September 2023  - Autumn with Sunshine Begins on The Somme, Stories to Tell

Posted on 30th September 2023 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.

September 2023  - Autumn with Sunshine Begins on The Somme, Stories to Tell

September – a favourite month of ours -  not quite Summer,not quite Autumn, but you can see the season changing before your eyes. We have had mixed weather this month, some rain, but mainly unseasonably warm weather, more like July than early September (35 degrees) and then days of a super 23 degrees to finish the month. However, it is clear Autumn is knocking. The light is more golden, the sun setting earlier over the valley and rising later. The fields take on a different hue.  The potatoes, onions and sugar beet are being harvested and winter crops are now being sown. The bees busy on the asters and ivy, the last pollen before winter.

It was on a lovely September evening that we joined our guests Ian and Janet Lyall and Janet’s sister Christine at Authuille Cemetery. It is a Cemetery they get drawn back to time and again and on their visits, most evenings, they sit by the Cross of Sacrifice and have a drink with the boys.  So as the sun got lower in the sky and the cows grazed in the next field, we talked about the boys and this lovely setting they have, now so peaceful after all that War. Among the commonwealth graves, there is a German and several Indian graves. And of course there are 2 graves bearing the name W McBride. So we listened to the poem/song  The Green Fields of France written by Eric Bogle.


Well, how do you do, young Willie McBride?
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside? 
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done
I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen 
When you joined the great fallen in 1916 
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean 
Or young Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene? 

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly? 
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down? 
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus? 
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind 
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined? 
Although, you died back in 1916 
In that faithful heart are you forever nineteen? 
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Enclosed in forever behind the glass frame 
In an old photograph, torn, battered and stained 
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame? 

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly? 
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down? 
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus? 
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 

The sun now it shines on the green fields of France
There's a warm summer breeze that makes the red poppies dance
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds
There's no gas, no barbed wire, there's no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard it's still No Man's Land 
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generation that were butchered and damned

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly? 
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down? 
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus? 
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 

Ah young Willie McBride, I can't help wonder why
Do those that lie here know why did they die?
And did they believe when they answered the cause
Did they really believe that this war would end wars? 
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain
The killing and dying, were all done in vain
For young Willie McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly? 
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down? 
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus? 
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 


Eric Bogle revisited Authuille Cemetery a couple of years ago and made this short video.  Hearing him recite those words it is as if he speaks for all of us who are drawn to this special place that is the Somme. If you get a chance do visit beautiful Authuille Cemetery.

 Authuille Military Cemetery.

September Guests

September  has seen many returning guests, who we greet as old friends and pick up where we left off, as well as newbies to No.fifty6 -  coming for the first time.  Soon we are all chatting and sharing and guests getting the most they can out of their visit to this special area. 

At the beginning of the month we hosted an Australian family group who had booked a tour through In The Footsteps Battlefield Tours in celebration of dad Mike’s retirement – a tour that was taking them to several countries and they were being joined by various family members at different stages of their tour. They loved their Somme leg of the tour with its emotional history.

Andy Oliver of Great War Tours brought Gordon and Robert from Scotland as they followed in the footsteps of their relatives in The Black Watch.

Gordon’s Great Grandfather was Private Robert Balfour, 4072, D company, 1/7th Black Watch,  born in Kirkcaldy 25 August 1897. He was taken prisoner during a night attack on 21stMarch 1918 near Louverval /Boursies. He then served out the rest of the war as a POW.

Gordon is very proud of his great Grandfather and has a keen interest in The Black Watch Regiment.

Robert’s Great Uncle was David Finlay VC.

David was born in 1893 in Leuchars, Fife. In 1910, just a month after his 17th birthday he joined The Black Watch. He served in India and arrived from Karachi at Marseilles on 12th October 1914.   On 9th May 1915 near Rue du Bois, France, Lance-Corporal Finlay led a bombing party of 12 men in the attack until 10 of them had fallen. He then ordered the two survivors to crawl back and he himself went to the assistance of a wounded man and carried him over a distance of 100 yards of fire-swept ground into cover, quite regardless of his own safety.

David was promoted to corporal less than a month after his actions at Rue du Bois, and after his VC being gazetted in June 1915, he was promoted to sergeant on 27th June. David married Christina on 27th July 1915 at Cupar, Fife. They had no children. He was presented with the VC three days after his wedding at Windsor Castle by King George V. Later that year, on 31st December, David was posted to Basra, Mesopotamia.

