Thiepval & The Heart Of The Somme WWI Centenary
From Ypres, our tour of of the Great War battlefields took us south around Lille and Arras to the heart of the Somme region at Thiepval in France.
If you have lived in Northern Ireland, you can’t fail to have heard of the Battle of the Somme as to this day it is widely commemorated every year on 1st July, because of the actions and bravery of the 36th Ulster Division at the start of the battle.
As we drove through southern Belgium into Northern France we passed one military cemetery after another. From a relatively flat Belgium the landscape changed as we approached the Somme region to rolling hills and I started to get an idea of how difficult the fighting was in this region.
The Battle of the Somme started at 7.30am on the morning of 1st July 1916 and has often been described as Britain’s darkest day, as there were more casualties in the early days of this battle than in any other battle in British military history. Some 60,00 casualties on the first day alone.
As we approached our campsite, the huge imposing Thiepval Memorial came into view. Perched on the top of a hill it can be seen from miles around.Ironically it is sited on one of the German strongholds in the area meaning the German army had an unparalleled view of the attacking British and French soldiers in the land below.
Our campsite was in the village of Authuille, just 1.5km from the memorial. The campsite facilities were tired and basic, so much so that we decided to shower in the van! That being said it was perfectly located for us to get to the few chosen sites we wanted to visit, so would suffice for a couple of nights. At least the electric supply would keep us warm as it was starting to get bitterly cold and we also had access to free fast WiFi.
As we had arived late afternoon at the campsite, we planned the first of our visits the following day. The next day we were had just started to cycle up to the Thiepval memorial when the heavens opened. As well as the heavy rain there was a biting northerly wind. You could see the rain blowing over the open landscape. Half soaked and with numb hands we called it a day and returned to the van for some warmth. We were due to leave the campsite the next day and I was about to call a halt to the visits. Michelle persuaded me otherwise as I had put a lot of research into this particular visit and had discovered potential family ties, and I am so glad she convinced me to continue.
I got on Google Earth and discovered there was a coach park at the memorial so we decided we would leave the campsite the following morning and park the van at the memorial. As we drove the short distance up the hill from the campsite, the magnificence of this monument became apparent. We slipped the motorhome into one of the coach bays – there were already a couple of other motorhomes using them too so we thought there should not be a problem. There were however, a number of coaches regularly pulling in.
From the car park the monument is not visible, there is a visitor centre with free entrance which has the obligatory gift shop but also loads of facts about the Battle of the Somme and a video display, well worth a visit. There is a separate part of the visitor centre which houses a paid entry museum.
When you have read about the battle, you then make your way out of the back of the visitor centre and up towards the monument. As you turn the corner, the Thiepval Memorial towers above you. It is a memorial to the dead of the Battle of the Somme whose remains were never recovered and have no known grave. The monument is supported by 16 square pillars. On each of the 4 faces of each pillar are carved the names of 72,396 men whose remains have never been discovered. A daunting fact.
Ironically during the second world war and the German occupation of France, the Memorial was taken over by the German army who used its commanding position to launch sniper attacks on the allied forces.
At the back of the memorial lies the Anglo French cemetery. French soldiers are buried on one side, their names on wooden crosses and the British Empire forces are buried on the other side with the unmistakable white headstones. Each headstone bears the name of the soldier, his date of death and the regimental badge.
I made my way to pillar 5 face B, as I had previously searched the Commonwealth War Commission site for war dead. It didn’t take me long to find my surname on one of the faces. Pte Thomas Chestnutt from the Inniskilling Fusileers died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme 1 July 1916 age 21. His remains have never been discovered.
I have been trying to compile my family tree and as far as I can make out Thomas Chestnutt was the only son of my great grandfather’s brother, although I need to do some more detective work to confirm this. A discovery like this brings the whole horror of the war much closer to home.
Thomas’s regiment was part of the 36th Ulster Division and the memorial to the regiment lies less than a mile from the Thiepval Memorial, so that was to be our next port of call. A couple of hundred meters before the Ulster Memorial Tower is the Connaught Military cemetery. The road opposite this had recently been widened and a new lay-by created where we pulled up our motorhome. We decided this parking space would suffice to visit both the cemetery and the Ulster Tower.
As we walked around the cemetery we were struck by the number of Ulstermen who lie here. Row after row of headstones carrying the regimental badges of the Royal Irish Rifles, The Inniskilling Fusileers and the Royal Irish Fusileers, the 3 main regiments that made up the 36th Ulster Division. Almost all the headstones carried the same date of death 1st July 1916.
Whilst in the cemetery a coach party of English school children arrived. I don’t know if the man with them was their school teacher or a tour guide. We listened on as he told the children passionately about the bravery of the men of the 36th Ulster Division who charged out of Thiepval Wood, which lies directly behind the cemetery, straight toward the German lines.
He then went on to tell them the story of William McFadzean, the first man awarded the VC for bravery at the Battle of the Somme and who died even before the battle started. The night before the start of the battle all the required munitions had been stacked up in an area of the trenches. A box of bombs being opened for distribution prior to battle fell off the pile into the trenches crowded with soldiers and 2 of the safety pins fell out. Seeing what happened, William McFadzean threw himself on top of the grenades. He took the full force of the blast and was blown to bits, but his bravery prevented the detonation of the munitions pile and saved countless thousands of lives. For this he was awarded the VC. He is officially one of the missing and his name is carved on one of the pillars of the Thiepval Memorial. William McFadzean was one of 4 VC recipients awarded to members of the 36th Ulster Division for actions on 1st and 2nd July 1916. The Divison was awarded 9 VC’s in total during the First World War.
