April on The Somme - Wet & Windy Weather, Pilgrimages, Helping Hands and Anzacs

Posted on 30th April 2024 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.

April on The Somme  - Wet & Windy Weather, Pilgrimages, Helping Hands and Anzacs

April on The Somme  - Wet & Windy Weather, Pilgrimages, Helping Hands and Anzacs

April, come she will, when streams are ripe and swelled with rain….so the song lyric goes.  And there has certainly been rain, more rain and winds, temperatures much colder than average, with 2 night frosts last week.  The heating remains on and warming meals are sill the order of the day. We feel we are on the cusp of more settled weather though, and the cold, rain and wind hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of either our guests or ourselves. It has been a very busy month here, with never a dull moment. We wouldn’t want it any other way. Though we sometimes wonder when we find the time to write this- but we do enjoy putting together this summary of goings on here. We get great feedback about the newsletter and that is so lovely, knowing our scrawlings are read and enjoyed across the world.

Despite the weather, the farmers have been seeding, spraying, and feeding crops though everything is a little behind. Outside our front door the landscape is bright yellow from the rape crop – also known as colza or canola depending on where you are – Mash Valley and the ridge behind is smothered  in a bright yellow coat.

Other signs of Spring are the beautiful bluebells in Delville and High Wood. We remark that this little plant, straggly and inconspicuous as a single bell flower transforms when it works with fellow bluebells.  They come together to form a carpet of blue/violet like a satin carpet for an emperor. The blue hue caressing the curves of the trench lines in Delville Wood. Definitely a case of strength in numbers and a place once ravaged and war torn now beautifully transformed by nature. The Somme is very good at that.

 Bluebells in Delville Wood.

There has been plenty to occupy us this month – in fact we haven’t stopped and there is always something interesting going on.

This month’s poem was brought to mind by guests Darryl and Janet from Australia. Before their visit they wrote:

I recently read a book “The Pity of War” by British Historian Niall Ferguson.  It is a history of WW1 but deals in some depth with the politics of Why?  I found it heavy going but very enlightening. But, there is this little entry in the concluding chapter which I keep going back to.  

 “Private David Sutherland was killed during a raid on 16 May, 1916.  His platoon commander, Lieutenant Ewart Mackintosh, who had vainly carried him back across no man’s land, wrote a poem which it is impossible to read unmoved:

So you were David’s father,

And he was your only son,

And the new-cut peats are rotting,

And the work is left undone,

Because of an old man weeping,

Just an old man in pain,

For David, his son David,

That will not come again.”

 

Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still, 
Not a word of the fighting 
But just the sheep on the hill 
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year got stormier, 
And the Bosches have got his body, 
And I was his officer.  

You were only David's father, 
But I had fifty sons 
When we went up that evening 
Under the arch of the guns, 
And we came back at twilight 
— O God! I heard them call 
To me for help and pity 
That could not help at all.  

Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me, 
More my sons than your fathers' 
For they could only see 
The little helpless babies 
And the young men in their pride. 
They could not see you dying 
And hold you while you died.   

Happy and young and gallant, 
they saw their first born go, 
But not the strong limbs broken 
And the beautiful men brought low, 
The piteous writhing bodies, 
They screamed, "Don't leave me Sir," 
For they were only fathers 
But I was your officer.

This will be a very humbling experience.  We are both looking forward to meeting you both. Darryl & Janet, Toowoomba.

This poem is “In Memoriam” by Ewart Alan Macintosh.

On the evening of 16th May, 1916 Lieutenant Ewart Alan Mackintosh (1893-1917) and Second Lieutenant Mackay of the 5th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders (of the 51st Highland Division) led a raid on the German trenches in the area north west of Arras. The experience of the raid clearly had a profound effect on Lt Mackintosh and, in particular, the death of one of his men, David Sutherland, inspired him to write the poem 'In Memoriam'.

