Today we headed into northern France. Our first four stops of the day were to cemeteries where many of our Kilkenny fallen were buried including some of the relatives of our own committee.
The first stop was Trois Arbres Cemetery in Steenwerck, France. This is quite close to the Ireland of Ireland Peace Park we visited yesterday just over the border in Messines, Belgium. Just one of our Kilkenny fallen is buried here, my own grand-uncle Richard Gleeson from Paulstown, Co Kilkenny. His brother John also died in the war and is buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey.
Throughout my childhood I remember their framed photographs on the wall in my grandparents’ sittingroom. We knew they died in WW1 but nobody knew where they were buried, or indeed if they even had a known grave. In 1997, not long after getting my first computer, I discovered the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (www.cwgc.com) and within minutes had exact burial locations for both of them. The CWGC really is both a fantastic (free) information resource, but more importantly they keep and maintain 1.7 million (yes – million!) graves and memorials worldwide to an exceptionally high standard.
Second on today’s list was Ballieul Communal Cemetery where 12 men from Kilkenny are buried including another committee member’s grand-uncle, 41 year old James Sullivan from Kells. This is another cemetery which was located beside a casualty clearing station and consequently those buried here were mostly men injured in battle who died from wounds suffered.
Our next stop was Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery where 4 more Kilkenny men are buried. One of these was 21 year old Kieran Phelan from Walkin St, Kilkenny who died on 27/05/1915. Unusually Kieran served alongside his father Patrick. Less than 2 weeks earlier Patrick was killed instantly in the trenches. Kieran, standing only feet away, witnessed his father’s death and buried his body nearby. Sadly Kieran then lost his own life just a few short days later. Patrick’s body was either not found or identified and he is now commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial where we were last night. Today we left crosses for both men on the grave of Kieran and said a quiet prayer to their memory, as we did at the graves of all those we visited.
The fourth cemetery was Longuenesse (St. Omer) Souvenir Cemetery to visit the grave of John Purcell, grand-uncle of our Chairman Donal Croghan. Although not related to me personally I also feel a connection to John as we were both reared in the same house. My family came to live there some 50 odd years after John left his home in Highrath for the last time.
Next we headed down to the Somme area, firstly to the Thiepval Memorial and visitor centre. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme contains the names of 72,247 officers and men of the British and South African forces with no known graves. Over 90% of those commemorated there died in the few short months between July and November 1916. The names of 67 men from all over Co. Kilkenny are amongst those remembered here, only 4 of whom died outside of that Jul/Nov 1916 period.
On the 1st of July this year there will be an international service of commemoration at Thiepval Memorial to mark the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The Memorial has recently undergone some restoration works and, as they were still taking down scaffolding, unfortunately we were not able to access the Memorial itself but could only view it from a distance. There is a very nice visitor centre located near the Memorial and plenty of parking.
Just down the road from the Thiepval Memorial is the Ulster Tower, a Memorial to the soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme they sustained 5,500 casualties attacking the Schwaben Redoubt. The custodians of the tower are a lovely couple from Northern Ireland, Teddy and Phoebe Colligan, who are a fountain of knowledge on the history of the area. They have a very interesting little museum here and you can also get some refreshments in their tearoom.
On the morning of 1st July 1916 Geoffrey Malins filmed the men of the Lancashire Fusiliers waiting in the sheltered Sunken Lane for their turn to go over the top for his well known film The Battle of the Somme. This famous clip can be viewed on YouTube. The Sunken Lane today is a quiet peaceful place. At the end of the lane is a Celtic Cross Memorial to the Scottish 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and just yards away is the small Beaumont Hamel British Cemetery.
That same morning, just a few kilometres away, a mine laid by the 179th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers exploded under a German strongpoint called Schwaben Höhe. The site today is known as the Lochnagar Crater Memorial and is the largest man made mine crater of the war being almost 91 metres diameter and 21 metres deep. The site now dedicated to peace, fellowship and reconciliation between all nations who fought on the western front.
Our last stop of the day was to the Le Tommy museum, bar and restaurant in Pozières. There are quite a large collection of memorabilia and artefacts here honouring the Australians who died in the war in this area. Outside the owner has recreated trench scenes that are well worth viewing.