Walking the Somme

Posted on Monday 23rd April 2012

Walking the Somme
By Paul Reed
Extracted from Walking the Somme and reproduced by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
Almost a hundred years on, the Somme connects us to the Great War in a way almost no other battle can. It defines our view of the conflict and the men who fought there are probably the sort of men we think of every time we picture the Great War: eager faces, smiling Tommies, marching to an inevitable destiny in no-man’s-land. The Somme is one of the most accessible areas of the Western Front to reach and is a popular area for battlefield visitors looking to experience the ‘true texture of the Somme’.
The battlefields of the Somme are easily reached by car – only an hour and a half from Calais; by train (and ferry) from London via Lille and then Amiens or Arras. The following battlefield walk is aimed at the most common form of traveller to the Somme – individuals or small groups in a car. The timing is based on a gentle stroll, taking time to stop and look at the surroundings.
Beaumont Hamel Walk
Park your vehicle to the side of the church, in the centre of Auchonvillers. The church is located in a road that becomes a cul-de-sac, and there is no problem parking here.
The first part of this walk follows a route taken by Great War poet Edmund Blunden in September 1916, and is described in Chapter Ten, ‘A Home from Home’, of Undertones of War. Blunden was then field works officer to his battalion – the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment (1st South Downs). Auchonvillers, or ‘Ocean Villas’, as the British troops called it then, was almost in ruins by the time Blunden came to the village. Amongst the rubble of the church was a huge bell, used locally as a gas alarm. The cellars of nearby houses were being used as stores and dugouts, and a large one near to the church was an officer’s billet. An advanced dressing station was located on the western outskirts of the village, just off the Mailly-Maillet road. Trench mortars had positions in and around the village, which by the time of the Battle of the Somme had been turned into a veritable fortress.
Leaving the church, go south to the crossroads in the centre of the village. At the crossroads go straight across, following signs for the D.73 to Hamel, down Rue Delattre. Pass a water tower on the right, and farm buildings to the left. On the outskirts of the village is a large tarmacked area in front of a farm, again on the left. Move onto this tarmac, which opens up to reveal the start of a cart track. This is the entrance to the Old Beaumont Road. Blunden’s 1916 walk took him down Rue Delattre, where you have just been, to the start of this road. On the way he noticed piles of trench mortar ammunition, and coming into the sunken part of the Old Beaumont Road picked a blackberry from some brambles.
Go down the Old Beaumont Road. It is sunken at first and then after a hundred yards or so the banks on the right end and there is a clear view across to the right. Stop here. A system of communication trenches, known on British trench maps as Avenues and numbered one to five, ran in this sector taking battalions up to the front line. Second Avenue began just to the right of where you are now, following the line of the track. A trench railway ran in a specially constructed gully out in the fields on the right, going from behind Auchonvillers right up to the support lines on Hawthorn Ridge. The Ridge itself is also visible from here; the German lines were beyond the trees of the Hawthorn mine crater, on the left, and behind Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No. 1 – the two distinctive trees in the cemetery are seen on the skyline of the ridge. Edmund Blunden entered Second Avenue at this point; at night men did chance a walk along the cart track, but as can be clearly seen in daylight anyone here would have been visible from the German lines and so the usual route up to the trenches was by communication trench. Although Second Avenue has long since been filled in, the Old Beaumont Road has changed little since 1916. Considering it was a main route up to the line, from which many did not return, this part of the walk has a
Continue along the Old Beaumont Road. Further along it bends to the right, and becomes partially sunken again. Past the turn, it bends again to the left and straightens out for a while. On a third bend to the right, there is a scrub area on a small bank on the right. This was the location of a large dugout that served as battalion headquarters for units in the line on Hawthorn Ridge. Blunden’s walk ended here, where he reported to his commanding officer, Lt-Col G.H. Harrison DSO. Where this area of scrub ends, a cart track slopes up to the fields. Second Avenue trench went up here and continued on to the front line on Hawthorn Ridge. To the left, in a large open field, a trench named 88 Trench ran directly north to the main Auchonvillers–Beaumont-Hamel road, and beyond it to a wood known as The Bowery; which was never replanted after the war and there is no sign of it today. Blunden slept in a dugout off 88 Trench where the 11th Royal Sussex had their Regimental Aid Post (RAP). This RAP had been originally constructed for the 1 July offensive, when RAMC men from the 29th Division handled many of the wounded from Hawthorn Ridge here on that day. Afterwards the RAP was handed over in turn to each unit coming into the sector.

