February 2023  - Somme in Splendour, Graves Revisited, History and New Beds!

Posted on 28th February 2023 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.

February 2023  - Somme in Splendour, Graves Revisited, History and New Beds!

Where did February go? We seemed to race through the month as if Mother Nature is racing to chase off winter and usher in spring. This month we have had typical February weather, not much rain, a chill wind, some grey days but we end the month with calm, sunshine, blue skies, night frosts but a little warmth in the sun by afternoon. With beautiful sunrises and sunsets on those clear days, our guests have benefited from good walking and photography weather.

Wrap up warm and the Somme is perfect in this weather for exploring and we have had several guests who have made the most of their time with us.

Some fields are deep ploughed, others tinged with green as new crops shoot. The fields a patchwork of deep brown and Spring green. The ploughing brings with it the Iron Harvest and vestiges of the War are everywhere. Farmers put unexploded shells by the side of the fields, our intrepid walkers return with shrapnel balls and other (safe) remnants of war, the earth giving up secrets more than 100 years later.

And War is in the news again as we think of Ukraine 1 year on. War bringing with it families displaced, lives lost, destruction, despair and devastation.  We think too of those still suffering in the aftermath of the horrendous earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. The news may have moved on to the next sound bite, but there are many people suffering – without homes, loved ones lost, freezing temperatures and no infrastructure. Our heart goes out to them all.

And to those who we know closer to home who are facing their own individual wars in tough times, we hold you in our thoughts too.

War in cinematographic terms has been in the news too,  with film awards  - including a BAFTA for Best Film -  given to All Quiet on The Western Front, the stunningly visceral First World War remake of Erich Remarque’s German classic.

As we walk the fields of The Somme we think about the men of all nations who fought here and this poem resonated. They were all lads away from home.  

 February casts long shadows at Delville Wood.

German Prisoners by Joseph Lee

When first I saw you in the curious street,
Like some platoon of soldier ghosts in grey,
My mad impulse was all to smite and slay,
To spit upon you – tread you ‘neath my feet.
But when I saw how each sad soul did greet
My gaze with no sign of defiant frown,
How from tired eyes looked spirits broken down,
How each face showed the pale flag of defeat,
And doubt, despair, and disillusionment,
And how were grievous wounds on many a head,
And on your garb red-faced was other red;
And how you stooped as men whose strength was spent,
I knew that we had suffered each as other,
And could have grasped your hand and cried, ‘My brother!’

Joseph Johnston Lee was born in Dundee in 1876. A bright boy, he went to Harris Academy at the age of eleven, but as the family was not able to afford for him to continue in education, he left school at fourteen and started work as an office boy. His skills as a cartoonist and writer soon saw him writing and editing for several newspapers and journals.

When war broke out in 1914 Lee was almost forty and had bronchial asthma, but he volunteered for the 4th Black Watch, the local Territorial Army battalion. Dundee being a centre of publishing, there were inevitably other journalists in the battalion, including Linton Andrews, Jack Beveridge Nicholson and Joseph Gray; they called themselves the ‘Fighter-Writers’.

Lee’s poems were much appreciated in his native city; he became known as ‘the Black Watch poet’.

Lee was reported missing during the Battle of Cambrai. In fact, he had been taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in the internment camp at Karlsruhe. In Karlsruhe Lee wrote no poetry, and very little after the war ended. He married viola player Dorothy Barrie. During the Second World War Lee served in the Home Guard.  He died in Dundee in 1949.

 Joseph Lee

Exploring – Our Wonderful Guests

While we have had some lovely walks this month, even better is that our guests have been able to explore too and share so much history with us.

Gary James has been a regular visitor in Februarys past as he has a relative who died on 17 February 1917. Gary explored the fields around Boom Ravine and Regina Trench where Edwin Kentfield with the Royal Fusiliers fought and died. Gary believes Edwin could be buried in Regina Trench Cemetery - – “could be” as he has no known grave and is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial . Gary has adopted the grave of an unknown Second Lieutenant in Regina Trench Cemetery. Using David’s linesman (trench maps with GPS positioning) Gary walked in Edwin’s footsteps, including the area around Redan Ridge where Edwin’s 23rd   Battalion Royal Fusiliers also fought.

 Edwin's name on Thiepval

Simon Jacobs visited us from Dubai, and he spent all day every day of his week with us out walking The Somme. Simon relished the fresh air, open rolling landscape and chill in the air, giving an extra spring to his step,  the climate so different from his environment in Dubai.

