August 2023 - A month of Good Things and Sad News – Life's Twists and Turns
Posted on 31st August 2023 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.
August - Oh, where do we start this month? There are things to say, which we don’t want to write as if not writing them will make them not true. But they are. We have lost a good friend and a good chicken this month. There we’ve said it. Now let’s push it away and write about it later.
August - a mixed bag of weather. Some dry, dusty days, others stormy and days filled with rainclouds. France pauses for holidays (not a month to get anything administrative done), farmers still toil. And as always, wonderful, interesting guests find their way to our door, eager to explore the wonderful history and landscape around us.
The landscape is now golden and brown, not green and fertile. The wheat harvest is over, replaced by hay bales dotting the landscape. Already Mash Valley has been ploughed and reseeded, making the most of the sunshine and showers. Potatoes have been sprayed to kill off the leaf and put all the energy into the secret orbs beneath the soil. Maize grows tall and sugar beet waits for its later harvest, growing fat and sweet. The cycle of nature continuing.
There has been much to keep us busy this month and much for us to ponder and think about as we work here and look out over that amazing rolling landscape.
Marcel Gouw – The Sad Passing of a Beloved Friend
This is the bit we did not want to write.
Our dear friend Marcel died peacefully in Amsterdam on 23rd August.
Travelling from his home in Amsterdam, Marcel has been a visitor to the Somme and our friend for many years, his car pulling into our courtyard several times a year.
It is hard to write about Marcel without smiling and crying at the same time. His life was so full, his passing so cruel. He had boundless energy, a keen intelligence, loved interesting conversation and his knowledge of both World Wars was deep and wide. He walked the battlefields for miles, finding vestiges of the war and describing each piece he found. He researched Jewish soldiers who had died on 1st July 1916. He loved poetry. Marcel spoke several languages and was our translator at Lochnagar, slipping easily from English into German, then back into Dutch. He brought people together and everyone who encountered Marcel was gathered into his circle. It was a special place to be.
He loved fine food and wine – but everything in moderation = apart from ice cream which he could devour endlessly. He ate friend eggs whole. He would bring us proper aged Dutch Gouda which graced our cheeseboard and he would proudly proclaim it the finest cheese, so proud was he of the history of the Netherlands. Always cake at Easter. And herrings.
He loved music and would take himself off to his room to listen to a beloved piece.
But most of all he was a special friend to both of us. He saw us in good times and bad, always finding time for us. Offering words of wisdom. He would argue with David about whether Max Verstappen was the best F1 driver. During Covid times he would visit and we had the landscape to ourselves. Those were special times.
On the eve of Julie’s birthday 2 years ago he came back from his room to the dining room after we had gone to bed and decorated the room with balloons and banners. This was the caring, unexpected man he was.
In recent months, we of course knew he was weakening from the awful disease which is ALS. Assisted by his brother Eric, he came to the Lochnagar Working Weekend in May and he was here for 1st July. Those 2 visits were very special, yet very hard. He was saying goodbye.
It is Eric who told us that Marcel passed peacefully, no longer suffering. We hope Marcel left this earth knowing how much he was loved and how sorely he will be missed. We are so pleased we walked part of your path with you. Our thoughts are with Marcel’s brother Eric and all his family.
We leave our thoughts about Marcel, with words he chose from the poem by Antonio Machado.
Wanderer, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.
And with a month of grief and loss for us, this poem came to represent how we felt:
Standing To (“In Bereitschaft”)
I shall go into death as into a doorway filled with summer coolness, the scent of hay, and cobwebs:
I shall never return
To colourful butterflies, flowers and girls, to dancing and violin music.
Somewhere or other I shall fall on stones, shot in the heart, to join someone else who fell wearily earlier;
I shall have to wander through much smoke and fire and have beautiful eyes like the godly, inward-looking,
Dark as velvet, incredibly ardent …What is death? A long sleep. Sleeping eternally deep down beneath grass and plants,
Among old gravel? Trumpery. Maybe I shall go to Heaven and enter the snow-white night of God’s stars,
His silken gardens,
His golden evenings, His lakes … I shall lie beneath the open sky, looking strange, ancient, portentous,
My mind once again filled with days out in the Tyrol, fishing in the Isar, snowfields, the noise and excitement of the annual fair
In prosperous villages in Franconia, prayers, songs, cuckoos calling, woods, and a train journey along the Rhine by night.
Then I shall become like evening, secret, dark, puzzling, mysterious, benighted;
Then I shall be like earth, lifeless and void,
And totally removed from the things around me: days, animals, tears, deep blue dreams, hunting, merrymaking.
I shall go into death as into the doorway of my house, with a shot in the heart, painless, strangely small.
--Anton Schnack, translated by Patrick Bridgwater
Anton Schnack was a young journalist and student from Bavaria when he was conscripted into the German Army in 1915 at the age of 22. He was wounded in 1916 but survived and lived until 1973. His work is virtually unknown but those who find his poems compare his work to that of Wifred Owen in style. The German soldiers had poetic voices too.