Aerial photograph of Hawthorn Ridge prior to 1 July showing the Hawthorn Redoubt.

Follow the road to the top, where it joins a track to the left and continues as a metalled road to the right. Stop here and look back. You are now looking across the area over which men of the 29th Division attacked on 1 July 1916. This Division was a regular army one, and many of its battalions had been in India or Ireland at the outbreak of war. They formed in England and in 1915 fought at Gallipoli where the Division became known as ‘The Immortal 29th’. The division came to France in April 1916 and took over the line in and around Auchonvillers. The Hawthorn Ridge sector became the responsibility of the 86th Brigade; made up of 2nd Royal Fusiliers, 1st Lancashire Fusiliers, 16th Middlesex Regiment (Public Schools) and 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers. All but the Middlesex had been with the 29th since the outbreak of war; the Public Schools Battalion had previously been on lines of communication duties, and had seen little front-line service. Commanded by a regular officer, Lt-Col Hamilton Hall, they were a keen and much-liked battalion in the division.
On 1 July, 86 Brigade was allocated the ground from the trenches east of the area known as White City across to Hawthorn Ridge. Taking the metalled road that you have just walked up as twelve o’clock, to the right at about two o’clock, a track winds up to a position out of view from Hawthorn Ridge; this was the wartime location of White City; an area of dugouts, RAPs and dumps that were screened from German observation by large chalk spoil banks (gleaming white, thus the name). The British front line prior to 1 July was to the right, in what are now ploughed fields. At certain times of the year chalk marks of old trenches are visible. Following the line of these fields, a large white celtic cross is seen – this marks the entrance to the famous Sunken Lane, occupied by 1st Lancashire Fusiliers on 1 July. Further mention of this will be made later in the walk. As the positions on Hawthorn Ridge were so strong it was decided that a huge land mine containing 40,000lb of ammonal explosive would be used to assist in the attack. The 252nd Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers was brought in to carry out the task which involved digging galleries and shafts across no-man’s-land and under the German trenches. The explosive charge would then be laid, and blown at some point in the opening phase of the advance. A tunnel out towards Hawthorn Ridge was started early in 1916, which began in the British lines near the old Beaumont Road. Pte Horace Ham of the 16th Middlesex was attached to the tunnellers on several occasions, when we came out of the line, we’d go back to our billets. You’re supposed to go out for a rest, but they came round about eight at night and said ‘You, you, you – come on, fatigues up the line’... The entrance to the tunnel was in a reserve trench, just under the parapet, and went at an angle. We used to go down this bloomin’ long shaft, which had been dug by the miners. There was electric light down there and they had a fellow at the top, turning a wheel, working a pump, sending the air down, and we brought up sacks of earth and emptied them over the top at night.
The Hawthorn Ridge mine was eventually blown at 7.20am on 1 July, some ten minutes before zero hour. Its detonation signalled the first phase of the attack.
A small advance party of men from the 2nd Royal Fusiliers under Capt Russel, along with machine-gun and trench mortar units, rushed the near lip of the still smoking crater. However, the Germans had emerged from their dugouts in double-quick time, and so were already in position. Machine-gun fire raked Russel and his men, cutting down members of the carrying party, struggling across no-man’s-land with a heavy load of trench mortar ammunition. The survivors reached the British lip of the crater, fired off what ammunition they had and held on till 7.30am and beyond, hoping they would be re-supplied in the main advance. In most places the German wire was uncut and even undamaged. The attacking battalions were mown down by the waiting machine guns; the main body of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers melted under murderous fire from the Hawthorn Redoubt, suffering terrible casualties. Russel and his men at the crater could do nothing but watch in horror at the spectacle before them.
Soldiers of the 119 RIR’s machine-gun section who occupied a dugout in the Hawthorn Redoubt on the morning of 1 July 1916. Those marked with a cross were among twenty-eight men killed in the mine explosion.
