July 2023 No.fifty6 News: Commemorations, Harvest Time, Personal Pilgrimages.
Posted on 31st July 2023 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.
July - Mid-point of the year so it is appropriate we looked back and forward this month. The weather has been a real mixed bag, commemorations kept us busy, farmers kept busy harvesting, wonderful guests, and as always things keeping us busy but happy at No.fifty6.
The iconic day of 1st July brought rain, and while there have been lovely summer days, it feels like there has been more rain than an average July. While most of southern Europe has had a devastating heatwave, our temperatures have been normal, and we are thankful for that. It seemed only yesterday the fields were bare brown earth, then verdant growth like the Somme was coated in a green banket, but the farmers began harvesting the wheat from mid July – Le Moisson – The Harvest. All around us the fields are golden with wheat stalks, the precious grain collected by the harvesters, much needed to feed this war-torn world. The stalks are rolled into bales and soon the cycle of ploughing and reseeding the next crop will begin. The cycle of life in the fields which saw so much death and destruction continues.
Thierry Le Grand harvesting Mash Valley.
Of course, each day in July we can’t help but think of each day being another marking the Battle of The Somme. The headstones mark the days like a calendar, with no July day being exempt from commemorating someone’s loved one. So on July 4th we thought about Alan Seeger. His poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death”, is one which resonates so clearly in July.
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear ...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
Alan Seeger was born in New York in 1888. He came from an influential family and after studies at Harvard and periods living in the US and Mexico he moved to Paris where he wrote and led a bohemian lifestyle. Living in Paris in 1914 when war broke out, he quickly volunteered to fight as a member of the French Foreign Legion, stating that he was motivated by his love for France and his belief in the Allies. He felt fighting with the Allies was a moral imperative; in his poem "A Message to America," he spoke out against what he saw as America's moral failure to join the war.
He served for 2 years, and then in 1916, almost poetically, the 4th July being so important for Americans, he was killed in action during the French attack on Belloy-en-Santerre, Somme. His fellow legionnaire, Rif Baer, later described his last moments: "His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend." After being mortally wounded, Seeger cheered on the passing soldiers of the Legion before he finally died from his injuries.
Seeger rests with other dead of the Belloy-en-Santerre battle in Ossuary No. 1 of the French National Cemetery in Lihons, and there are memorials to him in Belloy. An area really worth seeking out on a Somme visit.
Alan Seeger in Legionnaire's Uniform
On 4 July 1923, France dedicated a monument in the Place des Etats-Unis in Paris to the Americans who had volunteered to fight in World War I in the service of France. The monument, in the form of a bronze statue on a plinth, by Jean Boucher, was inspired by Seeger – whose name can be found, among those of 23 other Americans who had fallen in the ranks of the Foreign Legion, on the back of the plinth. Also, on either side of the base of the statue, are two excerpts from Seeger's "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France", a poem written shortly before his death on 4 July 1916.
“They did not pursue worldly rewards; they wanted nothing more than to live without regret, brothers pledged to the honor implicit in living one's own life and dying one's own death. Hail, brothers! Goodbye to you, the exalted dead! To you, we owe two debts of gratitude forever: the glory of having died for France, and the homage due to you in our memories.”
Thy are fine words indeed.
Memorial to American Volunteers
1st July – Lochnagar and Mametz
The 1st July saw the 107th anniversary of The Somme Battle. As usual for us it was an emotional day with David filming the livestream and Julie Mistress of Ceremony at the Lochnagar Crater service. We can’t explain that after all this time the emotion of the day still gets to us, especially poignant as Richard Dunning could not be here this year due to ill health.
We also attended a very special lunch in the hunting lodge in Mametz Wood. In the clearing in the wood the air was thick with the souls of those who rest there still. We hope that the shared friendship of the group of French, British, German and Dutch resonated with the boys we came to remember. Our thanks to Patrice, Maquis de Thezy, who owns the wood, for hosting. A highlight for Julie was translating for the very suave Maquis and then in the middle of the Wood, we read in English, French and German, the Harry Fellowes poem – The Birds Sing Again In Mametz - with the birds indeed singing. It sent shivers.
Patrice, Maquis de Thezy reads Harry Fellowes in Mametz Wood
July Guests and Pilgrimages
We were joined on 1st July by Stephen and Lynn from Cheshire, Stephen a regular guest who runs The Cheshire Roll of Honour, assisted at Lochnagar with a gazebo and exhibition explaining the role of the Cheshire Regiment at Lochnagar in July 1916. We hope to have Stephen involved in further, future exhibitions. James and Della came from Suffolk and spent a wonderful few days of the 1st July period exploring and visiting. James produces great content for his Instagram page as "Great War Geek" - please do follow him if you are on Instagram. Marcel our friend from Amsterdam came with his brother Eric, and we are so glad they both made the journey. We have a special place in our hearts for Marcel.