As each month passes here, we love the wonderful guests who come through our door. Many are returning guests, who we greet as old friends and pick up where we left off, others come for the first time, perhaps a little anxious about what we and no.fifty6 are like - yet soon we are chatting and sharing and everyone relaxes and hopefully gets the most they can out of their visit to this special area – that is what we hope. So, August has been no exception, with wonderful guests and memories created, and with the school holidays, it is a time that families travel here.
One such family was Andy & Dawn, with teenagers Zac and Holly. Andy visited us last year with “The Notts and Derby” crew and was so very keen to let his family experience the battlefields and No.fifty6. They spent a week with us exploring and loved their experience.
Tony and Teresa Ford came - Teresa for the first time and Tony was last here in 2018 with his brother.
Teresa followed in the footsteps of her grandad, Private Bernard English of 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers who died 28 January 1917 near Le Transloy. David took them to the field where Bernard was attacking the German trench system in front of Le Transloy when he was killed. He has no known grave and is commemorated on The Thiepval Memorial. Teresa palced a wreath at the spot where he was killed.
Teresa's wreath for Grandad Bernard English in the field where he fell.
Teresa and Tony also visited a man who is not related to them but is inextricably linked to their family – Thomas Ford. Thomas died on 28 September 1918. Tony says, “although we share a surname, we are not related although due to an army mix-up I feel we are now connected. My grandfather Bernard John William Ford joined the 1st Bn North Staffs Regt and was transferred to the 7th Bn East Yorkshire Regt and Thomas Ford from Penistone joined the 7th Bn East Yorkshire Regt and was transferred to the 1st Bn North Staffs Regt. On 28th Sep 1918 Thomas Ford was killed in action but the KIA notification was sent to my grandfather’s mother. The error came to light when my grandfather’s mother received a letter from her son William dated AFTER his supposed death!! I have copies of these documents.”
Can you imagine being Mrs Ford and receiving notification that your son has died, only to receive a letter from that very same son dated a week after he was said to be killed? Tony brought with him the letters his mother wrote to The War Office, pleading for further information, and it took the Army some time to sort out the mix up due to service numbers, changing regiments etc. From the documents it seems that the Army were more concerned with getting their paperwork straight rather than keeping the distraught mother informed.
There is a sad and ironic postscript to the story as the erroneous notification of death was indirectly responsible for Bernard’s death. Bernard Ford returned home but suffered the effects of War. At the age of 57 he went upstairs to get the piece of correspondence which had prematurely announced his death to show a friend, and while doing so had a heart attack and died so Tony never knew his Grandfather.
Tony Ford, made a pilgrimage to the grave of Thomas Ford, the man who was not his grandfather.
Bernard Ford, Tony's grandfather.
Paul Johnson came with 2 friends, Jonty and Stuart, who are key figures in The Herts at War Association. The chaps spent the weekend visiting many places of interest and paying their respects to men of Hertfordshire. Paul has also written several books and he left us with copies of his 2 latest:
The Brookwood Killers, and The Plot of Shame.
The Brookwood Killers - On the walls of Brookwood Memorial, entwined within the names of heroes and heroines are those of nineteen men whose last resting place is known, and whose deaths were less than glorious. All were murderers who, following a civil or military trial, were executed for the heinous offence they had committed. The bodies of these individuals, with the exception of one, lay buried in un-consecrated ground.
Paul writes, the cases of the ‘Brookwood Killers’ are violent, disturbing and often brutal in their content. They are not war crimes, but crimes committed in a time of war, for which the offender has their name recorded and maintained in perpetuity. Something that is not always applied in the case of the victim.
The Plot of Shame - The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery is the last resting place of 6,012 American soldiers who died fighting in a small portion of Northern France during the First World War. The impressive cemetery is divided into four plots marked A to D.
However, few visitors are aware that across the road, behind the immaculate façade of the superintendent’s office, unmarked and completely surrounded by impassable shrubbery, is Plot E, a semi-secret fifth plot that contains the bodies of ninety-six American soldiers. These were men who were executed for crimes committed in the European Theatre of Operations during and just after the Second World War.
Both books are well written and cover difficult subjects with compassion and integrity.
Paul Johnson with his books at No.fifty6
It was the month for teenagers to visit as Ian Mason and Ade came with their daughters Isabel and Sophie as well as Ian’s parents Brian and June, who paid homage to their relative Rifleman Orpe in Delville Wood Cemetery who died 24th August 1916.
Then Jim Chapman, from London, came with his son Ray. They explored The Somme on E-Bikes and loved their time with us – we like to think father and son did some battlefield bonding too!
Rob Howden and Lynne have visited us before and brought with them friends Tim and Julie on a first visit. They too enjoyed chats around the table and the amazing history here.
