Battlefield Tour 2016 – Cambrai and Beyond

This being the centenary of the battle of the Somme it was fitting that this should be the destination this year. The centre for the stay was Cambrai the scene of an epic battle in November 1917. Only three members went this year, Reg and Bernadette McGuire and me.

After leaving Calais the only stop made until our destination was at the Esquelbecq communal cemetery. This was to visit the grave of John Henry Abigail the only member of the Norfolk Regiment to be shot for desertion. Reg researched his life story some time ago and his report appears in the October 2014 issue of Up Spirits, So only a brief summery here.

He was born in 1897 into what turned out to be a large and dysfunctional family. His parents were regularly prosecuted by the NSPCC for child neglect. Both served time in prison causing ever more disruption because the younger ones had to be taken into care. John’s childhood was unstable and traumatic.

In due time he was conscripted into the 8th Battalion, Norfolk Regt. He completed his training just in time to take part in the Somme offensive where he was wounded. How this happened or what the wounds were is unknown.

During his time in the Army he deserted three times, once actually getting back to Norwich where he turned himself in after five days. Did he need to get home to help sort out the latest calamity that had overtaken the family?

For the first two desertions he was given various punishments but for the third there was to be no reprieve. The full weight of the law was applied. Throughout his Court Martial he said not a word in his defence. Nor did he enlist the aid of one of his officers to speak for him. Could this have been due to shell shock or battle fatigue? Or perhaps he had endured such an unhappy life that he no longer cared what happened to him. The verdict was a foregone conclusion and he was sentenced to death. The execution took place on the morning of 12th September 1917. He was only twenty years old. John Steele paraded the Royal Anglian Regiment standard at the graveside in remembrance of a tragic young man. There is another grave in the plot that of Corporal A.L. Bowrigg, Royal Engineers, shot on 15th May 1916. In 2006 the Government granted a general pardon to all those who had been executed.

Hotel Beatus is comfortable and well-appointed with staff who are helpful and hard working. This is the only hotel I can remember which serves four courses for dinner.

Saturday 30th April

Newfoundland Park is named in honour of the Newfoundland Regiment that fought here. At the time was a separate colony and not part of Canada. The 1st Battalion was part of the 29th Division tasked to capture Beaumont Hamel on 1st July 1916. Standing in the actual trenches that the troops occupied that day, and looking out to the ground they had to cover under fire is a humbling experience. This was their first serious engagement and the prospect must have been daunting.

They suffered terribly. The battalion was 800 strong and of these 233 were killed or died of wounds. 386 were wounded, 91 were missing and every officer was killed or wounded. No other unit suffered more on that first day. While we were there a party of Canadians were having a conducted tour. This must be hallowed ground for them. The centre piece of the park is a mound on which a bronze caribou stands. It’s the emblem of the regiment. Within the park are three British cemeteries.

The Theipval monument is the biggest British memorial in the world. It records over 72,000 British and South African soldiers who have no known grave. It stands 150 feet tall in the form of an arch. It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutgens an d dedicated in 1932. Some controversy did surround it as there were those who thought that the money could be better spent on the veterans who were still suffering from the effect of the war. The attached cemetery is equally divided between British and French dead.

A short stop was made at the Bapaume Post military cemetery because it contains two Norfolk men, 2nd Lieut. Case from Caister and Corporal Blake from Norwich.

Lunch was taken in a cafe in Pozieres where the dining area is almost a shrine to the Australian Forces. The walls are covered with photos, extracts from letters and, most of all, list after list with the names of those who perished.

In the back garden is a surprise. The cafe owner has constructed a trench system, not one to walk in but to be viewed from the top. British down one side, German down the other, with a ‘no mans’ land in between. All manner of weapons are on display and it is interesting to compare the armaments used by each side. Life size uniformed figures are shown doing the tasks that trench warfare demanded. Some are on duty looking out for the enemy (one German seems to have a small periscope attached to his rifle. Others are relaxing or doing chores. There is a dressing station with a casualty being attended to. Two are drinking from mugs – water or rum? Around the garden wall are stacked a great number of rusty shell cases no doubt collected from the surrounding fields.

The first remembrance and wreath laying ceremony was held at the Louveral Cemetery. John Steele paraded the Royal Anglian standard and Reg for SAFFA. The last stops were at two small cemeteries at the request of members of the group.