The entry for 16th May in the Battalion War Diary reads as follows:

“Bn [battalion] employed in working parties. In the evening at 8.10pm after an artillery preparation 2 raiding parties under Lts Mackintosh and 2 Lt Mackay entered German lines. 7 Germans were killed by being either shot or bayonetted and 5 dug-outs full of Germans were bombed. Also 1 dugout was blown up by RE [Royal Engineers]. All our party returned except one man who was left dead in German lines. It is estimated that German casualties must have been between 60 and 70. Our casualties were 2 Lt Mackay slightly wounded, 2 men killed and 14 wounded. Two of the wounded have since died.”(1)

The two soldiers from the battalion listed as killed on the day of this raid can be confirmed as Privates John McDowell and David Sutherland. Research into the details of these two soldiers has established that Private McDowell's body was retrieved and taken back to the British lines because he has a grave at Maroeuil British Military Cemetery. 

Private Sutherland, however, who is the soldier ‘David’ in the poem, does not have a known grave and his name is inscribed on the Memorial to the Missing at Arras. It can be assumed that “the man left dead in the German lines” mentioned in the battalion war diary is David Sutherland: “And the Bosches have got his body”. The Germans may well have buried him in a marked grave at the time, but the whereabouts of his body are now no longer known and he is listed as missing by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 

As the junior officer in command of Private Sutherland at the time, Lt Mackintosh would have come to know him through his duty of having to read outgoing letters from his men for censorship reasons. David Sutherland was from Achreamie in Caithness, a rural region in the far north of Scotland. The type of letter David would write to his father is reflected in the words of the second verse: “Not a word of the fighting, Just the sheep on the hill”. David was aged 19 when he died. 

Lieutenant Mackintosh was killed eighteen months later on 21st November 1917 during the Battle of Cambrai. He was an extremely popular member of the battalion. He is buried at Orival Wood Cemetery near Flesquieres.

There is an excellent book about E A Mackintosh and his poetry, Can't Shoot a Man with a Cold.

 Ewart Alan Mackintosh

Exploring The Somme

It has been wonderful having familiar faces and new guests through our door again this April. It has been our pleasure to share the Somme with so many lovely people, from near and far.

Lovely regular guests Roger and Elaine from Devon visited, Roger bringing with him copies of his books. Combining a love of the history of military aviation and photography, Roger has written 2 books covering British Military Biplanes Volumes 1 and 2.

Well produced and a wonderful library companion. Roger kindly left us a copy of each volume and his book can be ordered from:

https://www.aviation-bookshop.com/shop/british-military-biplanes-1912-19/

https://shop.keypublishing.com/products/british-military-biplanes-vol-2

Or contacting Roger direct at [email protected]

 Roger with his 2 volumes of British Military Biplanes

Hazel and Hedley visited from Kent and spent an enjoyable few days with us, part of which was to plan their future visits for 2024 as they are frequent visitors who are also Friends of Lochnagar who help to maintain that special place.

Also visiting were friends Richard and Terry who walked the fields  and tracks and also visited a couple of rederie/brocants searching for militaria.

Father and son Tony and Dan along with father in law Paul visited as they do every April to walk the fields and find vestiges of the War. A highlight this year among the shrapnel balls and bullets was a Durham shoulder title.

Mel and Warren stayed at the same time and they too walked the fields and tracks- with permission of the landowners of course.

All of them agreed there is no place like The Somme to walk and sort your head out. Sentiments we echo.

  Discussions always lively around the No.fifty6 table.

John and Sandra from Newton Abbott brought their Cornish cousins Lesley & Paul to explore the Somme before going on to Ypres. With a file of wonderful research they visited the places their ancestors had been.  A trip that had been a long time coming.

Friends Mike, Chris and Andy came from different parts of the UK to spend 4 days with us as they toured the battlefields. It was lovely having them here and for us to catch up with them. Over the years we have had our regular guests it is like picking up with old friends on each visit. It is one of the things we love best about No.fifty6.

Tom and Helen came from Australia at the start of a 2 month French adventure. On the first day, they had a problem with their lease car after an incident involving a very large hole in a track and a sound that went bang while they were driving. After they limped back to No.fifty6 we helped with calls to the lease car company, insurers, and French garage which resulted in the car being taken away for a few days for repair and a temporary car located. We felt for Tom and Helen as it put them behind on their travel schedule, but they took it in good stead.  They prolonged their stay with us, before going off for a few days in the temporary car to Normandy then coming back to Albert after their lease car had been fixed. Not the start they wanted but they are now on their way. We will always help whenever we can. As someone once said – it is not when things go well that help is needed, but when things go awry. Safe travels Tom and Helen!

