In the footsteps of the Heroes

 

I recently spent three days visiting the graves of 10 of the men whose names are on the village war memorial. I took a selection of stones from the village with me so that I could leave a piece of Alkham with each of the men. The following is an account of the trip.

 

 

Day 1:

 

An early start as I want to get to La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre where Charlie Grainger is remembered and then to Rouen, where George Collard is buried, before the end of the day. The journey to La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre is straight forward and I am struck by the geography to the east of Paris; a great deal of the area is flat land and the strategic value of any hill is immediately apparent. In September 1914 the Germans were striving to reach Paris but were halted by British and French troops. This was pretty much the end of mobility and the stalemate that ensued led to the strategy of trench warfare that came to symbolise the Western Front for the rest of the war. The Germans secured positions in the hills and, using the woods as cover, were able to shell the exposed allied forces below. Charlie was killed early in this conflict, on 14th September 1914, aged 23. The memorial at La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre is some distance from where Charlie was killed and honours 4000 men whose bodies were not recovered. The monument is an imposing structure and sits on the banks of the Marne but felt as if it had become part of the general town landscape rather than being a place of honour. The town had been the scene of much allied activity and the fact that Charlie may have walked where I was now walking made for a sensation of connection. I left an Alkham stone below Charlie’s inscription. Below are photos of the memorial at La-Ferte-Sous-Jarre and Charlie’s inscription:

 

 
 

 

A couple of hours later and I reached Rouen and the St Sever Cemetery just before it was due to close. An understanding woman delayed locking up to allow me 20 minutes in the cemetery to find and photograph George’s grave. Incongruously, the cemetery has a football stadium beside it and footballers were training, their shouts drifting over the graves. I wondered how many of these men in the cemetery would have enjoyed a game in their time.  On 31st March 1918, George received severe head injuries from a shell which led to his death on May 6th 1918 aged 25. The Australian National Archives have a fascinating record and if you visit http://naa12.naa.gov.au/scripts/Imagine.asp?B=3270652&I=1&SE=1 you will find information on George’s military career as well as the fact that he was 5’ 10”, of fair complexion, with grey eyes and brown hair and that a distinguishing mark was the end of his left thumb which was crushed. Also in the archives is the card signed by his father, Ambrose, acknowledging receipt of George’s effects. What a heavy heart there must have been having lost two sons in under a year. Below is a photo of George’s grave and the card signed by his father acknowledging receipt of George’s effects.

 

 

 

 

Day 2:

To Bagneux British Cemetery, Gezaincourt where Cecil Allen is buried. The cemetery is located along a small track amongst fields and woods. The headstones were grey with the rain and the wind was whistling through the trees and, though there was a certain natural beauty to the location, it felt isolated. How Cecil died is not clear though I surmise that he died of wounds received in action as, on the date of his death, 30th April 1918, his battalion were ‘out of the front line’ and engaged in football competitions, church parades and military training. Cecil was aged 20 when he died. Below are photos of Bagneux Cemetery and Cecil’s grave:

 

 

 

 

I then made a diversion from the Alkham search to visit Lochnagar Crater at La Boiselle. Lochnagar is the site of the largest of 17 mines detonated on the 1st July 1916. This particular mine resulted in what is still the biggest crater ever made by man in anger measuring 110 metres wide and 21 metres deep. It is a truly awe inspiring sight and to have been witness to it must have been terrifying. Debris rose 1200 metres into the air and it produced what was then the loudest man-made noise in history. Approaching on foot, the crater is gradually revealed to you and the sense of horror at what must have been increases as you take in the scale. Nearly 100 years on this hole in the Earth stands as testimony to our destructive capabilities and our willingness to use them. As I arrived the sun was shining but it was quickly obscured as dark clouds swept in bringing a torrential downpour before they too disappeared allowing the sun to shine again. A truly sensational experience that will stay with me forever and made all the more poignant as I was joined by a German couple who, like me, bemoaned our inability to learn from our history. Photos below show the crater in sun and rain:

