Monday December 1: Amiens and the Somme
Today would be a BIG day. The itinerary included 10 cemeteries and 12 soldiers dispersed across the Somme Valley and would fill a day with emotion, tears and an awakening amongst our young ones about what this pilgrimage is all about. Rod Bedford our guide from 2004 and 2006 was ready for us and along with Yves we had a Pom and Froggy in guiding tandem. The French and British had fought many wars over the centuries so the day would prove to be interesting. In actual fact Rod and Yves worked together in 2004 and it was precious as we had the English and French perspective intertwined. Lovely stuff. Having these two men as our guides is superb as their joint knowledge is encyclopaedic and their intense understanding of the region unequalled. The first commemoration for the day was for George Forrest at Bonnay Communal Cemetery and was completed by Nicole Weidenhofer followed by Emily’s dedication to David McDonald at Heilly Station Cemetery at Mericourt L’ Abbe.
Yves told us as we approached Dernancourt that this was a very special place for the Mackay North mob and they had shed many tears here in September. The day like yesterday was cold, wet and grey but magically as we started the three commemorations the sun broke through the dark clouds. Paul Sinkinson was struggling with his commemoration to Robert Turner a relative of his friend at school, Tamara Turner. As the softly spoken Paul shared Turner’s story with the group Yves whispered to me that the sun peaking through the clouds was a sign that the diggers were with us. He recounted that when the MacKay mob were at Dernancourt the weather report had predicted diabolical conditions for days with no signs of sun and as with us the sun poked through while they were present. “They are here. The diggers they are here,” said Yves. I love this man….his passion and his belief is truly inspiring. Here are Paul’s reactions:
“As I walked into the cemetery that I had been trying to imagine, doing my commemoration, I realised that as I walked up to the grave of Robert James Turner, that this was his resting place. It is here at Dernancourt that his body lies under the soil. His soul has seeped into the soil, but his spirit was drawn out and sent home.
FLO BOURKE (commemorating Percy Pym):
Today tears were triggered for me by the simplest of things and emotions that last time seemed to sit so deep inside me felt like they were sitting at the surface so easy to be released at any time.
The Western Front story would really take hold at the next stop as we made our way to the site of the Lochnagar Crater near La Boiselle. Its story is shocking and exposes the awesome power of the new technology of WW1. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, numerous underground explosions using ammonal were set off killing many Germans and allied soldiers. It is said that the explosion was heard in the UK and in Dublin and its impact shattered the knees of men in trenches nearby. An airman flying 4,000 feet above the explosion reported that his aircraft was tumbled several times due to the after shocks. Debris, smoke and earth were blown above the aircraft displaying the awful power of these new weapons shocking even those who were responsible. This war would change the face of modern warfare forever with its results evident in the killing fields that surrounded us. As in previous years the kids saw first hand what this war was all about. The fields recently ploughed showed off the sticky glue of the white chalky clay that is the Somme. Despite the awful conditions we were experiencing in some ways it was appropriate as the attempts to empathise with our WW1 boys was made a little easier. How did they endure this day and night out there in the mud that never leaves you and the cold that pierces every cell of your body? It can sound like a cliché but ones thoughts are drawn to their memory when you feel this cold.
From here we make our way to Pozieres, stopping at the Pozieres British Cemetery and the Windmill Memorial. It is the site of a windmill that was the ultimate objective of the Australian attack in this area. Having gained this ground the attack was turned northwest toward Mouquet Farm with intention of attacking Thiepval from behind. In 7 weeks in a triangle of approx 1.5 kms by 1.5 kms, the AIF suffered 23000 casualties including almost 9000 dead. When this is compared with the 8000 deaths and 20000 injuries in 8 months on Gallipoli, it is no wonder that Bean described this area as more richly sown with Australian blood than any other.
Another Commemoration at the London Cemetery and Extension at High Wood before making our way to Delville Wood and the South African Memorial where we stop for lunch. (See the photo of the hand warming ceremony in the gallery on the 2008 Tour home page).
We then go through the Flers and Guedecourt area stopping at the AIF Burial Ground, Grass Lane before visiting Beulancourt and Bancourt Cemeteries near Bapaume.
More commemorations at Vaulx Hill and Cagnicourt before turning back to Bullecourt for a sunset service at the "Digger" Memorial to bring a busy day to a close. Here Michelle played the "Last Post" while Flo and Yves sang the Australian and French National Anthems respectively.
The commemorations clearly meant a lot to those doing them and those of who were witnesses. One might think that the vast numbers of men we are remembering on this trip (over 100) could make it all seem like a blur. However this is not the case at all. The care and respect these kids show each time is beautiful to be a part of. The weather meant that we were in cold, wet and windy situations but at no time did the group appear to rush their deliveries or give the impression they wanted to be back on the bus. I felt proud to be their leader. The way the 32 of us are gelling is happening a lot faster than I predicted. The reflections from members of our group show just what this all means everyone.
Doing my commemoration today (John Rigby) was really good. I felt connected to John much more than I thought I would. It was very special and I felt like I had done something good for John: he deserves it.
Today was a full on day of commemorations. It was my first one, Harold Morris Turner. When I got to mine I didn’t feel anything other than nerves. However I then saw H.M. Turner the name of MY soldier the one I had learnt about, the one I felt I practically knew. I went weird at the knees and couldn’t see straight. My opening sentence probably didn’t make sense because I just cried as soon as I opened my mouth and I couldn’t stop.
ALI JURGS (mother of Bethany and Hamish, wife of Mal)
It’s hard as one of the mums on the trip to hold back and allow your children to shed tears as they commemorate the lives of young men often just a few years older than your own. We want to protect our children from pain or hurtful experiences, but we must stand back to allow our own to grow and understand and appreciate that history has a heart and soul. The numbers of young lives lost were someone’s son, brother, father, fiancé or friend.
(Ali after commemorating Walter Farm Scobie)……..It’s cold, wet and muddy as we start our commemorations today. We had such a short time to reflect on the short life of Walter and I wonder if his ultimate sacrifice is really understood by those who stand here. I wonder if he is looking down on us and proud to be among a few of so many that should be commemorated. I hope he is at peace. I will endeavour to share his story in order to keep his memory alive.
Visiting all of the grave sites puts things into perspective. It brings about many emotions seeing how many men gave their lives to give us the freedom we take for granted.
Today I commemorated Arthur Rawlings. It was an eye opener for me as I never knew what to expect. I had mixed emotions as I did not know whether to cry or smile.
Commemorating my great, great uncle was confronting. I tried to think of everything they would have gone through and what hey felt.
Today I commemorated my great, great uncle David Charles Macdonald. To stand in front of the grave of your own blood and to see their sacrifice made me feel proud to be their child and to be living their legacy of sacrifice.