 David with Tom trying to sort the car.

Brother and sister Andy and Penny made their 2nd visit to No.fifty6. It was an emotional visit last year in which they remembered  their late father who used to frequently visit The Somme. So for them The Somme will always be linked with remembrance of their father. In addition this year Penny and Andy had researched their grandfather’s diary and armed with a box of memorabilia they spent the week following in his footsteps.

We poured over photographs and documents together, a real treasure trove of history with some amazing photos in a worn Kodak Film photographic box.

Walter John Harper was born in 1895. He enlisted as a private with the  Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was promoted to Lance Corporal and acting Corporal during his service, with A company, Platoon No.1

This was one of The Birmingham Pals Battalion and Penny thanks Terry Carter for his help in her research through his excellent book on The Birmingham Pals.

Their grandfather Walter survived the War and went back to work for the Birmingham Post & Mail newspaper as the Company Secretary.  
The paper was owned by Charles Hyde whom we think played a large part in urging the people of Birmingham to join the Pals regiments. 

Walter never forgot his comrades and in 1964, to mark 50 years after joining up, he and 3 comrades came back to the battlefields accompanied by a journalist and photographer from the paper. 10 years later in 1974 Walter passed away. 

The photos are incredible in quality and capturing something unique. These now older men remembering those left behind. Showing their respect in suit and tie. Reflecting on times past. Here are just a few of these wonderful photographs. Thank you for sharing Penny and Andy. We think there is a book to be written there!

These photos courtesy of Penny and Andy.

 Walter (l) with his comrades visitng the first of their comrades to die (December 1915) buried in Suzanne Communal Cemetery Extension. 1964.

 Sidney visits the grave of his brother in law J E Fletcher in Faubourg D'Amiens. 1964.

 Sidney Dark searches for the name of his missing brother Christopher Dark on The Menin Gate. 1964.

 Walter (l) and comrades remembering their fallen at Faubourg D'Amiens. 1964.

 Walter on the old battlefields 1964. What was he thinking?

Thank you so much for sharing Walter's story Penny and Andy. Your pilgrimage was a wonderful tribute to Walter and those he served with. Those who went home, and those who remain forever in the fields of France.

After their first visit last year on motorbikes, Nina & Mark and Lesley & Richard returned on 4 wheels this time for a week exploring the area. They came bearing gifts from their West Country homes including some delicious cider and smuggling in some local cheeses which did not last long on our cheeseboard. As members of the Blue Knights organization they also gave us a lovely framed insignia to adorn our Rogue’s Gallery and a Challenge Coin. 

 Proudly on our wall.

A wonderful week was spent in their company.

It is not about the gifts, but about the connections which are made here. For those who haven’t yet visited No.fifty6 it is hard to convey the spirit of friendship, sharing of history, good discussion and bonds made which is due to our guests being so open to what we do here. Thank you.

Steve Cottam, battlefield guide of Discovery Battlefield Tours brought friends Peter and Stephen. They had visited last year when Peter made an emotional pilgrimage in the footsteps of his  grandfather Albert Rushton of  16th Manchester Regiment who was wounded on The Somme, treated a Etaples then sent back to the front.  In 1918 he was involved in the Battle for Manchester Hill where he was taken as a POW for a year. 

Peter wants to ensure that Albert’s story is not forgotten. This year as well as thinking of Albert,the trio visited new areas of remembrance and followed the exploits of some of the Royal Flying Corps. Another memorable visit for them.

Father and son Rich and Jack visited from Carlisle. They spent a wonderful few days exploring the battlefields and in the footsteps of Rich’s great grandfather Serjeant Alfred Edwin Kemp 1885-1943, who served with the 1/7th East Lancashire  Regiment. For a period in July 1916 Alfred would have been involved in actions right outside our front door and Rich and Jack spent a morning with David walking in Alfred’s  footsteps around our village and Ovillers. Rich said he couldn’t believe when he booked that he would be so close to where his great grandfather fought. As both Rich and Jack have served in the military it was a humbling, emotional experience for them to be here on The Somme. A trip that had been a long time coming!