As we reported when Simon visited last year, Simon’s great grandfather fought here. Robert Sexton was from Wimbledon  signed up as a 16-year-old with the Medical Corps in 1914 but it would seem they realised his age and he was booted out. Young Robert was clearly a determined young man and 2 months later signed up with The Border Regiment, possibly not revealing his true age. Robert was in action in Gallipoli in October 1915 and then in France for the first day of The Battle of The Somme. The 1st Borders attack on that sunny July morning was at Beaumont Hamel towards Y Ravine. Young Robert, now just 18, part of that attack, was wounded, shot through the wrist. A serious injury that ended his war and left him with a lifelong hole through the wrist.Young Robert Sexton inspired Simon’s love of military history.

Robert Sexton

We are grateful to Simon for sharing his story again and for bringing us some camel milk chocolates from his Dubai home!  

In the middle of the month we welcomed back Lisa Hatch and her family. Lisa was one of our last guests before Covid struck in February 2020 and she has been trying to come back ever since. She wanted to pass on the baton of her family history to her 3 children. So Lisa and husband Matthew, daughter Emily and her husband Michael, son Jack and youngest daughter Isabel stayed with us for a few days and spent 2 full days out exploring with David. Lisa’s great grandfather Sergeant Joseph Young, was a regular soldier before the War and was called up again at the outbreak of war, serving with the !0th Worcestershire Regiment. With War diaries and linesman the family traced Joseph’s footsteps in the Worcester’s attack on La Boisselle on 3rd July 1916. Joseph was killed in action close to our church in the village and was buried by his battalion just a few metres from our front door. In 1920 the Graves Registration Unit, responsible for dealing with the dead on the battlefields after the Armistice, concentrated Joseph’s grave into Ovillers Military Cemetery where he lies today. On her last visit Lisa noticed that there was no epitaph on Joseph’s grave, even though she had family papers that Joseph’s wife Amelia wished his grave to bare -  RIP. Maybe Amelia couldn’t afford the cost per letter- having 4 young children and no husband. Lisa therefore contacted the CWGC in 2020 following her last visit and with the paper evidence she provided, CWGC accepted the epitaph and Joseph’s grave now bears the RIP epitaph. As the sun set the family stood at Joseph’s grave. Lisa had his 3 medals and his binoculars (unknown how the binoculars made it back to the family) which she placed on his grave, and most poignant of all a photo of Joseph and Amelia together.  Joseph you are not forgotten.

 The family at Joseph's grave in Ovillers.

With Joseph’s story retold, David also took the family to Mametz Wood, Bazentin and High Wood where Matthew’s ancestor George Twigg had fought with The 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers. George died 20thAugust 1916 and has no known grave, so the family finished George’s pilgrimage at Thiepval where his name is inscribed.  

 Remembering George Twigg. Photo courtesy of Jack Pugh.

Lisa and Matthew chose the bedroom here which looks out over Ovillers and Thiepval so they could keep an eye on Joseph and George while they were here.

These last few days we have hosted 6 battlefield companions/guides as they explored the Somme , racking up many walking miles each day. Stephen Benson from Cheshire Roll of Honour and fellow military historians David Brown – specialising in 36th Ulster Division, Ian Mason, Andrew Thornton (both Leger Guides), Terry Whenham from Terry’s Tours and podcaster and last but not least, Adrian Floyd who has a general interest.

After an early breakfast each day they explored all over The Somme, following walks each of them put together with stories they shared. We love it when those with knowledge share and pool ideas. No precious egos here! Our congratulations too to Stephen Benson on achieving his MA in First World War Studies this year,  and Andrew Thornton too, who was awarded his MA in First World War Studies last year. We know how hard they both worked on their studies. 

 Dinner after a day on the battlefields, photo courtesy of Andrew Thornton.

 David Brown captured this stunning sunset from our dining room.

The boys on a cold but blue sky morning at Millencourt Cemetery, thanks for the photo Andrew Thornton. 

Ian Mason was with us last month too with his partner Becky  -  and Becky had entrusted Ian with bringing us a present this February visit, a photo we had much admired, that Becky took while she was here last month. A very blue dawn sunrise taken over La Boisselle from the bedroom window here at No.fifty6. Beautifully framed it will become a treasured picture. Thank you Becky.

 Becky's photo Ian brought over for us. Sunrise at La Boisselle.

It’s been good to have some of our regulars who have become friends, back to stay.

February Renovations – A Good Night’s Sleep

 The Lawrence and Wilde bedrooms got special attention this month as we completed our replacement of the guest beds here. We think it is really important we continue to improve what we do -  a good night’s sleep is a key element of what we want our guests to enjoy. So all rooms now have fantastic beds. In line with our belief to shop and source locally, we used a local business for the beds. There is a family-run bed factory on the outskirts of Albert and the family live in Ovillers. A visit to the factory (amazing place) and being looked after personally by the owner, means that we can order bespoke, made to measure beds in all the colours and all the sizes! Hand made in Albert!

