Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Day 29 - Battlefields _ Newfoundland Memorial Park, Ulster Tower, Thiepval, Lochnagar Crater, Mouquet Farm and Ist Division Memorial Pozieres

Tuesday 24th April 2012
From our itinerary:
We leave the hotel this morning to visit the Somme battlefields and begin at the preserved areas at the Newfoundland Memorial Park and hear the story of the action of the Newfoundland battalion on July 1st 1916.
We will also see the Ulster Tower, a fitting memorial to the 36th Ulster Division, before we arrive at the Somme Monument to the Missing at Thiepval. With the names of nearly 73,000 soldiers listed as missing in action, this tower dominates the whole area. 
We will visit the areas around Mouquet Farm where Pvt Francis Neal was wounded in the 14th Battalions attack on 27th August 1916 before take lunch at La Boiselle Village.
We will see the largest of the mines blown on the Somme on the 1st of July . Our final visit is to the Australian battlefields around the village of Pozieres, including the 1st Division and the Windmill monuments. We return to Cambrai for dinner and an early night.
I am feeling very remiss now. I cannot remember the names of these two cemeteries. To the left of the picture is a French cemetery. The one on the right is United Kingdom and we pause to pay our respects.
We’re on our way to the Newfoundland Memorial Park.  As we have travelled Bill has imparted some information about the memorial and its management and prepared us for the context when we arrive. This includes the background to the memorial, preservation approaches and what we’ll be seeing and doing on arrival.  The Canadians have instated guides to interpret the site and assist visitors.  There is a section of board walk along remaining trench lines but you can’t just wander over the site as you once could.  There is also a museum dedicated to the Newfoundlanders on site.
The weather has continued fairly inclement. It’s enough to keep us in rain gear but so far it’s not causing much of a problem.  The park has been planted to give it a distinctive feel. They have certainly done a marvelous job of making the park seem like you’re in North America. We are enthusiastically greeted on entry by a young guide. He realizes quickly that we are with a tour guide and leaves us to our explorations with some cheerful encouragement to ask if we need anything and be sure to pay a visit to the visitor centre during our stay.  We walk out to the preserved system of trenchlines which overlook the original battlefield. Sheep graze. Grass covers all, muting the crinkles that remain from the trenches. The trenches are a couple of feet shallower than originally, they zig and zag this way and that the purpose being to prevent anyone being able to simply fire along the trench.  There are barbed wire pickets still in place. In some sections some supports for the trench walls have been inserted.  All sorts of things were cannibalised when the trenches were established.  We pause and look out and down the gentle slope. It’s a good view from up here. Bill explains how the battle proceeded. United Kingdom units where involved in the same battles here across on the flank over there.  Although the lumps and bumps of the battlefield have softened over the years it is still a great experience to see the lines of the front there before you as you consider the battle and how it progressed.  We turn back and make our way to the statue of a caribou which stands high and is depicted as giving voice to a loud strong call.  It looks to me like a cry of anguish over the battlefield. A call to battle perhaps, or maybe just a call of nationhood and identity.
We have about 15 or 20 minutes to explore the museum.  As I’ve noted previously I've been struggling with the detail on most exhibits, but most of what is here is new to me and not terribly demanding. Hubby and I enjoy following the course of the war for the “newfies” as we move from panel to panel.  I particularly enjoy one of the humorous anecdotes:
..sometimes we find amusing things occur. For instance, once a message was sent orally by an officer as follows: “Pass the word to Captain …. To send up reinforcements” but when the message reached its destination it was delivered as “Captain so and so wants you to lend him three and four pence.
We climb back into the car, our next stop is quite different as a memorial. The Ulster Tower is a close copy of the tower located on the estate in County Down where most of the Ulster Division trained. It is not only a striking memorial but it is located nearby to the Schwabian Redoubt in which I am interested. We spend a little time inside as Bill chats with the elderly gent who manages the memorial. He's back temporarily as a recent attempt to retire fell through when a replacement manager pulled the pin after only a few weeks.
It’s only a short drive further to The Somme Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval. We had planned to have a fair while here to walk up to the memorial and take in the museum.  Most of the group head straight to the memorial before Bill takes a call requesting that we arrive a little early to the planned lunch spot in order to get in before a large group that is expected there. Hubby runs a message up to V &; E that we have a little less time here initially and will return later, but it’s enough time to take in the enormous memorial which is in the process of being cleaned.   All the memorials are immaculately maintained. Note that I said it is enormous. This memorial is far bigger than I realised. I guess you need to be to record over 70,000 names of the missing.
Lunch is in the Old Blighty cafĂ© nearby which is run by some English ladies.  It’s nothing particularly fancy food wise, I can make better quiche than what they're serving.  In response to a query I comment to Bill that I reckon I could make  sniper's mask from the pastry...  then we head back and spend some time at the visitor centre at Thiepval.  By the way, we are informed that "blighty" is a corruption of the hindi for homeland. We are discovering the origins of all sorts of sayings on this trip.
Luggage weight is becoming an issue and as we don’t have time to sit and watch the loop of videos playing in the visitors centre at Thiepval, we buy a copy at the gift shop. I also take the opportunity to buy Prisoners of the Kaiser and In the footsteps of Private Lynch - a book about E M Lynch the author of Somme Mud.  I could buy these online, but they are much cheaper here than they are at home and it will mean something to me to have bought them here on the battlefields.  We also decide that perhaps umbrellas will come in handy tomorrow and splurge on a couple of small folding poppy umbrellas.  Haha. That was a stupid purchase.  Note to all those heading to the battlefields and in particular to services held at the Australian memorials.  The major memorials to the Australians are located at the top of quite exposed high points in the landscape. The wind comes whistling across there and an umbrella will be less than useless.  Don’t waste your time with one. Your first instinct of rain gear with hoods is indeed the right way to go.  The little folding poppy umbrellas are also very light.. great in your luggage, but not so great out in the elements.  Slightest puff of wind and they blow inside out....  I can't see myself using these things much I have to say. 
V at Lochnagar crater memorial
We head along to the Lochnagar crater.  On the approach we’ve been hearing about the battle and the mine statistics.  At the time this, along with a neighbouring mine to the north were the largest ever detonated. They each contained 24,000 tons of ammonal. The explosion was witnessed from the air by 2nd Lieutenant C A Lewis of No 3 Squadron RFC and we consider his description:
The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris.
In the bottom of the deep crater poisonous gas settled. Some men perished when they unknowingly descended into the crater during the fight that followed.  We pause at the memorial at the crater site and head across to the crater itself.  Holy Moly. The rain is threatening we’ve noted a black and angry looking cloud bank not far off but we’re all keen to go for a quick walk around the rim.  Bill indicates for us to take our time, he will wait with the vehicle. 
The track around the crater is narrow and wet and chalky. Chalk is slippery. You really do not want to end up in that crater. The sides are very steep. They only way forward is to pick your way carefully. No hurrying. I imagine the heavy weight of wet army boots and packs trying to walk on this slippery surface.  It continues to rain steadily until we are precisely,  that’s right precisely half way. As far away from the car as we can get here and down she comes. Huey is having a ball pelting us with hail and biting wind.  I laugh. It’s all too ridiculous.  Head bowed, my glasses speckled with water drops. The hail is bouncing off my raingear in all directions.  The path is so slippery. You simply can’t hurry. Nothing for it but to pick your way along as though nothing was going on. Situation normal.  We’re all laughing and joking and in good time we’re quickly stripping our sodden raingear as quickly as possible and scrambling into the car.  Bill laughs with us and when his view is sought among the laughter he lets us know that we looked like drowned rats. Arrggh. It’s cold out there now.  We head off and indulge in some car based touring. A French memorial to the civilian casualties and another small memorial to the Lancashire Fusiliers which is of particular interest to V. Something to do with the a Pals unit.
The rain continues to spoil the party as we explore the Mouquet farm area and pay our respects at the associated memorial.  Extraordinary to see this legendary place.  Brought real, converted from the mythology surrounding it and of course Bill gives us a run down of the progress of the Battle and if memory serves the struggle to take it by a number of different formations from different countries, finally being taken by the Australians.

