June 2021 at No.fifty6.
Posted on 30th June 2021 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.
As we write this, 1st July is upon us, a date synonymous with The Somme, the date on which the 1916 battle commenced. For us it is a day for reflection and looking forward, a date bound up with so many reasons why we now call The Somme our home.
This year, like last, Somme commemorations are different due to Covid and so many not able to travel. There are some small Covid compliant ceremonies but the essence of The Somme is not to be found in any ceremony. It is to be found looking over the now beautiful fields, the skyline, the dips and curves which caress The Somme. Then of course the Cemeteries and Memorials dotted across the landscape like silent witnesses. Come here and you truly connect with the land and its history. There is no place in the world like it. Come and remember, come and reflect. Come on a personal journey, as we did many years ago, a journey for us which continues still. The boys who were here, those who still lie, those who went home who have now all passed. We believe they would have appreciated being remembered in quiet, personal ways, more than 105 years later. So do take a moment for personal reflection today.
A favourite poem of ours which sums up the comradeship and loss felt by soldiers, is this simply titled “Farewell” by Ewart Alan Mackintosh.
Well, you have gone now, comrades,
And I shall see no more
The gallant friendly faces
Framed in my dug-out door.
I had no words to tell you
The things I longed to say,
But the company is empty
Since you have gone away.
The company is filled now
With faces strange to see,
And scarce a man of the old men
That lived and fought with me.
I know the drafts are good men,
I know they're doing well,
But they're not the men I slept with
Those nights at La Boisselle.
Oh, the old days of friendship
We shall not see again,
The bitter winter trenches
And the marches in the rain.
Becourt, Authuille, Thiepval,
Their names are keys that open
Remembered doors to me.
Doors that will open never
Upon this tortured land.
I shall not see you ever,
Or take you by the hand.
Only for ancient friendship,
For all the times we knew,
Maybe you will remember
As I remember you.
Mackintosh was born in 1893, an only son, and studied Classics at Oxford University. He tried to join the army immediately war broke out in August 1914 while still at university. He was rejected on the grounds of his poor eyesight. He reapplied and was accepted by the Seaforth Highlanders and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant on 31 December 1914. He served in France from July 1915.
In May 1916 Mackintosh led a successful raid on a German trench, during which three of his men had arms or legs blown off; despite his struggles to carry them back in, they all died. The action brought him the Military Cross, though he wrote that he would ‘rather have the boys’ lives’. His poetry shows the depth of the love for his men and the sense of responsibility which was to urge him to return to the Front. Mackintosh regarded himself as a father to his men, and they affectionately called him "Tosh". He was himself wounded and gassed at High Wood in August 1916, and sent back to England. Once recovered, he spent eight months at Cambridge training cadets, and while there became engaged to a VAD nurse. Nevertheless his determination to return to active service was strong, and he joined the 4th Seaforths near Bapaume at the beginning of October 1917. Mackintosh was killed in the fighting around Cambrai on 21st November 1917.
He is buried in Orival Wood Cemetery.
Lochnagar Crater 1st July
Lochnagar is one of the reasons we live here now, after an emotional visit 30 years ago. We have been lucky enough to call Richard Dunning MBE, who owns the land the Crater stands on, a friend in the time since. For only the 2nd time in 46 years, Richard Dunning has not been here for a 1 July. So, we will be leading, on his behalf, an intimate, short, symbolic service at Lochnagar, Thursday morning 1 July at 07.28hrs, the time the Battle commenced. Julie will lead the proceedings and David will film to connect with everyone via a Facebook Live. The Somme Battlefield Pipe Band will play and sound The Last Post and Reveille.
We can never say thank you in person to the men who walked this hallowed ground 105 years ago today, but we can remember, we can reflect and we can pledge to be good people, live good lives, and embrace our fragile, hard won freedoms to do good. Thank you to that gallant generation who gave so much. We will remember them.
