The Somme 2018
Early July saw members of the 10th Essex make our annual trip to the crucible of fire for the regiment. La Boisselle at The Somme.
La Boisselle is a place the Essex would come to know incredibly well during their deployment on the western front. They would find themselves in the location or the vicinity in 1915, 16, 17 and 18. Though changing their location between repeated visits with deployments to places like Arras, Ypres, Villiers Bretonaux, they would often find themselves back at this location.
Arriving on the 29th to set up, the group begun to prepare for one of the highlights of the trip. Scout Pte Hazzard had set a route from La Boisselle to Irles to take in the route of an attack laid out in March 1917. As we set our equipment up for the march, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. The route would comprise some nine miles across both road and broken country. We knew however the heat was going to be against us, as it would peak quickly to the mid 30s. So the decision was made to set off around 6:30am.
Ready to march in the morning, the platoon of 12 men guided by Hazzard set off. We would be equipped in battle order, with our helmets at our backs to save us from cooking our brains in our skulls. The march begun with mist on the ground obscuring much of the view but the sun gently burning through. Our first stop would be at Ovilliers cemetery which contained a number of 10th Essex men from the attacks in mid September of the Somme. The real turn up for march before this though was while marching, the iron harvest had churned much of the ordnance up this year. Including what appeared to be a live Rifle Grenade. We left it in its location… fuses and a hundred years of corrosion are not things to be trifled with.
Marching from here we made tracks to our next location at Courcellette cemetery and then on to Adanac Cemetery after this. Much of the march at this point was across broken farm ground along a track, and with the mist now burned off we felt genuinely in the middle of nowhere. Hazzard was leading us through the ancient ground of one of the worlds perpetual battlefields. A landscape torn recently by shellfire, but before this by muskets of the Franco Prussian war, bows and arrows of the free companies, the sandalled feet of Caesars legions and even before that, the screaming war cry of chalk haired Gallic warlords. This landscape has had more than its fare share of bloodshed and slaughter on it, and well before the conflict we portray. Crossing the location of the German lines genuinely raised hairs on the neck. We were in the enemy territory now. They hadn’t been there for a hundred years… but here we were, crossing that old line.
Pushing forward the heat of the day was starting to rise, now in the mid twenties we could feel the sense of the heat permeating everything. At each of the locations Hazzard had done fantastic research and told us much of the information of the advance of the regiment, and of the men who were buried at each of the cemetery’s we visited.
The final three location stops would prove to be the most fascinating. Stopping at Miramount on the river Ancre in the shade, we met with a local gentleman called Rogere. In his 70s he was greatly excited to meet British Tommy’s. Giving us ice cold water and a rake of cherries from his orchard, he also presented us proudly with two relic rifles he had found with a metal detector in his orchard. An SMLE and a G98. The Enfield still cocked and the hammer in the ready to fire position. Sgt Mitchley revealing that this rifle must have been found and it’s user probably killed before he pulled the trigger. This really felt as a stark reminder of what and indeed whom we follow.
Next we would make it to Miramount railway station. This was of critical importance in the attack on Irles in the March 1917 campaign. The rail head was the most important stop off for the Germans, supplying their troops in the area. In the quarry area behind the station, many German bunkers penetrating deep into the quarry, pushed out by the British would mark as the jump off for the men of the 10th Essex on the day in March for the attack. We followed the attack line down the old road toward Irles.
The heat now had genuinely taken hold. In the mid thirties, the tar in the road was bubbling up through the freshly laid asphalt. Stark contrast to the day the Essex attacked, in which they were issued with snow suits. Irles itself marked the end of the march for us. Genuinely exhausted and thankful we had the luxury of not being shot at, it was bought home to us the ease in which we had marched. Near a years advance, covered in 4 hours. This would be brought into stark contrast compared to us driving down to Villiers Bretonaux… the distance of the German advance in operation Michael. Massive differences.
Out the back of the town we drove to the dense network of bunkers the Essex managed to flush out. One of their most successful attacks of the war and we were right on top of it. A genuinely incredible place.
On the 1st of July we took position at Lochnagar for the ceremony before heading to a number of cemetery’s where Essex men where buried. Including Poizier. The wall at the back of Pozier like many of the commemoration walls has thousands of names on it of men who’s bodies have no known location. The 10th Essex have well over a hundred there. This was the point of deepest reflection for us. For we knew of the six of us there, the chances of us as friends signing up and all making it through would be infinitesimal.
Our final day would see a group of us heading south to Villiers Bretonaux to the John Monash center to visit 3 Essex men there and the outstanding new visitor center there. Well worth your time. We would finish our annual trip with a visit to our favourite place on the Western Front. Arras. A location men would have visited to refresh and rest. And we would do just that. Laughter and friendship as we sat on the square that 100 years ago would have rung with the sounds of artillery fire.
Arras. The Somme. The Western Front. A landscape destroyed a 100 years ago by millions of tonnes of iron and fire and then again in the battle for France in 1940… now at peace at last.
Lance Corporal Mike Everest.