To the left of 2nd Royal Fusiliers the 16th Middlesex began their part in the assault. The battalion was split into two; the right-hand flank being commanded by Lt-Col Hamilton Hall, and the left by the adjutant, Capt Francis Sydney Cockram. As they advanced up the slope from the trenches around the New Beaumont Road, the public-school boys ran into a hail of machine-gun, rifle and shell fire. Officers out in front leading their men fell everywhere. Platoons and companies were decimated. The survivors were pinned down, but still their courage and determination led them on: ‘the 16th Middlesex moved forward to the left very steadily and reached the crater though not without considerable loss. Here their adjutant Captain Cockram made a gallant attempt to initiate a further advance, he was hit three times, on each occasion regaining his feet and leading the advance; finally he fell riddled with bullets.’ But Capt Cockram was not dead. His battered and torn body was discovered around the lip of the mine crater by German stretcher bearers later in the day and he was taken prisoner, spending the remainder of the war in several hospitals and prisoner of war camps, ending up in a hospital camp in Switzerland. Lt-Col Hamilton Hall strongly recommended him for the Victoria Cross, but he later received a Distinguished Service Order in the New Year’s Honours List for 1917. After the war he returned to his native London, married and had two daughters, and despite the severity of his wounds lived to the age of 82.
From this vantage point follow a cart track northwards towards the Hawthorn mine crater. A hundred or so yards further on, past a small concrete pylon, there is a green CWGC sign pointing across the fields to Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No. 1.
Hawthorn Ridge No. 1 Cemetery
This cemetery was one of a number created by V Corps burial details in the spring of 1917, after the Germans had withdrawn to the Hindenburg Line. The Ancre battlefield was systematically searched for isolated graves and bodies of British soldiers, and several small ‘comrades’-style cemeteries were made. The graves in Hawthorn Ridge No. 1 came largely from the Hawthorn Ridge area and Beaumont-Hamel – many were found around the mine crater only about a hundred yards from the cemetery. There are 152 British and 1 Newfoundland burials here; amongst them are 71 unknowns. The majority of the graves date from 1 July 1916, and are largely men of the 29th Division which attacked across Hawthorn Ridge that morning. Of the 153 graves, some 42 are of men from the 16th Middlesex Regiment, who assaulted the mine crater. Several of their officers are buried here, amongst them the young 2/Lt Eric Heaton (A-89) who died aged only 20. There are two other officers: Lt Henry James Heath MC (A-84) and Capt George Henry Heslop (B-40).
Other interesting 29th Division graves include A/Bmdr H.J. Brockett of B Battery RHA (B-34), who must have been on Forward Observation duties when he died on 1 July 1916. Cpl H.C.S. Rees (A-68) was a member of 2nd Monmouths, the Divisional Pioneers, and was part of a group from that unit which rushed the crater at zero hour. The graves of 4th Division men, such as Pte J.W. Burton, 1st East Lancs (A-59), may well have been found in Beaumont village, as the Redan Ridge group of cemeteries largely cover the men from that division. The graves from when this position was captured by the 51st (Highland) Division on 13 November 1916 number six; most of whom are from the 1/5th Seaforths. Graves from 1918 are very few – and are largely of men killed holding the line when this sector settled down to its former 1916 trench lines after the March Offensive of 1918. A puzzling grave of an unknown East Yorkshire Regiment man lies in B-55; his date of death is recorded as 5 September 1918 – when the fighting was miles away, beyond Bapaume – and maybe the date his body was found rather than when he actually died. Quiet and rarely visited, the views from this cemetery are spectacular.
Leave the cemetery by the grass lane, and rejoin the track. A detour to the right can be made to have a closer inspection of the Hawthorn mine crater, but there is little to see and access to the crater from this side is restricted by barbed wire fences. Otherwise, turn left onto the track and return to the junction of the track and metalled road. Turn right, back down the hill following the road you came up earlier. At the bottom, where the road becomes part of the Old Beaumont Road, turn right and follow until it meets the New Beaumont Road (D.163). Turn right onto the main road heading in the direction of Beaumont-Hamel. A few hundred yards further up towards the village, a track appears on the left; take this turning which brings you to the start of the Sunken Lane.

