May on The Somme  - A German Pilgrimage, Kindnesses and Stories to Tell

Posted on 31st May 2024 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.

May on The Somme  - A German Pilgrimage, Kindnesses and Stories to Tell

Although it has 31 days, May has seemed to pass in a flash.  The month blew in with rainy days and a chill in the air and though there have been sunny days it remains unsettled at month end with more than average rainfall and a couple of storms. Very unsettled. All the rain means the landscape is lush and full, green and healthy. The hedgerows are brimming with life and the grass grows thick and green. The winter brown coat has turned to Springy green. Full of life and vigour. The birds are nesting and the dawn chorus is a cacophony of natural sounds.  

There is a lovely feel to Spring on the Somme. The landscape is green and lush, the young barley and wheat tremble in the breezes creating a shimmering sea of green that entices you in to explore more. And explore is what our guests have been doing. Even the rain hasn’t dampened anyone’s enthusiasm.

 David captured this moody sky at Lochnagar. 

We have had our busiest month ever. We have to let that sink in – busier than the centenary years! May is always a good time to visit the battlefields. The crop is not too high to impede the views, it’s not too hot, nor busy, great light with long evenings – it's just this month the rain has stayed around! We are thankful for every guest who comes through our door and never take anything for granted. You are all wonderful for appreciating what we do, so thank you.  There has been so much going on we can hardly keep up, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Each day is stimulating, busy, always surprising and though we are first up and last to bed each day, it is good tired, not bad tired. The Somme is a special place and we know we are very lucky to share it with such wonderful people.

Each month, a poem usually finds us, rather than us go searching for one, and this May was no different. Guest Jim Nicolson has been coming to the Somme and leading tours for years. We discussed many interesting stories over dinner and he mentioned his wife Doreen writes poetry. With Doreen’s permission he sent a couple of her poems over. Doreen was inspired by a photo of the boys going off to the Front.

Off To The Front by Doreen Nicolson

 The station is packed with men and boys,

With children, wives, and mothers.

Today my boy goes to the Front

Along with all the others.

The smell of leather fills the air

With polish mixed with smoke.

I’m trying to hold back the tears,

I laugh, I smile, I joke.

 

It’s mayhem now, the train is in

And now it’s time to part.

That lad of mine hugs me so close

I fell his beating heart.

Over his shoulder he throws a grin

His kitbag weighs a ton.

He melts away into the crowd,

Bye, bye my precious son.

And the photo which inspired the poem. Soldiers leaving from Victoria Station.

 

Exploring The Somme

It has been wonderful having familiar faces and new guests through our door this May. It has been our pleasure to share the Somme with so many lovely people, from near and far.

Lovely regular guest David came from Somerset with an old colleague friend of his Mike, from London. They spent a lovely few days exploring and walking The Somme landscape and its history. And of course,  plenty of lovely chats around our dinner table. Mike sent us a beautiful hand written card to say thank you and his words really warmed us.

They were here at the same time as Roland from near Freiburg in Germany. Roland contacted us a few months ago to say he wanted to make a personal pilgrimage in the footsteps of his grandfather. He came, not knowing what to expect. As we discussed his grandfather, Roland revealed that he had served in our village of La Boisselle in 1914. Adolf Anton Birkenmeier left his village and joined the Bavarian 111 Infantry Regiment. As well as being stationed in La Boisselle and Ovillers he was at Mametz, Bazentin and other villages around the Somme.  Adolf was buried alive in an explosion at Serre on 6th June 1915.  He was lucky to be dug out and taken to a German Casualty Station in Bapaume. His injuries ended his war and he was sent home. Roland said his grandfather suffered from nervous tremors thereafter.

There is a memorial in Le Sars which mentions 111 RI – once a memorial stone in a German cemetery the stone is all that exists now, in quite a bad state in a farmer’s yard with no public access. Roland made several visits to it. He came back each day emotional from what he had discovered. Roland  brought with him a framed photograph of his grandfather. Roland spoke no English or French and our German is not good- but we managed. Our guests were wonderful too, engaging in conversation using Translation Apps. It was a very special few days. Roland ordered a plaque for his grandfather to go down on the walkway at Lochnagar. As well as his grandfather’s details, the plaque will bear Roland’s choice of words. Nei mehr Krieg. No more War.

