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Friday, 14 October 2016

Five Durham cycling pals pay a visit of remembrance to the Somme and Ypres (Part One)

This week we have the first of two blogs by Durham at War volunteer David D, giving an account of his cycling tour of remembrance.

On Wednesday 21 September 2016 our small group of five cycling friends set off from Stanley to travel to Hull to catch a ferry to Zeebrugge. Our plan on arriving in Belgium was to drive to the Somme to carry out a circular tour of some of the key First World War memorials before driving to Ypres for a further tour of sites in Flanders. Two of our party have ancestors from three generations ago buried in France and Flanders who we planned to honour. It also seemed appropriate as a group of friends from County Durham to pay remembrance to the Durham Pals and other members of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI). We had also identified men in other regiments who had travelled to war from our home town of Stanley to pay our respects to.

Our journey to the Somme was more direct than that made by the 18th Battalion of the DLI which was raised in Durham on 10 September 1914 as a Pals battalion. After action at home at Heugh Battery, Hartlepool when a German naval taskforce bombarded the town in December 1914 the 18th DLI set sail for Egypt in December 1915 to defend the Suez Canal. The 31st Division, of which they were a part, transferred to France via Marseilles in March 1916 in preparation for the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. They took over the front line opposite the village of Serre, the northern most point of the Somme line. By contrast we had a two and a half hour drive in a comfortable minibus, were on the ferry by 5pm and enjoyed a convivial meal before turning in for the night.

The ferry docked just after 8am and within an hour we were on our way to the starting point for our first ride. As we crossed the border into France we began to see signs to memorials that became increasingly frequent. By mid-morning we had pulled into Thiepval and set off on foot to visit the famous Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. We already knew that it bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme and have no known grave, but we all felt that actually seeing the memorial truly emphasises the scale of this loss.

Our research had picked out two Stanley men to bring the scale of the numbers of missing down to a more understandable human level. Second Lieutenant Cuthbert Green of the 2nd Battalion DLI was a student for the civil service when war broke out. He was the son of the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Stanley. He was reported missing presumed dead on the 15 October 1916 at the age of 23. Harry Falgate, a coal miner from South Moor, joined the 19th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers shortly after his 18th birthday. He served as Private 19/1467 landing in France on 29 January 1916. He was killed in action on 11 July 1916 at the age of 19.

After locating these names on the piers and faces of the memorial and a subdued walk among the 300 British and Commonwealth and 300 French graves at the foot of the memorial our group made its way back to the visitor centre. Between the memorial and the entrance we paused at the bench commemorating the Durham Pals that had been unveiled 3 days earlier on 19 September. This bench faces the now beautiful and peaceful landscape towards Pozières and Mouquet Farm, and is a tranquil spot for a time of quiet reflection on their sacrifice.
Four of the five cycling pals at the Durham Pals memorial bench (photo David D)
Four of the five cycling pals at the Durham Pals memorial bench (photo David D)
After a brief visit to the visitor centre we saddled up our bikes in beautiful sunny weather and set off. Our first stop came almost immediately at Connaught Cemetery on the Thiepval-Hamel road (D73). Here we learned there were 1268 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated in the cemetery. Almost directly opposite, about 500m up a rough track, we saw the Mill Road Cemetery where 1304 Commonwealth servicemen are buried or commemorated. This is where we realised that it would be impossible to visit every site in the locality in the time available to us. We made our way the short distance to the imposing Ulster Memorial which stands 70 feet tall and is a tribute to the men of Ulster who gave their lives during the First World War. Here we stopped for a quick lunch to the sound of accents from Northern Ireland from the staff and visitors.

Suitably refreshed, we set off towards the village of Pozières which during the war was at the centre of the British sector of the Somme. Our next stop was at the entrance to Mouquet Farm which we learned from information boards was known as "Mucky Farm" to British troops and "Moo Cow Farm" to Australian troops. Heavily fortified by the Germans, it was of strategic importance as it commanded high ground with views over the Allied trenches. It was the site of fierce attacks and counter attacks between July-September 1916.

