At the end of September I visited some of the WW1 battlefields in northern France and Belgium and thought in the lead up to Armistice Day on 11th November I would dedicate some of my posts to what I saw.
One of the places that we visited was the Lochnagar Crater in The Somme. This huge crater was created by 24 tonnes of explosive and along with around 16 others heralded the start of the infamous Battle of The Somme. They were the largest explosive devices ever created at that time and incredibly shook the windows of houses in London 200 odd miles away across the sea in England.
The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris.
The Somme was a battle and a disaster as big as is imaginable with 60,000 British casualties on the first day with entire military units disappearing in seconds. The battle had been preceded by weeks of heavy artillery shelling which the generals thought would be enough to kill any opposition. However the Germans who survived the shock of the initial bombardment hid away relatively safely in underground shelters. When the shelling ceased a few minutes before the battle commenced, it merely gave them notice that something was about to happen.
The British Tommies has been told the barbed wire in No-Mans Land would have been vapourised, it wasn’t. They were told the German soldiers would be dead or have fled, they weren’t. They were ordered to walk and indeed in places men were told they would be shot if they ran for disobeying orders and so a generation of young men walked bravely into a hail of machine gun bullets.
Video of an actual WW1 Somme mine explosion. This was filmed almost precisely where the photo of the men above was taken.
The mines were timed to go off at 7.28am with the attack at 7.30am but this 2 minute gap allowed the Germans to set up positions ready to fire on anyone who approached. At least one mine went off 10 minutes early and another went off late killing all the advancing soldiers who had gone over the top. Others would get buried alive or terribly injured by the falling debris that had gone thousands of feet up in the air.
It was the biggest single loss of life in British history and along with the French in Verdun, hard to imagine any modern battle ever surpassing that dreadful tally.
Most of these massive craters have long since been levelled out but Lochnagar Crater was bought by an Englishman to protect it going into the future. It is now visited quite a lot by school children and war tourists. This area was in the sector of the Grimsby Chums who eventually successfully occupied it despite at times coming under both enemy and British artillery fire. There is a memorial at the centre of the crater along with a cross from Tyneside.
It was from the vicinity of the Lochnagar Crater that I brought back a WW1 era British bayonet. You can find anything on the battlefields if you have the time and patience to distinguish iron and steel remains from the very stony soil. Shrapnel, bullets, barbed wire, artillery shells are some of the things I have found on my visits here. In fact farmers frequently leave piles of ammunition at the sides of their fields as there were so many million fired and a third of them failed to detonate.
Here is my WW1 British bayonet of a design circa 1906 and had likely been buried in the mud since 1st July 1916 when its unfortunate previous owner met his end. It’s quite a heavy item and still sharp. You can see the handle suffers a little from rot or insect infestation but considering what it has been through, it isn’t in bad condition.
I can’t see any serial number on the blade so I can’t ever really narrow down who it was who once used it however for as long as I’m on this planet then I for one will always remember them.
For more information on the Battle of The Somme, check out my book, Lest We Forget published by Endeavour Press of London and available on Kindle and in Paperback.