 Adolf Anton Birkenmeier.  Birkenmeier family (l) and Adolf Anton in uniform (r)

 Roland (l) and us with guests David and Mike 

Jon and Pam were here at the same time as Roland. We were their last stop on a 3-week road trip of The Netherlands, Belgium and France, a fair distance from their native Newcastle. Jon’s grandfather Alfred Clark Denham served with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and he took the opportunity on this visit to find out more about his service.

Terry originally from Manchester but living in London came to explore the battlefields, spending 2 days with David exploring and understanding the topography.

Ted came on his motorcycle from Staffordshire and spent a week with us. As well as the battlefields he rode out each day, covering quite a distance including Le Touquet and Laon. He loves the roads here and the mix of history and landscape and the promise of a meal and discussion each evening. Ted had a problem with his motorcycle battery while he was here.  It was flat one morning and wouldn’t hold a charge. Luckily the independent bike shop in Albert came to his rescue, having the battery he needed on the shelf. Disaster avoided.

Every year we welcome a wonderful group of friends who first met on an organised battlefield tour some years ago. They now explore on their own – each of them taking a lead on different days, really getting into the detail and discovering new things all the time. David took them to Rossignol Wood  - a new visit for them. Gary and Ali from Kent, Neil and Mark from London and Andy from Essex. We love their company and look forward to each visit. The friendship betwen them and their support for each other, even when unexpected things happen,  and their support to us is very special. Thank you lovelies.

 Remains of a German Bunker in Rossignol Wood.

Another special visit was from  Claire Mcleod who back in our early days of being here, introduced us to the story of Joseph Coulson, her great grandfather. Claire came with husband Dickie and her Dad Mac and his wife Erica. Joseph is one of the lads we say hello to every time we visit Ovillers Military Cemetery.

Londoner Joseph Coulson first joined the Middlesex Regiment in 1892, as an eager 19 year old. He spent much of the next four years in Gibraltar but was medically discharged from the army in 1896 for persistent leg problems. He then began a career with the Midland Railway, beginning as a shunter and working his way up to Head Goods Guard. He married, settled in the St Pancras area of London, and raised five children.

 Joseph Coulson

When war broke out in 1914, Joseph, despite his age (40), immediately rejoined the Middlesex Regiment once again and travelled to France in May 1915. In the autumn of 1915 Joseph was injured by a shell at Loos and returned home to England to recover from a broken leg.  Once healed, he was required to retake his place in France and in April 1916 headed off to the Somme. There, with the 2nd Battalion on the 1st July, he headed across Mash Valley. At some point on that day he was killed. Joseph was buried, probably in the days following the capture of La Boisselle and Ovillers, and the map coordinates of his original burial place him just inside the hedge of Mash Valley outside our front door. It was a few years later that his body was concentrated into Ovillers Military Cemetery. Learning of his original burial place was a new piece of information for Claire and Mac. They spent an emotionally charged moment with David standing in the spot, as the sun set.

At his graveside the family played the Last Post and Jerusalem.

 Mac and Claire at Joseph's grave in Ovillers.

 Father and daughter share a special moment thinking of Joseph over the land he last walked.

Joseph you are not forgotten.

Jim flew in from Scotland for a week furthering his research of the men of Ayrshire in The Great War. During his week with us, he took over 4000 photos, walked, recorded videos and visited many cemeteries. He went out straight after breakfast each day, returningat dusk, to make the most of each day. He was buzzing from all his discoveries.  He now has a lot of cataloging to do back home! 

Dan is passionate about the battlefields, remembrance and the story of The Ulster Division, and as he has done in previous years, brought a group from Northern Ireland on a battlefield tour, in the process raising money for charity. Brothers Jeff and Billy and husband and wife Jon and Gwen had a very full itinerary which of course included time at The Ulster Tower and Thiepval Wood. Aways a pleasure to have such an enthusiastic group and catch up with them. Their last night with us always means a toast around the table and thank yous. This visit we were presented with a special gift by Billy  -  a regimental plaque to be added to our Regimental Plaque gallery. The plaque is for the Royal Irish Fusiliers and shows an eagle under the crown and the motto "Faugh a Ballah (Clear the Way). " The eagle represents the capture of the French eagle at Barossa. Thank you Billy.

 Faugh a Ballah

Kevin came from Norwich for his second visit to us (his last visit was in November) and he loves to walk the battlefields. Sore feet did not stop him clocking up 15-20 miles per day. History, walking, photographing, researching. A place he loves to be.

