June 2023 - Long Days, Pilgrimages Made, Stories Shared At our Table - Al
Posted on 30th June 2023 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.
June - Flaming June at times, other times stormy and showery, the weather has kept us on our toes this month – that, along with all the other things keeping us busy but happy at No.fifty6.
After a very dry Spring and a few days of rain in May, it has been a drier, hotter than average June, though we have had some rain too in the form of heavy thunderstorms. On hot days all we could do was search the shade.
It is drier than normal and the tracks and roadways of the Somme remain dry and dusty. The rain has however let the crops in the fields flourish and green of various hues blankets the land – potatoes in flower, maize growing, wheat nearly ready for harvesting - that cycle of agriculture continuing.
As we write this month’s newsletter we think, as always, of the soldiers who would be in the trenches, under the artillery bombardment which continued in the week leading up to 1 July 1916. How did they stand the noise, the vibration, the fear, the waiting….? Letters written home, photos looked at one last time. Some, like John William (Will) Streets, wrote poetry:
Once in thy secret close, now almost bare,
Peace yielded up her bountiful largess;
The dawn dropp'd sunshine thro' thy leafy dress;
The sunset bathed thy glade with beauty rare.
Spring once wove here her tapestry of flowers,
The primrose sweet, the errant celandine;
The blue-bell and the wild rose that doth twine
Its beauty 'round the laughing summer hours.
Here lovers stole unseen at deep'ning eve,
High-tide within their hearts, love in their eyes,
And told a tale whose magic never dies
That only they who love can quite believe.
Now 'mid thy splinter'd trees the great shells crash,
The subterranean mines thy deeps divide;
And men from Death and Terror there do hide-
Hide in thy caves from shrapnel's deadly splash.
Yet 'mid thy ruins, shrine now desolate,
The Spring breaks thro' and visions many a spot
With promise of the wild-rose—tho' belate-
And the eternal blue forget-me-not.
So Nature flourishes amid decay,
Defiant of the fate that laid her low;
So Man in triumph scorning Death below
Visions the springtide of a purer day:
Dreams of the day when rampant there will rise
The flowers of Truth and Freedom from the blood
Of noble youth who died: when there will bud
The flower of Love from human sacrifice.
There by thr fallen youth, where heroes lie,
Close by each simple cross the flowers will spring,
The bonnes enfants will wander in Spring,
And lovers dream those dreams that never die.
Will Streets was from a large family in Whitwell Derbyshire. A bright student who was offered a place at grammar school, he declined and went down the mines at the age of 14 to help support his family. Despite the draining nature of the work, he continued to study classics and French at night and taught in his local Sunday school. Streets signed up soon after the war started and wrote poems while serving in France. In his poems, he regularly looks for an escape from the realities of combat through observing the natural world that endures around him. He would send poems home, written in pencil, paper covered in mud as if worried he would die before he could get his words home. He wrote:
"They were inspired while I was in the trenches, where I have been so busy I have had little time to polish them. I have tried to picture some thoughts that pass through a man's brain when he dies. I may not see the end of the poems, but hope to live to do so. We soldiers have our views of life to express, though the boom of death is in our ears. We try to convey something of what we feel in this great conflict to those who think of us, and sometimes, alas! mourn our loss. We desire to let them know that in the midst of our keenest sadness for the joy of life we leave behind, we go to meet death grim-lipped, clear eyed, and resolute-hearted."
Sadly, Will’s words were prophetic. He did not live beyond 1 July 1916, dying in a hail of bullets. He is buried in Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps.
Sucrerie Cemetery in June
So, our thoughts turn to 1st July and the 107th anniversary of The Somme Battle. We will be commemorating the event here and will be at Lochnagar for the 07h28 service. 107 years later we still live in a world torn by War, suffering, intolerance and prejudice, but also joy, hope, kindness and tolerance. We hope the latter qualities prevail and we have seen much of those great qualities this month, as demonstrated by the kindness and commitment of our guests to do good things.
We began June with a lovely group of chaps from Ulster who spent a busy few days exploring both The Somme and Ypres Salient. Steve, Ken, Harry, Tom, Billy, Jim, Keith and Ian made the most of the good weather and saw so much. Of course, a highlight for them was a tour of Thiepval Wood from The Ulster Tower. Steve, as group leader vowed to be back to do some Somme walking at a future date.
