Day 75 Tuesday 15 August 2017
Dieppe to the Somme
Arrive in Albert by 10 am after a drive of a couple of hours. We’re following a guide for a day in the Somme and the town of Albert lies behind the middle of the line of that battle. John Masefield described it in ‘The Old Front Line’, written in 1917, as ‘the centre from which, in time to come, travellers will start to see the battlefield where such deeds were done by men of our race.’
The church with the glittering Golden Madonna in Albert can be seen for miles. In January 1915 German shelling toppled the statue to a perilous-looking angle below the horizontal, but it did not fall and was visible to soldiers of both sides for many miles around. The British and French believed that the war would end on the day that the statue fell, the Germans believed that whoever knocked down the statue would lose the war. Neither prediction came to pass. During the German occupation from March to August 1918 the British shelled Albert and sent the leaning Virgin hurtling to the ground.
The Somme 1916 – 18 Museum is situated in the subterranean tunnels under the basilica. It gives us a good idea of the conditions of trench warfare, with realistic scenes of British, French and German trench and dugout life. There are also photos of the many, many soldiers from the Commonwealth: Indians, Canadians, South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders.
Next we go to Beaumont-Hamel to Newfoundland Park, where there are preserved trenches. The park is run by young Canadian guides who give us a self-guided tour brochure.
The Caribou Memorial to the missing Newfoundlanders.
The 51st (Highland) Division Memorial situated where the German first line ran. So close. As the Newfoundland soldiers advanced they were silhouetted, making them a clear target.
A brief stop at the Ulster Memorial, based on a replica of Helen’s Tower in County Down, where the 36th (Ulster) Division trained before coming to France.
Then the Thiepval Memorial, commemorating over 72,000 British and South African servicemen who died on the Somme between July 1915 and March 1918 and have no known grave. Their individual names are inscribed on the 16 pillars making up the base of the monument. There are two graveyards for French and British soldiers in front of the Memorial, which was designed by Edward Lutyens.
And lastly, the Lochnagar Crater (signposted as ‘La Grande Mine’), 91 meters in diameter and 21 metres in depth, where a series of mines were blown at 7.28 am on 1st July, 1916, marking the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. On that single day 70,000 soldiers lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more were to die during the next few months on this 14 mile stretch.
Nearby a few late poppies struggle to raise their heads in a mown cornfield – a fitting tribute to such scenes of carnage.