February 2024  - News from No.fifty6 - Leaping into March!

Posted on 29th February 2024 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.

February 2024  - News from No.fifty6 - Leaping into March!

Often February is a bridge between winter and spring  but this February has had it’s wild moments  - it has felt like the month has a life of its own, contrary, exerting authority over the weather. We have had stormy days, high winds, a lot of rain and very few blue-sky days with a chill still very much in the air. While our spring flowers are beginning to poke their heads above the soil, they are not yet brave enough to come out fully and expose their Spring glory.  Walks out have meant coats, boots, gloves, hats and a dogged determination. A trait which our loyal customers have had and it has been lovely to have them here exploring the battlefields and sharing stories. In return for braving the elements in February you get to share the battlefields in their pared back beauty. No high crop to spoil the view, nature and wildlife around you, silence, no footfall  other than your own, and of course the unique history can truly envelope you, giving up its secrets.

There has been a lot keeping us busy this month as well as finding time to go out and explore and discover new stories. Living on The Somme, we never get bored. The cover photo is the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Memorial at Beaumont under February skies.

International War Animal Day

The 24th February is International War Animal Day and we attended the French commemoration at the War Animal Memorial in Pozieres. Julie translated at the ceremony and helped cover the horse (who took centre stage) with a magnificent purple poppy coat. So as well as speaking French, Julie is now speaking horse. Fittingly, the horse was called Tommie.

 Tommie resplendent in his purple poppy coat

More than 16 million animals served in the First World War. They were used for transport, communication and companionship. Troops on horseback and camelback were used in desert campaigns throughout the conflict. Horses, donkeys, mules and camels carried food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to soldiers at the front, while dogs and pigeons carried messages. Canaries were used to detect poison gas, and cats and dogs were trained to hunt rats in the trenches. They did not volunteer, but were removed from their farms, homes and streets to help with the war effort. Very few returned. Today animals are still used in warfare. Dogs detect IEDs and mines. The French army trains eagles to hunt and take down drones. The role of animals should be remembered too.

This poem by Santina Lizzio has been adopted as the official War Animal Remembrance poem.

Their blood stained the land, as they served with pride. A duty to their master, they stood side by side.
From the sky, to the sea, through a vast open land, Together they fought - both animal and man.

They flew through the sky, as messengers on wing,  Dodging bombs and bullets, for salvation to bring.

Their wings did strain, till their hearts near burst, They flew day and night, never fearing the worst.

They walked together midst a bomb spangled field, Both dog and handler, neither one would yield.
The bond and the friendships they shared through war, Will live and be remembered for ever more.

Through the sand so fine, they lollopped to the fore They’re ships of the desert, the Camel Corp.
Over hills and through valleys, the line did twine
As they carried their loads to the firing line.

Into combat they rode, both man and steed,
Through the fear of battle, they were a special breed.
The mateship of horse and rider was strong
Made the parting in death, seem so heartless and wrong.

As beasts of burden, they were put to the test,
With hearts filled with anguish, they gave their best.

They died where they fell, while the others pulled on. Are they lost in life’s story, can we still hear their song?

The theatre of war - hell for animal and man ,Whatever the cost, they cannot understand.
So remember them kindly, as you walk through life, For they too served proudly, to help make things right.

Santina Lizzio


February Visitors

Loyal guest Alan Laishley and friend Kev Day came from Portsmouth in the footsteps of The Pompey fallen. Each day they walked the battlefields clocking several miles and visiting countless memorials and cemeteries. This visit Alan concentrated on the area around Montauban and Carnoy. Though Alan has visited many times he agreed there is always something new to discover. Indeed there is.

Gary James always comes in February as his ancestor was killed in the actions around Boom Ravine 17thFebruary 1917.  We have written of Gary’s quest to find out more about his ancestor in previous years newsletters. This year Gary had been able to discover some new information. Gary knew that 2nd Lieutenant Edwin Kentfield served with the 23rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers and was killed in the Boom Ravine action in the fields between Courcelette and Miraumont.

