When I was first invited to take a holiday to The Somme, the area was totally unknown to me … but it was to become a personal journey of discovery for which I will be forever grateful.
After discussing the trip with my family I was told that my uncle had served in the British forces during the First World War in that area.
The 1914-18 war was known as The Great War. Today’s generation may not be fully aware of this dreadful period and my visit was to open up such awful stories of frightful suffering and trench-fighting that my pilgrimage seemed to be the appropriate thing to do.
I was lucky to be an invitee of the Royal Anglian Regiment’s visit in May which was arranged to start from the south of England, travelling by coach, via the Eurotrain.
We had the privilege of being joined by serving Vikings (the nickname given to The Royal Anglian Regiment, an infantry regiment of the British Army) recently returned from Afghanistan.
Our base was Alfred, a central French town close to The Somme River and estuary. The planned route was to take into account all the main battles and activity witnessed in that region.
Settling into our hotel, the Hotel Ibis Albert, we were given a presentation of the organised activities to come.
The following morning we drove to the Museum of the Somme Albert. This was the town where the French managed to halt the progress of the advancing German army during early 1914 – Albert, therefore, became the centre of the subsequent Somme battles.
Both the British and the French armies defended Alfred but the Germans still heavily shelled the town. The beautiful Basilica, with a gilded statue known as the Golden Virgin, was also badly damaged and the story goes that if the statue fell, then the war would continue. Fortunately, the statue remained intact until the end of the war.
The various battles in the region included the Battle for Thiepval, the attack on the Schwaban Redoubt, the Battle for Vimy Ridge, the Battle for Longueval and Delvile Wood, the Battle for Ribecourt and the Battle for Trones Wood.
Our visits to the museum gave an insight into the ferocious trench fighting, each army taking strips of land, and then losing them to the enemy, only to try again to regain what they had lost.
We visited all the memorials built to commemorate the sacrifices made by the soldiers – British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. They are maintained by these individual countries.
At each memorial, our group laid wreaths in remembrance with Standards and bugler and we also had a travelling Service Padre (chaplain).
We had a most memorable visit to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who showed us how all the cemeteries are maintained.
The main purpose of this visit was to find the grave of my uncle who was killed in action. I had been given details and paperwork to trace his grave. When we found it, we laid the flowers of remembrance we had brought.
It was a great feeling of accomplishment as there were so very many. We felt lucky to find the family grave. At each cemetery there is a box with a book for anyone to fill in their visit details highlighting who they have come to find. The organisation was incredible.
For anyone who has a long lost relative who fell during The Great War, take the time to go and search. It’s very sad but necessary.
Next year will mark the war’s 100th anniversary.
– Yvonne Trueman MBE