24 June, 2017

A little piece of Preston deep in a foreign field

We stood, my wife Pat and I, in the bright morning sun looking across a perfectly manicured sweep of grass and up the slight incline. In front and above us was a brilliant blue, cloudless sky and at the top of the incline, towering above all, dominating  sky and trees and soaring above the horizon stood  the truly awe inspiring and at the same time humbling  monolith that is the Thiepval Memorial near Arras in northern France.

I had come to this place, three weeks ago, as part of our annual holiday in France; it was a sort of personal mission; a mission to square the circle, a mission to put something to rest. When my parents died, well over a decade ago now I found amongst my mother’s papers old letters written by her father, my grandfather, relating to his service during the Great War (see my blog “Touching the Past”: Feb. 2011:  http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/back-to-blogging-weve-been-away-to.html ). I knew a little of his war service but these letters filled in many blanks and since reading them I have had a desire to visit the places where he served in that great and terrible conflict. My grandfather, Joe Derbyshire, had left his young wife Jane and his baby son Albert – my uncle - in late 1915 to answer his country’s call. He had left his little two up two down, no bathroom, no hot water, lavatory in the back yard terraced house at 5 Rigby Street, Preston and marched off to war with his friends in the Loyal North Lancashire  Regiment. I can still remember as a child sitting with him in his kitchen; a gentle, quiet elderly man. I can still remember the polished boots that he always wore, one of which had a very thick sole and heel to provide support for the leg which was slightly shorter than the other after it was smashed by shrapnel in 1918.  He survived the war albeit with injuries that blighted his health until the day he died in the early 1950’s and apart from his three years in France he lived all his life in that same Rigby Street house.
My grandfather (marked with a cross) with his regimental pals in 1916. I wonder if  any of these men "ceased to be" and now their names are inscribed at Thiepval?
So we stood gazing up at the Thiepval Memorial. I had seen pictures of it on many occasions. I knew that it was the great memorial of the Battle of the Somme and dedicated to the missing British and Commonwealth servicemen who died in that terrible conflict but have no known grave. I was, however, quite unprepared for what I saw, learned and indeed felt. Standing in the warm morning sun, deep in the tranquil and lovely French countryside it was impossible to relate where we stood to the grainy black and white images we are used to seeing of the horrors of that Somme battlefield when this quiet countryside was reduced to a nightmare from hell; a world of mud, twisted metal, shells, bombs, skeleton trees, rotting corpses and death on an unimaginable scale. This area was the front line of the battle and on that brilliant blue day and the other days that we were in the area we journeyed through the fields and lanes where the fighting was once at its most bestial and where my grandfather had fought with his comrades. As I stood at the bottom of the grassy knoll I looked up at the monument and wondered “Did Joe’s eyes see this horizon through the smoke and death of the Somme hell?”
Joe Derbyshire with Jane and baby Albert

I knew from the records that I had researched that this area was where his regiment had operated and where in October 1916 he had been shot in the chest and where later, in 1918, he had suffered a leg injury caused by flying shrapnel. He was taken to a German field hospital  where German medical staff saved his leg, although he always afterwards  limped – and then he was shipped off as a prisoner of war for a few months until the conclusion of the fighting in November 1918. My research had given me names of the places that his regiment been during the conflict: Aveluy, Toutencourt, the Bapaume/Cambrais Road, Albert, Beaumetz, Fremencourt, Gomiecourt.............. and in the days that we were there we visited each of these places – many now just sleepy villages. As we drove through them or perhaps stopped in the market square I wondered: had his eyes seen these places, had he marched proudly through them or had he been lying on a stretcher racked with pain and unsure if he would ever see Jane or his baby son, or his home town in north Lancashire again. This was not a mission to seek out heroic tales, or jingoistically wave Union flags or celebrate military pomp, nor was it a mission of great personal sadness. It was simply a desire to visit where he had been and maybe see what he might have seen over a century before.

I knew the grim statistics of the Somme. The first Battle of the Somme lasted from July 1st 1916 to November 18th 1916 and claimed some 420,000 British, 200,000 French and 500,000 German casualties. On the first day of the battle the British army had its largest ever loss of lives in a single day when some 20,000 perished and in the seven days leading up to that first day, the British artillery pummelled the German lines with some 1.5 million shells. The deathly list goes on and underlining the horror of the whole thing is that during the battle some 72,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers died on the Somme and have no known graves. These are the men who were blown to smithereens or whose bodies rotted in the Somme mud and which the Thiepval  Memorial  commemorates.

