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Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Centenary of the Somme. 'And when they asked us". (Kern)

As a one off, I have decided to record my thoughts and feelings with regard to the Anniversary Service at the Theipval Memorial site. This is not s rugby related post, even though like many sportsman in the First World War lost their lives.

Alarm set for 4.05am, the usual  routine of waking every ten minutes to make sure that I wouldn't oversleep and miss the Eurostar, even though J had set her arm too there was still no guarantee in my subconscious that 2 alarms would work. Clothes laid out, we were up, dressed, and out by 4.15am.

We drove through empty streets to St. Pancras, and parked in the short stay car park for a daily rate of the Greek National Debt. The Underground just wouldn't have got us there in time, as we checked in before the first Tube Train left Cockfosters. We walked through St Pancras an hour after getting up. My stomach had jet lag, as leaving that early meant that we hadn't had breakfast, and it was screaming for food. Checking in for the train was easy. As we were on the 'special' train, staff were polite as our passports and baggage, twice, once by British staff and once by French staff. 'We were now 'En France'.

I don't wear dresses very often, due to the morning struggle trying to find unladdered tights was finally given up on. This meant that when I went to the loo, the dress was tucked into my knickers, and a kind French lady saved my dignity. (My mind was on a bacon and sausage roll).

By the time that was consumed, it was time to get on the Eurostar. I expected lots of British Legion types, grey trousers, white shirts, blue blazers and regiment ties. There were some, but also women in their wedding outfit finery, one or two children, who'd been taken out of school. Many were carrying boxes with wreaths of poppies in,  ready to place post ceremony, there was a hat in a polythene bag, being carried by one lady, that went all the way to France and back without being worn.

We climbed the escalator to board carriage 18. Needless to say that was the farthest away along the platform, and we were welcomed by Sebastian, and Amelie, French staff wearing poppies in their lapels. They were to host us all the way to Haute Picardie, France. After a small glass of water, they brought round breakfast. (It would have been rude to refuse) and so we ate the second one of the day - egg sandwiches, orange juice, yoghurt and a pastry. It took 20 minutes in a tunnel to Ebbsfleet, emerging somewhere near the Dartford crossing, the Queen Elizabeth bridge straddling the Thames. We picked up a few passengers there, and 20 minutes later we were under the Channel, to emerge in France in time for the 2 minutes silence at 7.30, the time when the troops went over the top one hundred years ago. No one spoke or moved for minutes afterwards. Commonwealth War Graves staff gave us lanyards and wristbands to ensure entry into the event, and for the buses back afterwards.

On arrival at Haute Picardy, a station on an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere, there were around 12 coaches to transport us to Theipval. We were second tranche off, and whilst it was warm, it was windy as we were guided to the coach. The driver handed us a card with E on it to help us find the coaches afterwards. Each coach had a 'guide' on to instruct us on the details of the day. These guides were servicemen and women, and we had a young lady from the First Aid Nursing Auxiliary (FANY for short - the irony was not lost on me.)

We felt very important as we were escorted through the French countryside by the Gendarmerie on motorbikes, who stopped traffic at junctions and roundabouts to keep the 12 coach convoy together. On some roundabouts there were roses, which reminded me of the song of the Great War: Roses of Picardy. On a previous visit in 2014, the roundabouts were planted with wildflowers including cornflowers and poppies, but not this time, although as we drove through villages and fields, the poppies and cornflowers were evident. As we approached Theipval, we drove through the tiny French villages, who had decorated their houses with the Tricolour, but also Union Jacks, and I guess dependant on the regiment who protected their villages, South African, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand flags. (Is this where our future lies post Brexit?) These quiet villages were populated with people who came out to wave to us, they haven't forgotten, but I think the change to see William and Kate was the real reason. As we approached Theipval, the Memorial could be seen from miles away. It dominates the countryside, being on top of the hill. No wonder the Germans wanted to defend their position from there

I think the organisers were over optimistic with the timings, as we didn't get chance to take in everything around the event, and toilet and toilet break later, we picked up our bag of goodies, including the programme and rain cape, and found somewhere to sit in the audience.