For his final and probably most moving story, he told the schoolchildren he had brought them to this cemetery for a reason. He turned around and pointed to three headstones, the graves over which the grass had not yet grown. They were the most recent burials in the cemetery, their remains discovered when they widened the road and probably lay under where our motorhome was now parked.It was a stark reminder that this whole area is littered with the undiscovered remains of soldiers from 1916.
They had all been identified by regiment, but only one of them had been personally identified as he had been wearing an engraved metal bracelet given to him by his family before the war. Beside is another soldier of the 36th Ulster Division and another unknown soldier of the Cambridgshire Regiment.
From Connaught Cemetery we walked the short distance down the road to the Ulster Memorial Tower. The tower was modelled on Helen’s tower inside the Clandyboye estate in Co. Down, about 12 miles outside Belfast. This is where the 36th Ulster Division had trained and it was chosen as it would have been one of the last remaining landmark images in the soldiers’ minds before leaving for the war in France.
Inside the Tower there is a small chamber which carries the regimental flags of the 36th Ulster Division. There is an inscription of dedication on the wall and the walls are covered in plaques from councils, organisations and schools from around Northern Ireland as well as poppy wreaths and other memorabilia. Gold lettering around the four walls of the tower based on that inside Helen’s tower reads:
Helen’s Tower here I stand
Dominant over sea and land
Son’s love built me and I hold
Ulster’s love in lettered gold
Prior to the infamous infantry attack on 1st July 1916, artillery had been bombarding the area for weeks on end. The British officers believed that the German defences had been breached and the barbed wire which straddled no man’s land between the German and Allied forces had been destroyed. They had conveyed to their men all along the Somme front that when the infantry attack was to begin, the soldiers could simply climb out of their trenches and walk across no man’s land to take the German defences.
What they didn’t know (or what had not be conveyed to their footmen) was that the artillery bombardment had failed either to weaken the German defences or indeed had even failed to cut the wire. In fact the Germans had bolstered their defences and had heavy machine guns deployed all along the front. As the soldiers poured out of their trenches they were mowed down by German machine gunners who could hardly believe their luck that they had been presented with such an easy target.
The reason that the Ulstermen are so highly revered in this region is that they were the only division to have achieved their objective on the opening day of the battle. During the bombardment, the Ulstermen had been digging man deep trenches out into no man’s land and cutting the wire. When the whistles blew at 7.30am on that July morning, whilst the other divisions were moving across no man’s land slowly and in waves, the Ulster Division rushed the German defences en masse and captured not only the first German line of defense but also the second.
They had advanced so quickly across the land that they found themselves caught in the crossfire between the German’s and the remainder of the slowly advancing British forces and unknowingly came under attack from both sides. At 10pm that evening, they were isolated and running out of ammunition and had to retreat back behind their defensive lines in Thiepval wood.
They suffered heavy casualties, more than 2,200 men out of a fighting force of just 8,000. After this, such was the slow pace of the advance during this long battle that it took a further 3 months to recapture the land the Ulstermen had taken on the first day of the battle.
After the battle, Captain Wilfrid Spender of the Ulster Division’s HQ staff, was quoted in the press as saying…. “I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday, the 1st. July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world“.
The Battle of the Somme eventually claimed a casualty list of 420,000 British Commonwealth soldiers, 200,000 French soldiers and almost 500,000 German soldiers.
When we left the tower we went into its visitor centre and small museum as we had been told by the man in Connaught Cemetery that they sold tea, sandwiches and buns! We were greeted with broad Northern Ireland accent and when they heard ours asking for a pot of tea they replied “you will get proper tea here, not any of that oul French muck!” “Punjana?” I asked (a strong Belfast made tea). “Most definitely!” came the reply.
They told us the story of how the tower is owned by the Somme Assoiation, a registered charity in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Memorial Tower is built on what was the first German front line, and the spot attacked by the 36th Ulster Division from Thiepval Wood which lies opposite, the space in between having been no man’s land. It was erected very soon after the Armistice of 1918 and was dedicated on 19 November 1921, the first ever war memorial to be built in France.
It had been looked after by full-time custodians Teddy and Phoebe Colligan for the past 14 years but that they had recently retired…. finally….. after having come back 5 times when asked by The Somme Association! Teddy is now 80. During his time as custodian, Teddy had unearthed numerous artifacts from Thiepval Wood which now rest in the small museum beside the visitor centre. As well as that he traced the position of the tranches from old Army maps.
The Somme Association eventually raised the money to buy Thiepval Wood and the original trenches were excavated and recreated. Teddy ran 2 tours each day over to the wood describing in great detail the history of the battle. Since his retirement, volunteers from the Somme Association in N.Ireland come over for 2 weeks on rotation to run the visitor centre and tours from March to November each year until new full-time replacement custodians can be found.
We left the centre ending our day and World War I tour with an immense sense of both grief and pride of the actions of the soldiers and the continuing sterling work by organisations such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Somme Association to this day.
As part of the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War, a major and moving exhibition will take place in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London from 8th to 18th November 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War Armistice on 11th November. Called “Shrouds of the Somme” it will consist of 72,396 shrouded figures created by artist Rob Heard, each representing one missing British soldier from the Battle of the Somme whose names are recorded on the Thiepval Memorial.
I highly recommend to check out the website at www.shroudsofthesomme.com and if possible visit the display. Following the exhibition the figures will be sold off with proceeds going to SSAFA, the military charity, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Orders are being taken now for the figures. Having witnessed first hand the work of the CWGC, it is a very worthwhile cause so that the cemeteries and memorials continue to remind us of the sacrifice for centuries to come.