Roger Staker, Elaine and Elaine’s sister Val came from Devon and Cheshire respectively. Roger and Elaine visit every year and do so much while they are here. Roger has just finished writing 2 books on First World War biplanes, so his visit was a welcome reward for sitting at his desk! Roger uses his own photographs in his books and left us with a lovely framed print of his best photos! Roger has also just celebrated a significant birthday with photos shared of the beautiful cake Elaine made him adorned with a military plane of course! While here they always make a pilgrimage to Grove Town Cemetery where Elaine’s late husband’s forebear lies.
Jackie and Brian Rose came for the first time to remember William Hoare, a Londoner who joined 15thbattalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The family discovered more about Bill when a case in an attic was discovered in 1980.
The case had been kept tucked away by Bill’s sister Ann who died in 1980. It was as if, like so many families, talk of Bill was too painful, so he was kept tucked away and his grave never visited. The case contained Bill’s memorabilia and priceless letters home. William (Bill) aged just 20 and nearly having finished a 7-year apprenticeship as a vellum binder in the print industry, walked into the RWF recruiting office in Holborn in December 1914. The 15th RWF were the London Welsh. Bill wrote letters home and his last letter home reached his parents at the same time as his notification of death. He died of wounds on 14th November 1916 and is buried at Varennes Military Cemetery. He died in No.4 Casualty Clearing Station after being wounded on the attack at Serre on 13th November. David took Jackie and Brian on their truly moving pilgrimage visiting the places he fought, where he died and his final resting place. They have a letter in that case at home written by the Sister in charge of No.4 CCS – Gertrude Bulman, written to the family on the death of dear Bill.
We are so pleased that Bill is being spoken about again and his grave has been visited.
Brian & Jackie at Bill's grave at Varennes
Last June David Ellis from Taunton, met Lee, Dick and Bob from Wales - a friendship formed around our table. Last year David was inspired by Lee’s walk along the front line and plans were hatched… They vowed to do a walk together this year. Fast forward to 10th June this year and on a very hot day, joined by a 4thWelsh friend Andy, they walked from Serre back here to No.56. 14 miles with some stops at the cemeteries on the way. They did it for the pride and challenge of doing it, but also raised over #1000 for the Walkway renovation project at Lochnagar. After the walk there was much singing and we were even joined by French friends Isabelle and Fred for dinner on the terrace, where Fred played his bagpipes! Life is never dull. Thank you guys for your amazing donation to Lochnagar.
Lee, Bob, David, Dick and Andy at the start
Steve and Lorraine Bell came for a first visit from Canvey Island. They spent time with David on a Walk with Me on a very hot June day.
Peter and Jean Mason have visited regularly for a number of years. Peter’s grandfather Peter has done so much research and has an incredible file on his grandfather – and we are encouraging him to write a book!
Peter’s Grandfather was Captain Robert McKinley. Robert was born in 1886 in County Donegal. He was a farmer, and joined up in 1914 with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as a private. He rose through the ranks to 2nd Lieutenant by the time he reached the Somme. hIs battalion were involved in the thick of it on 1 July 1916 – on the extreme right of the 36th Ulster division attack, their objective to take the 3rd German Line. Here is an extract about the battalion that day:
“ The assorted detachment of the 9th was commanded by the remaining officer 2/Lt McKinley. Making a firm base at The Crucifix, McKinley patrolled down the empty trench toward Thiepval. As soon as they left the trenches they met withering flank fire and frontal fire from machine guns. They pressed grimly on – a gap in the line of their bayonets made every second as a man fell – reached the trench and forced the enemy out with steel. They passed into the second trench, a scanty remnant now, and again advanced a little more than a handful of stalwarts under 2/Lt McKinley, every other Company leader having fallen. The 3rd line was reached and held. “
They were not able to hold the line due to others failing to reach their objectives, and had to withdraw to their own trenches later that day. Robert McKinley was awarded the Military Cross for his actions on 1stJuly 1916. His battalion had 16 Officers and 461 other ranks killed, wounded or missing that day. On 2ndJuly he was promoted to Captain, a rank he retained until the end of the War. He received his MC from George V at Buckingham Palace having recovered from typhoid and married his sweetheart Wilhelmina.
He carried on serving and was discharged from the army in 1919. On returning to Ireland he joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary and served as a police officer both in Ireland and in 1945 he served in Greece, helping the Greek Police after the War. He died in 1973 aged 87 in Belfast.
