The year in which I write this article, commemorates the ending of one of the Twentieth Century's most horrible, tragic, and dreadful conflicts.
I have been to some of the areas where this conflict took place. If one takes their visit seriously, then they must in some way, be gripped by some emotional experience. Irrespective of what side of the casus belli, these people went through living Hell.
Although my visits were biased toward seeing my paternal grandfather's grave, I must not forget my maternal grandfather. He was a weak man. I am not sure whether he did not join the fighting forces due to health reasons, or whether it was because he had a reserved occupation. So he never witnessed conflict. However, sadly he died young, during December 1915.
My maternal grandmother re- married some years later. Her second husband, who had shaken hands with Buffalo Bill, I gather, had served in the cavalry. I have been informed that he had the task of putting down horses who were badly injured, and therefore saving them from misery. It was either he, or my blood grandfather, who would not tolerate cruelty to animals. If he saw an animal; such as a horse, being ill treated in the street, he would tell the offending person off.
It is believed that the last cavalry charge of the British army during war, was at the Battle of the Somme.
I have also heard, in more recent years, that my grandmother had a cousin who was highly praised for his work as a stretcher bearer. But sadly he was shot, during action on the battlefields, by the enemy.
But I do know more about my paternal grandfather who came from Somers Town in London. In fact, I have a colour tinted photograph of him, which a few years ago, I had digitized. It is included in this write up. He served with The 12th Battalion of the King's Royal Rifles. He died of wounds at the notorious Battle of the Somme on 02/09/1916.He was aged 28. He is buried at the Corbie Cemetery Communal Extension. I have seen his grave three times. His death, like many others, left behind next of kin, who, in turn, had to struggle and endure the hard realities of life.
My first visit, was during the 80th year's commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. Also known as The Big Push. Not only did the BBC's programme SONGS OF PRAISE follow us around, but they also stayed at the same hotel as myself.
I was touring with The British Legion. They in turn, also conducted the ceremony at The Thiepval Memorial. Here there is an enormous war memorial dedicated to casualties who have no known grave. The service was conducted by the Reverend William Scott. It was also televised on Breakfast Television. The Guest of Honour representing The Queen, was The Duke of Gloucester. This annual ceremony is held on July 1st every year, the anniversary of the date when the whistle blew for the soldiers to go over the top.
The British Legion party were treated as V.I.Ps. There was talking and the sound of military bands. There was eager anticipation and excitement as it was apparent that the proceedings were about to start. Suddenly, all went quiet. Then a lone piper commenced to march towards, and up to, the memorial. He played a piece of music that I know as A SCOTTISH SOLDIER.
But it was when The Rev. William Scott commenced speaking through the microphone, something strange and creepy occurred. I could hear something reminiscent of the sound of battle. At first I thought it was sound effects. Then I changed my mind. But what could it be? I then became concerned; as we were out in the open. A thunderstorm perhaps? I looked up at the overcast sky. To my anguish, I could see no lightning. The bangs eventually went away but returned every so often. I have had some strange experiences in my life, was this one of them? I did not like it. But then I rumbled what the sounds were. It was either the wind or the speaker's breath hitting the microphone. The P.A. system was in the arches of the memorial. The arches enhanced the sounds, making them very macabre. I have had the same experience two years later, at the same ceremony. This convinced me even more that my suspicions were correct.
The ceremony concluded with the the British band playing the French national anthem, and the French band playing the British. The crowd sang the the lyrics of both anthems. Our voices were enhanced by a choir, which I believe, was possibly from Wales.
After the ceremony, there was an area where we could converse and take refreshments. I was permitted to wear my grandfather's medal. I met the British Ambassador from Paris. I spoke to some locals in my limited French. I also spoke to the lone piper garbed in a Scottish uniform. I discovered that he was a policeman from Birmingham. Everyone was friendly. A few members from our coach were invited to meet The Duke of Gloucester, and rejoined us later. I also met some British veterans. One, who I shook hands with, was I believe, one hundred and four. I felt honored to meet them. The individual to whom I have referred was interviewed on television. He explained how his comrades were falling down around him. When asked was it worth it? He said that it was futile. And that all war is futile.
On the trip, we saw many things, such as the tragic Lochnagar crater at La Boiselle. We also visited Delville Wood, where only one tree survived the conflict. The rest of the wood was destroyed. It has since re-grown. I entered one area of it, and saw a film or television crew. I asked as best I could in French, were they from Television Francaise, ITN, or BBC? The friendly crew informed me that they were not from television. They were from Germany, and were making a film about the battle.
But for me, the big moment was seeing my paternal grandfather's grave. Unlike many other graves, his was in civilization. Many are on roadsides and in secluded spots in farmers' fields. It was quite a moment for me.
On the way back home, we called in a Canadian area at Beaumont-Hamel. The BBC's Songs of Praise people were busy taking pictures. We were warned that if we saw any strange metal, do not touch it. Report it immediately to the people in charge of our coach trip. I thought it would be interesting to walk around a neatly kept trench, and take a continuous stabilized shot of this action, with my recently purchased video camera. I eventually had to force myself to concentrate on this. Looking at the scene, I could easily imagine and sense the evil horror of battle there. The situation caused my body to experience emotion. I am not ashamed to admit, that had I stopped, I would have definitely been overcome with emotion.
The last we saw of Songs of Praise, they boarded our coach. Somewhere along the line, we were all asked to sing IT'S A LONG WAY TO TIPPERARY. Afterwards, they left. I had not been feeling too good, possibly due to some French wine earlier. But somehow, this experience made me feel better. Eventually I felt great.
We made a stop at Arras. It was here we met some people from another coach party. One of them referred to the bangs, the previous day at Thiepval. I assured him that it was wind hitting the microphones.
We also stopped at Vimy Ridge. Here was a very impressive Canadian memorial. And a trench system preserved in cement.
There is a lot more I could say, but I will leave it there. But one thing that impressed me was that all war graves were kept well by The Commonwealth War Graves' Commission. And furthermore, not one blade of grass was out of place.
As far as film is concerned, there were numerous shots taken during the conflict. These newsreel images brought home to the public in cinemas, the dreadful things that were happening, although there is some talk that the newsreel cameramen had some soldiers pose especially for them.
Despite that there is a lot more that I can say, I shall now approach the end my write up. I did, a few years ago, get my grandfather's photo digitized and it is at the end of this blog.
You might also be interested in some articles that I contributed to the BBC's People's War website. Some, but not all, contain some references to WW1.
About the contributor - Former coding Marvelman.
Alan French: War Baby Interview Part One.
Alan French: War Baby Interview Part Two.
The Three English Brothers French.
Uncle Jim: Send Him Pictorious!
The White Figure - A True Wartime Ghost Story.
There is also, surprisingly, a reference to the Thiepval Memorial, in my blog about Quatermass on both Herts Memories and Our Dacorum websites.
The adjacent image is that of William Thomas French, my paternal grandfather who served with The King's Royal Rifles. It is a copy of a very large blow-up of an original hand-tinted photograph. In 2014 I had it copied by Studio 57 who at the time, was based in Hemel Hempstead, High Street. It has a glass front and there were problems removing it from the frame.