October News From No.fifty6 - Autumn Blows in with Stories to Tell

Posted on 31st October 2019 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.

October News From No.fifty6 -  Autumn Blows in with Stories to Tell

Mary Borden – Sonnets to A Solider:

No, no! There is some sinister mistake.
You cannot love me now. I am no more
A thing to touch, a pleasant thing to take
Into one’s arms. How can a man adore
A woman with black blood upon her face,
A cap of horror on her pallid head,
Mirrors of madness in the sunken place
Of eyes; hands dripping with the slimy dead?


103 years ago, The Somme battle raged on for the 4th month. Mary Borden was running a field hospital close to the Somme Front. A young British officer turned up at Mary’s hospital, a make-shift collection of huts and tents. The officer was accompanied by his dog Rex, and was looking for a lost company of soldiers. Mary described their first meeting: ‘My apron is stained with mud and blood; I am too tired to take it off. My feet are burning lumps as I hobble to open the door. A young officer stands there. He too is splattered with mud; his face is haggard. He introduces himself. He is Captain Spears of the XIth Hussars…’ It was the beginning of a great and enduring love story.

This October there is peace, though the wind has been blowing and though some days are sunny and mild, others see endless rain. The landscape sometimes brooding, sometimes benign. Capricious but beautiful.

Personal Pilgrimages

Last month we received such positive feedback for the piece written by our friend and clergyman Ian Smith following his visit here, we are happy to include his further thoughts, written at the same time:
As part of my summer holiday I visited one of my oldest friends, David, who now runs a bed and breakfast with his wife Julie in France. The pavement outside their house was once the front line of the Somme fighting in the First World War. On almost a daily basis bits of the debris of war are ploughed up in the extensive farmland all around; barbed wire, a bottle, a rusted gun and endless shells – many still potentially live. The estimate is that those shells will be discovered and removed for another 700 years. In case you wondered if that was a misprint, seven hundred years.
David has the knowledge and respect that enables him to portray events as you stand either at the spot where it happened or at a vantage point, without being gung-ho or critical. He describes and recounts honestly and as accurately as the records allow. We saw the massive Thiepval Memorial to the 70,000+ dead with no grave and some of the many smaller cemeteries dotted all across the Somme.
After a while the sheer number of war graves, the identically shaped headstones in precise lines, becomes numbing. It is vital to attend to the inscription on the stone; the name, age, the choice of words that the family were able to place on them. Without that individuality they could easily become statistics. My eyes fell on one. Apologies it is not a clear image.

There were 23 men with the surname Goodlad who fought in the First World War, the Great War. The surname in 1900 was most likely to found in Yorkshire. Here was one Yorkshire Goodlad.
Private A. Goodlad. A member of the York and Lancaster Regiment, died aged 23 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916. His first name was Alfred. His Mum and Dad were Jane and William from Woodseats in Sheffield. They called him Alf. At the base of his headstone were words chosen by them, they quoted from a letter he had sent them on the 22nd March 1916:
The French are a grand nation worth fighting for.
You don’t need to imagine too much what he looked like as there is a poor image of him printed in Sheffield Daily Telegraph after he died.

But can you envisage the street he came from and the job he had started perhaps straight from school? The city of Sheffield where he was born in 1893 was a thriving industrial centre of some 451,200 people in 1901 (it’s about 575,000 today). He’d have enlisted, as conscription began in March 1916 and he was already writing home to his Dad by then. Basic training took three months, then there was more before deployment. He was a bandsman – what instrument did he play I wonder? And he was his parent’s only son. His Mother, Jane Helena, born 1867, had died aged 46 in June 1913. For nearly two months in 1900, aged 33, she had been admitted to the Pleasance Asylum in York for nervous debility. That usually means deep stress and inability to cope. She was recorded as having no occupation but that ignored her role running the house and family. She was 26 when she gave birth to Alf. When he left for training and France he left his Dad, William, born in 1860, a widower, perhaps alone. William was an incorporated accountant.
What you read here has come from a few hours searching online, but perhaps the last thing I discovered is both moving and heart wrenching. It is contained in a little book called ‘Epitaphs of the Great War’ by Sarah .as they were permitted, though the number of letters was limited to 66. Sarah writes of Alf’s epitaph:
Some parents were so magnanimous, so generous in their response to the death of their sons. Alfred Goodlad was his parent’s only child yet his inscription, quoting from a letter he had written to them on 22 March 1916, says "The French are a grand nation worth fighting for".
Goodlad, an accountant's clerk, served with the 12th Battalion the York and Lancaster Regiment, the Sheffield Pals, which in March 1916 had only just landed in France after a brief spell in Egypt, their first foreign deployment. On 1 July 1916 the regiment attacked the heavily fortified village of Serre. Within minutes the soldiers had come up against uncut barbed wire and heavy machine gun fire causing 513 casualties, killed,wounded and missing, of whom 246 died that day. As someone said of another Pals battalion, "We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying".

