to the Western Front
Part 11: Hawthorne Crater...
Brian Pohanka - October 29, 1999
brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion
group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.
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
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
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,
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:
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...."
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
November 4, 1918 -- one week before the Armistice, one
week before the guns fell silent.
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