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)