Sunday 1st May

Mons is where the war really started when on the 23rd August 1914 the Germans launched a massive attack on the British line. It was so successful that it sent the British reeling back in to what was referred to as the retreat from Mons. I think it went on until the river Marne was reached. It was during this retreat that the legend of the ‘Angel of Mons’ was born, troops said that they saw a figure of an angel in the sky which was protecting them. Two soldiers heavily involved on the first day were Lieut. Maurice Dease, Royal Fusiliers, and Private Sidney Godley. They were defending the Nimy Bridge with a machine gun. Dease was killed but Godley continued to fight. He probably ran out of ammunition because before he was captured he threw the gun into the canal. He spent the rest of the war as a POW. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross, the first of the war.

Mons has spent 10 million euros on a new museum. It tells the story of the city throughout two World Wars. Other conflicts are depicted because this is an area fought over for centuries.

Saint Symphorien cemetery is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time because there are buried here that I think are significant. Lieut. Dease is here as is a soldier named Minns, Queens West Kent Regiment, who came from Honingham. But there are three graves which I think neatly demonstrate the waste of the war. Private John Parr, Middlesex Regiment, was killed on the first day, 23rd August, and was the first British soldier to die. Almost opposite rests Private George Ellison, 5th Lancers, killed on 11thg November 1918 and was the last British death. That’s not the end. A short distance away Canadian George Lawrence who was killed two minutes before the Armistice was due to come into effect at 11 o’clock on 11th November.  He was the last Commonwealth soldier to die. Taking these three graves together, it really emphasises the fact that it took the Allies four and a half years of pain and bloodshed to get back to where they had stood on the first day of the war.

There have been many changes at Waterloo since we were last there. The whole refreshment area has been rebuilt and some work is still going on. But the new underground museum is what stands out. Military Museums generally have the same layout but these galleries and the quality of the exhibits are superb. John Steele who is knowledgeable about these matters was most impressed and considered that the story has been well and truly told. One attraction which I did not personally see was a 3D film where you found yourself in the middle of a cavalry charge. The panorama is still there which gives a 310 degree view of the battlefield.

Hougement Farm was a focal point on the day, but it is a long way out. Pat Whiley and I once trekked out to it. A good deal of reconstruction has taken place there which I would like to have seen but its too far now.

The French are back! Outside the complex a re-enactment group gave a demonstration of musket drill, marching and firing. I’m told that they were dressed as the Imperial Guard.

Monday 2nd May

Phillipe the owner of the hotel has made an in depth study of the Battle of Cambrai om which he gave us a talk. We went to a vantage point where we could see a large portion of the area that was fought over. In this way we could follow and understand gone was the massive bombardment; surprise was to be the order of the day. First, over 470 tanks rumbled forward to punch a hole in the barbed wire and forward trenches. Then the infantry would follow and secure the breach allowing the cavalry to gallop through and cause mayhem in the German rear.

For a couple of days all went well but when a halt had to be called to reorganise this gave the Germans time to recover and reinforce. Many of the tanks became isolated and were picked off by the artillery. Fierce fighting over the next few days resulted in the enemy regaining all the ground that had been lost. The Allies learnt much from this battle and the tactics were used, but more successfully, to the end of the war.

Phillipe then took us down the road to a barn which is now a small museum. The centre piece is a genuine WW1 tank, or what is left of it because it is very battered. We had been told that a tank had been buried somewhere in the area. Intrigued he set out to find it. It took him six years. Once it had been recovered he wanted to know more about it. Research at the Imperial War Museum and the Tank Museum at Bovington revealed it as a female tank named Deborah. As I understand it females only had machine guns, males had the bigger gun.

Now that he had identified which it was he wondered if he could track down details of the crew.  Further research including DNA from the tank allowed him to do this. The photo of the five men who were killed when the tank was destroyed is on display. It will never be restored as it is now a memorial to these five brave men.

Now to the last visit of the weekend. Our second wreath laying ceremony was at Vis Artois Cemetery where I was given the honour of laying the wreath. So on to Calais and the shuttle home. We arrived in Norwich at about 8 o’clock.

The suggestion for next year is Holland. The mode of transport to get there could be a boat trip from Harwich to the Hook. So, if this is the case, and you fancy some sea time Barry will be pleased to hear from you. The itinerary is normally out late September or early October.

RNA Norwich

RNA Norwich

The Norwich Branch is one of 300+ branches of the Royal Naval Association world wide. It was commissioned in 1979 and today has a membership of just over 90. It is a registered charity in its own right - the Registered Charity Number is: 1068699

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