The Lawrence Room has a new configuration and larger beds with wonderful brown/gold textured headboards which complement the taupe bedlinen. The Wilde Room also has larger beds and subtle dove grey headboards with writing inspired bedlinen.  

The old beds have been dismantled and recycled. David has become a dab hand at fitting new headboards and whichever room you sleep in we know you will enjoy your stay.

 Dormez bien! 

 New Lawrence Beds.

 New Wilde Beds. Zzzzzzzz

Animal Postscript

Marge is doing fine. Lighter mornings and evenings mean she has a longer day now – it is gone 6.30pm before she goes to bed and her eggs are as scrummy as ever. Not bad for our one old girl. Nearly time for new coop-mates….

David’s February Jokes:

As we had Chandeleur (Candelmas) here on 2nd Feb when pancakes are traditionally eaten in France and Pancake Day on 21 Feb….

“I’m making Hawaiian pancakes for tea….

You throw some pineapple into the batter and cook them at aloha temperature.


And on the new beds….

Breaking News: Explorers have discovered what is thought to be

the world’s largest bedsheets.

More on this story as it unfolds.


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

 Thistle Dump Cemetery in the February landscape.

Comments (20)

Paul Nolan says:

Hello! Just got home after another wonderful few days with you. Hope the toaster is OK!

Paul and Sharon Smith says:

As always great updates from our great hosts, and counting down to our next little jaunt , thanks, Paul and Sharon x

David Harvey says:

Thank you for sharing some wonderful stories from your guests.
Shocking jokes, no more, please…..

Julie & David says:

Hi Jim, we are always pleased to see you and solo travellers are always welcome here.

Jim Blenkhorn says:

Thanks for another interesting news letter. I fancy maybe visiting again later this year. If I am solo: Does that cause you a problem?

Neil Mackenzie says:

Thanks for another lovely update. Wishing you all the very best for another busy season ahead.

Malcolm and Heather says:

Thanks for another newsletter, full of more guests' stories and updates ... they always stimulate reflection, of one sort or another! Thank you both.

Francis Callaghan says:

Thanks for this latest riveting read.

Barbara Long says:

Thank you for another interesting read. I do enjoy your newsletters.
Glad to hear that Marge will soon be getting some co-workers

Sandy Biback says:

Always a great read. Thanks

Jon Hill says:

Lovely to hear the news, as ever. Using Linesman and GPS looks fascinating.

Andy Cook says:

I really enjoyed the update thank you. I'm trying to locate the piece of L of A railway track. I may see you in the winter time.

John Mepham says:

Wonderful update and good to see another full table, miss those conversations!
Sad that Joseph Lee stopped writing, another victim of war in itself.
Looking forward to more photos as the season changes.
Take good care of yourselves!

Les Mepham says:

Wonderful guest stories, especially those so close to home. Can’t wait to return.

Julie & David says:

Hi Mike, good question. Our village was a scene of complete devastation with even the church having to be rebuilt on the original footprint. As always there are traces, but one for discussion when you are here.

Gary James says:

Another great newsletter. Good to see you both last month. So many stories of pilgrimages and personal stories. It's good to know that those that lie in and around the fields of the Somme and elsewhere won't be forgotten.

Gordon & Joan (and Mary) says:

Can’t wait to try out the new beds … took Joana to Dumfries & Galloway for her birthday - although managed to leave my wallet behind at home … great trick, if you can get away with it, David …

Mike and Kath, Bath. says:

Aloha!??? I love it.

Thanks, as usual, for the newsletter, always much-awaited.

Congrats to ‘Messrs Benson and Thornton’, on their study awards, well done lads.

David/Julie, a question, perhaps to answer in the next newsletter?

Ypres: virtually recreated after the conflict of 14-18, likewise many villages in the Somme area.

However, are any original buildings standing in Ovillers-la-Boisselle? The church, a barn . . . anything? Buildings displaying scars?

I could wait to ask you in the summer but wonder, as a matter of interest, if you have any knowledge.

Keep up the hardwork. M.

Tim Brown says:

Looking forward to tomorrow.

David Ellis says:

Lovely to get the regular update, although they do make me long to be back! 13 weeks + 5 days to go!! Hopefully planning a winter trip - January/February? See you both soon.

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Well what a great few days with good company and lively conversation. Some great remembrance stories along the way.… https://t.co/aklmgGvjxU

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