The Next Little Trip

Regular blogonaughts of these pages will hopefully remember the pilgrimage trip that we made last April to the Somme Battlefield in Northern France, in order to trace the footsteps of my two Grandfathers.

As I explained at the time, it was my attempt at making sense of some of what they were both involved in nearly 100 years ago and the sequence of posts hopefully gave you all an insight into what I found.

Now here we are, just over a year later and a number of things have fallen into place for me about those dark, far off, days. Further research has uncovered couple of snippets;

Grandfather William was awarded a “Wound Stripe,” after stopping a piece of shrapnel with his head whilst in action near Nieuport in 1917! The stripe was a metal badge worn vertically on the left uniform sleeve and signified that the wearer had been wounded in combat. The British Army started awarding them in 1916 but stopped after the end of WW1. Some were also issued after D-day in 1944, but were discontinued after 1946. The fact that William was awarded the stripe is a detail that no-one in the family appears to have been aware of, up until now! I have managed to obtain a genuine, but unissued, WW1 wound stripe that I am going to mount along side his medals and insignia; one day it can pass to one of his Great granddaughters, my nieces, if they ever show any interest. If not then the collection can be sold in aid of veterans charities.

WW1 Wound Stripe,  out of focus pen for scale.

WW1 Wound Stripe,
out of focus pen for scale.

Searches in the Public Records for Grandfather Charles have also been interesting. I found out that he and his unit of the Royal Field Artillery is recorded as “Entering Theatre, France,” on the 12th May 1915.

Now that got me thinking. . . That’s exactly 100 years ago next Tuesday!

I haven’t been able to find out where Charles first “Entered Theatre,” but you can bet it was probably at one of the French Channel Ports. I can just imagine the scene as men, equipment and horses were all being unloaded from a ship. The more I have thought about it, the more I feel that I just have to be in France next Tuesday; nowhere specific, just in France 100 years on.

I shared my feelings with my oldest friend, known in these pages as “Vifferman,” he gets it and is going to ride with me again. It’ll be cool.

We are going to pop over on the night ferry to Roscoff, have a little ride around, then go pay our respects to some guys from another conflict that never made it home, then we’ll come back. I’ll tell you all about that in another post, be great if you ride with us.

Until then, gotta dash and polish Harley for a special day out!

Catch you all soon.

Dookes

PS Serious stuff this, so no Rock n’Roll.

98 Years Ago Today

The Battle of The Somme began, 1st July 1916.

It continued until the 18th November 1916, before petering out into a bloody, muddy stalemate.

In those few short months, over one million men, from both sides in the conflict, were killed, wounded or missing presumed dead.

Lest we forget.image

In My Grandfathers Shadows

It’s a cold wet night in Normandy. Today has been about one thing, riding motorbikes and doing it quickly. Time to let off steam after the intense emotions of the last couple of days, but also time to reflect on what has gone before.

I said at the beginning of this little odyssey that this was a personal pilgrimage to stand where my two Grandfathers had been nearly 100 years ago. In the roundness of the statement, I feel that I have achieved my goal, but at the same time I seem to have uncovered much more that I will need time to ponder and study. The existence of the book detailing the history of Siege Battery 94 and accompanying map were a godsend and we were able to pretty much pin point the exact position of the guns at each location.
This is “the sunken lane between Ovillers and the Bapaume Road”.

20140407-211817.jpg I know that it’s just the corner of a field in North East France, but it’s where men fought and died alongside my Grandfather William and so to me, it’s sacred ground. In the next photo, near Thiepval, the guns stood by the small farm in the middle of the picture, same emotion here as well.>

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We moved East from Albert to Mametz, where Grandfather Charles and his fellow field gunners supported the 38th Welsh Division as they made their assault on Mametz Wood losing 4000 men in five days. Today the wood is peaceful and alive with the new life of spring. Shell craters still lie in the undergrowth, a tangible reminder of the wood’s bloody history. On the ridge facing the wood, from where the Welsh soldiers started their attack, stands probably the most striking memorial on the whole Somme battlefield.

20140407-214319.jpg Y Ddraig Goch, The Red Dragon, stands defiant facing Mametz Wood, it’s claw tearing at barbed wire atop a three metre plinth. Awe inspiring and strikingly simple. It made me very proud, yet at the same time very sad.

Thank you all for riding along with me on this, very different, trip. I have needed to do this pilgrimage for a long time. No more cemetery, or memorial photos for now, but maybe I’ll share some further thoughts in the future. Please do two things for me, eh?

Remember them, the ordinary soldiers, who became extraordinary men and who died by their millions. Remember them, not just once a year but all year, because the poem is true; “For our tomorrows, they gave their today.”

Thank you, Dookes.

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Sailing For France

It always amazes me how quickly the start date for one of my trips comes around, but here we are getting ready to sail for France. The weather has been miserable all morning, but seems to be trying to brighten up now.

