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Brian Pohanka
The Western Front:
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   Beaumont

- The Somme
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Visit to the Western Front
Part 6: The Somme

By Brian Pohanka - October 27, 1999

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

One of the great ironies, or juxtapositions of a visit to the Somme is, as I've noted in these vignettes, the contrast of the peaceful agricultural land of today with what the wartime photos show to have been a torn, ravaged landscape of splintered trees, barbed wire, trenches and seemingly always -- mud. That, and the knowledge of all the suffering, all the death that transpired there -- an agony that became surreal in its horror -- as doomed poet Wilfred Owen put it, "A place where death becomes absurd and life absurder."

Everywhere there are cemeteries. The French and German dead were usually gathered in very large burial grounds -- the French with white crosses, the Germans with black crosses. But the British tended to inter their slain close by where they fell. Among the many dozen cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, some consist of three dozen or so marble stones, others of as many as 7,000. They are lovingly cared for, the lawns perfect, the stones surrounded by flowers. Most stones have the soldier's regimental badge carved upon it, if the man was identified and even sometimes if not by name, if his unit could be determined by insignia.

Often the British cemeteries will be out in the middle of a farmer's field, but there is always a path, or right of way, leading to them. As we continued our tour of the Somme, we'd stop from time to time and walk over to one of the cemeteries, like the Lonsdale Cemetery, which is located within sight of Thiepval, and of the copse of trees that marks the Leipzig Redoubt -- one of the German strongpoints. As was generally the case, no one else was around, and in going back to the car I picked up a half dozen pieces of shrapnel in the plowed field. One hardly needs to look to find these relics, so much iron is in the ground. Some pieces are the size of a nickel; some the size of the palm of your hand; some are long and narrow, others almost clod-like. But they are rough, and jagged and sharp still, and to think of those shards ripping the air, and making no place truly safe from harm, gives one pause
for thought, to say the least.

Exploring a portion of the Southern section of the British lines, looking for Point 110 Old and New British cemeteries, we made a wrong turn and wound up travelling about three-fourths of a mile down an increasingly narrow dirt track, through the farm fields. I was glad we made that mistake, as we came upon a section of the lines where the hummocked, uneven terrain of the trenches and shell craters was still in evidence. Now a horse pasture -- a curious equine came nuzzling up to the wire fence that surrounded it -- it was the location of "Maple Redoubt" -- a German position that the Brits captured prior to the big assault on July 1, 1916. I suppose this was what much of the rest of the Somme, now plowed and harvested, must have looked like.

Retracing our route, we got back on the right road -- still a narrow gravelled one -- and found the sign denoting the location of the cemeteries we were looking for. "Stop the car, Cricket," I said (she was driving so I could study the maps) -- for alongside the signpost was a pile of shells. Four of them, I think they were 75's, all unexploded, one with the nose cap knocked off. "Don't touch them!" my better half said (knowing me) -- so we took a photo. I did pocket the base of a German trench mortar grenade that was obviously not dangerous (as the others doubtlessly were).

From there we drove on a few hundred yards more to the cemetery I was looking for, and the grave of Lieutenant David Cuthbert Thomas, Royal Welch Fusiliers.

red poppy by DLO

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