By Sara Lynn Burrough
One of the most memorable trips I ever did was to the battlefields of World War One. I had just retired from teaching in Canada and had time and space to explore new ventures. Like many people I always thought I had a novel in me and so in the Fall of 2014 I decided to see if mine could come to fruition. As a child I grew up with stories from my Grandmother of her brother who died in the Battle of the Somme in World War One, and in 1999-2000 thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission I had tracked down LCpl Ernest Joseph Britton’s grave in St. Sever Cemetery in Rouen, France. I stood in front of his tombstone on the dew-soaked grass taking in the details that he had died aged 20 on 10th July, 1916 so young…talk about a life not lived. I remembered one Remembrance Day my Grandmother in tears telling me that he had gone out into no-man’s land to rescue a comrade injured in a raid earlier in the day and was shot dragging him back into the trenches. He died ten days later in hospital. This was all I and the rest of the family knew, what had this ancestor of mine done in the war? In November 2014, in the 100 year anniversary of the start of WWI I headed to France to find out.
To prepare for my trip I had done a lot of research. Thanks to Ancestry.com I had twelve documents of my Great Uncle Ernie’s war service. From family lore I knew he had been a footman in London, England and signed up in the early days of the war probably following his master, and there it was, his sign-up papers at the Duke of Yorks HQ in Chelsea. It was amazing to see his signature! I was able to locate the ‘War Diary’ of the 12th Middlesex Regiment and knew that he had trained on Salisbury Plain and deployed from Southampton to Le Havre, France on July 25th,1915. I even knew the name of the ship he sailed on, the SS La Margerite, this was amazing! Reading on in the ‘War Diary’ though were just places and dates that meant very little to me, and I resolved to follow in his footsteps on the battlefield of the Somme.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet I was able to find an expert battlefield guide, Jeremy Banning (www.jeremybanning.co.uk ) , who had been involved in filming a BBC documentary in the area, and when I contacted him he agreed to lead a bespoke tour for me. Jeremy also recommended where to stay and this is how I ended up in my wonderful writing retreat, at Chavasse Farm in the village of Hardecourt aux Bois www.chavasseferme.com staying in a self-catering cottage Dupres House. This was to be my base for the month and was within fifteen minutes of all the sites my Great Uncle fought in. It’s a great location with lots of memorabilia and the owner is himself a battlefield guide-one day Richard Porter showed me all the weapons from the front and how they were used, and he and his wife Michelle made me very welcome there. I soon settled into a routine, writing in the morning (the early months of my Great-Uncle’s training) and going out to explore the beautiful northern French countryside in the afternoon. On the way home I would stop into a village to pick up a fresh baguette from a bakery, some fresh fruit, another bottle of wine or some cheese. I saved the real battlefield exploration till Jeremy could join me for the three days we had planned.
With Jeremy Banning I started seeing the countryside around me with new eyes. Jeremy had a wealth of knowledge and used trench maps matched up to modern maps. Thanks to his friend military historian Peter Barton we also had access to amazing panoramas-incredible huge historic photos of the battlefield that we could match up to the modern landscape. We had beautiful clear sunny days as we explored under the bright blue skies of northern France. Our initial foray was to the area Ernie was first deployed to in September of 1915, Sector D3 above the German-held village of Fricourt, east of the town of Albert. The papers at the time referred to the Somme as “the deathless war” because unlike the muddy horrors of Flanders, it was gently rolling countryside with trenches carved out of dry white chalk. We explored the area and visited the war cemetery overlooking the Tambour- a WW1 mining sector documented in the War Diary where a mine exploded necessitating a rescue by the 12th Middlesex.
After this we went to sector D1 where the 12th Middlesex took over the trenches of the Bois Francais Sector, near Meaulte and Becordel in the build up to the frosty Christmas of 1915. Here the trenches were only 20 yards apart and the War Diary mentions the British troops being able to hear the Germans talking and singing. We clambered around in to the woods there to find the deep craters still left around Aeroplane trench. Jeremy had been part of the team filming “War of Words:Soldier-Poets of the Somme” which was to air on BBC Two about Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves (amongst others) who served in the same area at the same time as my Great-Uncle. I vividly remember Jeremy showing me where Sassoon witnessed the attack of 1st July on the slopes of the Bois-Francais and wrote in his diary an observation of a wounded Manchester Regiment man he sees falling “his face a crimson patch.” On another day near Thiepval he showed me where JRR Tolkien saw his first tank!
As we explored the countryside we would often stop into World War One Cemeteries and pay our respects, writing a message in the visitor’s book. We would find the graves of 12th Middlesex men and from the War Diary and a document Jeremy prepared, would be able to cross-reference how they had died. Jeremy would also tell me stories of notable graves, how this boy had lied about his age and was too young to serve, how he was buried beside the oldest man killed, or how this grave was of a famous footballer. One day we drove down a steep slope to the Devonshire Cemetery overlooking the village of Mametz. On1st July, 1916 the first day of the Battle of the Somme the Devonshires left their front trench and attacked uphill taking heavy casualties. At the end of the day the Regiment buried their dead in the same trench and there is a poignant carving on the memorial stone “The Devonshires held this trench, The Devonshires hold it still.” Jeremy told me of WW1 poet William Hodgson who wrote a poem in the months before he died about “that familiar hill” above the trench and the last powerful line is “Help me to die, O Lord.” The poem was published two days before he was killed. It was moments like these which brought the front alive for me and Jeremy was right that as I stayed on to write I would often pop in to visit with the men I had come to know.
It was near Carnoy that my Great Uncle suffered his deadly wound. In March of 1916 the 12th Middlesex moved in to Sector A1 near the strip of woods called the Talus Boise. As we walked up the ploughed fields to the two remaining trees marking the line at the start of the Battle of the Somme Jeremy told me of the officer who led his men into battle up the slope by kicking four footballs ahead of them. As we walked up the track to the sunlit fields I had learned to keep my eyes open to find the detritus of the battlefield. When the farmers found bombs they would place them beside the track for the bomb squad to pick up. After Jeremy warned me never to touch them we had a look at one we came across. I often found unidentifiable rusted pieces of metal, but one day on my own I also found a bucket handle and loved finding this rusty harvest of that long-ago war.
The war wasn’t all horrors. In the months leading up to June the Regiment spent time in billets at Bronfay farm and the Billon Woods. They also had work parties and regimental games at the beautiful Chateau Suzanne, and as I explored this lovely village along the river and sat in the square I could imagine Ernie there. On the 29th and 30th June (the night before the outbreak of the Battle of the Somme) Ernie’s companies went out on a raid. It was in this raid that Ernie’s friend was badly wounded and lay out in no-man’s land. When he went to rescue him Ernie suffered his fatal wound. He was evacuated to the dressing-station at Carnoy and from there down the evacuation trail to hospital in Rouen where he died ten days later one year, 318 days after joining up as a 19 year old, never to live the life he could have known.
At least he has a grave though that I can stand in front of. After our three days walking in my ancestor’s footsteps on the Somme Jeremy and I went to the Thiepval Memorial for the Remembrance Day ceremony. It is here that 72,195 men missing in the Battles of the Somme from 1915-1918 with no known grave are memorialized. Later that day I made my own private memorial to my Great Uncle as I walked up to the two lone trees near where he was wounded and laid my own wreath. The poppies were blooming.