 

 

 

 

From La Boiselle it is a short distance to Thiepval to the memorial to the missing of the Somme where John Rye is commemorated. I approached Thiepval through woods catching a glimpse of the French tricolor and the Union Flag flying above the trees. From the car park you pass through a visitor centre then on to the monument which is still obscured by trees. I was not prepared for the monument and when it came into view the scale of it was almost overwhelming. It is simply vast even from distance. Approaching, you become aware that the light coloured panels are inscribed with names and that there are too many panels to count from any single point. In fact the Thiepval Memorial commemorates almost 73,000 soldiers who died on the Somme battlefields between July 1915 and 20th March 1918 and who have no known grave. To have no known grave may mean that a body was unidentified but still given a burial but it is likely that the majority of these men disappeared in the mud of the Somme or were atomised by explosions. To stand in the middle of the monument amongst the seemingly endless names was a most sobering experience.

Photos below show the Thiepval Memorial and the inscription to J. Rye.

 

 

 

 

From Thiepval to Grandcourt and the Regina Trench Cemetery where Arthur Daniels is buried. Regina Trench Cemetery is set amongst fields and I got a hint of the qualities of the mud in this area of France. The drive to the cemetery is along a rough track but you have to walk about 100 yards to reach the cemetery itself. In this short distance and time the car and my boots were clogged with mud which adhered itself to any surface it came in contact with. To have to live in such close proximity with this mud for weeks must have been demoralising; its ability to cling, and its weight, would make the simplest actions difficult to carry out let alone to have to fight for your life having crossed fields of it.

The cemetery felt isolated, a sense reinforced by the buffeting wind and the clouds racing across the sky. I have not yet established which action cost Arthur his life but the date of his death is the last day of the Battle of the Ancre and it would seem likely that it was during this that Arthur was killed. The battle began on November 13th in sleet and snow and was fought in appalling conditions and resulted in little significant gain. The end of the Battle of the Ancre on the 18th November also marked the end of the Battle of the Somme. Those who travelled to Flanders to remember the village’s dead will recall that Arthur is the brother of Edwin whose grave we visited at Essex Farm cemetery. Arthur died on Saturday ,18th November 1916, 22 weeks after Edwin. The photos below show the Regina Trench Cemetery situated in the fields and Arthur’s grave:

 

 
 

 

From Grandcourt to Bullecourt because the Collard family gravestone at Alkham says that Edward is ‘interred at Bullecourt’. This contradicts the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website which records Edward as being remembered on the Arras Memorial. Bullecourt was the site of very heavy fighting at the time of Edward’s death, 13th May 1917, aged 37, including his battalion in action against the Hindenburg Line. I was unable to find anything in Bullecourt to indicate Edward is buried there. The ‘Slouch Hat Memorial’ which commemorates those Australian and British soldiers who fell in the area in April and May 1917 has no names on it whilst the Bullecourt village cemetery had graves of French troops but not for any other nationality. It is possible that Edward was originally buried at Bullecourt, if he was killed there, and that his grave was lost in subsequent action. Many men were buried several times due to disturbance but, if a grave was hit by a shell or churned over in battle, the bodies could simply be lost. In the absence of any grave but in the belief that Edward was killed in or near the village I placed his Alkham stone in a field on the edge of Bullecourt. The photos below show the French memorial at the town hall and Bullecourt viewed across the fields:

 

 
 

 

After this inconclusive visit I drove to Villers-au-Bois Cemetery where George Bailey is buried. Another cemetery in a field, Villers-au-Bois was, during the First World War, located by a railway line the evidence of which is still apparent even though the rails have long since been removed. By the account of his great nephew, George was something of a ‘character’ not averse to going awol and doing what he wanted to do rather then what the army might want him to do. George was accidentally shot by a French civilian and he died on his twin sisters’ birthdays on December 26th 1917 aged 26. George served with the Canadian Field Artillery and the Canadian Archives reveal that he was 6ft and ½ inch tall, had fair complexion, grey eyes and light hair. The photos below show Villers-au-Bois Cemetery and George’s grave:

 

 
 

 

Onwards to Arras where the Memorial is located on the busy ring road of the town so very noisy outside but very tranquil inside. Some of the inscriptions were faint and people had used pen or pencil to improve legibility. It seems a shame that the War Graves Commission had not done something more appropriate to ensure clarity and so preserve the individuals’ names. I located Edward Collard’s name inscribed on one of the many panels.