Edwin has no known grave and is remembered on The Thiepval Memorial.  Each year Gary has walked the fields, in Edwin’s footsteps. Notably in 2017 on the 100th anniversary, Gary went out before light, the time of the Boom Ravine action. The assumption, from Gary’s research thus far, was that Edwin had been blown up, hence missing, though Gary has adopted an unknown grave in Regina Trench Cemetery in a row of other Royal Fusiliers killed on the same day, to pay his respects to.

 From Edwin's file held at The National Archives

A visit to the National Archives in Kew last year, enabled Gary to look into Edwin’s officer file. Here he gained new information - that Edwin had been a pupil at Ardingly College. In September, after making an appointment with the Ardingly College archivist, Gary visited the College in Sussex. Here Edwin is remembered on the school’s memorial but also in the Ardingly Annals. In this correspondence, Gary discovered that Edwin had been shot by machine gun fire after being wounded,  rather than blown up by shellfire. He had a battlefield burial by the Battalion Chaplin. Somehow, his grave must have been lost, hence he is now remembered as one of the missing. This new information enabled Gary to see the battle with a new perspective and worked out, with the help of Trench Maps, the machine gun positions and the likely area Edwin was killed.

 From The Ardingly Annals.

Gary was thrilled with this new information and it is testament to how dogged you have to be with research and make sure all avenues are followed. Rest in peace Edwin, knowing you are remembered.

Later in February, Ian Mason came with friend Lyndon Harper and just like Alan and Kev earlier in the month, Ian and Lyndon walked each day covering a lot of ground. They even wore shorts one day- a bit chilly! As well as the tracks around Fricourt, Contalmaison and Gordon Dump the pair visited the battlefields between Bapaume and Cambrai, to carry out research for a friend who has a relative who was killed in the action around Havrincourt Wood.  Good work done.


At the end of the month David and Karen Brown visited with friends Pat and Joe. David has a special interest in the 36th Ulster Division and has created a website of his ongoing research:


On this visit, the quartet visited many locations with an Ulster connection to take photographs and continually update David’s research.

David Brown will be back in July for more battlefield studies. As well as the research many stories were exchanged over dinner and a glass of wine – a perfect day at No.fifty6.

 David Brown's photo of the stained glass on the Linfield Bertrancourt Somme Memorial

Remembering The Chinese Labour Corps

When we head out to The Somme Coast, we always stop at The Chinese Cemetery at Noyelles-Sur-Mer. A beautiful cemetery designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, where the dead of the Chinese Labout Corps, who had a large camp nearby, are buried. This month, a new memorial to the Chinese Labour Corps in the village of Noyelles was inaugurated. Financed by a Chinese foundation Tingwaising, Chinese sculptor Yan Shu Fen has created a memorial depicting three labourers in movement. The bronze was cast in China. If ever you are in this area of The Somme please do visit the memorial and cemetery.

 Inauguration of the new Chinese Labour Corps Memorial 

 Chinese Labour Corps Cemetery

Work at Lochnagar

As two of the Trustees of The Lochanagar Crater Foundation we were involved in some work carried out on site earlier in February. The 20 information panels around The Crater need replacing as the wooden supports were rotting and the panels themselves becoming hard to read after their exposure to all the elements at the site. The first phase of work involved removing the old panels and supports. In wind and rain David and fellow Trustee Iain Fry removed the old supports with chainsaws. At the weekend we were joined by Richard and Sam Miller from Symbius Urban who came over from the UK with new metal posts. Over 2 long days, joined by friend Cyrille Delplanque, new holes were dug and the metal posts cemented in. Hard, but rewarding work. The old panels have been cleaned and stored and we will be reinstalling them once the concrete has set fully around the posts (and after these very windy days). The panels will only be back temporarily until brand new panels will be installed at the May Working Weekend.

 Iain Fry tackles the old supports

 Sam and Richard at work


Also we are pleased to report another 10 metres of walkway around the Crater has been replaced. Little by little there is progress. 

