This is going to be a bit different to my usual posts, because I haven’t read very much over the last week or so but also because I need to write down how it was and my diary isn’t sufficient.
Roomie – Millie, who I shared a room with
Robin, Amy and Helen – ABF Staff Extraordinaire
Ed – Photographer in Excelis (all ABF photos, plus those of Bertie, are by Ed)
Steve – Historian and Diamond
The Two Daves, Ian and Pete – fellow walkers
The walk started at Lochnagar Crater… but if I’m accurate the whole experience started the day before, when we got on the coach with a load of strangers. I did my best to combat my fiercely British thou-shalt-not-mingle instinct and promptly walked into the gents’ loos at Wellington Barracks, mingling rather more than I had intended.
Our first stop in France, on the way to the hotel, was the Faubourg d’Amiens British Cemetery. The Arras Memorial commemorates 34,785 Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave. The coaches, which had become quite jolly as people recovered from the Channel Tunnel and got to know each other, were subdued when we boarded. The cemetery had reminded us why we were all here.
In the afternoon Roomie and I went to the Wellington Quarry. We toured underground, where men had talked and worked, slept and dreamed for three months, before they were sent over the top. We saw pictures they had drawn on the walls, initials, marks in the rock. The tracings of another generation in cold cream-coloured rock.
Towards the end of the tour we saw where the men would have gone up to fight. Up the carved staircase to the hell above. The brutal explosions, cruel flashes of light. The smoke and smell of cordite. The shouts and cries. An aural representation of Dante’s inferno.
Back at the hotel, we gathered for a briefing of the first day’s walk and a speech by the charity’s ambassador Andy Reid. Andy was so engaging, his sense of humour so sharp, that it took some time to notice that he lost both his legs and one arm in Afghanistan. He told us his story: his desperation to get into the army, his love of the job, and then the day he was injured. He then spoke to us about his slow, painful recovery. His determination to propose to and marry the woman he loved. Andy achieved everything he wanted to and continues to do so. The Army Benevolent Fund has been instrumental in helping Andy get back on his metaphorical feet and when he finished talking to us there was stunned silence followed by deafening applause. If we were walking in the footsteps of soldiers past, we were walking for the soldiers of the present and the future.
Day One found us at Lochnagar Crater, 0630. This crater was formed by one of the explosions which marked the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The wind was razor-sharp and the crater wreathed in very thin mist. We were given a blessing by the padre, who repeated it in Welsh as we were heading to Mametz Wood. As we set off, the sun began to rise, settling in soft gold stripes on the land which had seen so much and could forget none of it.
At Mametz Wood I felt increasingly uneasy. The earth was covered in greenery but underneath it was churned up like whisked egg-white. I felt sea sick. 4,000 Welshmen died here. There was a memorial to one soldier; aged 91, he had wanted his ashes to be scattered where so many of his friends had fallen. A drone being used for aerial footage abruptly stopped working and would not operate until we had left the wood. My stomach started hurting and tears sprung into my eyes. We left the cool stillness of the woods for the sun-splashed fields beyond, and I felt relieved. The eyes of the fallen watched our departure through knots in the twisted trees.
This tortured country held a million memories, but now only bird song disturbed the peace. In the distance a farmer ploughed his field; 3 people are killed a year by disturbing buried armaments.
We walked on to Thiepval Memorial, dedicated to the memory of 72,000 Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave. I thought the faint lines on the walls of the memorial were part of the design until I got closer and realised they were all names.
On to Mill Road Cemetery and the Ulster Tower, a memorial of the 36th Division.
Then to Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial which is in a park encompassing the scarred grounds where the Newfoundland Regiment attacked. How the earth pitches and rolls! This park also houses the Danger Tree- the only tree on this part of the Somme battlefield to survive the fighting of 1914-1918. In a way this was the most poignant memorial of them all, this crippled twisted piece of bark.
At the end of Day One we gathered at Hawthorne Ridge Crater where, like Lochnagar Crater, a mine was detonated on 1st July 1916. We walked to Sunken Lane, halfway between the two frontlines and where Somme footage was filmed. Again, the deafening silence of held breath. Steve described how he had calculated the point at which the soldiers entered the lane, and with it the war. Stills from the film – of real soldiers, many of whom died minutes after they were taken – were laid out along with poppies.
Past the Memorial to the Accrington Pals Battalion. I thought of the three sets of brothers who shared my childhood in Overbury, and imagined them all going off to war never to return. A village losing all its boys in one day. This is what happened to Accrington and the towns and villages nearby.
We finished at Gommecourt Wood Military Cemetery, where 750 soldiers lie buried – most of them unidentified.
This whole day I felt like I was walking through a film made of sepia. Roomie and I agreed to put the light out at 2130. I slept soundly, and did not dream.
