Just over a week ago, I returned from France, having been ‘on the Somme’ for the centenary commemorations that marked the opening of the 1916 battle on 1st July. The main ceremony took place at 11am at the hugely impressive Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, attended by top politicians from the UK and France, and members of the Royal Family. At the end of 2015, there was a ballot for tickets, and although I was unsuccessful, I was able to get to the ceremony at 7:28am at Lochnagar Crater.
For those who don’t know the Somme, Lochnagar crater is the pockmark on the Picardy landscape left when over 27 tonnes of high explosive was donated under a fortification in the German front line. As well as obliterating the strongpoint, and annihilating the German defenders, it left a 140 metre wide crater, over 20 metres deep. Incredibly, after 100 years, the crater is still there, at the centre of the battlefield of 1st July 1916.
The entire battlefield was inside a security cordon last Friday, and I was staying at a hotel in Amiens, so this involved getting out of bed at 3:30 in the morning. This would have been bad enough, but I had met a very pleasant group from Enniskillen the previous evening, and they had insisted on buying me several brandies, in the hotel bar.
I was particularly proud and pleased to attend this ceremony, as the crater overlooks a shallow valley to the south known to the British soldiers as Sausage Valley after a German observation balloon tethered at the head of the valley. It was up this valley, in no man’s land that my grandfather, Private Fred Armitage of 15th battalion Royal Scots attacked at 7:30 on the 1st July 1916. It was the middle day of the middle year of the First World War.
As is now well known, the British Army lost nearly 20,000 killed over 37,000 wounded that day, most of them in the first hour. Fred was among the wounded, lying between the lines for two nights with a serious gunshot wound to the chest and shoulder. He did miraculously survive, and lived for another 52 years.
The service at the crater began at 7:28, the time that the mine was exploded, with the firing of a maroon, and a lone piper on the crater rim. Wreaths were laid, prayers were said, silences observed, and bugles played, all punctuated by the singing of whitethroats flitting in and out of the bushes. But for me the most important thing was simply that his son, grandson and great-grandson were there, 200 yards from where Fred was wounded, 100 years later.
100 years to the minute, that is.
Mike Armitage July 2016