The Australians were major participants in the Battle for Mouquet Farm as they were in other areas in and around Pozières. This explains the First Australian Division Memorial at our next stop. Here we learned that the fighting in this small area was at a huge cost to the Australians and that in six weeks of fighting they suffered 23,000 casualties which was almost as many as in eight months at Gallipoli. The excellent information panels also informed us that Australia provided the greatest military contribution of all the British dominions supplying 331,000 volunteers out of a population of less than five million. At this memorial a raised viewing platform gave us clear views across the Somme battlefields. Nearby there were also the remains of a large German bunker which was known as Gibraltar.

We rode through Pozières on the D929 and after about 1.5km came to the Tank Memorial at the foot of a radio mast with satellite dishes that had been a useful guidepost to us throughout our ride so far. This spot is close to where tanks first went into action against the Germans on 15 September 1916. Almost directly opposite we saw the grassed over remains of the German reinforced position know as the Windmill which was the scene of bitter fighting and is now a preserved battlefield site.

From Pozières we took the D73 road towards Bazentin and almost immediately after turning on to this road saw a memorial to Lieutenant George Sainton Kaye Butterworth MC the famous musician and composer of 13th Battalion DLI. It informed us that he died in sight of this spot on 5 August 1916 aged 31. We continued along this road which became increasingly quiet and rural and we began to see shells left by farmers at the edges of fields after they surfaced through ploughing. 
Shell left at the side of the road (photo David D)
Shell left at the side of the road (photo David D)
Before long we came to Flat Iron Copse Cemetery. We were the only visitors to this cemetery at the time of our visit and it was immensely peaceful with no passing traffic. Flat Iron Copse was the name given by the British Army to a small plantation a little to the east of Mametz Wood. When it was captured on 14 July 1916 an advanced dressing station was established at the copse and a cemetery was begun later that month. It remained in use until April 1917 and after the Armistice more than a thousand graves were brought in from the neighbouring battlefields and from smaller cemeteries. There are now 1572 buried or commemorated here. One of them is Private 17308 John George Donkin then serving with 15th Battalion DLI. He was an iron foundry labourer from Hartlepool who died on 17 July 1916 aged 25.

Continuing on our way the road turned in to a dirt track until we reached the Welsh Memorial which is a striking sculpture of a red dragon holding barbed wire in its claws. It honours the Welsh Division who attacked Mametz Wood several times losing over 4000 men before finally clearing the German resistance. Poignantly we noticed several Welsh flags and other tokens to lost men attached to trees in the wood across the fields in front of the memorial. Passing through the village of Mametz we made our way to Fricourt and visited the second largest German Military Cemetery on the Somme with 17,072 graves.

We continued on the D147 to La Boiselle where we turned off to the Lochnagar Crater which is described as follows in the words of the owner . "The largest crater ever made by man in anger is now a unique memorial to all those who suffered in the Great War. It is dedicated to peace, fellowship and reconciliation between all nations who fought on the Western Front." A very helpful volunteer gave us some of the facts about the crater and the role it played in the Battle of the Somme and the work that volunteers do to keep vegetation at bay and fight erosion. He also helpfully gave us directions to Ovillers our final destination of the day on our way back to Thiepval.

We wanted to visit Ovillers Military Cemetery because amongst the 3440 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated in the cemetery was the great grandfather of one of our group. This was Joseph Thomas Fenwick, a pit deputy from Greencroft, who served as Private 22/371 in the 3rd Tyneside Scottish (22nd Service Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers). He died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme at the age of 36. Because we shared this connection and it was our last stop of the day were shared a dram from a hip flask with him and reflected on the generations of his family that he didn't get to see.
Gravestone of Private Joseph Fenwick (photo David D)
Gravestone of Private Joseph Fenwick (photo David D)
Taking our leave all we had to do was to make our way back to Thiepval, and as seems to happen on every bike ride we do, the last couple of miles were up the steepest hill of the day! However because of the visibility of the Thiepval Memorial we were able to plan a shortcut and avoid the main route which went downhill before turning back up hill. We crossed a field on a rough farm track and went through a small plantation before emerging on the road in front of the memorial. We acknowledged the Durham Pals bench again as we passed knowing more about their role and the terrain they fought in than when we set off. Returning to our vehicle we loaded up our bikes to drive to Ypres and our accommodation for the night.

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