The family home still stands. Semi-detached, double fronted, one side with a bay window. It has a very narrow front garden and good space to the side.
As I write I am quite unmanned by emotions and a feeling of distress. The people Alf felt were grand and worth fighting for still are in my view. Our links as a nation have always been European, never, no not once, alone. Our relations with France have ebbed and flowed, ally and enemy, but not for long – the connections are too deep, too important and too good for long separation. Like so many young men who died in the First World War Alf’s heart was big and inclusive. He embraced the French as perhaps I did an old man and his granddaughter’s boyfriend, in a chance meeting on a field once the scene of terrible slaughter, as people with whom I had far more in common than difference; far more to fight for, than to fight against.

Steve Cottam of https://www.discoverybattlefieldtours.com is a frequent visitor to No.fifty6. We love his passion for remembrance and the interesting guests he brings. In October Steve was accompanied by Jacqueline and Jo, friends from Edinburgh who came in the footsteps of Jacqueline’s Great Grandfathers, Private William Miller of the 27th Machine Gun Company who died on 3rd May 1917 and is remembered on the Arras Memorial and was the son of William and Annie Wier Miller and husband of Elizabeth Flockhart Miller, of 55, Restalrig Rd., Leith, Edinburgh.
Private Hinton Bootland of the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers who died 4 October 1917 and is buried at Hooge Crater Cemetery. Steve said: “We arrived back safely yesterday afternoon after a very enjoyable 5 days. From the map reference for where Hinton’s body was found we were able to go as near as possible to the spot where he was killed on 4th October 1917 followed by a visit to his grave. Very moving experience to walk across the ground where he died. As always, your hospitality was outstanding. It is invariably a real treat to spend time at Number 56.”

3 Grossart Brothers

Regular guests Martin and Kate Howard often visit the Somme as Martin’s grandfather served with the King’s Liverpool Regiment and Martin does an incredible amount of research based on his grandfather’s diaries, visiting places he served and men he had to leave behind. On their October visit Kate and Martin made a special pilgrimage for Martin’s Aunt Jean and his cousins Duncan and John. Visiting The Somme, French Flanders, The Marne and Ypres, the family followed in the footsteps of Jean’s 3 uncles who all served and died. Private Robert Redi Grossart of the 1st/7th Kings Liverpool Regiment died 16th May 1915 aged 21. He is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial, having no known grave. Private Douglas Buchanan Grossart of the King’s Liverpool, died 16th June 1916 aged just 19. He is remembered on the Menin Gate, having no known grave. 2nd Lieutenant Archibald Campbell Grossart served with 1st/5th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, attached from the 10th King’s Liverpool. He died 23rd July 1918 and is buried in St Imoges Churchyard, France. His headstone bears the inscription:

They were the sons of Alexander and Mary Stuart Grossart, of 36, College Rd., Great Crosby, Liverpool.
3 sons, proud of their Liverpool and Scottish heritage, a family who served their King and country and made the ultimate sacrifice. Family history which echoes through the generations. Jean with her 2 sons, flanking her, proudly laid a wreath in remembrance of the 3 men at the Last Post Ceremony at The Menin Gate. It was a poignant, proud moment for them in remembrance.

Pompey Remembers

Regular guest and friend Alan Laishley organized a Walking Tour of The Somme following the history of The Pompey Pals - men from  Portsmouth. Pompey in The Great War has been Alan’s passion for many years and he has walked just about every inch of the Somme in rain, blazing sun, sleet and wind over the years. This time, in cooperation with Stuart Baxter of Baxters Battlefield Tours https://www.baxters-battlefieldtours.com, Alan organised a Walking Tour for 16 people. On a bright, sunny weekend these hardy Pompey people walked the 1st July 1916 front line. Another of our friends and guests Same Gascoyne made the trip too. Though not from Portsmouth Sam and Alan met at No.fifty6 and became friends, both sharing an interest in walking and The Great War. At the end of Day 1 the group ended at No.fifty6 and we provided much needed tea, coffee and caramel eclairs. It was lovely to see them all and the spirit of a very happy group remembering the men of Pompey. 

