On the front line in northern France

by Peter Jones

The Somme is a beautiful corner of France, just a short drive south of Calais. But in this part of the country, the scars of the past are never far away

Scene one

“We’re looking for a place called...” Pause. The map rustled. “Oh... chon... village.”

My father left school at 14, and his reading was interspersed with long pauses at the best of times. To expect him to read French place names was probably a step too far. Poor old Tommy Atkins had struggled with those foreign words, too, I reflected later. Ypres became “Wipers” and Auchonvillers became “Ocean Villas”.

I spotted a lay-by and tugged the wheel round. “Look. Give me the bloody map.”

Wrestling the map into manageable proportions, I saw a heavy black pencil line that traced our route from Calais that morning. A cross marked the position of Pozières, but had obliterated the road system around the village in the process. More roads had been laid waste, as Dad’s pencil took wrong turns. What the guns had failed to do 80 years ago...

Scene two

“Designed by Lutyens in the 1920s, finished in 1932, the Monument to the Missing records the names of 70,000 British troops...”

The embattled teacher paused, as a fresh downpour drowned out his voice. The heavy droplets drummed on his group’s clipboards, white fingers clutched pens, teeth chattered. Rainwear squeaked and rustled, as hoods were pulled tighter. A cloud of boys at the back of the group had long since dispensed with the clipboards, and just loomed sullenly.

I moved away, my sympathies with all concerned. Since I didn’t have to take notes, I headed for cover. From the vantage point of Thiepval, we could see the ranks of iron grey clouds marching in from the east. In the shelter of the Monument, the wind carved its way along the open colonnades. I took refuge with the Yorkshire Regiment, in the western corner of the building. Even on a grey day like this, I could appreciate the simplicity and clarity of Lutyens’ vision. Light fell on all the panels, there were no dark corners.

A whistle from the eastern end of the colonnade. Dad beckoned. He was standing beneath the panel dedicated to the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Another name, J Garside. Another relative, on my mother’s side. One of the 20,000 confirmed dead by lunchtime on the first day of the Somme offensive.

The school party was squelching past us, their heads turning left and right, up and down the endless columns of names. The immensity of the Lutyens design had left them disquieted, awe-struck, perhaps.

A voice to my left, coming from beneath a blue rain-slicked hood. “Sir, sir. I’ve found him. I’ve found him.” Sir stopped and wheeled round. Brushed his own hood back. “Here, sir. My great great grandad.” Sir smiled.

Scene three

Thirty minutes later, with the breeze chasing the clouds away, we were bumping along a track above the village of Serre. An open cornfield swept away to the east, and the rooftops of the village were just visible on the horizon. To the west, at the end of the track, there was a low line of trees. A series of the small green Commonwealth Graves Commission signs had led us here, although the car was far from happy with the decision to drive rather than park and walk.

The village of Serre had been the target for the attack of a number of Pals battalions on the morning of July 1st 1916. The line of trees marked the British front line, and the shallow ditch before us was all that remained of the position. The land fell away to Railway Hollow, where there was another cemetery.

I looked back up the slope towards Serre. Eighty years on, it was still an entirely open stretch of ground. My companions had said nothing since getting out of the car. They too stared up the hill towards the old German positions. We were all thinking exactly the same thing – who on earth came up with this plan? The sense of waste and futility and anger that has been associated with the very word Somme was neatly summed up there and then. The fresh faced Pals had emerged from this line on a similarly crystal-clear day and walked into the history books. But not in the way they had hoped.

Scene four

Down in the Railway Hollow Cemetery, I was stopped in my tracks by the words on the grave of Private Alf Goodlad. His inscription - “France is a splendid country, well worth dying for” - was a line taken from his last letter home.

And the spot was worthy of Private Goodlad – another geometrically perfect collection of white gravestones set in an idyllic pastoral scene. An open-throated lark belted out its tune, reminding me of those that sang on the sand dunes of home. The comforting sound of a far-off tractor blew in on the breeze from the southwest, but other than that we had the place to ourselves. “Splendid” was the word.

My father began to look in the battered brown index file of graves for this little cemetry. It transpired that he was looking for someone from our part of Wales. It struck me initially as parochial; small-minded, even. The teacher in me reminded him of the Pals battalions. Again, however, Dad was seizing on something important. We all needed a context for this suffering, some sort of connection.

Visiting the Somme

While you’re on the Somme, try Le Prieure in Rancourt for comfortable accommodation right on the edge of the battlefield. To navigate around the battlefield, simply follow the route indicated by the poppy. Do your research first by tracing the whereabouts of members of your family on the Commonwealth Graves Commission website (http://www.cwgc.org/). And if, like us, you get hit with some rain, take refuge in Historial de la Grande Guerre, the award-winning museum in Péronne.