9th December 2013
My Grandfather’s memoirs going over the top at the Battle of the Somme.
Despite the fact that I have already had two trips to the Western Front, the first in December 2012 to look at the landscape and second with a group of friends in May 2013, I felt that I needed to go back again and this I did last week. One major motivating factor was that I had been reading my Grandfather’s memoirs in which he describes his time in World War One and I wanted to find exactly the spot where he went over the top on the first day of the Battle of Somme on 1st July 1916.
My Grandfather, Rupert Cary was a professional soldier who joined up at the tender age of 17 years old in 1912 and retired as a Major General in 1949 having served in both World Wars. He went to the Western front in April 1916 and soon found himself in the midst of the action with the Middlesex Regiment. He went over the top close to Fricourt on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and managed to get across No Man’s Land to the German Front where he was shot through the back. He recounts how he was shipped back to the UK and managed to recover but not before he caused a bit of a stink in the hospital where he was recovering when it was discovered that the really bad smell coming from his bed was in fact from his haversack where the bullet which had hit him had pierced a tin of sardines which after a week were really beginning to go off. He was one of the first casualties of the Battle which took over 20,000 British soldiers on the first day. I wanted to see the place where he was so fortunate to survive this terrible day, unlike so many of this fellow soldiers and we actually found it. It is close to the village of Fricourt and is now a field with no sign of the what happened on that day.
The Somme is farming country and due to 100 years of intensive farming, very few signs remain of what happened over those four years, except in the woods and copses where old trenches and mine craters are still to be found. It is lovely undulating country and it was a beautful winter day, so it was very difficult to imagine what it must have been like for all those soldiers nearly 100 years ago on the hot July day. It felt wonderful to stand where my wonderful Grandfather stood that day so long ago. He would have been amazed.
I found a photograph of my Grandfather, his older brother Arthur and his father, my Great Grandfather taken during the War.Â All served and all survived the War.
Butte de Warlencourt
I also wanted to look at the Butte de Warlencourt which was an inspiration for my land form structure in my show garden. The Butte (the french word for mound) was held by the Germans virtually throughout World War One and became a bit of a bug bear for those soldiers serving in the Somme. The Germans seemed always to have the high ground which gave them huge military advantage. This particular mound stood out from the undulating country around it and had been an ancient burial mound it is similar to Silbury Hill in Wiltshire in fact. Now it is a bit overgrown and has lost the stark look it had in World War One as so well shown by the War artists William Orpen and Christopher Nevinson in their sketches and paintings. The constant fighting during the war had revealed the chalk so it looked a bit like an iced Christmas pudding. Now it lost its resonance.
We also visited one of the largest mine craters throughout the Western Front, Lochnagar at La Boisselle. This was the largest of 17 mines which detonated on 1st July 1916 and it has left a hole 91 metres across and 21 metres deep and the column of earth which resulted reached up to over 1000 metres in the air. It was so loud that there were reports that it could be heard in London. It is astounding and I am not sure that my photo really does it full justice.
It was detonated at 7.28am close to the time that my Grandfather was preparing to go over the top only a few miles away. A strange thought.