On our Bookshelves

We were pleased to welcome back this month Paul Oldfield, historian, author and battlefield guide and all-round good fellow! Paul was with us for a week researching and photographing for his latest book which will be volume 8 of his 10 volumes of books covering in detail the VCs of the first World War on The Western Front. This volume concentrates on the VCs awarded in August 1918 in the Amiens sector. Paul’s research is painstaking, thorough, great maps and photographs then and now.

Jane and Chris Roberts visit us regularly with their shared passion for history and remembrance. On their October visit we were pleased to receive a copy of the book they have published this year. The Greatest Sacrifice, Fallen Heroes of The Northern Union, combines their passions – Chris a journalist and rugby League specialist, having written about the game for 30 years, and Jane a history graduate, professional genealogist and lifelong supporter of Rugby League. This book has been years in the research and we are proud to see the finished product. Chris and Jane sold 4 copies of the book to our guests while they were here. Beautifully produced and a great read, it is well worth getting a copy to add to your bookshelves, . For copies at £15contact Jane and Chris directly - [email protected]

As a postscript, we also know Chris for his love of interesting slippers. Last visit it was shark feet, this visit it was The Gruffalo. The best slippers at No.fifty6.

Animal PostScript

Shere the tabby cat was not impressed with Chris’s slippers but is settling into life at No.fifty6 despite no 2 days being the same. He likes to take up residence in the heart of the house on the red rug outside the old kitchen. If sleeping there, he moves for no-one.

The chickens are in fine form. Eggs are still amazing as golden as our October sunsets. We had to get more chicken food for them this month so made a visit to the farmer who raised them from eggs who is our chicken food provider. Michel (affectionately known as Chicken Man) always asks how our girls are and if “Les Anglais aiment leurs oeufs”. On this visit we got 3 sacks of food not 2 - the third a Chicken Man equivalent of buy 2 get 1 free. Knowing also that we like to cook and wanting to impress “les Anglais” we came away with a sack of potatoes, a net of large onions, and red onions. Apparently the flavour of each is superb. All free for us to try - – to impress our “Anglais guests” – sorry guests of other nations he really means you too!
He also showed us the area where he is raising 8000 free range guinea fowl – pintade in French. These birds not for eggs, but for the Christmas oven. We have been promised some of those too. The generosity of this French farmer and the pride in his produce makes us proud and humbled in equal measure to be part of this French community, so generous in spirit.


Comments (13)

Sue Scott-Evans says:

You were in my thoughts today. In my village of Hartwell Northamptonshire we remembered those from our village who had lost lives in the Great War as we stood by the War Memorial. Wreaths are laid by all the village organisations and the playing of the last post. It is followed by a service in our Church. This Remembrance was of course replicated across the country but it particularly made me think of you at Number 56 today and because of our visit to you earlier in June it has made this remembrance day this year so poignant. Thank you.

John Mepham says:

Thanks for the update on Shere and glad to here your keeping busy. Hoping the Fall treats you well !

Andy bond says:

As always Julie superb thank you very much

Ian Mason says:

Great place and lovely company see you both in Feb with Stephen Benson and another Leger guide Andrew Thornton

Sam Gascoyne says:

I can only echo the comments above. Yet another super read.
Ian writes in a manner that confirms the hallowed fields of the Somme and all else that he has seen there have had an immediate and lasting impression. Something all your guests share I am sure.
I look forward to seeing you again very soon.

Pauline Symmons says:

Another great newsletter, as usual!

Jane Roberts says:

Fantastic newsletter as ever. And thanks for the mention.
Hope Shere has recovered from the terror of Chris’ slippers. They are now back home terrorising our dog, though she is bolder and has ripped out a toenail.

Chris Prince says:

As always love reading your newsletter, and all your visitors stories. With Remembrance Day only days off. Your stories hit home of all the families that lost loved one that will forever lay on French Soil. Lest we Forget. Love the photo of Shere. Love Chris & Bill

Bowell says:

Always such a treat to read your postings I am hoping to make it back in the near future

Sally and Chris says:

Once again Ian's words brought on a mascara moment. Brought to mind Private Palmer in Foncquevillers and M Freedman MM in Gordon Dump. Shere looks at home now ! Great news letter as per usual xxx

Sandy Biback says:

always human stories of lives taken and families coming to visit where the lives were taken. Thank you so much

Gordon & Joana says:

Remembered to read this month’s missive ... after ... eating my porridge! No less poignant in the telling though. Love G&J

Edward Foreman says:

Great Newsletter.

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