe and across the Route National towards Monchy-le-Preux. The road was blocked in the village, the result of a recent building collapse. Undeterred, we headed west where I explained about the village’s capture and the terrible loss of British cavalry in its narrow streets on 11 April 1917.
Having visited the impressive 37th English Division memorial and the Newfoundland Caribou in the village we rode eastwards, up Infantry Hill where I was able to regale the party with the story of the ‘Men who saved Monchy’: the disastrous 14 April 1917 assault by the Newfoundlanders and 1st Essex Regiment.
Infantry Hill is a special spot for me, the scene of so much concentrated fighting and yet, like so much of the Arras battlefield, it remains rarely visited. It was in these fields on 3 May 1917, that disastrous date for the British Army, that one of our group’s great uncles, Private Thomas Clark, 8th East Yorkshire Regiment was killed. Standing close to the spot where the 8th East Yorkshires went over the top I was able to explain the actions that day, reading from the war diary to enable everyone to appreciate the disaster that befell the attacking British troops and the magnificent defensive performance of the German forces.
Extract from the 8th East Yorkshire Regiment after-action report for 3 May 1917 action on Infantry Hill, east of Monchy-le-Preux
The Battalion moved forward at Zero hour [3.45am] but owing to the heavy smoke combined with the darkness they found it difficult to move on any definite point or points.
A platoon commander of the right-hand leading company found himself advancing up a small ridge which is to the south of the copse in O8 Central where he ran up against machine-gun fire. He was joined by a KSLI officer and some men. They moved forward together, the KSLI officer was killed as well as a number of men and as the place was bristling with machine guns and the copse occupied by snipers he stayed down in shell holes, returning at night to HILL TRENCH with 11 men on receipt of orders to do so from Battalion HQ…
…The men were in good heart and moved forward readily. I attribute the results to the heavy smoke, combined with the darkness which prevented people locating their points of direction. In addition to this the enemy barrage was very heavy to which must be added the very effective use of machine-gun both from the front but also enfilading attacking troops.
Casualties: 35 killed, 161 wounded, 39 missing
After some time to contemplate we returned to the village before riding down the Scarpe Valley to Fampoux where we looked at its capture on 9 April 1917 by the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. Next up was another special spot; the Seaforth Highlanders cross overlooking the Hyderabad Redoubt, Greenland Hill and Roeux. Whilst there I explained the disastrous 11 April 1917 attack and read aloud the wonderful description left by Seaforth Highlander Private James Stout of events that day.
It is a great shame there is nothing at the former site of the Chemical Works, so bitterly fought over during the battle to show the ferocity of fighting and losses sustained to secure its possession. The site is now a Carrefour mini supermarket where we bought a cool drink and snacks before our ride via Athies back into Arras.
Our final stop of the day was the Arras Memorial where Private Thomas Clark and a further 34,765 men are commemorated. One of the group found the grave of his great uncle in the adjoining Faubourg D’amiens Cemetery. Tired but satisfied at the ground we had covered we headed back to the hotel before a good evening meal and much chat.
Day Three – A quick look north of Arras and back to Blighty
Our final day was overcast and rainy. Bikes were attached to cars before we visited the huge German cemetery at Neuville St-Vaast and French cemetery at La Targette. Next up was the preserved battlefield on Vimy Ridge before our final stop at Walter Allward’s masterpiece, the Vimy Memorial atop Hill 145.
My thanks to the wonderful group who I accompanied and for their generosity and looking after me so well.
If you are interested in a battlefield tour by bike, either as a group or by yourself then please get in touch via the Contact Page. I would be happy to put an itinerary together for any British battlefield and am happy to cycle up to 50 miles/day. However, there is so much to see that 25-40 miles/day is the ideal distance.
Prior to the armistice period and a subsequent battlefield trip to the Somme I spent a day at Carlshalton Boys Sports College. I had been invited there by History teacher, Julie Haunstetter.
What marked this day out over many of the other school visits I undertake was the commitment and interest shown by students. The school and history department had clearly vested a great deal of thought into the theme of remembrance in 2014 with one student Regan writing a heartfelt poem which has been added to a T-shirt to raise funds. This had been picked up by the BBC and Regan and a fellow student, Sam, had accompanied Julie Haunstetter on to the BBC Breakfast sofa.
For my November visit we had planned a full day with sessions looking at a variety of topics including enlistment, training and life in the trenches plus a session on tunnel warfare and our archaeological work at La Boisselle.