Geoff and Esther made their first visit to us – No.fifty6 newbies as we say. Geoff has researched all The “Pughs” who died in both World Wars and he wants to visit as many of the graves as possible. He researches every man and gathers as much information as he can about their lives and families. A photograph of the grave is the last part of his research. As a Pugh himself, he wonders whether any or all of them are distant relatives. Geoff and Esther explain it is an interesting hobby – it has taken them to some far-flung places around the world. The Western Front being a little more accessible than some other CWGC locations. Geoff and Esther loved meeting our guests around the table. Many interesting chats were had.

Special Treasures of The Great War

Our dear friends Sally and Chris  have been coming to the Somme as long as we have been here and we have a speical place in our hearts for them.

On their visit last month they left us with some family treasures. Having just retired and with a need to downsize from their workplace which was also their family home, they said there was no better place for some family war treasures than at no.fifty6 where they could be seen by more people. Both Sally and Chris have family members who fought in the War. Sally’s grandfather William Cuthbert Thomas, known as Cuth attested 14th September 1914 joining the Gloucesters – Bristol’s Own Regiment. In September 1915 he transferred to the Chemical Division 188 Special Company  of The Royal Engineers specialising in Gas. He served throughout France and Flanders and was awarded the Military Medal  22nd May 1918. He survived the War and went on to be a Company Secretary at Chepstow Shipyard. Cuth died in 1947 so Sally never knew her grandfather. Among the photos, his uniform and effects, is his gas arm band. The material pockmarked not from moths, but where the gas itself has “eaten” the material. 

 William Cuthbert Thomas "Cuth"

 Cuth's gas arm band.

Chris’s grandfather William Burge was a private with The Leicester Regiment, attesting in 1915. He was a Lewis machine gunner. He saw action at Gommecourt,  Bray, Bellenglise, and Ham. He was wounded on 4 October 1918 with multiple wounds to neck and back and gunshots to both legs. Admitted to hospital to recover he was discharged from Neath Hospital in January 1919. In civilian life he was a warehouseman and died in 1955. Among his possessions was a crucifix made from bullets. We do not know the provenance  - maybe William made it, or it was given to him while recovering in hospital. It is certainly a tactile piece – but a strange juxtaposition of instruments of war with the holiness of the Crucifix.

 William Burge

 William's crucifix.

Thank you Sally and Chris for entrusting these items with us. They are treasured.

 

Everyone has their reason for coming to The Somme. We like to think we do our little bit to restore good spirits but really it is the Somme that is the star – its inexplicable essence of creating peace where once there was havoc and that peace seeps into your soul.  We think this resonates with all our May guests.

Lochnagar Working Weekend

The last weekend in May which includes the UK bank holiday is always the Lochnagar Working Weekend. This year, we had the same amazing crew of volunteers staying with us as part of the larger crew (40+ this year including some new volunteers who loved the experience) who help maintain the special place that is Lochnagar. Eric & Monique from Amsterdam, Sam from Oxfordshire, Colin & Anne  from Dundee, Spencer and Stacey from Norwich and Rob and Elaine from London. It was quite the house party with many laughs along the way as well as so much hard, back fatiguing work done by this faithful band of volunteers. They have all rebooked for 2025.

The weekend of maintenance concentrates on hedge cutting, strimming the inside of the Crater, maintenance to the cross area, plaques, panels and benches. New volunteers are always welcome. It is a wonderful weekend of camaraderie and over the weekend we raised over €1000 in donations.

Sadly, Richard Dunning could not be with us as he continues his treatment at home. He was sorely missed by everyone as he is the spirit and heart of Lochnagar.

https://www.facebook.com/703972899/videos/1160445101814573/

https://www.facebook.com/703972899/videos/964954488594698/

 Hard at work at Lochnagar.

A Helping Hand

After having our dining room roof cleaned last month, and with all the rain and changes in temperature one of the roof panels developed a leak   - creating quite a puddle when it rained heavily. A free shower with dinner if you were lucky. However a knight in shining armour was young Spencer (here to volunterr at Lochnagar) who very kindly went up the ladders to reseal the roof. Within 24 hours his work was put to the test with some heavy rain. And touchez le bois – touch wood – no leaks!! Thank you Spencer you are our May star. You can seal our panels anytime. 

 Spencer at work - thank you!

Animal Postscript

Still no new chickens – too busy to clean out the old coop in the rain! We are having to buy eggs from the farm. When we see the hens at the farm they all want to come home with us!

David’s May Joke

I’ve just come back from the garden centre getting our summer plants (true).