Men of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers in the Sunken Lane on the morning of 1 July 1916.

The Sunken Lane was actually in no-man’s-land prior to 1 July; the British front line was to the left of the lane towards White City. Sappers of 252nd Tunnelling Company RE dug a tunnel, which ran from the British trenches into the Sunken Lane. In the early hours of 1 July advance parties of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers, Trench Mortar Battery men and Machine-gunners made their way into the lane; the idea was that attacking from here would considerably cut down the distance across no-man’s-land. The Official Cinema-tographer, Geoffrey Malins, did some filming in the Sunken Lane just after dawn on 1 July, which later appeared in the Battle of the Somme film. Those assembled here would have witnessed the explosion of the Hawthorn mine as they waited to go over, and at zero hour leapt out of the Sunken Lane and attacked across the ground to the right of the lane towards a small wood on the outskirts of Beaumont-Hamel. In this short distance murderous machine-gun fire from trenches in front of the wood and enfilade fire from Beaumont-Hamel village and Hawthorn ridge cut the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers down like corn. It was a proud battalion, led by their charismatic commanding officer Lt-Col Meredith Magniac; men who had fought their way up the beaches and cliffs of Gallipoli, and had achieved immortal fame for winning ‘Six VCs before breakfast’ in the original landings, melted away into machine-gun oblivion. Magniac somehow survived, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery and leadership that day, but was tragically killed at Arras the following year. Casualties amongst Magniac’s men on 1 July were high: 18 officers and 465 other ranks were killed, wounded or missing.
After 1 July the Sunken Lane was annexed by the British and a new trench dug along the right-hand lip, called Hunter Trench. This became the new front line, and it was from here that the 1/8th Argyll
Beaumont Hamel british Cemetery
Like the one on Hawthorn Ridge this cemetery was started in November 1916 when burial details of the 51st (Highland) Division cleared the battlefield around Beaumont-Hamel. The majority of the graves are men who fell on 1 July. Burials continued into 1917; a few were added after the war. The cemetery now commemorates 111 British soldiers, 1 Canadian and 1 Newfoundlander. Amongst them are sixty-three unknown soldiers, and two special memorials. Of the 1 July graves in this cemetery many are men of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers who fell crossing this ground. One of their officers is buried here; 2/Lt A.F.D. Anderson (A-6), an Australian, was aged 22 when he was killed at Beaumont-Hamel on 1 July. Elsewhere a 16th Middlesex officer can be found; Lt Frederick Tanqueray (B-62) was serving in B Company, and died aged 24. Lt S. McDonald Campbell (B-52) was a Lancashire Fusilier officer who commanded the 86th Brigade Trench Mortar Battery on 1 July and was one of the few men who reached the lip of the mine crater, where his body was found after the battle.
Return via the grass lane, and turn right up the Sunken Lane. In winter months a deep impression can sometimes be seen on the left bank; this was the tunnel exit that ran from the British trenches near White City. In the right bank are entrances to old British dugouts, made by the Tunnelling Company that dug the Hawthorn mine. One of these collapsed in the 1990s and they are dangerous and should not be entered. Continue up the lane until it is no longer sunken and becomes a cart track. This track eventually meets another; turn right here and follow this track towards Beaumont-Hamel. A military cemetery is seen on the left; take the grass lane from the track you are on which leads to the cemetery.
Redan Ridge Cemetery No. 2
