When you go home tell them of us and say…

Today is July the 1st. Before doing the Help for Heroes Big Battlefield Bike rides that date held no real significance for me. I’d read a little about World War 1 as a kid,mostly the Biggles books by WE Johns if I’m honest and i can quote large chunks of dialogue from Blackadder goes Forth so I’d heard of the Somme obviously but I knew very little about what happened in this corner of France between July & November 1916. Riding along the quiet French roads that follow the front line you can’t fail to be moved by the number of Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries dominated by the Lutyens designed Thiepval memorial to the missing, which commemorates the 72000 British soldiers with no known grave. The Missing from commonwealth countries are commemorated on their own national memorials. The story of The Battle of the Somme has become synonymous with failure, the legend of lions led by donkeys and characterised by the attack near Beaumont Hamel by
the 29th Division, which had served with distinction at Gallipoli. Part of the division’s attack was captured on film by Geoffrey Malins and has since provided some of the most enduring images of the war, including the detonation of the mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt which was blown at 7.20am when the first 2 waves failed to get even halfway across No-Mans Land the 3rd wave comprising 1st Newfoundland Regiment were ordered forward, having heard the endless machine gun fire all morning as they advanced towards it they found the communications trenches leading from the reserve line to the front line were blocked by dead bodies and unevacuated wounded from previous attacks. The Newfoundlanders did no more than climb out of the reserve trench, 200 metres behind their actual start line, and advance in plain sight towards the enemy. The battalion suffered 684 casualties, 91% of its strength and the second worst battalion loss of the first day. The incredible bravery of the Newfoundlanders is commemorated at Beaumont Hamel and standing in the preserved trenches and trying to imagine what the scene was like on that summers morning is something I found very hard.
Not all the attacks on the first day of the Somme failed. Our battlefield tour guides described the attack towards Mametz about 8 miles south of Beaumont where the 7th Division including the Devonshire Regiment succeeded in taking the village of Mametz although not without casualties . Hidden from view of the road is The Devonshires Cemetery. After the attack the Regiments dead were collected and buried together in a section of trench. Their grave was marked by the colleagues with a wooden cross bearing the inscription “The Devonshires held this trench. They hold it still.” After the war the cemetery was formalised but the inscription remains carved in stone now not wood marking the graves of 163 soldiers.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s 163 or 72000 commemorated each of these beautifully tended cemeteries have their own story, the story of the men who are remembered within, the lions led by donkeys, “The dead who short days ago lived”. So I’m doing what John Maxwell Edmonds said to do “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow’s we gave our today”






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