 The latest section of completed walkway

Somme Battlefield Pipe Band

Talking of Cyrille Delplanque, who is a friend and great helper at Lochnagar as well as a magnificent bagpipe player with The Somme Battlefield Pipe Band. The band play so wonderfully at Lochnagar on 1st July and 11th November as well as at other events throughout the year. The Pipe Band has been lead for many years by Yves Holbecq. This month at their  AGM, Yves has stepped down as President but will continue to play, retaining the role of Pipe Major. We are delighted that Cyrille has taken on the office of President, ensuring the SBPB has a bright future. Long may the sound of their pipes float across the battlefields. It is THE sound of the battlefields.

 Yves (l) and Cyrille (r)

Animal Postscript

Not only in our garden but throughout the battlefields, we are surrounded by nature. There is an article in our local paper that wild boars are on the increase, so watch out if you are near the woods! We often see deer on our walks, always very wary, and hares jump and skedaddle. Wonderful to see. Hares leaping - well it is a Leap Year! 

David is turning into a bit of a cat magnet. When he is doing the ironing, he often has next door’s cat come to visit and watch David though the window. We call him the Ironing Inspector (the cat not David).

 The Ironing Inspector

David’s February Joke:

“Gilbert O’Sullivan came into our local bank the other day.”

“What did he want?”

"A loan again, naturally……”


All is well at no.fifty6. Please stay safe and well and see you soon we hope. Spring's just around the corner.

 A sign of Spring at Lonsdale Cemetery




Comments (12)

Andy bond says:

Hi Julie hope you and David are keeping well have not left a comment of late been busy looking forward to may when we are back at the 56 and sitting round that table once more bye for now and take care the both of you andy

John Mepham says:

Wonderful work being done at the crater, like Les, wish we were closer to lend a hand.
Always look forward to news from 56!
Glad to hear all is well!

Gary James says:

Thanks Julie & David for another great newsletter and the mention of my visit. My friend David Locke, who's relative Pvt Sadler was killed on 1st July 1916 in Mash Valley, also found out a bit more about the battlefield on the recent trip with the use of Linesman. The research continues.

Neil Mackenzie says:

Another lovely article. Any account that includes the word 'skedaddle' has to be a winner. All the best to the fabulous team at No56.

martin howard says:

Another fascinating read, especially Gary's latest information on his relative. Looking forward to catching up with you both next weekend. Fingers crossed for some decent photography weather for you know who !!

sandy biback says:

What a magnificent tribute to the animals of war. Thank you so much

Jim Blenkhorn says:

Thanks for this. Hopefully see you later this year.

Roger Staker says:

Very interested in Julie's langauage skills. Can't wait to hear horse spoken fluently. Are there no sheep? Julie could then talk Neigh Baas.

Looking forward to seeing you next month.

Jim harker says:

David ironing ???? Is that part of his attempts to attain the lofty heights of Employee of the Month once more.?

Les Mepham says:

Loved the story of Edwin and Gary’s search for new information. These are the details that drive a historian’s interest. I can’t help but draw similarities to our own Robert’s fate. Like a complicated puzzle only partially finished.

I just finished reading “Great Uncle Harry” by Michael Palin, whose ancestor was lost on the Somme and is remembered on the NZ Memorial at Caterpillar Valley. So many missing, so many untold stories. But there’s that moment in the book when he stands on THE spot where Harry meets his fate…overwhelming; much like Gary must have felt, and certainly just like John and I had felt when we stood in the final footsteps of Robert’s journey.

Glad to hear of the progress at the Crater. If only I lived close enough to lend a hand. Until we meet again.

Ps. While reading a novel with my students recently, which had two characters named George and Julie, I accidentally referred to them and David and Julie. I guess Number Fifty6 is always on my mind.

Bill Pinfold says:

Thanks for another welcome update from the Somme. So good to see Gary James' research persistence paying off over the years, it gives continued hope to all of us seeking the stories of our lost soldiers. Best wishes to you both! Bill

David Ellis says:

Lovely to receive the February report on events at Number56! While my trip gets ever closer, I am also planning to do a lot of walks from La Boisselle. It’s good to have two trips planned this year, maybe three next year? What a magnificent purple poppy coat and great to see some more metres of new walkway at the crater. David, I love the joke! See you both soon.

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