Friday, 6 February 2015

I am first time blogger here!

I was very moved by the ceremonies and activities marking the centenary of the start of the Great War. My mother’s parents arrived in Canada from England in 1921. My grandfather had served during the war with the Essex Regiment. He had been severely wounded, well, maimed, actually, in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and medically discharged. That probably saved his life. So a few years ago I went to northern France to learn as much as I could about his experiences there. What follows is what I wrote shortly after I returned home.

And that was when I lost it. Completely. That was when I started to bawl my eyes out.

I was sitting on a stone bench on the roadside of highway D929, a perfectly straight old Roman road between the villages of La Boiselle and Bapaume, in northern France, at the British War Cemetery at Warlincourt, at about 10:30 on the morning of 27 May, 2010. It had been an emotional few days.

My grandfather was Leonard Samuel Gray, a private with the 9th Battalion of the Essex Regiment during World War 1. He had been severely injured at the Battle of the Somme on 4 August, 1916. My first objective had been to discover where Pop had been when he was shot, but this proved impossible. My substitute objective for being in France at all was to learn as much as I could about what he had experienced.

I’m an enthusiastic amateur genealogist, and a natural born researcher. I had a copy of Major and Mrs. Holt’s Battle Map of the Somme and their Guide to the Battle, and maps of the Allied and German trenches. I had studied books about the Battle. I had read that the Allied bombardment was expected to decimate the German lines, but that it had failed. I had read that the German Army had just come up out of its deep concrete reinforced bunkers once the bombardment ended and had slaughtered the Allies on the first day of the Battle on 1 July, 1916. It had been complete carnage. One guide told me that without any discussion between these enemies, the Germans did not fire when the Allies moved out between the lines to recover the bodies of their fallen soldiers, not after that first day, nor after the second day. Even the enemy knew it had been a slaughter and paid silent respect to the bravery of the Allied soldiers by not firing on recovery teams.

On the advice of Ian Hook, the very helpful Archivist of the Essex Regiment Museum and Archives in Chelmsford, Essex, I had visited the English National Archives at Kew, west of London, where I had located and copied the War Diary of the Commander of the 9th Essex Battalion, and the Intelligence Summary prepared for the period a month earlier than when Pop was injured, when the 9th had been ordered “over the top.”

I had learned that the A, B, C, and D Companies of the 9th had been brought up from the village of Albert, where they had been sheltering from German artillery, late on 1 July, 1916. The Battalion had been ordered to the trenches close to Ovillers, and was ordered to attack the village the morning of the second day of the Battle. I had read the Commander’s disappointment that his Battalion had been ordered to attack at 3 a.m. on 2 July, in complete darkness, without the Command having been given time to become familiar with the territory the Battalion would be ordered to fight in. I knew that the Battalion was to support the Suffolk and Berkshire Regiments, which were to lead the attack. I knew that the Commander had recorded that not one objective of the attack had been successful, and that all contact with the lead Regiments had been lost. One Company had gone off in the wrong direction in the darkness, and attacked another village called La Boiselle, close by, and returned to everyone’s astonishment with 170 German prisoners. I had read the statistics reported by the Intelligence Summary: that of about 625 men in the Battalion, twelve officers and 386 men, or about 64% of the force, were reported as casualties from that first attack.

But nothing had prepared me for the shock of standing at the edge of the British War Cemetery outside the village of Ovillers, looking over to the village of La Boiselle just across the farmer’s field, and realizing from my guides that what looks like a small quarry visible beside the road is what remains of the old German lines. The lines were only about 800 yards apart when Pop was ordered over the top!!! The Battalion was behind the front lines on the first day of the Battle on July first. The young men would have seen the thousands of bloody bodies being shipped back for burial or medical care. They would have known that No Man’s Land was a slaughterhouse. They had never been in battle before. Pop was a nineteen year old kid! They all were. How did he, no, how did they manage to follow their orders, to make that attack across unfamiliar territory, in complete darkness, when they were almost certain to be killed or badly wounded? How did they do it? My God, every one of them was a hero.

And later that day I drove up into the hills to the Thiepval Memorial, high over the Somme valley. It is a huge, impressive memorial, which you approach on a footpath behind it. As you walk closer and closer you begin to discern carving on the memorial walls. And your guidebook tells you that the names of over 72,000 British soldiers with no known grave are carved onto its walls. Your breath leaves you as you gape.

But I had one more pilgrimage to make. My late husband Edwin had lost contact with his birth father’s family after his parents divorced during WW2, and he came to Canada with his mother after the war. Very late in his life, having made family contact again, Ed learned that he had had an Uncle Edwin, who had been a member of the South African Brigade, and who had been killed during the Battle of the Somme. Ed had become convinced that he had been named for that man, and he was probably right. I had located the Commonwealth war Graves Commission record of Uncle Edwin’s grave at Warlincourt, and drove to the British Cemetery there on my last day in France.

I had picked lovely white and yellow wildflowers for Uncle Edwin’s grave. I stopped at a Canadian Memorial on my way, just to pay my respects, and on impulse picked a few small purple flowers from the Memorial to add to my bouquet. I probably shouldn’t have done that, I know, but it seemed to be important, somehow, at the time.

And, having arrived at Uncle Edwin’s grave, and having laid my flowers, it occurred to me how odd a situation this was. Here I was, the widow of a nephew of Uncle Edwin who he never knew, as my Ed was born 20 years after his own death in 1916, a Canadian woman laying flowers on the grave of a man who never knew he would have any connection to this country, 94 years after his death.

And that was when I lost it. I bawled for the terror Pop and all those young men must have felt, I bawled for the deaths of all those young men, I bawled for the lost graves of all those heroes, and I bawled with the realization that history’s wars can mean so little to you, but when you study your ancestors experiences during those wars they can mean so much more.


  1. I loved your post, I think the sheer scale of loss of life then is impossible to comprehend. It's very moving. Thanks for sharing the story of your visit.

  2. An inspiring WWG debut! I can relate to your response to those battlefields and cemeteries even though no one as close to me as your Pop was injured. When I visited Villers Brettoneux years ago in the depths of winter with ice on the ground, I was in floods of tears for all those young men. War is horrendous and they were put through hell as young men. Thanks so much for this story.

  3. Thank you for sharing this story, I too am looking forward to reading more of your stories

  4. WElcome to the World of Blogging! We Welcome you and look forward to future Posts. Woo-Hoo! I wish we had bells and whistles for every time someone came online.

  5. What a great introduction. I have ancestors from Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and the U.S. who died in WWI. Each discovery is difficult to imagine and put into context. Thank you for your contribution of the terrible too that war took to so many people.


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