But statistics, horrifying and unimaginable though these numbers might be do not tell all the tale. As I stood there gazing up at the memorial I began to feel uneasy. Despite all this death and injury little changed; no one won. In chess terms the Battle of the Somme was pretty much stalemate and from my perspective a century later I cannot stop myself asking what was it all for? And as I stood there I reflected that wherever we had driven through this bright and lovely countryside we had come across cemeteries, by the wayside, in the middle of a farmer’s field, on the edge of a village – French, British, German, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand,......... , small and large, some containing a handful of graves, others hundreds. All were diligently and lovingly cared for by local French people and each had a quiet beauty, an almost tangible  timelessness and sense of reverence.  But they all begged questions: just how many graves are there, how many people have to die in the name of nations and of war......and, most telling, every grave was the grave of a soldier, a living man who had walked, talked, laughed, cried, loved  - be they British, French, German or whatever. And every one of those who lay in those burial grounds, their pristine headstone bright under the day’s sparkling sun, must have thought his service and death were righteous and worthy, fit for their nation’s great cause; he must have believed that somehow God was on his side. But, can God, if there be a God, be on everybody’s side?
A small part of one of the great pillars

As I  began my walk up to the Memorial I thought back to my grandfather: an ordinary workman (a journeyman whitesmith - a worker in white metals such as pewter). He had little learning and had only rarely been further than his own little town, Preston. In those days before TV, mobile phones, cheap flights to Europe or further, computers and all the other  fripperies of our modern age, coming to a strange and foreign country, albeit only a few miles across the English Channel, must have been, for Joe Derbyshire and thousands like him, like going to the moon. I wonder what he made of it all as he looked on the same landscape that I gazed upon -  although the landscape he saw in that sweltering but wet and stormy summer of 1916 was not the thing of beauty and tranquillity that I enjoyed but a grotesque hell of death and destruction. 
Just a tiny fraction of the men of the Loyal North Lancs. who did not return home to Preston and north Lancashire
and whose resting place is unknown. The only record of their existence being on the mighty pillars at Thiepval.
Were any of them my grandfather's friends or neighbours? Surely, in a town like Preston one or two must have been.
The Thiepval Memorial was designed by arguably the greatest of British architects Sir Edwin Lutyens. Its 16 great pillars are carved with the names of the 72,000 men of Britain and the Commonwealth who died on the Somme and have no known grave and as I neared the monument I could almost feel the weight of history. Other visitors like me were dwarfed by its vastness, made to feel very small as the weight of great history and great endeavour weighed down. Although we were out in the open, still under that cloudless blue sky, people spoke in whispers; this was a place of enormous reverence, of overpowering awe and wonder. It was a place to humble the most brash, proud, certain and sure of men, because of what it symbolised and what had happened there. As I walked around I watched as a group of "bikers" made their way up the  grassy incline; all in their leathers, bandanas around their heads, tee shirts with death's head and heavy metal motifs, arms tattooed, flowing locks and beards - incongruous in such a place. But as they approached their banter fell into whispers and as they got to the top of the steps near where I stood and where poppy wreaths lay, they had  fallen strangely silent, heads bowed. They walked in silence gazing up at the great pillars, like me their mouths agape at what they read, saw and, I suspect, felt. A place indeed to silence even the mighty.

I had read much on Thiepval before coming. I thought that I knew it all. I may have known the facts but what I did not know was the human story. I did not know that this memorial is not simply a great brick and stone edifice – it is more, much more. I walked around my eyes gazing up at the great pillars each inscribed on every face, row after row, column after column, thousand after thousand, as far as the eye could see the names of men who were simply “lost” in the war. They had simply ceased to exist, with no known grave, no resting place no headstone to acknowledge their place within all humanity, except this - names chiselled out of the stone, so many that one's eyes lost focus as they tried to take in this catalogue of death. I could have accepted it if this was just a record of the men that died and were buried honourably and respectfully in some churchyard elsewhere - recognised as brave young men who gave up their lives for their cause, as is the lot of all soldiers. But to realise that these vast numbers where simply those who died unknown and unplaced I found overwhelming; I almost wanted to leave this place. But then, as I struggled to get to grips with all that this meant I was suddenly stopped in my tracks. My eyes had idly wandered to the very top of a pillar and with a lurching heart I suddenly realised that these were not simply great anonymous lists of men, but lists of men arranged in their regiments.  And so, my heart racing, I began to look - racing between the pillars, squinting my eyes to read the regimental legends at the top of each of these mighty columns. And, as my eyes got used to peering at the small writing many feet above my head, I picked out the regimental names: The Black Watch, The Highlanders, The Sherwood Foresters, The Coldstream Guards......it was a great regimental roll call of the great names of the British army and of British history.........and then, my heart almost stopping, with a sickening jolt I came upon what I sought: four or five columns all of which were headed “LOYAL NORTH LANCS. REGT”.
Joe's badges, they lie on my desk in front of me now as I write this.
You can see the one on the left in his cap on the photograph above