When we got off the coach, we walked past small hillocks on the way to the visitor centre, and onward to the memorial. The hillocks were planted with cardboard poppies, each with a personal message on. Some were quite general, recognising the sacrifice, some related to the memories of a lost relative, sadly there was no time to read them and take in the messages. This was the first of many striking images of the day.

As we got closer to the memorial, there was a replica plane and tank, both were used for the first time in this battle. We were welcomed by a huge marquee, set up to serve coffee, with more displays, sadly no time to take these in, as we needed to be seated soon. We were also surrounded by a wood, and as we walked through a gap, the Memorial towered above us, we walked down the side, and towards the bank of empty seats, where we sat next to a guy who told us that Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott were also on the train, he'd met Camilla, a very intelligent woman, who was interested in his fridge full of DNA. (Why me?)

To be honest, if you wanted to see what was going on, we may as well stayed at home, as we were effectively watching the BBC coverage. It was never about that though. It was about being in the location where the Battle had its epicentre. As I sat between the trees and listened to the service and looking at the Memorial, I though about my relative. A distant one from my grandfathers' side, his name appeared on the memorial three times. This is not odd, as when battalions were so decimated, soldiers joined others to the point where they were recognised as being part of their company. I wondered if he left behind a family. His citation doesn't mention a wife, only that he was the son of a couple from Larch Road, Balham. A road that doesn't exist anymore. t can only assume that the family line died with him on 1 July 1916, and so maybe we were the only ones there that were specifically remembering his sacrifice.

The skies stayed fairly dry for most of the service, the significant  rain coming just before the 2 minute silence. The rain also reflected the mood of the time, 1914-18 had cold wet summers, 1916 being one of the worst. The Somme is remembered for the mud, and any other weather would've been wrong. The unfortunate thing was that we hadn't got the plastic ponchos, and so the rain came through Abide with Me and the 2 Minute silence. As the petals fell, the mood was sombre. The sheer scale of the deaths on the first day cannot be imagined. A town the size of Uttoxeter wiped out in less that 24 hours. My village wiped out in the first hour alone. I was wet through, but it was nothing on what fate met these lads 100 years ago. I wondered who my relative had left behind. I hoped tat if there was an after life that those that died with no grave knew that people still cared about their sacrifice 100 years on, and were grateful.

At the end of the service, we made a call, not difficult considering we'd already had 2 breakfasts, that
we would risk missing lunch to take in the Memorial. As we walked down the side, we were lucky enough to see the dignitaries talking to the soldiers on duty, and squeezed past to see the wreaths on the cross, and the immaculately kept graves, the white gravestones contrasting with the red roses.

With time getting on, we returned to the buses, trudging through Somme mud, cold and wet - this was nothing to what the soldiers had endured. We picked up a bag of lunch each to eat on the coach, but with 600 children, needing to leave first, we were held back. Time perhaps that we could have spent looking around the visitor centre, or buying souvenirs in the shop. Missed opportunities of an afternoon, but not a life.

We ate lunch on the coach. Egg, cheese and ham rolls, with crisps and another orange juice.

Back at Haute Picardy, we were lucky enough to go through the tented customs, first, set up just for today. We waited 10 minutes in the sun for the train, and when it came, we were welcomed by a cold drink and hot flannel. As soon as we left, tea was served travelling through Northern France. Chicken and potato salad with a bread roll, followed by a fig pastry and creme anglaise. With so many eggs and bread, the figs were needed!

Back at St Pancras, we walked past congestion on the platform, Sol Campbell, was talking to Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. I reflected on our rotten politicians, the elite who are at the moment dismissing the preference of the little people of Britain and thought how little has really changed. I also felt incredible pride in what these men had endured. Leaders who lost the value of human life, treating them as a number not a person with hopes, loves and future, as they took the view you lose 100 men, we will only lose 99 and win the battle.

At the end of the film Oh what a Lovely War, the song  'And when they asked us' reminds us how for many years we never really knew what the soldiers had endured, and bravely protected their loved ones from the horror of war.

And when they asked us,
How dangerous it was.
Oh! We'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them.
We spent our pay in some cafe.
And fought wild women night and day,
T'was the cushiest job we ever had.

And when they asked us,
And they're certainly going to ask us.
The reason why we didn't win the
Croix de Guerre.
Oh! We'll never tell them,
No! We'll never tell them.
There was a front but damned if we knew where.