In the coming Spring my son is scheduled to take a school trip in preparation for his history GCSE to two of the principal sectors of British engagement on the Western Front, namely the Somme and the Ypres salient. To say I am jealous is an understatement, but my proposal to accompany the party as a helper was met with a look of abject horror!
On school trips to France in the early '80's (the nearness of Newhaven harbour made this an easy option), we used to pass through some of the battlefields of the Great War, but it wasn't until 2003 that I travelled to the Somme region specifically to tour the battlefields and memorials that dominate the landscape. Subsequently I have also made a couple of trips to Ypres and the surrounding areas, fields and low lying hills that devoured British and Empire soldiers (not to forget German troops as well) throughout the entire span of the conflict.
In preparation of boring my son senseless on the subject of the Western Front (along with The Stranglers something of an obsession of mine) I thought some people may be interested in one particular site on The Somme, The Lochnagar Crater, known locally as La Grande Mine.
Located near to La Boiselle, a tiny village on the infamous Albert to Bapaume road, the site is easy to miss. I recall a single sign post indicating the turn of for 'La Grande Mine'.
Mine Craters at Albert Seen from an Aeroplane
Richard Carline 1918
(The Lochnagar crater is clearly visible in the top right of the corner, the straight road runs between Albert and Bapaume)
The Lochnagar crater was created on 1st July 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. The result of the detonation of 24 tons of ammonal (a mixture of ammonium nitrate, TNT and aluminium powder) at 7.28 am, which along with the explosion of other mines (a total of 16, including Hawthorn Ridge and Y Sap mine) marked the opening of that terrible and disasterous Allied offensive which aimed to bring the war to an end.
The area beneath what was to become the crater was mined by the 179th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers. The target was the so called Schwaben Höhe, a German stronghold.
Detonation of the Hawthorn Ridge mine at 7.20 am on 1st July 1916
When the Lochnagar mine went up, it was described thus by C.A. Lewis (2nd Lieutenant of No 3 Squardron of the Royal Flying Corps) in the air as an observer:
'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.'
Immediately after the explosion it was critical to gain possession of the crater. This was the task of the 10th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment (otherwise known as the Grimsby Chums one of the Pal Battalions of Lord Kitchener's 1914 recruitment drive).
Many soldiers were also killed and wounded in this mad dash to take control of the crater's edge as at the time of moving forward, much of the material blown skyward in the blast was still airbourne and on the way down.
As the advance in the La Boiselle area faultered British troops took shelter in the crater only to be subjected to heavy artillery fire from their own guns. Whilst the Schwaben Höhe was destroyed in exlosion , the crater changed hands several times with the ebb and flow of battle across the shattered Somme landscape and the result was massive loss of life on both sides.
Aerial shot of the Lochnagar Crater showing the extent of the blast.
To give an indication of scale, here am I photographed from the opposire rim, standing next to the memorial cross
Australian Soldiers in the Crater (July 1916)
Sadly, like so many other areas of the Western Front, the soil surrounding the crater still periodically relinquishes the remains of men destroyed on 1st of July and subsequently as fighting returned to the area.
One such case is the discovery of the body of Private George Nugent of the Tyneside Scottish in October 1998. The remains were interned in the Ovillers Military Cemetery on 1st July 2000 (84 years to the day since his death) and his details subsequently removed from the Memoral to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval.
I chose this particular site to post on as to my mind it is so poignant, perfectly and silently illustrating the futility of war and the flaws in the minds of men that can conceive such means of destroying life on such a grand scale.
To those that have not made the short trip to the battlefields of The Great War, I would urge you to go. To Rudi, be warned I may stow myself away in the hold of the coach yet!