We also had Colleen from Kent, who has wonderful knowledge of the area, having visited for many years, and last but not least our 1st July guests were completed by Mick and Jay from Wigan, who walked and explored and remembered, as well as helping us with logistics at The Crater, including putting in for the commemorations and taking out afterwards, the giant poppy at the bottom of the Crater.
Floral tributes at Lochnagar
Bev and Martyn Lee usually come on their motorbike but this July, joined by friend Carol Robinson for her special birthday celebrations, they came by car. Visiting sites on the Somme they also visited Compiegne and the Armistice Clearing but always came back to No.fifty6 in the evening to exchange stories, share a glass and some food – and of course birthday cake and bubbles on Carol’s birthday.
John and Margaret visited from Littlehampton just as they did last summer, and we caught up like old friends. Stuart and Sue visited for the first time and spent a wonderful week exploring the battlefields. It is always wonderful to have returning and new guests.
Leyton Milner last visited in 2016 but vowed to not leave it so long this time as he had such a thoroughly good time travelling and exploring with his partner’s father Ian. We had many lovely chats over their days with us and Leyton, being an animal lover, made special friends with Marge and the horses. Leyton is also a keen photographer - it is his photo which is our cover photo this month of a sunset at no.fifty6.
Another frequent visitor who has been much missed while he was not able to travel, is Mike Sumsion from Bath, who came with his nephew Sam on his first visit. Mike had a full itinerary he had put together, including an early morning walk from here to Fricourt New Military Cemetery where the lads from The West Yorkshire Regiment who fell on 1st July are buried. Mike has a special lapel pin from the Royal British Legion special Somme collection which commemorates one of the fallen in that cemetery and he was determined to make the pilgrimage on foot, as well as share the moment on line with his father Frank who was back home in Lincolnshire. Frank would have loved to have been here, and in many ways he was as we had a chance to chat with him online, reminiscing about the visits he used to make and his love for remembrance and sharing a glass of wine with us!
David and Karen Brown stayed with us for a week with their group from Ashton under Lyne. Brenda, Jim, Keith, Pat and Joe had a busy but memorable week exploring both The Somme and Ypres Salient from here. They laid a wreath at The Last Post Ceremony, David carried the RBL Standard and Keith read the Exhortation.
The group even joined us for the village celebrations on 14th July – France’s National Fete Day. We had a wonderful village street party with a French equivalent of a hog roast.
14th July in Ovillers La Boisselle
David Brown as well as tour guide, is also a National Officer with the Royal British Legion and it is his Branch we affiliate to at No.fifty6. While he was here David opened our RBL Poppy collection box and we are pleased to say through our generous guests who make donations for poppy crosses, pins, etc, we have raised €238.74 which David took back to RBL Ashton with him.
Steve Cottam bought Australian couple Bruce and Jan who were following in the footsteps of Bruce’s grandfather. Frederick Ives Haymet served with 20th Battalion A.I.F and was wounded on 2nd May 1917 at Noreuil just south of Bullecourt. He was evacuated to no.3 Casualty Clearing Station at Grevillers. Thankfully Frederick survived and Bruce was very grateful to Steve for showing him what his grandfather had been involved with here in France.
Rick Smith, friend and guest brought 2 sisters from Yorkshire, Janet and Jackie, on the trail of their great great uncle. Guiton Brinley served with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. His brother Stephen served as a Driver with the Royal Horse Artillery. On 13th September their respective units were in close proximity to each other in the Thiepval area and the 2 brothers managed to meet up. They knew there was a big push the next day so it must have been an emotionally charged meeting. It was the last time the 2 brothers met as Guiton was sadly wounded and subsequently died on 14th September 1916. He is buried in Blighty Valley Cemetery. The 2 sisters were visibly moved by their visit, believing they are the first from their family to visit his grave in its secluded spot alongside Authuille Wood.
Guiton Brinley at rest in Blighty Valley
Last year the wonderful Mepham Brothers came from Canada and they are old friends of No.fifty6. This year Les travelled on his own, John being unable to make it across the pond this year. Les spent 6 nights with us as well as time in Bruges and Ypres on the trail of Canadian Remembrance. Les is always moved by his visits, just as we are. This year, Les had asked his students (he is an elementary school teacher) to help him remember Canadian soldiers who are buried in Adanac Cemetery. Les found photos of the fallen and the children wrote them messages. When Les was here, he assembled the photos and messages, attaching them to handmade and painted red wooden maple leaves. He then visited each of the graves and left the tributes all the way with love and remembrance from Canada.
Just writing that, sends shivers, the ripples of remembrance are so powerful and especially poignant that the young folk back in Canada were involved.
Les prepares his Maple Leaf Tributes
During his trip Les was joined by his “Belgian Brother” Jurgen – the 2 having met through the power of social media, each having a shared loved for remembrance. It was lovely to have both Jurgen and Les here, but of course we missed brother John! The Mephams never come empty handed and we are restocked with proper Maple Syrup, coffee whisky, a stained glass maple leaf and special remembrance pins.