My thoughts have been continually turning back nearly 100 years to the men, who with my Grandfathers, would have been also getting ready to cross the English Channel by ship. In their case though, there was certainly no guarantee of a return trip and definitely no comforts on the voyage. I wonder what they were thinking? No doubt on the surface all was bravado and fun, but inside it must have been a different story. Who was it who said that courage is to be afraid, yet still go on?

I found this photograph of a troop ship leaving Folkestone, where so many embarked. Who knows, maybe William or Charles could be in this photograph. IMG_0309What of those men in the picture, what happened to them and how many came home? The answer is lost in the mists of time, but it certainly is a sobering thought.

I know that our Brittany Ferry ship tonight, my old friend the ‘Pont Aven’, will be considerably more palatial than this dear old two stacker…but with nothing of the style! Then again, I won’t have to spend the crossing on deck in case of submarine attack…

‘And I heard a voice crying, This is the path to Glory.’  (Wilfred Owen 1893-1918)

Catch you all in France tomorrow.

Dookes

 

Some More History

Thank you for all the feedback from my last post on the subject of the next road trip. A couple of questions keep cropping up about how I have found out so much about my two Grandfathers’ Army service, so I thought that I had better explain.

First up is Grandfather William; here I had a bit of a head start and it is he that I have found out most about. Obviously first hand family history is always a good starting point and I was very fortunate that my late Grandmother told me so much about him. In William’s case though, I also came into possession of a very interesting book that was written just after WW1 detailing all the actions and movements of his combat unit during the Great War period. The book was written by one of the Officers of the 94th Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery and was distributed to all the unit’s survivors after the conflict.

IMG_0289 It draws upon the war diaries of the unit and gives details of locations, action, targets and sadly the casualties, that the 94th Battery experienced. Alongside the book is a map that accurately shows exactly where the unit was during the whole of its time in France, the details of this map can be accurately plotted on modern maps and looking at Google Earth, amazingly some of the gun locations can still be seen! Guns such this 9.2 inch howitzer, seen here in action on the Somme; note that it took four men to lift the shell, no ear defenders in sight either!IMG_0299The next bit of good fortune was to be able to obtain William’s Army Service record from the National Records Office. This was a real stroke of luck as unfortunately nearly three-quarters of the historic artillery records were destroyed by Nazi bombing during World war Two. William’s survived, just, because they show signs of burning around the edges! Putting the information from these two sources together I was able to build a pretty good picture of William’s service history, from signing up in 1915 to discharge in 1919. The detail was sufficient that I have been able to virtually say where he was on any specific day and what he may have been involved in. He joined the Army on the 11th December 1915, was posted for training on 8th April 1916 and by July 1916 he was involved in the Battle of The Somme, which all seems amazingly rushed! During the summer of 1917 he was wounded during an artillery duel near Nieuport, but soon returned to frontline service until evacuated back to England in April 1918. He was posted back to mainland Europe and served in the Army of Occupation during 1919. Sadly, in the case of Grandfather Charles we know a lot less. It has been a tad more difficult to find out much beyond the sparse accounts we have from what he told family members. Like many veterans of war he didn’t talk an awful lot about his experiences.  Unfortunately his service and unit records were amongst those destroyed by Goering’s bomber boys in WW2. From his medals and medal record card we know that he served with 188 Battery, Royal Field Artillery. Here we see men of the RFA trying to manoeuvre one of their 13 pounder guns in the bottomless mud of France.IMG_0301There are some pretty useful general records of where 188 Battery saw action, but nothing like as much detail as the RGA book. I know that after the Battle of The Somme his unit was later involved in that other WW1 slaughter at Passchendaele, the Battle of Ypres, in 1917. Was one view into hell not enough? IMG_0290So that’s it for now, I do hope that you find this small snapshot of family history interesting. Like I said previously, just two ordinary soldiers who survived the worse conflict in history. Heroes? Well certainly not in their own eyes, but to me they stand with their comrades among the greatest heroes in history. Their fight with the enemy was not personal, indeed they shared a common lot and sadly many would share a common fate. Yet they did what was asked of them, they lived, fought and died for each other and just some, the lucky ones, came home again.     Heroes? Undoubtedly!

“I’d heard fool-heroes brag of where they’d been,

With stories of the glories that they’d seen.

But you, good simple soldier, seasoned well

In woods and posts and crater-lines of hell,

And still you whisper of the war, and find

Sour jokes for all those horrors left behind.”     Siegfried Sassoon

 

Catch you all soon.  Dookes

 

PS If anyone is interested, the book I referred to is:

“Siege Battery 94 During the World War 1914-1918” by Major Charles Berkley Lowe. It has now been published now in paperback by The Naval and Military Press in association with the Royal Artillery Museum ; ISBN 1-845740-88-2