Day 2 was longer. The ground harder and drier. We started at Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Military Cemetery under a sombre grey sky; in contrast to the clean white of the Commonwealth cemeteries this felt grim and neglected. Sadness welled up in me. The German cemeteries are supported by charity, which means they are limited in what they can do to commemorate their dead. Each black cross has four names on it, every one of those a human being. A life ended. A son mourned. An Arras shop keeper had told us that a German visitor asked if they were allowed to visit the cemeteries, which to me is the saddest thing of all. I took the details of how to donate to these cemeteries, as I had no money on me. (Yes, I had totally forgotten to bring any Euros with me.)
Next stop was La Targette Memorial, then the Maroueil British Cemetery and the Ecoivres Military Cemetery. Again, crosses spreading as far as the eye could see, although these were Commonwealth memorials, bright and scrubbed. The scale is immense, indescribable. Every marker is a life lost, a ripple of broken hearts and shattered lives. We stopped for refreshment at the remains of an old monastery at Mont-Saint-Eloi which were reduced from 53m to 44m by WW1 shelling.
At this point my chin started to droop. My soles were painful; whispering at first, then grumbling, then shouting at me to stop. I focused on what was dead in front of me, not daring to look any further ahead, placing one throbbing foot in front of the other, not noticing Ian until he caught up with me (not difficult) and asked how I was getting on. Company stirs tired limbs and distracts from aching ones. Ian made me smile, then laugh. He showed the way (because, yes, I would have got lost otherwise). The worst bit was going up a very steep hill in woods where you had to physically pull yourself from tree to tree. Towards the top I grabbed at a branch to pull me up; it promptly snapped and I nearly tumbled right back down to the bottom. I gritted my teeth – really gritted them, like I’ve not done since aged 17 I broke my ankle and then had to walk on it – and got to the top.
We broke for lunch. Steve told us that 100 years ago men had flung themselves up that hill being shot at and having grenades thrown at them. I felt ashamed of myself.
We were now at Notre Dame de Lorette, the biggest French cemetery which is built on the site of several bloody battles between the French and German. There are 39,985 men buried here . A father, killed in WW1 and his son, killed in WW2, lie in the same grave.
Onward to the Cabaret Rouge Cemetery with 7,650 burials so far, more than half of whom are identified. Are these numbers meaning anything to you as you read them? It’s hard for them to make sense to me when I see them written down. But when you see them laid out in front of you, as people, then you understand the enormity of the loss. Imagine a man standing behind each grave and you start to be able to get your head around it.
Walking continued to be difficult. We kept our spirits up by singing Tipperary (badly). I remembered being taught this by Mrs Brown, our school music teacher who pounded the piano with great vigour during the hymns. We sang Pack Up Your Troubles and Tipperary in a round aged 10, having little or no idea where these tunes came from. Singing them nearly 30 years later (ouch!) I found they lifted my aching knees and my dwindling spirits. The tunes worked their magic and we arrived at Vimy Ridge.
Here is a truly breath-taking memorial in marble to all Canadians who served in WW1 and particularly the 60,000 who died in France. The names of lost men are cut into every surface. A Madonna looks down in sorrow on a coffin topped with a soldier’s helmet.
On the way to the coach I passed sheep grazing in an enormous shell crater. It looked so innocuous and yet for me summed up the Somme as it was then, and as it is now.
That night the medic attended to my very blistered feet. I was drowsy. The food provided by the catering company wasn’t sufficient, and the trek organisers called in pizza. I have never tasted pizza so good, with melting pulled cheese and hot dough and sharp olives.
Day 3. We were a little sombre today, despite the fact that the sun was back. Andy left us. He had been our beacon, our reminder of what we were doing this for, pushing himself on a specially adapted bike with one arm while we went on two feet and grumbled about sore toes. He had been an example for us all – a reminder of what real hardship is. He left us with the words “What the mind believes, the body achieves”.
We started at Ploegsteert Memorial which commemorates over 11,000 servicemen with no known grave. One of the named is a 15 year old boy who must have joined up aged just 13. On to Prowse Point Military Cemetery, named after Brigadier Prowse who was killed on the first day of the Somme. On to the Khaki Chums Christmas Truce Memorial where the famous football game is believed to have taken place. The Island of Ireland Peace Park was full of beautiful poetry carved on slabs of gentle grey granite. The words of the men who witnessed this violence and slaughter sum up the atmosphere better than mine can.
We walked on and on.The graves kept coming and coming. There was little, if any, time for reflection or close scrutiny. We paid our respects and went forwards.
We broke for a rest. I had to wee behind a blackberry bush.
I was then taken off to “meet” Bertie Ambrose, my great-great-uncle, who lay buried in Messines Cemetery, aged 19. I was accompanied by Amy, Steve and Ed. I was glad that I was with friends, as I found myself feeling nervous.
