On the road to Ypres we took a detour to the Tyne Cot cemetery, an introduction to the scale of death in the area. In Ypres we visited the Menin Gate, but I couldn’t find the Gordon Highlanders panel. I figure that most of any possible Buchan relatives would have joined that regiment. In the main square in Ypres they were setting up the seating for the cat festival. Apparently in medieval times the town had a problem with rats, and the cats weren’t doing their jobs properly, so they threw some down from the Town House, “for the encouragement of the others” as it were. They continued to do this annually, and toy cats were substituted relatively recently.
Then we were settled into our billet at Hardecourt aux Bois, a nice little village. The accommodation was excellent – two couples in each of two semi-detached cottages, and four other couples in the main farmhouse. One of the outbuildings has been converted into ‘The Rum Ration’, a drinking den with battlefield memorabilia and empty bottles round the walls. In the days to come we had some memorable evening sing-songs in it. The other half of our party of friends were staying in Longueval. We’re all old friends, having travelled all over Europe together, and we’re very comfortable in each other’s company.
The following morning, before our first excursion, four of us walked up the road and cut along the edge of a field, among Yellow Archangels, ground ivy and wild hops. We came out onto the road and walked up to an impressive shrine to a local WWI hero. Just across the road from the shrine I spotted a fresh-looking drainage ditch cut into the chalky subsoil. I walked along it and saw a hole in the ground, with a piece of curved metal for a roof. It was too dark and too narrow a gap for us to see inside it. It was obviously the remains of a trench, and not marked on our map.
We drove to the massive Thiepval Memorial to the missing, and here, in the Register, I found two Will names, one from Laurencekirk, so a possible relative. The shock had me gasping for breath. We had brought with us a box of poppied crosses, and I laid mine here, to the memory of David Will. In the visitor centre I checked a database of Gordon Highlanders, and discovered another 11 Will names, 10 from Buchan. Thiepval was the moment which hit me hardest, because I hadn’t known that I might have relatives who were killed in the War, and now I had 12 possibles.
In Albert we visited the Somme Underground Museum, which I felt gave a flavour of trench life. I discovered that the roof supports I had found the previous day were called ‘elephant iron’. We drove on to the Beaumont-Hamel cemeteries, with the extraordinary caribou memorial to the Newfoundlanders who were killed in such numbers in the opening moments of the July 1st offensive. In Y Ravine cemetery I found a Mutch, another possible relative. By now I had realised that when I went home I would have to embark on a significant research programme to track down the Will, Mutch, Wood (McRae) and Stocks names on both sides of my family. The ground here has been left exactly as it was, pocked with shell craters and trenches, although now covered in grass rather than mud.
Next morning a group from the Hardecourt billet revisited the trench I’d seen the previous day. One of our group found two bullets in the ditch, and another found bones – a rib and the head of a femur; unmistakeably human, and the smoothness of the ball of the bone indicated it was from a young person. I’m just recording the facts here, because it’s difficult for me to describe the complexity of my emotional reaction.
We visited the Contalmaison cemetery next, the Tyneside Scots Memorial, and the Ovillers cemetery, where Harry Lauder’s son is buried. On to the huge Lochnagar crater, from the explosion of tons of explosive. In Peronne, as we sat outside a café having our late lunch, a wedding party started to arrive, and we watched the guests enter the church, the little attendants dressed in sailor suits, for this was obviously a naval wedding. In the next cemetery we visited, one headstone had a Star of David on it instead of a cross.
We drove to Froissy, for a trip on the Petit Train, a narrow-gauge railway which zig-zags up from the river Somme to the plateau above. In the afternoon we visited the German cemetery in Fricourt, and I found two inscriptions with the same name as my daughter-in-law. From here we moved to the Sheffield groups of cemeteries, set in pock-marked woodland. Then to the massive Serre Road No 2 cemetery, and here I found another two Will names, one serving with the London Scottish Regiment, the other, a G G Will, having emigrated to Canada from Inverbervie, had come back to be killed here. That had me in tears again. Fifteen possible relatives I hadn’t known existed! We finished the day with a visit to the Delville Wood Memorial. I didn’t go into the cemetery here – by now I was rather nervous of finding more family connections. But that night in the Rum Ration, listening to Max singing ‘A Gordon for me’, a shiver ran down my back.
So many experiences in such a short time were overwhelming, so I’m glad that we went in the company of so many good friends, and I’m grateful to Bruce, our expedition organiser and good friend, for putting the trip together.
I’ve visited France many many times – I’m a big Francophile – but I’ve always driven through Picardie en route to somewhere else – Paris, the Auvergne, the Dordogne, Languedoc. I’m glad we stopped this time.
Missed out the fact that we called in at Fromelles and got an update from a forensic scientist.