OS PILGRIMGE TO THE SOMME – 19TH-23RD SEPTEMBER 2016

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Thirty-three Old Sedberghians were killed or died of wounds sustained whilst fighting on the Somme; one is buried in Harrogate, the other 32 are buried in France. The names of 12 appear on the Thiepval Memorial and 20 have identified graves. This year’s stage of The OS Pilgrimage was to honour this group of Old Sedberghians.

With this objective, 23 of us assembled at London St Pancras Station on the morning of Monday 19th September in order to catch the 08:55 Eurostar train to Lille. Dr Bruce Cherry who was to be our guide (as he had been at Gallipoli last year) was at St Pancras to greet us. We arrived in Lille at 11:30 local time and there we were met by the coach which was to be our means of transport for the next 4 days together with its redoubtable driver Philippe.

The itinerary which Bruce had drawn up for us involved visits to the principal battle sites and memorials, as well as visits to all but the most distant of the OS graves. This gave us a good understanding of the course of the battle as well as the opportunity to remember and honour the OS fallen.

Between the afternoon of the Monday and lunchtime on Thursday we visited 18 cemeteries each containing the grave of an OS. Each cemetery was a haven of beauty and calm, usually flanked by trees, its gravestones in serried ranks, the whole immaculately maintained. Some cemeteries were shared with the local populace; some cemeteries also contained the graves of those from different countries. At each OS grave we held a short ceremony which has become customary – an appropriate reading or prayer followed by a brief biographical sketch, the planting of a small School cross and the sprinkling of soil from Winder. These were moving occasions given extra poignancy by our knowing something about each deceased.

That first afternoon we visited 3 cemeteries, which included the Queen’s Cemetery at Puisieux, where Lt James Hitchon (aged 21) (E), the first OS to die in the Somme offensive on 1st July 1916 is buried. He had barely got over the parapet of his trench, leading his platoon in one of the first waves of attacks, when he was shot and killed.

On Tuesday, we visited a further 6 cemeteries with our final destination being the Thiepval Memorial. Thiepval was chosen, after the War, as the location for a memorial to commemorate those who died in the Somme sector before 20th March 1918 and have no known grave. It bears the names of 73,367 officers and men who died, including 12 OSs. We held our Service of Commemoration and Remembrance there during which the names of the 12 OSs were read out, as were the names of the 19 men from Sedbergh town and district who died either on the Somme, or elsewhere from wounds sustained on the Somme; thirteen of whose names also appear on the Thiepval Memorial. Also during the course of the Service a wreath was laid and The Pilgrimage Prayer specifically written by Professor Tom Wright (OS) the former Bishop of Durham was recited. It was, as ever, an intensely moving occasion at this magnificent edifice in its commanding position amidst spectacular countryside. On a gorgeous sunny late afternoon, the horrors of war seemed almost unimaginable and yet were present in all our minds.

That evening we went en masse to a local restaurant. The ordering from the menu was so noisy, confused and protracted that I had visions of the harassed young waitress collecting her coat and leaving. Fortunately, the OS Club Secretary’s calming presence and conciliatory approach restored order to proceedings, the harassed waitress relaxed and an excellent meal and most convivial evening resulted.

Wednesday was an enormously varied day. Amongst the cemeteries we visited was the Caterpillar Valley NZ Cemetery where the name of Lance Corporal David Watson (OS) is to be found. After leaving school he emigrated to New Zealand and upon the outbreak of war he enlisted in the Otago infantry, coming to Europe with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He served in Egypt and France and was killed at Flers.

We visited the South African Memorial and Museum at Delville Wood, one of the most famous landmarks of the Somme battlefield. An OS, Ian McGregor (SH) whose name appears on the Thiepval Memorial was killed at Delville Wood. He was a first cousin of JH Bruce Lockhart, Cambridge rugby Blue and Scottish rugby international, who went on to become a distinguished Headmaster of the School. By coincidence two of his descendants, brother and sister Malcolm and Karen Bruce Lockhart, were in our party, and so fittingly, beside the only tree remaining from the 1916 Delville Wood, we remembered Ian McGregor, with Malcolm providing the biographical details.

We also visited the Devonshire Cemetery sited on what had been the British Front Line from which the 9th Devonshires had attacked the German Front Line at Mametz on 1st July 1916. The German Cemetery at Fricourt exuded a quite different atmosphere when compared with that of the CWGC cemeteries. Its black crosses marking the graves created a sinister air, notwithstanding the peacefulness of its setting.

The restaurant which had been chosen for us for the last night dinner was in a hotel with a somewhat grand appearance but hidden away down a side street some 10 minutes walk from our hotel. The evening featured (as has become traditional) a rousing rendition of Winder after dinner. The meal was excellent; the service less so, characterised by the waitress’s response to a perfectly reasonable request for decaffeinated coffee after the meal. “Non” was the immediate and emphatic response accompanied by a dismissive wave of the hand.

Our last morning on the Somme took in the remaining cemeteries which contained OS graves. We left France with the sun still shining. We had been blessed throughout with the most perfect weather. Each day was clear and bright, enabling us to see clearly the lie of the land and the features of the landscape; where the respective front lines were and the nature and extent of no-man’s land at the different sectors. What we couldn’t see (except in photographs) and could only imagine was the scale of the devastation caused by the bombardment from the opposing sides and by the number of combatants. We had honoured the memory of all those Sedberghians who had fought and died in this theatre of war; four were killed on the first day of the Somme offensive; one was killed on the final day. Their ages ranged from 19 to 34. Some were talented sportsmen, some had attended renowned universities, some were making their way in the world and some lost their lives before they could do so. As ever one came away with a jumble of mixed emotions.

Our enduring gratitude is owed to Neil McKerrow for having devised and planned this OS Pilgimage and for all that he has continued to do to make each annual expedition so successful and enjoyable. In addition our grateful thanks go to (1)  Ben Collins, whose  contribution to this particular trip was immense, both in terms of assembling the background material and putting together the brochure, with the invaluable assistance of Jackie Calvert, Nicola Fleck, Katy de la Rivière and Alex Macdonald, and in efficiently ensuring that all went smoothly both en route for and whilst in France; (2) Norman Berry who has produced a comprehensive collection of wonderful photographs which evoke happy memories and serve as an invaluable record; (3) Bruce Cherry for being such an informative guide and splendid companion.

The unity and cohesion of this year’s group of pilgrims was as striking as ever. I hope that all enjoyed our experience on the Somme as much as Pam and I did.

For more photos of the Pilgrimage please click on the following link for the photos Norman Berry kindly took: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/albums/72157674476847216

John Walford (E 61-66) OS President