On 20th January 1916, Sergeants Mitchell and Finlay found good positions and dug in about 300m from the Turkish line at Hanna. On the morning of the 21st, the Battalion launched a bayonet charge on the enemy after an artillery bombardment. David Finlay was killed during the attack, one of 163 casualties suffered by the 2nd Battalion. He has no known grave  and is commemorated on the Basra Memorial, Iraq.

 In 1967 David’s family donated his medals, including his VC, to The Black Watch Museum, where it still is today.

 David Finlay VC

Thank you for sharing their stories Gordon and Rab.

Lee last visited us in June but he was back with wife Sian and friends Andy & Jo as they embarked on a Rugby World Cup tour supporting Wales of course.  A tour which would take them to Bordeaux , Nice and Lyon. Lee was interviewed by our local paper the Courrier Picard who ran an article about supporters coming from overseas to support their teams. It gave Lee some good luck – as Wales have won their first 3 matches!

 Lee in the Courrier Picard.


Battlefield guide Adam Williams visited us for the first time with a group of his biker friends who first visited Normandy and then spent 4 wonderful days with us during some very hot September weather. Danny, Adrian, Charlie, Clive, Russ and Adam toured all over the Somme paying respects and laying wreaths at family members, or particular regimental memorials or graves of interest. At the end of each biker day they had to rehydrate and were glad to get out of their biker gear and relax on our terrace. At the heart of it all was comradeship and remembrance.

As we mentioned earlier, Ian, Janet and Christine visited us from Lincolnshire. As well as the wonderful evening at Authuille Cemetery the trio visited many places which have so much significance to them. Ian has researched the men of his village of Burgh and has written a wonderful book “For God King and Country”. Ian says: “My interest in The Great War started when I inherited my grandfather’s personal effects , including the items belonging to his long-dead brother, killed in action in 1918. This led me to research Percy’s story and to the battlefields of France, and to become the first family member to stand at his grave.  I now make a yearly pilgrimage to The Somme. About the same time in 1982, as a Cub leader, the cubs, following a remembrance day parade asked who the men on the war memorial were. It seemed the men of the Great War had faded into history so I set out to find out who these men were. . My research led me to find that 12 men from the community had not been remembered on the memorial, possibly because of cost, as the families were poor. It led to a battle with The Town Council to have their names added to the Memorial . I was told more than once that the costs were too high. It took me 11 years to get their names added. It is this research that led me to write the book, so they become remembered again, their sacrifice not forgotten.”

We will cover Percy’s story in a future newsletter. Great work Ian.

 Janet, Ian and Christine at Authuille.

Mid-month we had Frenchman Francois stay with us as he was away from home running a technical training course at The Airbus factory. He travelled over 7 hours from his home in The Var on his motorbike. A keen Anglophone, Francois loved the chance to practice his English, and even came to dinner wearing a kilt! 

 Franco-Ecossais Francois?

Sally and Chris Burge made the trip from Wales and stayed with us for a wonderful week. They have become wonderful friends and we recalled their first visit many years ago when they got lost in Arras, visited The Somme and fell in love with it. Both Chris and Sally have family members buried or remembered here – the Burge, Thomas  and  Honey name springing up a lot. Sally brought with her some of her grandfather Cuth’s  items from the war. Sally has researched so much about Cuth. He deserves a whole newsletter to himself! But this time what struck us was the letters home that had been kept. Beautiful cursive writing on thin paper. Echoes of a bygone age but you feel the man leaping out of the paper. A real man plucked from an “ordinary” life to do extraordinary things during Wartime.

A postcard home from Cuth, doing "Swedish Drill" in Bristol on joining up.

 A letter home.


Partway through their week Sally and Chris were joined by Sam, Heidi, Alan and his friends Mike, Mark and Gareth. A tight group who formed their friendship several years ago around our table. Together they walked in rain (one day it didn’t stop) and then warm sunshine and shared amazing history and found wonderful solace in their friendship. Laughter, tears, comradeship, remembrance, nature, fresh air, food and wine. What more could you want? We love you guys.

 Sally talks about Cuth's friends left behind in Cerisy Gailly. Photo thanks to Heidi.

Alan and his friends Gareth, Mike and Mark each bought one of our No.fifty6 T Shirts - this batch in black and going very well! David created the logo and design. Last year we had white T shirts, this year black ones. While stocks last!  

 Gareth, Alan, Mike and Mark in their no.fifty6 T Shirts. 