The weather has been very mixed. We have had June heat, winds and days of rain. Grass and crops grow with vigour. Our foxgloves and poppies bring a splash of colour to our front courtyard. On 28 June late in the evening we had a storm directly over us. Thunder, lightning, lashing rain. More rain in a very short time than we have had for years here, like a monsoon. It made us think of the "bombardment", the days of artillery fire which preluded the coming Battle. What must have the terrible sound, vibrations and flashes been like for men who knew so much more was to come?
Whatever the weather, the landscape always looks beautiful in June. It is soft, vibrant, full. The sound of skylarks everywhere. Hares run, hawks circle, pheasants always shocked to see us on our walks.
The cemeteries, memorials and pathways of the Somme have been our haven during Covid times. We have walked, made visits, reflected and just admired their beauty. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have continued to do a fantastic job of looking after Cemeteries and Memorials. Now the spring flowers have passed it is time for the magnificent roses, lavenders and poppies. Just beautiful.
Agapanthus at Delville Wood
In early June we visited Varennes Military Cemetery with friend and musician Eric Brisse, to pay homage to a young cornet player, Edwin Firth who was killed on The Somme on 1st June 1918. While we were there 3 CWGC workers were busy reengraving the 1219 headstones, a job that will take 3 months in situe. A link to the films we made at Varennes are below.
Eric Brisse is the Chef D’Orchestre of the Amiens Brass Band. He has music in his veins, his feelings for Edwin Firth are strong, one musician to another. Eric mourns the loss of young promise and the music he could have brought to the world. We will be working with Eric again at a concert in St Riquier in early July. More on that next month.
We wish we did not have to update about Covid, but it is still such a huge force in all our lives, upsetting plans, curtailing activities. We are pleased to report the situation continues to improve here on The Somme and France generally. France cases per day are now below or around 2000 and hospital capacity is at its lowest level since October. There is concern over Delta variant so there is a push to carry on vaccinating. The vaccine rollout is progressing really well here. We received our 2nd jabs in Albert on 3rd June. Brilliantly organized and charming staff, the doctor who saw us being a habitant of Ovillers. Thank you seems too small a word for getting the vaccine.
As the figures are going well at the moment, things have really opened up here. Our curfew has been fully lifted, shops, cultural places, bars and restaurants are all open, though social distancing continues. Masks are no longer obligatory outdoors, unless at a gathering, though masks continue to be obligatory in any closed space like a shop or museum.
We know at the moment while France is on an amber list it is not advised for anyone to travel here. Of course, we miss you all and want you back safely ASAP.
We feel it won’t be long….We have even had our first guests back this past week, as Europe opens up. The lovely Marcel from Amsterdam and then German journalist Bettina who has been here to cover Somme remembrance for German radio.
We took the opportunity as things have opened up to visit Normandy and the new British Normandy Memorial which overlooks the D Day beach code named Gold Beach at Vers sur Mer. The memorial has a super position overlooking the beach where you can see the vestiges of the Mulberry Harbour. The design encourages you to walk among the pillars and paths and reflect. The Memorial records the names of the 22,442 servicemen and women under British command who fell on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944. This includes people from more than 30 different countries. Inscribed in stone, their names have never, until now, been brought together. The site also includes a French Memorial, dedicated to the memory of French civilians who died during this time.
It was not a blue-sky day when we visited but David tried to capture the essence of it on his camera. It was a thought-provoking visit.
You can find out more, including some good video footage at:
We have 3 horses grazing in the fields behind us. They are friendly and love a carrot. Hope, Kalinka and Carlois.
Sadly, Florence the remaining red chicken went over the rainbow bridge earlier in June. Peacefully in her sleep in the coop. We will miss her flirty ways. That leaves dear old Marge in Charge the black chicken. She is a little lost having no one to boss around and from 6 she is down to last hen standing. She follows David everywhere when he is the garden. Rest in peace dear Flo thank you for your fresh eggs throughout your life and for your henthralling eggscapades.
David’s June Joke
David said everything would be back to normal by June.
So I told him yesterday "Julyed".
All is well at No.fifty6. Be safe. Stay well. See you soon.