The most rewarding session was spent with higher ability students casting a critical eye over the use of sources. Over the past few years I have been horrified to hear and observe students simply relying on Google as a means to gather knowledge. I wanted Carshalton’s students to analyse why this was wrong and, as an example of flawed material, offered in a critical look at certain reference sources used in the writing of the Great War.
An obvious place to start was the British Official History (or to give it its full name, the History of the Great War based on official documents by direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence). I explained the process in which versions had been compiled. Ongoing analysis has found many inconsistencies in these volumes. I was able to show the students examples of correspondence between officers and the official historian, James Edmonds, held under reference CAB45 at the National Archives, Kew. What soon became obvious to all was that no ‘Other Ranks’ were consulted whatsoever. The Official History is an officers view of the war. The rank and file had little or no input.
Even more telling was the date that volumes were published. The two volumes covering 1914 were published in 1922 and 1925. Those covering 1918, the year of victory, were published before and even after the Second World War! For Volumes IV & V this is nearly thirty years after the events the books are chronicling. The drop in quality is clear to see and a study of the CAB45 records for 1918 show it was not always possible to rely on memories of ageing men. This prompted the students to think how best to write an accurate history.
Next, I gave examples of falsehoods and exaggeration in British war diaries. I have been lucky enough to have been privy to the research that my colleague Peter Barton has gathered from German archives over the last few years. What the research shows is revelatory. Many hours have been spent on telephone calls discussing and cross-referencing the inconsistencies between British and German records. Put simply, one cannot find the truth if one doesn’t use all available sources. The histories we rely on – official sources – are not corroborative history. German records have been neglected horrendously over the last century. I was able to offer examples of inconsistencies in British reports that were taken as the truth when a simple cross-reference check of the records of the German unit on the other side of No Man’s Land would have provided a much clearer story; in short, a corroborative history. I also talked of the ongoing public and media fascination with Ypres and the Somme at the expense of any other Western Front battle. It was certainly something that got students and staff thinking….
The day ended with an hours discussion and presentation on remembrance. Finally, I must say how brilliantly the Carshalton students behaved. They were a credit to the school and I look forward to the chance to visit again in the future.
Finally a moment to put down a few words to thank you properly for last Friday. Your series of talks were absolutely amazing. The students were spell-bound the entire time and captivated by everything you presented to them. I have never seen them sit so still for so long! Their knowledge has clearly been enhanced by all that you spoke of (I have already been challenged several times as to why we are not learning about Arras), and at the same time, you have increased their interest and passion for learning about the First World War. A fantastic day, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. Julie Haunstetter, History teacher, Carshalton Boys Sports College
On Tuesday 17 June I will be speaking on “The Somme Cauldron – Life and Death in the La Boisselle Sector” at the Institute of Civil Engineering, University of Bath. Doors open at 6.00pm for a 6.30pm lecture start.
Full details can be found on the attached PDF flyer. Please click to open and download: Univeristy of Bath Flyer
Tickets are free – but limited in number – so please book ahead to ensure your attendance.
I am back in Bristol after a delightful weekend spent in Sussex. On Saturday I gave a lecture entitled Somme Archaeology: The Glory Hole and the work of the La Boisselle Study Group at Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum. Despite it being a boiling hot day and the lure of the sea only a few yards away it was standing room only by the time I began speaking in one of the Redoubt’s (thankfully cool) casemates. My talk focussed on the La Boisselle Study Group’s work since June 2011, showing images from the British tunnel system as well as images of surface archaeology and artifacts. I spoke about the actions of the French in autumn 1914 with focus on the capture of the Granathof by the 118th Infantry Regiment on Christmas Eve 1914. British occupation of the ‘Glory Hole’ was also covered with especial mention of underground action by 179 and 185 Tunnelling Companies, RE. I was able to show the current state of excavation and explain the plans for the next tranche of work in September/October. This includes potential exploration of the British tunnel system at the 80ft level.
After an hour’s lecture there was a tea break which was followed by a further 25 minute Q&A session. It was good to see friends there, especially Richard Dunning, owner of the Lochnagar Crater. My grateful thanks to Ryan Gearing for organising the series of lectures, Keith Ross (ex-Royal Sussex Regiment) for his kind introduction and the Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum for providing such an inspiring venue.