 Alfred Edward Kemp 

Sally and Chris Burge from Wales epitomize all that is good about battlefield visitors. While they have extensive family ties to the area, their interest goes wider than that and The Somme is a very special place for them. They have become firm friends over the 10 years they have been staying with us. They left us with some very special items from their family collection. We will pick up their story next month as there is so much to write about!  Sally and Chris will be back with us in June for their 2nd visit of the year.

While they were here, we felt like we had been taken over by the 38th Welsh Division, as at the same time we had Lee & Sian and Richard & Rachel also from South Wales. Apart from eating their own body weight in Julie’s crème brulee the couples spent full days out and about exploring not just battlefields but other wonderful things the Somme has to offer. They were very taken by a visit to Naours caves and the new museum there which provides the back story to some of the soldiers’ graffiti which had been left on the cave walls. However, their special place is Flat Iron Copse Cemetery. A place of peace filled with Welsh souls. A place that truly makes the hairs stand up on their arms. It was almost like the Welsh voices could be heard calling across time they said.

Anzac Day

The Dawn Service at Villers Bretonneux was very cold but at least a dry commemoration this year. Our guests Darryl and Janet (who wrote about his inspiration from the Macintosh poem earlier) had 6 great uncles who served on The Western Front, 3 of whom remain in the fields of France - 2 of them memorialised on the walls at VB. 

 Darryl pays his respects at Villers Bretonneux.

They spent a week with us and David took them to the places Private James (Jim) Henry Charles and Private Clarence George Slack fought and died. This is what Darryl wanted, to be on the ground they trod. He had read and researched so much from home, but he wanted to see the land where they had fallen. Before visiting us Darryl and Janet had been to the grave of the one great uncle who has a known grave, Leslie Stuart Charles who died in the Battle of Fromelles 19th July 1916.

For The Somme casualties, Clarence joined up in Queensland and came to France, serving with the Australian Machine Gun Corps first with the 7th then the 2nd. He died in the attack from Manette Wood toward The Morlancourt Ridge and Morlancourt village not far from the current Beacon Cemetery. His body was never knowingly recovered, so has no known grave, though his battalion comrades are buried in Beacon and Dive Copse Cemeteries.

James (Jim) Charles far from home, was involved as The Somme battles ground to a cold, treacherous end in November 1916.  He was taking part in the attack toward Ligny Thilloy and on 14 November 1916 was killed in action. He too has no known grave, but our research leads us to suspect that if he has a grave he is in Warlencourt British Cemetery. Exhumation records from 1920 and Red Cross files indicate he was originally given a battlefield burial between the 2nd and 3rd German lines alongside a soldier called Harris. When Harris (served with the AIF but originally Welsh) was exhumed in 1920 he could be identified but the body next to him could not. The two graves, Harris and an unknown are side by side in Warlencourt.

As Darryl  says – “whether that grave  is Jim Charles or not, I am laying a poppy - someone is being remembered." Darryl will return home with photos and documents and memories of the time he walked the land where his ancestors remain.

We remember them all with honour.

Spring Cleaning and A New Addition to the Team

In between looking after guests we decided it was time to give our dining room roof a good clean – exposed to the elements here it was getting covered in moss and detritus. Not an easy task but we had help from the lovely Anne who is a professional cleaner who lives near Albert.

A great job done, clean and bright again.

As well as the roof which was a one off, Anne is helping us out with cleaning our communal areas, every Friday afternoon. She is a welcome addition to the no.fifty6 team. David is now improving his cleaner’s French to go alongside his builder’s French. And he better watch out, that fleeting Employee of the Month status David had, could soon have a new recipient.

 Anne cleaning the roof.

A New Bench

It was great to see Ian and Claire delivering a "new" recycled bench to No.fifty6. Ian made our tank that sits in the garden and this talented man promised to make us a bench from bits and pieces in his workshop. It is a great place to sit and watch the Somme sunset (when the weather improves). Thank you so much Ian.