Martin and Fiona had a wonderful visit. They too brought their bikes and cycled round our landscape. Fiona loves animals and stopped and spoke to donkeys, ponies, goats – always ready with a polo mint. We call Fiona the horse whisperer as she has a way with horses - a rider herself. Martin, prepared the battlefield trips, and he loves being here. As well as his love for the battlefields, Martin plays cricket for England over 50s – handy with bat and keeping wicket. The cricket banter with David is ongoing.
Fiona in our back garden with Ginger. Photo by Martin Barry.
Ken, Keith and Tony made their way from England in their own plane, flying into Albert airport. They loved being able to fly in over Thiepval Memorial.
Keith took this from the rear seat - Ken and Tony flying into Albert.
Keith is not a pilot but is very interested in The Great War. He has written a book for his family about his Grandfather Private Albert Alexander Adams of The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
For the fist time, with David’s help Keith located the trench where Albert was in action on The Somme – Brompton Road in Guillemont. Keith found it very moving to be there, where his grandfather was before him. And an eerie coincidence, Keith, Ken and Tony (Les Pilotes as we called them) planned the dates of their trip randomly, being available dates they could all do. Keith’s grandfather Albert went into Battle on 22nd August. What date did they tour with David? You can’t make this stuff up.
Thiepval from their plane.
The boys vow to be back.
Father and son Paul and Tom James, regular visitors over many years, walked the tracks of the Somme, went to Albert Airshow, visited ancestors, in Hermies, Brie and elsewhere. A busy but rewarding few days.
Roger and Elaine from Devon were back after their June visit. This time we were the start and end stays of their touring holiday which took in Germany and Austria. Not the most restful of holidays, it is always a pleasure to have them here and we have lively conversations. Roger is going to let us know when the books he has written on British Military Biplanes, have been published.
Terry & Elaine Whenham brought their neighbours from Northampton and we are sure they won’t mind us saying Maurice at 92 and Maureen at 85 were perhaps our oldest guest couple – but they had a vigour which belied their ages. Maurice enjoyed an after dinner walk each evening.
We had a lovely visit from The Duke of Lancaster's Own boys who popped in for a cup of tea on their week long Battlefield Tour which saw them take in several countries and included Bastogne and The Maginot Line. It was lovely to catch up with them and we took their photo under the Regimental Plaque they kindly left on their last visit.
Our Duke of Lancaster's Own boys - PK, Nobby, Spanners, Lol, John and Ginge.
Caroline came from Australia, her first visit since Covid and she likes to spend her time on the Battlefields of France and Belgium now that she has retired from Academia. We had fascinating conversations about remembrance and social memory. On previous visits Caroline had become friends with Freddy and Madeleine from West Flanders and they surprised Caroline by booking in with us at the same time as Caroline so they could share their Somme experience. We love it when friendships are made or strengthened around our table.
And as we write this Colin traveled from Australia too with his 15-year-old sons Charlie and Jack having first visited his parents in his native Northern Ireland. Colin has a passion for The Somme and is spending a few days introducing his sons to the Battlefields. It has been wonderful seeing so many young people discovering the Somme this August.
On 5th August we remembered the composer George Butterworth, who died on that day in 1916 in the trenches between Pozieres and Contalmaison, now named Butterworth Trench. Every year a small ceremony of commemoration is held for him organized by Yves Potard in Pozieres, attended by the Maires of Pozieres and Contalmaison. George’s music is played and there is a demonstration of Morris Dancing - George was an enthusiast of English Folk Dance. It is always a pleasure to be at this evocative service, it is wonderful that George is remembered by our French friends in this way. David filmed this year’s ceremony.
Last Saturday/Sunday was The Albert Airshow which is always a highlight of the local aviation year. The Patrouille de France National Air Acrobatic team were the highlight, but with Rafales, vintage jets and the Beluga XL there is something for everyone.
A few guests recently have asked us about the need for a car emissions sticker (Crit Air) when travelling on French roads. You only need a Crit Air sticker if you are travelling in one of the designated low emission cities such as Paris, Rouen or Lille or in a low emission zone near a city. It you are travelling to us by road from a port, it is unlikely you will require one unless you deviate. However, if in any doubt, it is worth considering getting a Crit Air sticker for your windscreen. They are valid for the life of the vehicle and cost just €4.61 including postage to addresses outside France. There is a simple online form to complete and you will get a coloured sticker depending on your vehicle’s emission category.
Here is the link in English and as always we will try to answer any queries you have.
Dear Marge, our last remaining hen, died peacefully mid-month of old age. She led a happy, long hen life and she will be missed by us and our guests. Fly free sweet Marge. The garden is not the same without you. We will take a little chicken break before we get some new hens.
Fly free over the rainbow bridge Marge.
David’s August Joke:
Julie said she’d leave me unless I stopped making photography puns…
I said “ Snap out of it, don’t be so negative, let’s see how things develop!”
Her face was a picture ! She was out of the house in a flash…
Though we have been sad this month, we are thankful for life’s blessings. All is well at no.fifty6. We hope to see you soon.
August Sunset, Ovillers Military Cemetery