September’s lecture is to be given by Richard van Emden who, utilising his research material gathered for his book ‘The Quick and the Dead’ will be speaking about loss, grief and the families who are often forgotten when the fallen are remembered. Further details can be found here: http://www.eastbournemuseums.co.uk/Events.htm
On Saturday 18 August I will be the first speaker of the Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum Great War lecture series. My lecture “Somme Archaeology: The Glory Hole and the work of the La Boisselle Study Group” begins at 2.30pm. Ticket prices are £12.50 (Adult) with a concession price of £10 for Senior Citizens, Students and Under 16s.
Further details can be found here: http://www.eastbournemuseums.co.uk/Events.htm
Other speakers for September and October are my good friend Richard van Emden and Curator of the RLC Museum, Andy Robertshaw.
The lecture will showcase the work undertaken since June 2011, giving a history of French, German and British warfare (surface and subterranean) at La Boisselle from 1914-1916. I will also include many images previously unseen showing British tunnels dug in September-October 1915.
A pdf document with details of all three talks can be downloaded by clicking on the image below.
On 13 June I gave a talk to 65 students and staff at South Bromsgrove High School on the work of the La Boisselle Study Group. Soon after media coverage began on our work in June 2010 I was contacted by James Wilson from the History department who was keen to learn more and, if possible, visit the site on the annual school battlefield trip.
My talk focussed on our current archaeological work as well as the wartime history of the site. It was satisfying to be given the opportunity to do justice to the resolute French fighting for the village and Granathof in 1914/15. French efforts on the field of battle are often overlooked, something that we are seeking to redress at La Boisselle. I went on to talk about the handover to British troops in summer 1915 and their subsequent efforts, both above and below ground.
Your talk was very well received by both staff and students alike, indeed some of the students have come to find me this morning to ask if we can arrange to come and volunteer at the site; a definite sign that the talk was delivered at the right level. I have to say that it was absolutely what we were looking for, it both enthused and moved the audience through the personal stories you used throughout. I would personally recommend your lecture to anyone who has a interest in the La Boisselle area, or indeed anyone who has an interest in history, a truly captivating talk by an inspirational historian! Mr James Wilson, History Teacher, South Bromsgrove High School
Sadly, this year it was impossible to show the school’s battlefield trip around the site but we aim to do so next year. I have also been asked back to the school to speak next year and look forward to visiting again. My thanks to James Wilson and his colleagues for their generous welcome and feedback. Many thanks to the students for their faultless attention. As a firm believer in the power of education it was immensely rewarding to be able to share my experiences of La Boisselle to school students.
Should you be interested in having me talk at your school or group then please contact me directly.
Last week I spent an enjoyable two days on the battlefields with four clients. For all but one of them it was their first visit to the western front. We met bright and early on Monday morning at the Channel Tunnel terminal and travelled over in convoy down to Arras.
Our first stop was in the superb Carriere Wellington. Our guide, the irrepressible Pascal, was as keen as ever and coupled with my preliminary talk on the Battle of Arras and the ten minute ‘taster’ film shown prior to going underground my group got a good initial grasp of the battle in April & May 1917. Following our hour underground we visited the Arras Memorial to the Missing and Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery. The sheer scale of men with no known grave from the Arras battlefields had the usual sobering effect.
Being so close we popped into the Mur des Fusillés and paid our respects at the site where 218 French resistance and civilians were shot by the Germans in the Second World War. I have always found it an eerie place with a strange atmosphere all of its own.
We then headed out to the Great War battlefields around Arras with the first stop the Point du Jour for a visit to the military cemetery and the graves of the 10th Lincolns men (Grimsby Chums) found in 2001 and the impressive 9th (Scottish) Division memorial re-sited next to the cemetery. After a picnic lunch in the cemetery we headed back into Athies and along to Fampoux. The village marked the point of furthest advance into German lines on 9 April 1917. We stopped at the sunken lane to look at the attack of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers (10th Brigade, 4th Division) against Greenland Hill and Roeux on 11 April 1917. Whilst at the Sunken Lane Cemetery overlooking the sloping fields down to Roeux I told my group of Donald MacKintosh and the actions that earned his Victoria Cross. We then drive through Roeux past the site of the Chemical Works (now a Carrefour mini-supermarket) and around to Brown’s Copse Cemetery to pay our respects at MacKintosh’s grave.
