The Somme – 100

A century ago to-day the most bloody battle that Europe has ever seen began.

An artillery barrage lasting for seven days pounded dug-in German positions, before the signal for soldiers to advance across the shattered landscape of North East France was given.

At 07:30hrs the crash of artillery fire paused and the shrill sound of tin whistles ordered men forward.

Within seconds the mournful whistles were replaced by the stutter of machine guns.

24 hours later 19,240 British and Empire soldiers were dead.
The French Army had lost 1,590; 12,00 German soldiers also died.

The battle raged for a further 140 days and by the time it dwindled to a muddy stalemate over 300,000 men from both Britain, Germany and France had perished and a further 700,000 wounded.

Two words resonate through history and represent the horror, waste and futility of War:

The Somme.

Today Europe is united in remembrance.
May the lessons of the past guide our actions in the present and the future.

Lest we forget.

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“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?” Wilfred Owen 1893-1918

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.

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Reflections

On Tuesday morning we left our overnight accommodation in Avranches and rode along the Normandy coast to Mont Saint-Michel. This is the famous island commune that lies approximately half a mile off the mainland and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. When I last visited, twelve years ago, it was possible to drive along the causeway virtually to the island. These days, in a bid to control the three million visitors a year, there is a park and ride bus service from a massive and superb car park. It was a shame that we couldn’t get any closer, so this photo will have to do!DSCF3286We then had a super sprint back to Roscoff, with a visit to the hypermarket and then the beach at Carentec for a photo stop, before boarding the ship for home.

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Our ferry crossing back started with a bit of a heavy swell, but soon the sea eased and with the setting sun, it was a very pleasant trip across the water.DSCF3306It’s now Wednesday evening at Dookes H.Q.. I just washed the Normandy mud off Harley and have had a chance to take stock of our frantic few days in France.

As ever the motor-cycling has been total joy, yes even when we got caught in the thunderstorm – things like that show how good your equipment is as well! The French autoroutes may be a bit tedious, but they pass through wonderful countryside, whilst the lovely ‘D’ roads are just that, as a dear friend of mine says, “lovely!”

For the remainder of our visit it was a real mix of emotions. The cemeteries are strange places, each seems to have it’s own specific atmosphere as indeed do the battle sites. We visited many of the Commonwealth War Graves, a couple of French ones and also the German cemetery at Fricourt. The latter is a most disturbing place, very austere and quite depressing, with rows of graves marked by stark metal crosses and only the chilling squawk of crows in the trees for company, there are no tended flowers or shrubs. I’m not being anti-German or jingoistic, it really did feel different. Here we saw four mass graves containing the remains of nearly 12,000 men, over half of whom are unknown. I noticed that one cross had a message from a German chap who had been looking for and found his Grandfather, just like me really, except that mine did not remain in the soil of the Somme like his. I did say no more cemetery photographs, but this is part of Fricourt, just so you can see what I mean. DSCF3192In the cemeteries of each nation we saw graves from many different faiths; Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Secular…the list is long. The French people are fantastic in their attitude towards remembering the Great War. There is a real sense of protecting the legacy and ensuring that the young are taught about the sacrifice and significance of what had happened in their country. On Sunday morning we saw a number of groups of school children being guided around near Pozières. I spoke to one of the guides, a local school teacher, who told me that all of the children in the local area are taught about the events of nearly 100 years ago as a matter of great importance. She asked if I had any link with the Battle of the Somme and when I told her about my Grandfathers, she thanked me for what they had done. I was humbled.

The former battle grounds are interesting, often for what still remains on view, aside from the incredible historic story. Beaumont-Hamel, a scene of tremendous sacrifice by Canadian troops from Newfoundland, has been bought by the Government of Canada to permanently secure the memory of what happened on that spot. The trenches can still clearly be seen, although now covered in grass, one or two are open to allow visitors to see where the Canadian troops once fought and died. It was a moving thing to quietly walk in there on such a pleasant spring evening. DSCF3248In nearby Delville Wood, where South Africans had fought from shattered tree to shattered tree, the shell holes are now covered in wood anemone and bluebells. It is a very tranquil place that I found imbibes a sense of well-being and contentment, most comforting. DSCF3225

France is currently gearing up to four years of commemorations linked to the centenary of the events of the 1914-1918 war. True, the cynics can say that there is a degree of cashing in on the whole Great War nostalgia thing. What I have seen, however, is a determination to mark the dates with dignity and reconciliation, whilst welcoming visitors from all over the world.

I believe that history still has much to teach us; both about the past and if we look hard enough, about ourselves now and in the future. Maybe sometimes we just need to look a little harder.

I’m just grateful that I ride such a wonderful machine whilst I keep looking!

I’ve got a silver machine!

Catch you all soon.

Dookes

 

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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An Appointment In Normandy

Good evening everyone, tonight we are in Ouistreham, Normandy.

I am really having trouble getting going with this post, partly because today has been quite an emotional roller coaster ride. Firstly was the sheer unbridled joy of being out on my beloved Harley, letting her do what she does best, munching the miles on open French roads!

Next we came down to earth with a massive bump, our appointment was at Banneville la Campagne War Cemetery, where Mrs Dookes Grandfather is buried.
This is the first War Cemetery that I have ever visited and it has left a deeply indelible impression on me. There are just over two thousand men buried at Banneville, sobering enough, but this is not classed as a large cemetery! Lying next to a small wood, the place has an serene sense of peacefulness, although the sounds of the world bustle from beyond. As we walked around silently reading the many inscriptions, skylarks sang in the sky above us and the scent of spring flowers wafted in the air. This truly is a sacred place.

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Our mission was to deliver three crosses and poppies, from the family back in Cornwall, to Grandfather’s grave. In addition I placed some Cornish Granite chippings in the ground with them. I took the opportunity to introduce myself to him and explain why I was there, it was incredibly moving and I have tears in my eyes as I write this ten hours later. I hope you understand that I am not posting a photograph of his grave, it’s to personal, a private thing and not for the world of cyberspace.

I’ll leave this post with one more photograph, this is the Grave next to Grandfather. It’s not at all unusual, there are sadly many, many, more just like this. Who ever you are reading this, where ever you are and what ever you believe in, please spend a minute pondering this photograph and reflect on the inhumanity and plain stupidity of war. Then thank your God that you are free.

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There is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England.>