Monday, 1 December 2014

A Very Humbling Pilgrimage

When Max and I married, nearly ten years ago now, we never imagined that the boy from Bournemouth and the girl from Leicester could have such a shared family history.  Both of our families originate from Somerset where bizarrely our Great-grandmothers, worked together at the same shoe factory.  But the co-incidence didn’t end there.   Max would often mention his great-uncle Willie, who served with the Somerset Light Infantry and who died in Battle for Arras in 1918, one of the many whose body was never found and who is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing in Arras. 

I knew that I had a great uncle that died in the Great War.  His photo and the “missing in action” letter are safe in the family bible but much more than that I didn’t know.   Well thank you Internet.   A bit of Googling and time spent on and I found that my Uncle Edwin also died in 1918 and also served with the Somerset Light Infantry.   Unlike, Uncle Willie, he does have a grave, or a least a headstone in a tiny CWWG Cemetery in a little town called Ayette about 10km from Arras.

Since then we have been back to the area several times to "visit" but we always promised ourselves that we would go back on 11 November 2014.  So at a time in the morning I haven't seen in a long while, we made the three hours trip over to The Somme.  As they are in different places we decided that we would do the 11am service at Theipval and move north from there.

I don’t think anything can prepare you for that drive north from Albert. It certainly doesn't get any easier.  Starting with the sign marking the place of The Front on 1st July 1916 to the to the sign, just seven miles further up the road, marking the place of The Front in November 1916, it is cemetery, after cemetery, after cemetery.  

All are easily recognisable with the pristine white Portland stone tombstones and the immaculate lawns.   Just when you think there cannot possibly be any more, there is another, and another and then another; by the side of the road, in the mid-distance, on the horizon. 

Then dominating that horizon is the magnificent Memorial to the Missing at Theipval.  The early morning mist was very fitting for such a day.  It soon burnt off and gave us a crisp sunny November morning, with the beautiful autumn colours of the leaves.

 Standing there looking out across the tranquil landscape, it is impossible to imagine the carnage that had taken place there.  Impossible to equate the green fields, the tractors and the hum of traffic, to the black and white photographs, of trenches and mud and desolation.  Impossible to believe that the 72,000 men listed there, fell, just in those fields and have no known grave; even harder to imagine that this is just one such memorial.  

Just one of the wreaths laid

We found the commemoration to  G.H.J Bramble of the Hampshire Regiment.  He and his brother were Sopley boys both killed on that first day of the Battle of the Somme.  Their names are listed on the memorial stone in Sopely Church.  One has a grave, the other does not.  The family line died out with them, as it probably did for so many others named there.  A sad feeling of what might have been....

The memorial service was carried out in English, but the programme was in both English and French and there were a significant number of French in attendance as will.

The band playing were the Hampshire Constabulary Band and they were BRILLIANT.  A complete masterclass in how to play brass quietly and in tune!

It was a very very moving service AND we managed to have a good sing!
From there we went up to Ayette to pay our respects to Great-Uncle Edwin. Or what is left of him.  The cemetary was shelled about a week after he was buried, so although they know he is there, not of him might be in this plot!  It's a lovely little cemetary of about 50 graves and 3 "special plots" (of with GUE is one) and as part of the on going work that the CWWG carry out, the surrounding wall is                                                       being replaced.

A lone piper plays the Last Post
On to Arras and the Faubourg Memorial to the missing.  Here Great Uncle Willie has his commemoration.

We finished the day by visiting the French Cemetery just outside Albert.

It was and always will be A Very Humbling Pilgramage.

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