Reflections on a day that I will never forget

Having now returned from the Somme, via a very nasty Channel crossing on Friday evening, it is time to reflect on a very interesting and informative couple of days.

The personal tour that we had arranged with our host was absolutely superb – Vic is an expert on the war and, as well as doing general coach tours of the front, he is happy to spend a day with guests exploring more personal stories. He had previously advised where he thought that my Great-Grandfather William was on that day, but having done some more research for this visit, the story expanded and developed somewhat.

It now appears that he was an ambulance driver attached to a unit that were ferrying the injured from the front line near Fricourt to various medical stations back to the field hospital in Corbie. On the 26th November 1915, the ambulances were waiting or being serviced in a village called Méricourt-l’Abbé, where there is also a railway station in the village on a line used to supply the front. According to the war diaries, there was an aerial attack by the Germans on the station and the ambulances were destroyed.

In the cemetery in the village, there are half a dozen graves from that same day, linked to this event. There was another younger driver also from Norwich, who has an Army number within 40 of William and I suspect enlisted on the same day. There is a medical orderly there and others associated with the transport section. These graves tell their own story, but not the reason why William enlisted so late in life, well beyond the normal age limit. It is likely that he was accepted because he was a driver in civilian life and had previously spent time in the territorials, but there is a possibility that local people in Norfolk raised money to buy or sponsor an ambulance and he enlisted to be its driver. This is worth exploring further, so maybe a couple of days in Norwich in the New Year might be on the cards.

William would have been mortally wounded and taken back to his hospital, where he died the same day.

We also visited other positions along that route including one of the cemeteries at Point 110, a location that I had visited 10 years ago. On arrival, we met the Brudenell family, who were there to remember their own Great-Grandfather, killed on the same day as William. They may have known each other – who knows? It was a pleasure talking to the various family members who had also made the journey especially.

Later in the afternoon, we found the location where my Great-Uncle was killed, in October 2016. He has no known grave and is therefore one of the 72,000 names on the Thiepval Memorial to the unknown. However, we did find an Unknown Soldier’s grave in an adjacent cemetery which specifically has the regiment of the man on the stone. This was his regiment and so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the man buried there is him. His regiment sustained over 200 casualties that day, of whom probably 70 were killed. It is only possible to find around half a dozen named and dated graves from that action, meaning that maybe 60 were never found or are unknown dead. And the result of this action? A German trench was held for 6 hours until the British troops that managed to get that far ran out of ammunition, at which point they retreated back to their original trench at the bottom of the field.

All in all, it was a day that I will never forget. For we must never forget what these men gave up for us.

W. R. Barton (smaller)

Feet up in a B&B on the Somme

100 years ago tomorrow my Great-Grandfather was killed on the Somme. There were no big battles going on. No big offensives, apart from the fact that the whole war was pretty offensive. Just the day to day killing that went on regardless.

We are staying in a tiny B&B run by an English couple. The husband does battlefield tours and is taking us on a personal tour tomorrow to show us what happened on that day, as best we can find out. Previously, I had thought that he was a stretcher bearer, but it seems that he was most probably driving an ambulance which  was hit by fire from a German aircraft. He was with two others who died that day. They were killed instantly, but he was mortally wounded and died later that day in a field hospital.

He had volunteered at the age of 37/38 and left a wife and three children at home in Norfolk. Why he volunteered at such a late age we have no idea but it will be worth finding out more when we get home.

It’s quite a strange feeling. Having been in this very B&B exactly 10 years ago, I have been looking forward to this personal tour since. But it’s a bit like going to the funeral of someone you could never have known but who was fundamental to who you are. Someone who gave his life so that I can enjoy the life that I do. I will share my feelings on the day when we get back.

Here is a quick iPhone shot of Mill Road cemetery, near the Thiepval memorial to the men who have no known grave and the Ulster Tower. There are 1304 men in this place.

They leave long shadows.




The Cancer Drugs Fund – it’s not a game of Hokey-Cokey

The Cancer Drugs Fund was established by the UK coalition Government in 2010 to provide drug treatments to NHS cancer patients in England, when the drugs themselves are not routinely available via normal NHS routes. I have written before about the less-than-satisfactory experience of my consultant in seeking support from the Cancer Drugs Fund when I was recommended Rituximab as maintenance back in 2010. The fund provides roughly £200m of support every year for these treatments, shared out on a proportional basis across each NHS commissioning authority.

If we ignore the questions of ‘Why is a “Cancer Drugs Fund” needed at all? Why aren’t these drugs just available on the proper approved drugs list, if they are effective?’ the fund itself is a good thing. It allows for treatments that wouldn’t otherwise be available, to the benefit of patients and to society as a whole.

The fund has a problem though. The list of drugs that are on the fund list is regularly reviewed (three times in 2015 from what I can see) and as part of that review process, some drugs might be taken off the list. The current, Nov 2015, list is here

There are lots of drugs on the list, some of which are relevant to blood cancers and lymphomas. Bendamustine, the lymphoma chemotherapy developed in Eastern Europe during the cold war and only relatively recently approved for use here is on the list, for a variety of uses, but has recently been disapproved for other cancers. Many of the drugs on the list are the new innovative anti-body therapies that I wrote about only a few months ago. Two of them, Ibrutinib and brentuximab were due to be removed from the list, but have been reprieved following consultations over cost with the manufacturers.

One of the reasons why the drugs are dis-approved is down to cost and it is only when the manufacturers reduce the cost of the drugs that they are re-admitted. This is wrong. The £200m Cancer Drugs Fund represents a very small part of the overall drugs bill, when in 2014, the NHS expenditure on prescribed medicines was something like £12bn, capped following a protracted agreement with the industry. Given that level of spend, NHS procurement people should be expected to be constantly negotiating hard with the companies to keep the expenditure under control.

Taking drugs off a list and then re-admitting them seems to be an odd way of going about things. Patients / people / constituents / tax-payers / voters – call us what you will – rely on these drugs. To have them suddenly unapproved is going to be highly stressful to say the least and potentially life-changing if these drugs are what is keeping the person alive, or a disease at bay.

Now, everyone understands the pressures that the NHS is under. It would take every penny of taxpayers’ money if it could and still it wouldn’t be enough. Costs in the NHS, of treatments, accommodation, staffing as well as the drugs, continue to rise, despite “inflation” being at zero. People have come to expect more and more from it and still expect it to be free at point of use. I am sure that some become complacent about their life-style choices, knowing that there is a massive national resource that will be there to look after them, despite their choice to smoke 40 cigarettes or eat 5,000 calories a day for half their adult lives. There are many treatments that, arguably, shouldn’t be available under the NHS at all.

However, if we are going to have a Cancer Drugs Fund, rather than incorporate it into the general NHS approvals, once a drug is on there and people are benefiting from its use, it should stay there. People should not suddenly be told that the drug is no longer available to them.

I am, of course, pleased to see that the Lymphoma Association are lobbying hard to improve the way that the Cancer Drugs Fund operates.

Having cancer is hard enough, thanks, without having to worry that the only thing keeping you alive or well might be taken away from you at any moment.