Friday, 22 July 2016

1 July 2016

This week we bring you an account by John Sheen of the commemoration event he attended for the Tyneside Irish Brigade on the Somme battlefield on 1 July 2016.  

Tyneside Irish Blog 1 July 1916 – 2016
The Remembrance Ceremony at La Boisselle 
07:30 Hours 1 July 2016

Exactly one hundred years ago at 07:30 hours on 1 July 1916 the 103rd (Tyneside Irish) Brigade commenced their ill-fated advance towards the German lines in the vicinity of La Boisselle near Albert in France. Although, on the right, some of the 24th and 27th Battalions reached the brigade objective of ‘The Kaisergraben’ in front of the village of Contalmaison and fought their way into the village they were too few in number. The men were either killed, possibly captured or, if they survived, they returned to join Captain Bibby and a party of men in the German front line holding the gap between the 34th and 21st Divisions.
Tyneside Irish Brigade on the Somme © IWM (Q 53)
IWM non-commercial licence © IWM (Q 53)

Tyneside Irish Brigade on the Somme © IWM (Q 50)
IWM non-commercial licence © IWM (Q 50)
These photos of the Tyneside Irish Brigade advancing at 07:30 hours on 1 July 1916 are perhaps some of the best known of the Battle of the Somme and appear in many history books with various captions. They are in fact part of a panorama and the ends of the photographs can be joined together to make one large picture.

On the left of the Brigade front the 25th Battalion barely made it across the British Front Line. Those that did were either killed or wounded by enfilade machine gun fire firing down Mash Valley.
Tyneside Irish Brigade on the Somme © IWM (Q 69)
IWM non-commercial licence © IWM (Q 50)
On the photograph of Y Sap mine crater, above, in front of La Boisselle, when enhanced on a computer you can see Tyneside Scottish and Irish dead lying in No Man’s Land.

1 July was a costly failure and homes in County Durham and Northumberland would never be the same again.  The minimum casualties for the Tyneside Irish Brigade were as follows:
24th Battalion – 634
25th Battalion – 509
26th Battalion – 489
27th Battalion – 539
Only the Tyneside Scottish Brigade suffered more casualties of all the attacking brigades that day.

You can read more about the action of 1 July 1916 on the Tyneside Irish Brigade Association website: 

So it was that on 1 July 2016, a party from Northumberland and Durham, organised by Major Graeme Heron (retired), was allowed by the French authorities to gather at the Tyneside Seat at La Boisselle to commemorate both Brigades.

Army Cadets from Northumberland badged to both the Tyneside Scottish and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (RRF), along with members of the 5th Battalion RRF (the successor to the Northumberland Fusiliers), Branch Standards, and members of The Old Comrades Associations of the RRF and the Tyneside Scottish were present.

Owing to the events at Thiepval and Lochnagar being attended by members of the Royal Family, the security services had closed the Somme area so special permission had to be obtained, and the party had to be in at 06:30 and out before 09:00. Timings were very tight and as the hotel was in Ostend, we were on the road by 04:00. Things went well until the buses reached Bapaume and the first check point but after some ten minutes of negotiations, the buses were allowed to proceed towards La Boisselle.

On arrival at La Boisselle the parade formed up in front of the Tyneside Seat, the memorial to the Tyneside Brigades that fought at La Boisselle one hundred years ago.  The parade was called to attention by the WO1 Regimental Sergeant Major MJ Thompson of 5RRF, and the opening address was given by Major Chester Potts (retired), Chairman of the RRF. This was followed by the Battalion Padre, Reverend JPL Whalley, who led the service.

Firstly, ‘Abide With Me’ was sung, and Psalm 23 read [The Lord is my shepherd]. A young cadet spoke the words of ‘The Fighting Fifth’, the regimental hymn, which was a moving moment. Then the Piper played ‘The Minstrel Boy’ in honour of the Tyneside Irish Brigade. It was now that I had the job, and ten minutes, of describing the battle to the assembled soldiers and old comrades. As time was running short, at a signal from Major Heron the talk was quickly wound up. A Northumbrian Piper of the Regiment then played the moving tune ‘Northumberland’.

The exhortation was given by the RSM, ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old’, and then the laying of the wreaths took place. The Honorary Colonel, Lord James Percy, laid the first one, and then in two parties various contingents paid their respects laying their wreaths, followed by Members of Parliament from Newcastle and Gateshead and community representatives.

At 07:30 hours, the Bugler sounded the ‘Last Post’, and after two minutes silence, ‘Reveille’. Pipe Major Billy Anderson then struck up the lament ‘Hector the Hero’.

The assembled parade sang the ‘The Blaydon Races’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ before a final prayer and blessing by the padre. The parade was dismissed, with time for official and personal photographs.

Tyneside Seat with permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
The Tyneside Seat the memorial to the Tyneside Irish and Scottish Brigades at the entrance to the village of La Boisselle in France. With permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
The Pipers, with permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
The Pipers: Pipe Major Billy Anderson of Tyneside Scottish; Sergeant Don Walker, Northumbrian Piper; Cadet Sergeant Li Minjie, who played ‘The Minstrel Boy’.  With permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas

Members of the Tyneside Irish Brigade association, with permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
Members of the Tyneside Irish Brigade Association who attended the parade. Left to right: Mr Ken Bell, Mr Kevin Farrell, Mr Robert Pyle, Captain Malcolm Howard (retired), Kate and Patrick Butler, and John Sheen.  With permission of Lieutenant Clare Lomas
From La Boisselle the coaches then took us to Ovillers Military Cemetery, where people paid their respects to fallen relatives or family friends of 100 years ago. Captain Malcolm Howard (retired) laid a wreath at the grave of his grandfather Lieutenant Colonel Louis M Howard, commanding 1st Tyneside Irish. Close by, Patrick Butler laid a wreath at the grave of his grandfather Sergeant Patrick Butler who had rescued Colonel Howard, and got him into the Lochnagar Crater, assisted by Corporal James Bonner. The Territorials and Army Cadets were given grave references and crosses, some also had photographs of the soldiers, and for about half an hour people moved among the graves placing crosses, particularly on the graves of unknown Tyneside Irish and Scots to let them know they were not forgotten.

Placing crosses. Photo by John Sheen
Placing crosses.  On the far left Lord James Percy speaks to Captain Malcolm Howard and Patrick Butler.  Photo by John Sheen
The grave of Private Patrick McCabe.  Photo by John Sheen
The grave of Private Patrick McCabe.  Photo by John Sheen
I was asked to visit the grave of Private Patrick McCabe by Brian Scollen, and I and a young cadet laid a cross on Brian’s behalf. Then it was time to go as we had to be out of the Somme security zone before 09:00 hours. So we were off on our way back to the hotel in Ostend where, as to be expected, the Old Comrades enjoyed a glass or two of Belgian beer.

Here I would like to thank Major Graeme Heron and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers for giving me the privilege of speaking on such a great occasion.

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