I got Somme mud on my Mutt – Mark Barnes visits the Somme

It had been raining heavily for some days and a steady drizzle was still in the air as we chugged along the D254 from Carnoy to Montauban. A good deal of mud and water had drained off the fields and conditions could best be described as messy, but the MUTT was going like a train and it was great to be out in the dusk of a late May evening in what is such a special place for me. My friend Steve sat grinning in the passenger seat and my two teenagers James and Emily were laughing in the back. We trundled on down an incline and all seemed well when Steve said ‘Where’s the road gone?’ At that very minute we hit a two feet high wall of liquid mud and ploughed through it in spectacular fashion at 30 mph. As the road began to rise I put theMUTT into four-wheel-drive and we managed to steer clear of the goo. The mud was everywhere. We were well and truly splattered, but the road dried out and we carried on a few yards before I stopped to take stock. The voice of my daughter piped up from the back ‘Can we do that again?’

Several visits to the Somme have secured it as one of my favourite places, for the history, for the countryside and the peace and quiet. My family and friends have had some great times on our visits to Picardy and when I reached fifty they conspired to surprise me with a special trip where I could take my M151A2 MUTT for a few days cruising round the sites I love so much. Things did not go entirely smoothly.

Just before my birthday I attended the Bunker Bash show where the alternator decided to develop a dry bearing. I set out to get it repaired for the show season without realising the Somme trip was in the offing. Getting at the alternator was a bit of a mission, but thanks to the ever present support of my friend Richard Hamblin, we got it out and an intro from my friend Geoff Baker led to a chap in Southend who was prepared to fix itstraight away. He did a fantastic job and although it appeared to be in need of a new regulator there was enough zip in it to keep the batteries charged. Unfortunately, what I didn’t do was replace the batteries straight away and this caused problems later on. These seem like schoolboy errors in dare I say it, hindsight.Two days before the off… and I received news of the need for a temporary export licence to take my harmless little MUTT to France for four days. It seemed as ridiculousthen as it does now, but rules arerules. I got in touch with the Ministry of Fun to get one and was met with gales of laughter from the apparatchik on the phone who‘sympathised’ but told me I needed to wait three months for my paperwork. I can still hear his laughter now. It was pitched somewhere between Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Woody Woodpecker. Nuff said.The conspirators had decided to tow the MUTT to Picardy with Richard’s GMC van. Unfortunately the beast had been developing serious gearbox problems and we had to get the vehicles to Longueval with the poor GMC feeling decidedly unwell. This was achieved with a small degree of drama as we made stops to keep the transmission topped up. Once we arrived the van was parked up for a good rest. There began a continuous series of clowning about getting the MUTT to start over the duration of our stay – usually by jump starts from our other vehicles. It helped that Richard had brought a spare battery with him. I am well aware that they do sell car batteries in France, but I was not about to splash out on them. Each evening we’d be lounging around our rented house and there would be battery chargers humming merrily in a corner. It all seems so needless from this distance, but stuff happens.  We stayed at Snowden House in Longueval, which is an ideal location to reach the whole Somme battlefield and much more besides. The property is owned by Jonathan and Richard Porter and we have stayed in their other house in Hardecourt-aux-Bois a few times and always enjoyed ourselves. Snowden House is a much bigger property and there was more than enough room for all of us. Longueval is a lovely village with a fine war memorial and a nice corner cafe-cum-shop-cum-garage.

The village is also home to the Piper Memorial, one of a small number of monuments I don’t particularly like even though the point of it is superb. We enjoyed going out for late evening walks which tended to cause histrionics amongst the canine community and one poor man had a long chase to get his big soppy German Shepherd back after it vaulted a fence to greet us. We like Longueval. The South African Memorial and Museum at Delville Wood is just a few minutes away. You can get a very good cup of tea there from the jolly ladies who are always on hand to serve. The museum is excellent with sculpted friezes and a wide range of artefacts. The surrounding woods were the scene of bitter fighting and trench lines and paths are easily distinguished. Much is made of the sole hornbeam tree which is said to have survived from those times. Everyone stops to take a snap of it. If you visit in spring time the woods are smothered in bluebells. On our first full day we set out to visit the Caribou memorial at Gueudecourt, one of several placed on the Western Front to honour the men of Newfoundland who fought in the days when it was not part of Canada. I had a succession of passengers wanting to enjoy the experience of riding the lanes in the old girl. The Caribou are very fine monuments and we mean no disrespect when we make the erroneous call of ‘Moose!’ every time we see one. It’s all done with absolute affection. The site at Gueudecourt has been tidied up a good deal in recent years and the trench line running through it seems a little ersatz, but the originality is beyond dispute.