Steve helped me trace his grave, and Ed walked up the row, gesturing gently to the headstone. I faltered for a moment, then went slowly to meet my uncle. I found I was
overwhelmed with sadness, loss of someone I had never known and relief at having come all this way to find my ancestor. I didn’t know what to say, so I said hello to him and introduced myself. I felt he knew me already, as I knew him. Steve had given me a cross, and I wrote on it before placing it on his grave next to the picture I had brought. I had briefly lost it that morning and had a complete meltdown, sick with disappointment that I had brought it all the way from England for it to disappear only miles from its final destination. I’d let Bertie down, and all those who had supported me to come here. Now I had paid tribute to him. In a few quiet minutes I had stepped backwards 100 years and put my arms around a 19 year old boy who died alone and frightened in the horror of war.
On to New Zealand Messines Ridge Memorial and then the Pool of Peace (the Spanbroekmolen Mine Crater). This was the largest of the 19 mines to explode on 7th June 1917 and the sound was apparently heard in Dublin and Downing Street itself. It is incredible how something so destructive and violent can create an area of such extreme stillness and beauty.
On to the Wytschaete Military Cemetery where 1,002 servicemen are buried or commemorated. Then – of course, I got lost; it wouldn’t be right if I hadn’t. Fortunately I wasn’t on my own, and Pete, my stalwart companion, was the one who noticed we hadn’t seen any markers – or any other walkers – for a good twenty minutes. We turned around and in the distance saw a whirlwind of dust as Helen – rather like Sir Lancelot in Monty Python’s Holy Grail – pounded towards us, despite having cycled and walked about twice as far as everyone else. My heart sank into my dusty, muddy boots, where my feet were wrapped in barbed wire. We had gone the wrong way. To my eternal shame – but I’m being honest because I don’t believe in not being honest – my bottom lip began to tremble. The thought of slugging all the way back from whence we had come was not something I could countenance. Thankfully the support team descended from on high in a blazing chariot – or to be more accurate screeched up the road in a grubby white van – and took us back to the spot where everyone else had just enjoyed a break. Pete and I crammed Penguins into our mouths and were then taken to the pub where we all had a drink before the final march to the Menin Gate.
What a sight we must have made as we walked down the road – all different ages, shapes and sizes, all of us in ABF T-shirts. Our feet were lighter, our steps stronger. Cars beeped in support. Traffic stopped to let us cross the road – we should have hurried, we should have attempted to run maybe, but we were beyond that, and there was solemnity in the occasion.
The drivers, knowing something special was going on, waited patiently. We were on paved streets, going past Ypres Cloth Hall which loomed in Gothic splendour into the pale blue sky.
The pace picked up. A few unwitting shoppers were swept up in our crowd, clutching their bags helplessly. I feared we might take them through the Gate with us. People standing on the bridge we went under applauded. As we got ever closer to our destination the tramp of our feet was as rhythmic as that of a marching army. Customers at a cafe stood up and start clapping. I gulped down the emotion brimming in my throat. Here was the Menin Gate, gleaming in the evening sun, the names of the missing engraved for eternity on its stones. Two ex-servicemen walkers donned their berets and, with backs straighter than any had been in the last three days, turned their heads sharply right and saluted their fallen comrades. That did it for me: I burst into tears and sobbed all the way through the Gate.
Friends and relatives were waiting at the end of the walk, clapping and cheering. We stopped, rested, but only for a second; there were people to hug, to congratulate, to share the moment with. There were tears of relief, joy, triumph and achievement.
The bath that I soaked my poor macerated feet in that evening was the best bath I have ever had in my life. The service at the Last Post, when we were positioned behind the bugler, was respectful and dignified. It was the pinnacle of the entire event and the focus was on “those who grow not old”. Silent pride swelled for Robin, the ABF chief of staff who read the commemoration, and the three walkers chosen to lay a wreath on behalf of the charity.
The food we ate at the celebration dinner was the best I have eaten (even though nobody could tell if it was pork or chicken). I drank wine, and vodka. I chatted with pals and made friends with strangers.
The next day I went with The Two Daves and Roomie through the Flanders Field museum. We were given a discount at a local chocolatier so we went to buy gifts for friends. The cheerful little Belgian had put a sign in the window welcoming us.
We got on our coaches home, tearful farewells were exchanged, and we all spilled out into London several hours later like a dropped bag of marbles.
Now it’s over. Feet have recovered. Toenails have started to grow back. I keep peeling dead skin off my soles like wallpaper. We can’t bear to stop talking to each other. We post photos and memories, share articles and book reviews. The first week back was especially hard; I didn’t know what to do with myself without my comrades.
So, my friends, I succeeded. I did it. I walked with ghosts, learned histories, met incredible people and forged unique friendships. This event was much more than a physical challenge for me: when I signed up nine months previously I knew I could not baulk at it. Alone, I might fail myself, but I would not fail the charity and those who had sponsored me. By choosing to sign up, I chose to live; to remember those who died so that I could. Thank you, every single one of you, who believed in me and donated to help me do this. I didn’t let you down.