I stood overwhelmed gazing at the names. Men as my grandfather, soldiers of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, but these men had "ceased to be". Like my grandfather they had left their homes – probably in north Lancashire, or from Preston itself – and  their whereabouts  are not now known. Suddenly it all felt very, very personal . My grandfather had survived this terrible conflict but here were men who had not. They had not been killed and buried respectfully and honourably as thousands were or, like my grandfather, sustained injuries from which they always bore the scars.  No, they had simply "ceased to be" – obliterated, blown to smithereens, fallen victim of some machine gun fire and their corpse rotted into the mud of no man’s land. And as I stood there, my heart racing, my eyes filling with tears, I wondered to myself had my grandfather known any of these men?  Surely he must have done, for after all Preston is not a large place. Had he perhaps enjoyed a pint of beer with one or two of them before the war? Had he said good morning to any of them each Sunday morning at Ribbleton Avenue Methodist Church? Had any of these men been his particular pal in the regiment? Had he stood by the side of any of these men in the trench as they waited for the whistle and shout to go over the top?  Had any of these men been a workmate or a neighbour in Rigby Street – or even a relation? Had my grandfather spoken to any of these men on the day that they "ceased to be" – were the last words that they spoke on this earth to my grandfather before they went over the top to be obliterated? This was  a terrible history made dreadfully real.

And as I gazed at the list of names, unable to draw my eyes away, my heart skipped another beat. These were men who lived and died a century ago – almost thirty years before I was even born and yet here were names that I recognised. I didn’t know these men, how could I, but so many surnames I recognised from my childhood and teenage years growing up in Caroline Street. These were surnames that I always, and still today, associate with Preston, my home town. The names of my childhood, my street,  my school (St Matthews and the Fishwick Secondary)........Halliwell, Isherwood, Moran, Duxberry, Rogerson, Greenhalgh, Rigby, Clarkson, Bamber, Ainsworth, Parkinson, Unsworth, Bilsborough, Howarth, Cunliffe, Higham, Masheter, Shuttleworth, Butterworth, Ogden, Kellett, Heaton, Keane, Hornby, Lonsdale, Sharples...........almost an endless list. They are what I always call (maybe mistakenly) "good Lancashire/Preston names" and which if I ever read or hear them today still take me back to my home town which I left in the mid 1960s. I wondered if any of these men were grandfathers, uncles or great grandfathers of boys and girls that I had been at school with all those years ago; were any distantly related to people in my street who bore that surname?  One name I noticed was R. Derbyshire - was I related to him, my grandfather was Derbyshire, my mother was until she married my father. Yes, it was getting all very personal indeed.
Joe (front row marked with a cross) recuperating after being shot in
the chest in October 1916

So I stood in the morning sunshine, looking up at the great archways and vast pillars  around me and at the carefully scribed names. In the distance, where once mud, skeletal trees, smoke, grotesque barbed wire and death filled the land and the air there were now lush green meadows, fields heavy with crops, trees in full foliage, picturesque farm houses and cattle grazing. Above, high in the sky, swifts soared and blackbirds sang where once there had been the deathly staccato rattle of machine guns and the ear splitting, mind destroying and ground shaking thump of heavy artillery.

And as I stood there looking up at the mighty columns and their terrible roll call of death, a great and terrible truth entered my consciousness:  I only stood there on that bright blue morning in this, my eighth decade and in these early years of the 21st century, because a century ago my grandfather was one of the lucky ones – he didn’t “cease to be”. He came home – badly injured – but home, and safely back to his Jane and to his baby son and to Rigby Street where a year or two later Jane gave birth to my mother. Had fate decreed it in those far off and terrible days, my grandfather could just as easily have been obliterated in the blink of an eye - just another unmarked, victim of the monstrous carnage that was the Somme.  And if he had fallen, a victim of those murderous rattling machine guns or mortar shells, his body falling and rotting in the acres of Somme mud then his name, too, would now been chiselled into those mighty and dreadfully beautiful columns. And, if it had been thus, I grimly reflected, then neither I, nor indeed my children and grandchildren, would be today. It was a sobering and humbling thought; how thin indeed is the thread upon which we all hang.
So, feeling humbled and yet grateful and very, very small within this great sweep of dreadful history I turned away. I was emotionally drained – and yes, more than a little angry at the futility of war - as  I walked back down the memorial's steps and then the little grassy slope leaving this great monolith behind me. Across the peaceful, rich and verdant French countryside before me I could see swathes of poppies making a brilliant scarlet hue against the green of the growing crops. At the bottom of the slope I stopped and turned and looked up at where I had been: back to that great, wonderful, overpowering yet humbling memorial, knowing that a small part of north Lancashire and Preston, a little of my heritage, lay there, deep in that foreign field.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful account of your experience

    ReplyDelete