 

On to Mametz Wood where we stopped to re-acquaint ourselves with the 38th Welsh Division memorial, sometimes known as The Lizard. The striking red dragon looks out across fields where Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon did their share of fighting. We walked from the red dragon up to Flatiron Copse, one of the best known cemeteries in the area. Three sets of brothers and the VC holder Edward Dwyer are among the dead buried there. The path down was lit up by poppies sprinkled amid the wheat and just near the cemetery gate we found a very large live shell partly buried in the track. We also discovered the path is something of a ‘lovers lane’ so, in the spirit of tabloid journalism we made our excuses and left. Driving the MUTT was proving to be a joy and I was more than happy to head past Fricourt and up on to the well-known high ground of Point 110. Up there you will find two cemeteries  Old and New while in the Bois Francais there are several mine craters and a memorial from when the area was in the French Army sector during 1915. The track down to the two cemeteries became increasingly harder to traverse as we went down to the Point 110 ‘New’ the mud got deeper and deeper. It made sense to call it a day and head home so we went on a roundabout route and stopped at Gordon Dump Cemetery where the footballer VC Donald Bell is buried. The morning dawned bright and sunny, so we put the top down on the M U T T and there began a day of Cheshire Cat style grinning as we trundled round some of our favourite spots. It was a really warm day and is one of the most memorable I’ve had on the battlefield trail. We drove to the Sheffield Memorial Park at Serre, a place synonymous with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Pals battalions who evaporated on the 1st  of July. We went on to the huge Ancre Cemetery, which is a really beautiful place. A good many Irish soldiers are buried there. Sad to say the majority.

There was a great place to sit at the far end of the cemetery and enjoy the sun for a short time before we scooted off for lunch in Auchonvillers. The famous Ocean Villas is run by Avril Williams, one of the best known expats living on the Somme, who provides a warm welcome to visitors at her B&B and cafe. There are trenches at the back of the property which is the site of an aid post. This is a ‘must visit’place on the Somme circuit and you will always get a good meal and a decent cuppa. We drove back across the River Ancre up to the Ulster Tower where we enjoyed ice creams with Teddy and Phoebe Colligan, the guardians of the place. A chat with Teddy is always a delight because he knows so much about the area and is a good laugh. He convinced John to splash out a fortune on a PDA palm pilot the last time we were there. Going back on ourselves we fetched up at the Newfoundland Memorial Park, one of the most popular spots for the casual visitor. That dodgy cry of ‘Moose!’soon rang out, but we quickly got down to enjoying the walk round the park. The proximity of the British and German trench systems here is really quite startling. The German positions in Y Ravine included a light railway and one of the bunkers was said to house a piano which remains to be found.

Lutyens’masterpiece at Thiepval records the names of 72,195 men who have no known grave.
Lutyens’masterpiece at Thiepval records the names of 72,195 men who have no known grave.

The terrible toll inflicted on the attackers on July 1st was made worse here by troops eager for battle scrambling out of the assembly trenches and crossing open ground to avoid the congestion around them. Communications trenches had become blocked with slow moving files of troops advancing to battle meeting walking wounded and stretcher bearers struggling in the other direction. Although not in the first wave, the Newfoundlanders suffered the worst losses of any battalion attacking on the opening day. In addition to three cemeteries you will also find the beautiful memorial to the 51st Highland Division whose men captured the area at the end of the battle in November. Sheep grazed all around and on this fine day many had settled down for a snooze. It is hard to find a more pastoral scene on such a terrible battlefield. We drove on to Thiepval, the site of Lutyens’ gigantic monument to the Missing of the Somme – nearly seventy-three thousand of them. This is my place. I would think it a bad year if I didn’t get to pay a visit. I cannot begin to explain why. A quick walk down the grass path to the road brings you to the 18th Division memorial and a good point to look out to Thiepval Wood, the Ulster Tower and Connaught and Mill Road cemeteries. To the right is the site of the dreaded Schwaben Redoubt, a complex of trenches and bunkers which the Ulsters tore into at great cost on July 1st but did not manage to retain. My daughter Emily came down to stand with me while I mucked about taking snaps. The poor girl has done her share of battlefield touring, but having my family with me has made these trips all the more special. The moon hung next to the Union Flag fluttering atop the Thiepval memorial. You might say things were perfect. We decided to take the MUTT along the track that leads out across the Schwaben Redoubt. During a trip of highlights, this one was perhaps the most special. Just as at Point 110, Fiona followed in the Baker family Fiat, which goes to show some people are crazy in a good way. We threaded our way round to Contalmaison, where the 16th Royal Scots memorial cairn stands. Known as McRae’s Battalion after it’s colonel, it was formed in Edinburgh with a large contingent of professional footballers from Heart of Midlothian and other clubs. T h e battalion achieved great things on 1st  of July; although all their gains were lost to heavy counter-attack. Jack Alexander’s McRae’s Battalion is a ‘Band of Brothers’for the Great War, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The route onwards leads past a point in the road where you can see the Pozieres Memorial. There is a wonderful book called Fields of Memory and I had wanted to replicate a photo taken from this vantage point for several years and now I had the chance. No two photos are truly the same, but I am happy with mine. It was the icing on the 50th birthday cake. We stopped off at the little Thistle Dump cemetery before heading home for a great barbeque, with John at the coals doing his stuff. In the evening we crammed five in the MUTT for a last jaunt out to the New Zealand Division Memorial outside Longueval. There was a pink sky setting behind the distant power lines and not a sound to be heard (once I’d switched the MUTToff!).

The next day I drove from Bapaume to Vimy Ridge. We loaded the MUTT onto the trailer and enjoyed a decent picnic before setting off for the Channel Tunnel. The joy of these trips is knowing that you can never fit it all in. There will always be other places to visit, sometimes with different companions and each trip has a life of it’s own which builds a lasting memory I hope will never fade; much like the one we have for the men who fought for us. Theirs is the glory and ours is the pilgrimage – an ongoing association with the people and places we will never let slip from our hearts.

Author: Mark Barnes