Paul and Dee joined us from Yorkshire for a week. A week of September sunshine which was in contrast to their last visit in May which was very rainy! They love walking the paths and tracks here, sitting with a beer on our terrace and engaging in conversation around our table. We shared a wonderful week with them. And we will forgive Paul for his slip calling Regina Trench something more anatomical!  Paul was discussing Regina Trench with first time guests Neil and Liz who have a relative buried in Regina Trench Cemetery. Robert Edward Bugg, 12th Battalion Middlesex Regiment, from Ipswich,  died on 27th October 1916, aged 19, in the battle around Regina Trench. His body was concentrated in to Regina Trench Cemetery after the Armistice, one of few who could be identified among many unknown Canadians.

This month we had not 1 but 2 sets of Americans. Eric is a high school history teacher in California, whose German great grandfather fought in the First World War.  History is one of Eric’s passions and he so enjoyed his visit before heading off to Germany to visit family ( his German mother met his American father while he was stationed in Germany) . Eric was joined on the trip by his College buddy Dave who now lives in Washington state, and not only accompanied Eric on his battlefield visit, but also went to Oktoberfest with him.  Just like their college days.

Bruce and Teresa visited from Colorado. A retired teacher, Bruce researched and read so much before he came here, but was blown away by what he saw and learned on the ground. It was an absolute pleasure to have you here.  

So, you can see it has been a busy month and it has been wonderful sharing The Somme history with everyone. 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 all.


Ault French War Memorial

On a rare day out in September we visited the Somme coastal town of Ault with its magnificent cliffs. Of course for us, the War is never far away and we were drawn to the French War memorial outside Ault church. It is magnificent and against the blue sky took our breath away. The memorial remembers men of Ault who died during the 1st and 2nd Wars, Algerian conflict and Indo-China. The architect of the memorial is Paul Landowski. Born in Paris to a Polish refugee father and French mother, Landowski was an outstanding architect, decorated many times for his work. As well as the memorial in Ault, his work commemorates conflicts in Algiers, Casablanca and Les Fantomes (2nd Battle of The Marne) among others and over 35 monuments in Paris.  However, he is most widely known for the biggest of them all  - Christ The Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. From the coastal village of Ault to the hillside of Rio, an incredible body of work. Paul Landowski 1875-1961.

 Ault Monument aux Morts

William Hoare

In June we reported that Jackie and Brian had visited us for the first time to follow in the footsteps of William Hoare who is buried at Varennes Military Cemetery. As a result of that newsletter article, The Mirror newspaper in the UK picked up the story and visited Jackie to find out more.

It resulted in this lovely article in The Mirror.

Employee of the Month?

An ongoing conversation here is that despite all his hard work and best efforts, David has never been the no.fifty6 Employee of the Month. It is the pinnacle of excellence which continues to evade him. Even Marge the chicken was employee of the month once. And September guests Chris Burge and Paul Tyler jointly beat him to it with their help clearing the table and pouring drinks!  So dear friend Elaine Whenham heard of David’s plight and made him this wonderful apron which states:

David – still not employee of the month.

Keep trying David.

 David and Elaine with her apron creation. 

Painted with Love

Sally and Chris Burge, have for many years, left tributes at graves and memorials which they have lovingly hand painted on Pembrokeshire slate.

A poppy here, a cornflower for a Frenchman there. The one we love best is the 4 flower (poppy, cornflower, marguerite (daisy) and forget me not) slate which sits at the Cross of Lochnagar. While they were here Sally and Chris refreshed the slate as the colours had faded in the exposed conditions at Lochnagar, it is now restored. Beautiful.


Animal Postscript

We still miss Marge but have decided to wait until early Spring for a new chicken family. There is always plenty of wildlife here for us to savour. Horses in the back field, the birds and bees that visit, the cows at Authuille. There is something about getting out and abut with nature in all its forms which is good for the soul.

Cows at Authuille.

David’s September Joke:

I always thought orthopedic shoes were overrated, but I stand corrected.

The Anonymous Book Benefactor

And to end on this month, a little mystery. We received in the post the book Aftermath: The Remanants of War by Donovan Webster. It arrived anonymously via Thrift Books. We have an idea who it is from but we really would like to say thank you properly, so would the sender please step forward.  David has already started reading it. 

All is well at no.fifty6. We hope to see you soon.

 September Sunset over Ovillers.





Comments (17)

Heather and Malcolm J says:

Another month on, another great newsletter. Your guests' stories are always of interest and always resonate with our own. The Green Fields of France always tugs at the heart strings and we have also visited him, many moons ago. See you very soon indeed.

Gordon & Joana (and Mary) says:

We’ve just returned from the Western Rockies (Battle of the Little Bighorn, Monument Valley, etc.) and then back to celebrate our 40th Wedding Anniversary, plus a re-baptismal into a Methodist church in Witney (the water was SO cold …); the Church community there were … amazing! Great stories Julie …

John Mepham says:

Always interesting stories in your monthly article! It certainly helps ease the soul until a future visit. Like Les, I do miss your table and its surroundings, a special place often thought of across the pond ????
Stay well friends!