I wandered around the headstones reading some of the inscriptions which frequently are so heartfelt and moving that you can almost hear the pain and distress of those left behind: ‘Oh! For the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is stilled’’.

The photos below show the Memorial at Arras from inside and Edward’s inscription:

 
 

 

Day 3:

 

To Kandahar Farm Cemetery, Heuvelland, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium where Ralph Drake-Brockman is buried. To reach the cemetery I drove across the Messines Ridge and again the strategic importance of this raised area in such flat landscape is very apparent. I wondered if Ralph was witness to the mines that were detonated beneath the German lines on the 7th June 1917, the sound of which was heard in Dublin!

It was whilst scouting at Messines that Ralph was hit by shrapnel which led to his death on September 29th 1917 aged 29. Ralph’s brother, Arthur, was with him at the time but seems to have given their colonel, who was also injured, priority over Ralph in getting treatment. Ralph died of his injuries before he could get to the dressing station.

The photo below shows Ralph’s grave:

 

 

 

 

Back into France for the Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery in Armentieres where George Rye is buried. George died on 14th March 1917 aged 26. He was another Alkhamite who emigrated to Australia where he worked as a farm labourer. George joined the Australian Infantry in 1916 and is recorded as being 5ft 2 ½ inches tall, of fresh complexion with blue eyes and light brown hair. The records also state that he was single. By the time of his death a year later George was married to Lucy Louise Rye of Folkestone. Amongst the Australian Archive material, however, is a letter dated April 1917 from a Miss E.E. Wheal of Fremantle desperately searching for any news of George or his whereabouts. I wonder what her relationship with George was. The Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery is in an urban setting with a school opposite and some industrial buildings nearby. It was not the most attractive situation but the cemetery still conveyed a sense of tranquillity amidst all the hustle and bustle of the town whilst the sound of children in the school playground gave the sense of life continuing. The photos below show Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery and George’s grave:

 

 

 

 

The final stop that afternoon brought me to the Chocques Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais where Albert Francis is buried. There is little information about Albert’s death other than the date but, at this time, his regiment was involved in attempts to drive back the German Spring Offensive and it is likely that he was killed in this action on 18th April 1918 aged 21. The cemetery is located at the back of the village overlooking fields but the approach to it gave a sense of being tucked away. The photo below is of Albert’s grave:

 

 

 

 

I spent some time in this cemetery pondering the lives given, not just by the Alkham Heroes but by so many. I couldn’t help but feel that those who sought to justify the deaths of the First World War as being for “the war to end all wars” were betrayed by the outbreak of the Second World War. Sadly it also feels as if continuing actions today betray all those who have made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’.

In researching for the Alkham Heroes I have come across many poignant quotes but, for me, this from Rebecca Harrison, widow of Corporal Christopher Harrison killed in Afghanistan on May 9th 2010, captures the personal and human tragedy of it all:

It hurts me beyond words knowing that I will never have my beloved husband by my side ever again and we will never raise the family that we so desperately craved to complete our lives together. He will forever live in my heart."

How many women and families down the centuries have shared this sense of wretchedness and how many more will?

To truly honour their memories we must remember them and we must learn from them.

For more information on the Alkham Heroes please visit the ‘Heroes’ section of the village website www.alkham.org

 

 

A rainbow over a Flanders Field:

 
  (Mark Robson 2011)