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Brian Pohanka
The Western Front:
- Belloy-en-Santerre
- Flaucourt, Bray, Albert
- Y-Sap, Lochnager
   Craters

- Memorials, Thiepval
- Ulster Tower,
   Beaumont

- The Somme
- The Fallen Soldier
- Mametz Wood
- Delville Wood, High
   Wood

- Newfoundland Park
- Hawthorne Crater
- Arras
- Proyart, Chevauchee
- Mort Homme, Fort
   Vaux

- Verdun

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Visit to the Western Front
Part 11: Hawthorne Crater...

By Brian Pohanka - October 29, 1999

This brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

Following the directions the Canadian girl at the Newfoundland Memorial Park had given us, we navigated the Citroen down another of those farm tracks -- a muddy, rutted path through the recently harvested fields -- toward the site of the Hawthorne Crater. I knew the crater -- made by the explosives tunneled beneath German lines and set off 10 minutes prior to the July 1, 1916 assault -- was now wooded -- and thus parked within sight of a considerable copse of trees and brush. This indeed proved to be the Hawthorne Crater -- not quite
as deep as the Lochnager Crater at La Boiselle -- but nonethless impressive, far, far larger and deeper than "The Crater" at Petersburg. One of the British cemeteries was nearby. And I noticed some battlefield buffs tramping through one of the fields with various maps in hand, blowing in the breeze.

We walked over to the Hawthorne Crater, and I descended partway down as we shot some video. It is very overgrown, but also atmospheric in a sinister way, dark and quiet. From the lip of the crater one can get a panoramic view of the battleground, from Beaumont Hamel to Thiepval. And walking back to the car I eyeballed some more shrapnel fragments in the field.

We next headed to the little village of Auchonvilliers -- the Tommies called it "Ocean Villas" (just as they called Fonquevilliers "Funky Villas" and similarly butchered the French language as a matter of course, generally in a humorous way). An English lady named Avril Williams operates a Bed and Breakfast there. The home, like the rest of Auchonvilliers, was leveled by shelling, then rebuilt. In this case the cellar, with its vaulted ceiling, survived, and the 1920s home stands atop it. Cricket and I had tea there -- it was about 4 p.m. -- and Ms. Williams was kind enough to show us the cellar.

There is graffiti from the British soldiers carved into the bricks. Names, initials, regimental mottos and so on. She has found numerous deformed bullets in the earthen floor -- this was used as a hospital and these were removed from the wounded. There was also a bone that had been sawed through -- an amputation. In back of the building are some very impressive trenches that some British WWI reenactors have been helping to excavate -- that is literally digging down into the back yard and unearthing, in some cases, the original wooden revetments and the "fozzilized" sandbags. Bricks from the ruined town were used as flooring, in preference to the usual duckboards.

Our last stop that day was North of Auchonvilliers, at Serre. This was another village obliterated in the fighting and now rebuilt. Within the German lines and atop a ridge, from the first offensive on July 1, through November, it defied capture, and cost thousands of lives -- French and British -- as the nearby cemeteries attest. What I consider the most powerful "war novel" of that conflict -- The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning -- is largely based on the author's actual experiences at Serre in the mud and horror of November, 1916.

Well into 1917 this was still a place of death. It was just south of the road to Serre that in January 1917 the greatest of the War Poets, Lt. Wilfred Owen, endured a terrible ordeal in a front line bunker, or dug out reinforced with concrete, that inspired some of his most powerful work.

Nothing remains of the bunker today, unless it is underneath the farmer's field. But knowing its location to within 50 yards or so, and contemplating the large British and French cemeteries there, on the road to Serre, in the late afternoon sunglow, I read Owen's letter, which I'd brought with me to France:

"My dug-out held 25 men tight packed. Water filled it to a depth of 1 or 2 feet, leaving say 4 feet of air.... Our entrance had been blown in & blocked. So far, the other remained. The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn't. Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life. Every ten minutes on Sunday afternoon seemed an hour. I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees....

"Towards 6 o'clock, when, I suppose, you would be going to church, the shelling grew less intense and less accurate; so that I was mercifully helped to do my duty and crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No Man's Land to visit my other post. It took me half an hour to move about 150 yards....

"In my Platoon on the left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing.... One lad was blown down, and, I am afraid, blinded. This was my only casualty. The officer of the left Platoon has come out completely prostrated and is in hospital....

"I am now as well, I suppose, as ever...."

With those word in mind, and knowing that on the morrow we would be leaving the Somme and heading east for Verdun, I thought of my visit a year and a half earlier, during our 5th NY Zouave tour, when I had stood beside Wilfred Owen's grave at Ors -- this sensitive, artistic and soulful man -- plunged into the Hell that was the Western Front -- creating works of power and beauty, forged in suffering that defies all understanding -- and cut down on
November 4, 1918 -- one week before the Armistice, one week before the guns fell silent.

red poppy by DLO

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