Tricia Rothwell says:

Sorry to come back with a second comment, but in the photographed extract from Cuth's letter home I am intrigued to know who the ninkumpoop who had forgotten that there is kindness in cruelty, and was threatened with a dose of "cod liver oil and calomel all in a lump" by Cuth (who I think may have been in the RAMC as he mentions later in the letter that he was an SB i.e. stretcher bearer)? I assume that the ninkumpoop had not taken kindly to Cuth proffering treatment No 9 (which I understand was a sort of laxative) and asked for rest instead, but Cuth thought he didn't deserve rest as he had never been near a trench, and threatened a double dose of laxative instead ...

sandy biback says:

Another wonderful newsletter. Know why I love them? Always so much history that I'd never learn otherwise--and that history is personal. Thanks to all who share their stories. And to Julie & David for sharing it all with us.

Tricia Rothwell says:

As always a fascinating and informative newsletter. A special thanks for the photograph of, and poem about, Authuille Cemetery. On page 128 of his book, my grandfather, Norman Hall, 2/5th Lancashire Fusilier, describes the death of 13091 Private A. Watson of the 15th HLI who is buried at Authuille Cemetery. He had been in a dugout which was blown in by a shell, and Grandpa tried to dig him out, but sadly he was already dead. I don't think that Grandpa ever knew Private Watson's name, and he misremembered his unit as the 9th Borderers. When I looked on CWGC I could find no 9th Borderers buried at Authuille Cemetery that day, just Private Watson from the 15th HLI. So I got the 15th HLI War Diary from the NA, and found this entry: “Battalion was relieved by Second Fifth Lancashire Fusiliers. Relief completed by 5.45pm. At 2.00pm a Trench Mortar Bomb struck an officer’s dug-out in Right Company Sector, blowing in the dugout. Lieutenant D.S. Dickson of D Company was wounded, and one man of D Company was killed (both being in dugout at the time).” Amazing that over 100 years later I could identify with absolute certainty the name of the man who lost his life in the incident that my grandfather described, when he himself probably never knew it, and had misremembered the unit.
I have not yet been to the Cemetery, but will certainly pay my respects at Private Watson's grave when I do.

Jim Blenkhorn says:

Wow that’s some news letter Julie! The Eric Bogle song, The Green Fields of France, shook me rigid the first time I heard it. It was part of our act in a group way back in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I think it’s a wonderful composition. Thanks for all the news Julie, it must have taken some writing.

Mark Nicholson says:

I love reading these beautifully constructed monthly updates on life at No56.
This months mention of Authille especially poignant as it was where Nina was hit by a huge wave of emotion at the grave of her relative.
Looking forward to seeing you again in April.

Gary James says:

Wow, a very full newsletter. A great poem/song by Eric Bogle. Good to see other people visiting the Regina Trench cemetery, thought I was the only one. Thanks and keep safe and well, Gary

Les Mepham says:

Another wonderful update. It’s only been two months since my departure from 56 but many a day goes by I picture myself sitting around your table, enjoying your fabulous meals, and exploring the countryside. I can’t wait to return in the Autumn but that will have to wait until retirement.

Great sunset shot of the valley.

Wishing you both well and, David, some day the Employee of the Month gods will smile upon you. I can feel it deep down in my SOLE…????

Chris.SMITH says:

GREAT reading it's nice to see what's going on over the lake

Rob says:

A super edition. Many thanks. We stayed at Ault a couple of years ago before coming to you. We saw the memorial but didn’t know about the sculptor. Good work!

Les Pilotes says:

Hi Julie and David, your newsletter is a superb read as usual. Among the evocative memories arising was that sunset photograph. I so remember a similar one when we stayed. All the best from the pilots.

Chris and Sal says:

Really wonderful newsletter. Thanks both Arriving at 56 is like coming home. All visits are special but this one felt especially so. Sorry David didn’t make employee of the month again! Have to try harder in October !!xx

Robert McKeever says:

Lovely update Julie & David. I enjoyed Eric's poem, very fitting words. And Francois' kilt is very impressive. I am looking forward to our upcoming visit. Fingers crossed David, October could be your month

Len Chaganis says:

Great to read your news always very interesting and makes me wish we were staying with you. Lots happening in the south of France with frequent trips to the UK on family related matters which aren’t always fun!
Keep safe hope to see you both soon
All the best Len & Julienne

Colin says:

Guilty as charged

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