Back on the road we crossed the Scarpe and headed up to Monchy-le-Preux. I pointed out the positions of various trench lines and explained about the catastrophic failure of the 3 May attack, the Third Battle of the Scarpe. We then had a drive around Monchy, stopping at the stunning 37th Division memorial and the Newfoundland Caribou Memorial which is built on the top of a British artillery observation post constructed in August 1917 by 69 Field Company RE. Our day’s battlefielding was completed with a stop east of the village on Infantry Hill where I told of the disastrous 14 April attack by 1st Essex Regiment and the aforementioned Newfoundlanders. Both battalions were destroyed in carefully planned German counter-attacks – the first use of the new doctrine of ‘elastic’ defence. Monchy was at the mercy of the Germans and the situation was only saved by the quick thinking action of Lt-Colonel James Forbes-Robertson and a small group of men – all decorated for this action and known thereafter as the Heroes of Monchy.
We had a pleasant walk up Infantry Hill to the Mound and then headed back into Arras to pick up my car and then headed down to the Somme for a welcome meal and good night’s sleep.
The next day was spent touring the 1916 Somme battlefield. Very much aware that one can only skim over the surface with one day around such a large and important battlefield we were up early to make full use of the daylight. After an explanation in the car park on the battle using various maps we set off north up to Serre, the most northerly point of continuous attack on 1 July 1916. En route we pulled the car in at the Ulster Tower for a view across the Ancre and an explanation of events in the northern part of the battlefield. The Gospel Copses at Serre were deserted and we had Sheffield Memorial Park all to ourselves as I explained about the failure of the attack and the losses incurred by the northern Pals battalions of the 31st Division.
After some time in Railway Hollow Cemetery we stopped at Serre Road Cemetery No.2 (the largest on the Somme battlefield) and the across the Redan Ridge to Beaumont Hamel, and the infamous sunken lane, the jumping off point for the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers that fateful morning. We then retraced our steps and stopped for a pleasantly quiet walk around the preserved trenches of Newfoundland Memorial Park with its Caribou and even more imposing memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division, conquerors of Beaumont Hamel in November 1916. Our next stop was to the magnificent Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, a must for any battlefield visitor to the western front. Heading via Pozières of Australian fame we reached the Old Blighty Tea Rooms at La Boisselle for a deserved late lunch.
The afternoon began with a detailed tour around the Glory Hole at La Boisselle and a good walk around the site looking at the craters and depressions marking the trenches followed by a stop at the unmissable Lochnagar Crater.
We then headed east through the battlefield, past Contalmaison, Longueval and Guillemont to the Cedric Dickens cross at Ginchy overlooking Leuze and Bouleaux Woods. This was a special stop for one of the group whose grandfather had served with the 1/8th Middlesex Regiment and who had probably been in these very fields in mid-September 1916.
Our final stop of the day was to the site above Mametz of our successful archaeological dig for a Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector where I could stand my clients on the spot where the parts had been recovered in May 2010. Sadly we did not have time to all visit the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne to see the temporary exhibition and salvaged projector parts as well as the full size replica but there is only so much we could do within the time constraints.
“I would just like to say a big thank you for making our battlefield tour such an interesting and amazing event. Your knowledge of the area and what went on and where, is just incredible. The tour was made that much better by the fact that you had researched my Grandfather’s service in the Middlesex Regiment and proceeded to show us exactly where he was and what he would have experienced almost to the day but 95 years ago. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck!
The choice of locations that you picked were excellent, and whilst I know two days is not long enough to cover everything there is to see, we certainly got a very good understanding of what happened, by whom and where. This was made even more poignant by linking them to my ancestors who had fought there. I would have no hesitation in recommending your tours to any of my friends, in fact I have told them of my experience with you and we are already planning another tour for next year.” John Waterman, Kent
It was a terrific trip with delightful people who have clearly got the battlefielding bug. My thanks to John, Clare, Sally and Jack for their enthusiasm, understanding and for sending me a selection of photos. I am already looking forward to the next time…
Today sees the public launch of our ambitious project at the Glory Hole in the village of La Boisselle at the heart of the Somme battlefields. We have been invited by the landowners to conduct a long-term archaeological and historical study into the site, one of the most unique still extant on the western front.
BBC Breakfast and News 24 are covering the launch with Robert Hall on live feed from the Somme. He will be interviewing members of the La Boisselle Study Group (Peter Barton, Simon Jones and Iain McHenry) as well as one of the landowners who has given us this tremendous opportunity. Owing to other commitments I am not able to be on site today with my colleagues but am enjoying seeing the reaction in the UK.
For all details of the project please see our website: http://www.laboisselleproject.com/
The detailed article on the BBC website can be read here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13630203