Peter remembers his grandfather. A tall man, deeply religious who said his prayers at the end of his bed every night. Peter also remembers he drank a chalky white mixture after every meal, apparently due to the effects of being gassed in The War.
Mike and Mark came on their Motorbikes after several days touring Belgium via Manchester. The lads are great company and as they both had new bikes since their last visit, we recreated a photo of them riding their bikes through our gates which has been (with their permission) on our website – now replaced showing their sparkly new KTMs.
Ross and Fraser Hunter visited us for the first time. Hailing from Scotland, Ross now lives in the US. Having listened to Terry Whenham’s battlefield podcasts, he found us as we were interviewed in an episode. Ross was following his ancestor’s footsteps with the 12th Royal Scots. David then became very jealous as they left us to travel to Ypres to take in the Ypres Car rally!
We are always delighted to have here friends Neil, Andy, Mark and Ali & Gary. The 5 met years ago on a coach tour of the battlefields and have branched out to do their own tours ever since – each taking a lead on the history on different days, as they all have specialisms. They coverd ground from Gommecourt to the French sector in the south. Fortified by dinenrs and stories around our table we spent a fabulous 4 days with them. Lots of laughter and lots of history. We even managed to mend Ali’s walking boot!
John Ellis and Howard Gwynne visited from Devon, just as they do every year. Both passionate about the men of Devon who fought here and photography, it is a marriage of history and photography made in heaven. With a little trappist beer thrown in on the side for John! We always enjoy their company.
After visiting earlier in June with father and daughter Rob and Mandy on their family pilgrimage, Terry Whenham returned again with Alan and Carol, Jane and Paul. Terry met Alan and Carol on a cruise last year and they hit it off. Alan and Carol have not been to the battlefields before so took advantage of Terry’s offer to bring them over with their friends. They spent a wonderful few days exploring the history here.
We ended the month with Mark, Nina, Richard and Lesley on their motorbikes from Bath, on their first visit. They had 3 family members to visit. Harry Hudson who is buried in Pargny British Cemetery who served with The 7th Queens Royal West Surreys Battalion and died in April 1918 aged just 18.
Charles Masters is buried in Forceville just the other side of Albert. His battalion the 6th Somerset Light Infantry were fighting on The Somme in August 1916 when he was wounded and died. He was 19.
Benjamin Slade died with The Dorsets on 1st July 1916, the first day of The Battle of The Somme while attacking the Leipzig Salient. He is buried in Lonsdale Cemetery overlooking the ground he was attacking. In amongst the beauty of the lavender in bloom in the cemetery Nina became overcome with an emotion she had not expected to feel. We talked that evening of how the emotion of these moments on the Somme can be so intense and indescribable. A feeling of profound loss, sorrow, grief, thankfulness and other things all rolled in across the generations to a young man we never had the privilege to know. If you have been here, you will know how Nina felt today as she described it to us.
Lesley, Richard, Nina and Mark leave us after an emotional visit.
So you can see it has been a vibrant, interesting month of so many stories collected round our table with old friendships renewed in person and new friendships made. We love and are honoured to do what we do. Thank you to all our guests for making the journey. To all those affected by War today, to the lads who made it home and to those that stay close by to us, we salute you.
Burial at Guards Cemetery Lesboeufs
On 20th June we and our guests, attended a burial service for an unknown soldier of the Royal Field Artillery at Guards Cemetery Lesboeufs. The soldier’s remains were discovered north of the village of Ginchy during the construction of wind turbines. A shoulder title was found with the remains giving his regiment. Extensive research showed that the soldier was most likely a Gunner belonging to 20th Light Divisional artillery and he is likely to have died between September and November 1916. Found with him was a wedding ring and fob watch, but sadly it has not been possible to identify him. The poignant service was carried out by The Chaplin to 14th Regiment Royal Artillery and officers and soldiers of the Royal Artillery who formed the burial party. Rest in peace gunner.
Marge has developed a naughty streak. She has found a whole in the fence (kicked through by one of the horses) and she now wonders in to the back field to play with the horses. Naughty Marge.
We also have a new tank commander for our tank in the front garden. We call him Commander Bunny Warren. And we have 2 hedgehogs which snuffle round the garden by night. Too cute!
Tank Commander Bunny Warren
David’s June Joke:
Although we have been busy, I’ve found time to play scabble with Midge Ure. I’ve only got 4 letters left but they mean nothing to me.
All is well at no.fifty6. We hope to see you soon.
Pozieres British Cemetery and Memorial