 Claire, Ian and the new bench.

Animal Postscript

We said last month, watch this space about new chickens, but it has been so cold and wet we have not been able to do much work in the garden and we need a sunny day when we have time to give the coop a good Karcher spring clean before a new brood arrives.

We are pleased though that our resident hedgehog is back – first spotted by Lesley our guest who would take delight watching the garden birds and wildlife from her bedroom window. We are so pleased Horace hedgehog survived the winter hibernation. 

 Horace

David’s April Joke

I did an ultra marathon last week in Norway.

I knew I went wrong when I crossed The Finnish Line.

 

All is well at no.fifty6. Stay safe and well and we hope to see you soon.

 No.fifty6 on an April evening. 

Comments (20)

Heather and Malcolm J says:

As usual, great stories/photos to set the mind thinking and have us looking forward to our visit to No 56. We know you "keep calm and carry on", thriving on new & returning guests' visits and stories. All the best to you both. X

Jackie says:

Wonderful newsletter as usual & packed with so many interesting items. I agree it’s a reminder of what a special place No 56 is and how we love it so much.

Janet and Ian says:

As always a most enjoyable read, the personal stories of those men your guests remember are always of great interest. Weeks counting down till August, but first of all the 1st.July approaches.

Ferris says:

As always this reminds me what I’m missing!

Les Mepham says:

Absolutely loved the old photos with the veterans returning to the battlefields. I think someone should do a "Now" and "Then" combination with the same shot. David?

Very impressive bench! I can't wait to try it out when I return.

All my love from Canada!

Penny Oliver says:

Really enjoyed another wonderful stay and the lovely evening chats round the table at Number 56
Thank you so much Julie for the moving article you have written about our grandfather and his comrades it was lovely to share our days of where and what we had managed to discover each day following his diary.

Chris Prince says:

It has been a while since I committed. I still love reading your newsletters, and hearing what has been happening at No 56. Always reminds me of our trip. Lovely memories. Glad so many people are still visiting you old and new with new stories always to be told. Take care

Jenny Theobald says:

Fabulous newsletter as always and love hearing your news. Sending love from Jenny & Oliver xx

Mark Nicholson says:

Smuggling! We're living in fear of "the knock" from HMRC now!!
Lovely to see you again. So much more seen and so much more to see.
I have no doubt that we'll be back in 2025.

Roger and Elaine says:

Briliant newsletter, as always! We love coming to visit and always meet the most intrersting people. Can't wait until we are back in September.

Sally & Chris says:

Thanks again for a wonderful stay. Really enjoyed the news letter even David’s joke !!! See you soon xxx

Gary James says:

Another great read. So many interesting stories. and the continuing research. Keep safe and well. Sounds like David is back on the toast and beans rota. Need to up your game for another award.

Andy bond says:

Julie it’s now official I will now be counting SHEEP ffor the next 14 nights as ALL ways looking forward to seeing you both and being at the manor born not sure I will get any sleep on that 14th night in the mean time stay safe and see you soon Andy xxx

Rob says:

A great read, as always, and like you I really don’t know where you find the time. It’s May already, and we’re looking forward to seeing you later this month. Rob & Elaine.

Jim harker says:

Bit concerned about David's employee of the month and his failure to get the award a second time . Is it because he has become complacent or have you got new chickens so he has more competition for this outstanding award.

Ian and Jackie Smallwood says:

Always an excellent reading guys.
Wow, love your new garden bench. What a lovely gesture.
Keep up the fabulous work.

John Mepham says:

Absolutely love your news letter each month!
Although far away here in Ontario it brings fond memories of previous visits and hope for new ones down the road!
Take good care friend's!! ❤️ from ????????

Graham Taylor says:

I look forward to reading your monthly newsletter. So interesting and well written.

Best regards
Spanners

Hazel Basford says:

We loved our Spring stay with you. Thank you so much for looking after us so well before we face the rigours of this years camping weeks!!
xxxx

martin howard says:

Great to open and take in the comings and goings at No 56. Thanks for sharing and it does seem you've been busy and had many guests through the door in April with some amazing stories. We can't wait to return later this year
Martin & Angie

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