Also a special mention on the dessert front – after the Nigel Dessert we created here got a special mention and the blue plaque is now installed on our wall, Les has now invented “The Canadian”. Creme Brulée with a side of coffee bean ice cream. What is it with desserts here?! It is a phrase of ours "we like to end the night with something sweet."
Biker brothers David and Steve Simspon and friend Simon toured Normandy, The Somme and Ypres - on different bikes since their last visit. David particularly liked the Ducati...
Plant pots and biker helmets, Ducati, Suzuki, Honda.
We ended the month with a special visit from guests who also flew across the Atlantic to get here. In 2015 Bridget and Alfred Canchola visited us on a personal pilgrimage from California. Bridget’s story was fascinating. As a girl from London she went to work on a dude Ranch and fell in love with a cowboy – Alfred. They settled in California and raised a family, but Bridget never forgot her English roots. As a child she was told how her Uncle Charles Perks joined up and she was determined to visit France and pay her respects to him – which they did with our help in 2015.
Now in 2023 the hand of remembrance has been passed on and Bridget and Alfred’s daughter Susannah visited from California with her 13-year-old son Liam. On their visit we talked about what an impression Bridget and Alfred had made on us – she the English Rose, he her gentle, rugged protector. Bridget sadly passed away since her visit to us, their trip to France being one of their last visits abroad. Alfred misses her greatly but the family are helping him adjust. He is still riding his BMW motorbike, on which he has done 800,000 miles and is in BMW folklore. He plans to do a million miles on that bike! No doubt still wearing his cowboy hat.
Susannah and Liam were just the loveliest guests and they spent a day with David mutually learning about Charles Perks who Bridget had come to see in 2015.
Charles was just 16 when he joined up with the 8th (City of London) Royal Fusiliers. Of course, he was too young to serve overseas, but he did. On one visit home his family begged him not to go back, but he felt he had no choice. So return to the front line he did. He was in Albert on 1st July 1916 and then on 6th July his battalion moved up to Ovillers Post. At 8am on 7th July he went into action, the objective to take Ovillers, the village being a German strongpoint. Somewhere in the fields outside our front door, young Charles, now just 17 years old, was killed in action. He was one of 300 casualties from his battalion that day. Charles has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, pier and face 16C.
A young man whose life was extinguished before it had truly began. Susannah remembers talking to her great aunts about it when she was a child on trips back to England with Bridget. The brother who should never been in France who never came back.
Susannah kindly left us with this picture of Charles.
His young face seems the most appropriate end to our July narrative.
We were shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the death at home of our dear neighbour Jean at No.58. Jean and Chantal have always kept an eye on us and we them. If we went away it was Jean and Chantal who looked after our hens. Jean would tell us stories of his time as a young commando in the Algerian conflict ("c'etait un massacre") and then his life before retirement as a “haulier” – long distance lorry driver. Since retirement he has been very active in the Ancien Combattants Association and a proud Porte Drapeau - Standard Bearer. A deeply proud Frenchman who had a picture of the President in his house but he was partial to a cup of English tea and proper English cake. He also loved his garden and would bring Julie flowers he had cut. He adored his roses and his coffin was scattered with rose petals from his garden. He was 85. He is buried in our village cemetery. We will keep an eye on Chantal his beloved wife who will be lost without him.
A Personal Getaway
Knowing that we have to recharge our batteries sometimes, we even managed a few days away ourselves this month. We visited the stunning Normandy coast between Fecamp and Etretat, staying in a little Normandy village. We visited the Fecamp Palais where Benedictine is still made to this day – we had a tour including a tasting session. We visited the cliffs and stunning gardens of Etretat. We ate good food and drank good wine. We walked for miles. We even paid a visit to the CWGC Cemetery at St Valery en Caux where French and British graves lay side by side from the defence of St Valery in June 1940. A perfect break away just 2 hours from here.
British and French graves at St Valery en Caux.
While we were away our friend Poppy kindly watered our plants and looked after Marge.
The Harvest and a Field Fire
Although July has seemed rather wet, at the time of the wheat harvest it was a dry spell and with little rain so far this year, the ground is very dry. Seeing the farmers toil so hard at harvest time is a site to behold – with the harvesters working around the clock to get the wheat in before the rain comes - it is such a finely tuned event. It is also not without its dangers. In the field behind the houses in Ovillers to the east of Mash Valley, and Pozieres Cemetery, shortly after the harvest a field fire took hold in the wheat stubble. 6 fire engines and 17 firefighters were quickly on the scene and luckily the wind blew the flames away from the houses. Fires take hold so quickly and it is a salutary reminder to be careful and vigilant as the smallest spark or discarded cigarette can cause so much damage.
The burnt field at Ovillers
Marge loved making friends with Poppy. We got this photo from Poppy on our Normandy break. The old girl (Marge not Poppy) is quite the hen.
David’s July Joke:
A little-known fact, Richard Gere’s father, Gottler,
was a famous Swedish ventriloquist.
All is well at no.fifty6. We hope to see you soon.
Brooding skies Mash Valley pre harvest