Mouquet Farm
We pass evidence of the reality of working with the land in these parts. Not difficult to assemble quite an impressive pile of old shells. Someone has chosen to make a feature of it. Every now and then someone is still injured from the unexploded ordinance. One not so long ago when he was chiseling rust of an unexploded grenade.. it wasn’t unexploded for long when belted with a hammer and chisel. I mean dah.  Loss of a hand is no deterrent. It is believed the same fellow is still at it using his replacement claw.  Well, that’s the spirit. If you’ve already lost the hand, no risk then is there, with a claw you're actually better equipped for the task obviously ;o)
Our final stop for the day is the memorial to the Australian 1st Division off the Albert to Bapaume Road.  Bill draws our attention to the Thiepval memorial in the distance atop the ridge.  It’s still raining and we’ve climbed up a small wooden lookout to view the memorial.
With our continued concern about our injured fellow traveler off in the hospital, Bill urges us to take great care. The wooden steps are muddy and slippery.  He is clearly not satisfied with our assurances and decides to drive his point home by slipping down the last few stairs.  Alarm and assurances and then what else is there to do but laugh and congratulate him on his level of commitment in emphasizing the hazards by giving us a demo.  No great injury. I suspect Bill will have a hefty bruise coming through in the following days.
The remains of fortifications near the 1st Australian Division Memorial
As we’ve toured this area we have noted the virgin of Albert, famous of course as the leaning virgin.  The story is recapped for us, refreshing memories or in some cases imparting new information.
Cold. Rain. It’s even more than usually pleasurable to retire to the plush Hotel Beatus.  Our trips homeward in the evening and here and there during the days of touring are lightened by Bills “breathy” travel companion. Her name is Sophie and you get the distinct impression she’d like to be giving directions to somewhere where she can be alone with Bill.  She seems to take particular pleasure in offering to help him with his change if ever we have a need to travel on a tollway.  These GPS device voices provide us with much hilarity.  Every now and then and increasingly as Anzac Day arrangements become critical there is discussion between Bill and Chris about the arrangements for tomorrow morning.  Parking and drop off arrangements have been changed this year. Requirements are as clear as mud.  Some in the other group have reserved seating and arranged a permit to ferry the elderly men up to the memorial for a close drop off and pick up, but it’s not clear whether Bill will be able to drop us younger able bodied folk up where the coaches deliver their cargo.  As we drive and discuss it, the gendarmes will be out in force at check points. It’s entirely unclear what they may allow us to do. E comes up with a practical solution.  Change the tomtom to the Aussie voice.  What sort of instructions would the Aussie tomtom voice give under the circumstances? E suspects the Aussie navigator voice might go something like “bugger the coppers!Drop off at the bloody memorial!”  We are all in stitches at E’s humourous GPS imitation… really we’re easy. We will do what we have to do.
Dinner is early and with much laughter.  One of the other group is a funny b*st*rd. His Dad has slowed down a bit, but the son is clearly a chip off the old block.  Between him and his dad they keep us laughing all through our dinner and after and bring out the witty banter from others among the younger men. I particularly enjoyed one come back from the father, when his son is teasing him mercilessly about his age and infirmity... "Would you like a glass of red wine son?  How would you like it served?"  But we can’t stay up laughing all night.. our leaders set us the example and head to bed. We have a ridiculously early start tomorrow.  Be at breakfast at 3 am please. 

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