I saw Michael J Fox at the garden centre.

He had his back to the fuchsias.

 

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

 Typifies the May weather - view from Lochnagar towards Becourt. 

Comments (24)

Susan Anneveldt says:

Another lovely and at times moving read. Thank you! I have fond memories of my visit with Sally and Chris about two years ago now. I would love to visit again, if the chance arose.

Gary James says:

Wow, what an extensive newsletter. Great to read about the pilgrimages from both sides of the wire. Keep safe and well.

Claire (McLeod) Alford says:

Julie and David, thank you so much for an incredibly emotional stay, yet again! It seems to be that every time we visit we learn more information about Joseph and trace even more of his footsteps! We absolutely love staying with you, and can't wait to come back again next year. Thank you for making our stay truly memorable, for always making us feel so welcome, and for continuing to 'check in' and care for Joseph xxx

Randy James says:

Thank you again for a great update and great stories. Spending time with Roland must have been very rewarding for all! I remain envious and frustrated that I can't just "pop over" on a regular basis., but that's life.

David Harvey says:

Thank you for this months post. What a great read.

Janet and Ian says:

As always a very interesting read, so good to keep up-to-date with life around you. Lochagar looking wonderful, best regards to Richard.

James Brown says:

Really enjoyed the stay this year and so looking forward to getting back out. Was very lucky to meet the guests who stayed the same week. Jim n Terry, Kevin, Dan and his crew from Belfast and of course Geoff and Esther. June newsletter next please and David's Joke :)
Jim

John Mepham says:

A wonderful update ! Many of these stories are similar to our families experience's!
Yes, the Somme is the star but fifty6 does an amazing job of shining a bright and welcoming light on it's history. My thoughts often turn to past visits and long for new ones!
Glad to hear all is well and wishing you a safe and enjoyable summer from across the pond!

David Ellis says:

Another lovely stay - thank you J&D! It was wonderful to meet Roland and talk to him! Can’t wait for my next visit in September! Stay safe. ????

Ged Parr says:

Love reading your monthly missives. David’s joke made me smile. ????????????

Jim Blenkhorn says:

Very informative as always. Thanks.

Penny says:

You both have been busy thanks for the interesting newsletter

Martin Dack says:

One of David’s better jokes ????

Jon Hill says:

It was wonderful to be with you again and also to enjoy the Roland's company. To think that our respective grandfathers were serving at the same time and probably no further than half a mile from each other. It was on opposite sides of the conflict and our connections with Roland and the laughs we had over the dinner table just emphasised the tragedy of war.
Thanks for a wonderful stay as ever!

Les Mepham says:

A busy month indeed! Loved following the Working Weekend, was even fortunate to catch your live video and longed to be there to help. Such wonderful work by so many people. You all should be proud. The memory of Lochnagar lives on because of all of you!

I absolutely love reading the family histories. So many untold stories. It was refreshing to hear about Roland’s family history. I’m sure he felt very at home with you on the Somme.

David, it looks like the “monkey on your back” has shifted to “lighting up your ear” in the photo with Dan.

Looking forward to a return some day. There is talk of a European trip next summer with my wife and son. Should it come to fruition, you can bet a stop at Number 56 will be on the itinerary.

Wishing you all the best from Canada.

Neil Mackenzie says:

Many thanks to you both for another wonderful few days at No56. Our group just love staying there. Also, many thanks for helping us with the car related issues our group had. We would have been lost without your help.

Chris Smith says:

What a supper write up, and thank you all for keeping it in tip top condition for visitors to see

Julie &David says:

Oh OK then Rob, strimming the perimeter and grounds of the Crater is a particularly important task, especially the perimeter near the fence. Tough work. Beautifully executed.

Rob says:

Gutted that strimming INSIDE the Crater gets a mention, but not strimming OUTSIDE the Crater. You’ll be hearing from my lawyers.

Julie & David says:

Oh all right then Colin, across the water from Dundee near St. Andrew’s.

Colin Ansell says:

Gutted , aving us down from DUNDEE,
Will be speaking to my lawyer

Sally & Chris says:

Thanks J&D for such an interesting news letter and for remembering Cuth and William. You are both very special friends. Can’t wait to be back in September Xx

Jennifer Iles says:

Another fascinating post - thank you.

Mrs Jacqueline Martin says:

Some fascinating stories and lively items left for your collection!
So sorry the broken ankle halted our plans for May ???? But hoping to see you before the years is out!

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