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

Passo del Tonale

It’s the 30th of November, happy St Andrew’s Day everyone!

Outside a Westerly gale is howling in off the North Atlantic, winds are gusting at 55knots, that’s over 60 miles per hour, the rain swirls horizontally hardly touching the ground, but soaking everything that dares to be vertical, definitely not motorcycling weather!

Inside Dookes H.Q. the kitchen log fire is oozing warmth and comfort, which is greatly appreciated by Deltic, my old gun-dog, who firmly refuses to budge from his chosen cozy spot in front of the dancing flames, who can blame him! He’s like me now, retired and content, I hate to think of how many muddy wet miles he’s trotted alongside me, patiently waiting to pick up a pheasant, partridge or pigeon, he’s earned his time in front of the fire.

Deltic's favourite spot.

Deltic’s favourite spot.

The espresso pot hisses as it produces a brew of strong, almost black, Italian coffee and my mind is transported back to sunnier days in Italy riding from Bolzano to Milan. I had to slightly rearrange my planned route on account of bad weather over the Stelvio Pass so I consulted the map for another way to go without too much Autostrada riding.

Hmm, Passo del Tonale with an elevation of 1883m/6178ft, that would fit the bill!

I wander into the lounge and settle in front of the other log-burner as my dear old dog won’t let me near the one in the kitchen. Hmm, thinking of Italy let’s have a Grappa to accompany the espresso! Ah yes, the ride. . .

Leaving Bolzano to we followed the wide Adige valley to San Michele, where we hung a right and crossed the pale green river.P1040419

The SS43 road soon began to climb up through vineyards and it became quite a pleasant day.
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The scenery got more alpine as we approached Passo del Tonale, very pleasant indeed.P1040434
The thing about Tonale today is that it’s one of Italy’s biggest ski stations and unfortunately has been blighted with a whole bunch of, frankly, ugly apartment blocks! I’m sure that when there is snow everywhere and the place is buzzing with ‘Apres Ski’ activity, it must be quite pleasant, but it looked pretty grim to me as we rolled in. It didn’t smell too good either, the verdant ski slopes were well populated with goats doing a great job at keeping the grass nice and short and the air was full of their distinctive odour. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, their “calling cards” were all over the road as well!

One reason why I wanted to visit Tonale was because of its significance during World War One, when the whole of what is now Northern Italy, stretching from Switzerland to Slovenia, became known as “The Italian Front.”

Battles were sporadically fought here between 1915 and 1918, but mostly it was a cold, bloody, stalemate.

Italy had entered the war in order to annex parts of Austria, including the regions of present day Trentino and South Tyrol. The Italians had hoped to gain the initiative with a surprise offensive, but the front soon bogged down into trench warfare. This was grimly similar to the Western Front fought in France, but at high altitude. The fighting here was at times savage, but in reality the most deadly enemy was the weather. Both armies also suffered from poor logistical supply networks, meaning that not only ammunition, but more importantly food and fuel, was constantly in dreadfully short supply.

Autumn 1917 on the front line.

Autumn 1917 on the front line.

The soldiers had to contend with snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures and soon it was dubbed “The White War”. The civilian population was forced to evacuate and many thousands died in Italian and Austrian refugee camps from malnutrition and illness. The really sad thing about the war here, apart from the 1.2 million lost lives, was that the area has always been and still remains, somewhat autonomous, walk into a shop and you will be as likely to be greeted in German as Italian, the locals had always rubbed along just fine.

The front line passed directly through Passo del Tonale. Today a memorial stands in what was once No-Mans Land.P1040435
Built in 1936 on the instructions of Benito Mussolini and designed by architect Pietro Del Fabbro, it is dedicated to the soldiers of all countries who died fighting in the surrounding mountains during WW1.

Actually, its much more than just a monument, it’s also an ossuary, where the wall niches hold the remains of 847 soldiers.

I parked Baby and walked past the heavy wood and bronze doors into the Stygian gloom of a large square crypt. The atmosphere was oppressive and cold. A rack of votive candles flickered before a small altar, the light from their tear shaped flames fell onto a large marble statue of the risen Christ in the center of the room.

I paused for a moment taking in the scene and then lit a candle myself. I’m not big into religion these days, but it seemed the right thing to do as I stood there, being the only living one of the 848 of us who were present.

Walking around the crypt I paused frequently in front of the niches. Some were marked as “Unknown Italian Soldier” or “Unknown Austrian Soldier.” Some had names and others held fading photographs of the occupants, sometimes in uniform and sometimes in civilian dress. Some niches held multiple remains.

I only did one tour around the room before I had to leave, it was just too oppressive and hauntingly sad.

Outside, steps curve to a semicircular terrace above the crypt where I was able to sit in the warm sunlight and ponder the room beneath me. I was honestly glad to get out of there. P1040437

Today in the surrounding mountains, as snow and glaciers melt with climate change, further corpses and remains are being uncovered. Modern generations are still honouring the memory of these newly discovered soldiers of a hundred years ago, but thankfully the mountains are now playgrounds, not battlegrounds.P1040438

Playgrounds for people like me, free to play on a wonderful Harley Davidson.

Most of all, just grateful to be Free.

“‘Till the next time we say goodbye, I’ll be thinking of you.”

Catch you all soon.

Dookes

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.

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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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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