Another battlefield cemetery from November 1916, the graves here are again largely men who fell on 1 July. You have now moved out of the 29th Division’s area of operations into the 4th Division area on Redan Ridge. This was another regular army division, which had been in France since August 1914; it suffered heavy casualties in trying unsuccessfully to cross Redan Ridge and take the German lines north of Beaumont-Hamel. The cemetery is, in fact, a mass burial. The registers record 279 British soldiers, 124 of them unknowns; some of the head-stones commemorate more than one man. The largest concentration of graves are from 1st Hampshires; fifty-seven of their graves can be found here. There are also twenty men of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers. This gives the cemetery very much a regular army feel. There is an intriguing inscription on the grave of Capt E.G. Matthey (C-44), another 1st Lancashire Fusiliers man; it reads ‘Tikkah’ and appears to relate to a cultural reference gleaned from his service in India.
Leaving the cemetery, return to the track by the grass lane across the field. Where lane meets the track turn right. On British maps this track was known as Watling Street. It will lead you away from the battle area, and occasionally it pays to stop and look back at the views. Eventually Watling Street meets a metalled track which it joins just south of the main D.919 Mailly-Maillet–Serre road. This metalled road was in 1916 Kilometre Lane; turn left onto it and follow it gradually downhill. Again there are good views across the battlefield; Auchonvillers is ahead in the distance. Follow Kilometre Lane for a few hundred yards until a track appears on the left-hand side. Take this track, which will now lead you to the White City area. The track runs straight until it reaches the conclusion of another; turn right onto this track and head due south. Banks will begin on the left, and get higher the further you walk along. Further up is a quarry. Stop here.
Up until the mid-1990s there was a small area of scrub in a field opposite the quarry, directly bordering the track. Where you are now was the area known as White City. There were large sandbagged dugouts, cut into the chalk banks. Dumps of ammunition and equipment were also located here and the area of scrub marked the location of an advanced dressing station known as Tenderloin. A large underground ADS, this was the main evacuation route for men wounded in the Sunken Lane and on Redan Ridge. They would have been taken back along Fourth or Fifth Avenue communication trenches down to a main dressing station in Mailly-Maillet, and then further back to a casualty clearing station at Forceville or Louvencourt (there are military cemeteries in both of these villages where evacuated men died of wounds). The cinematographer Geoffrey Malins, and his colleague Lt Brookes, an official photographer, were busy in this area both before and on 1 July 1916, taking much film footage and many photographs. A number of these have become classic images of the Great War. The dugouts and dumps at White City were used throughout the Battle of the Somme, and many units had their headquarters here.
Going to the edge of this corner, it is possible to line up almost exactly the images Malins and Brookes took that morning.
Continue along the track until it meets the main Beaumont-Hamel–Auchonvillers road (D.163). Turn right onto the road, and follow it back into Auchonvillers. Further along, before it meets the Hébuterne road (D.174), turn and look back



The ruins of Auchonvillers church, 1915.

Edmund Blunden, circa 1914.
Somme tour map.

German trenches on Hawthorn Ridge in the spring of 1916; their depth is particularly noticeable in this photograph.

The explosion on Hawthorn Ridge.

Inside the Hawthorn mine crater, photographed on 2 July by an officer of 119RIR who had successfully occupied it the day before.

Hawthorn Ridge No 1 Cemetery.
The Heaton family visit Eric Heaton’s grave on Hawthorn Ridge in 1919. A small plaque was placed against the wooden cross, which is still on the grave almost a hundred years later.
Men in the Sunken Lane.

In the trenches on the Somme, 1916.
Beaumont-Hamel British Cemetery.
British men on the front line.
Redan Ridge Cemetery No. 2.
The Iron Harvest: Even nearly a hundred years after the battle, each year ploughing on the Somme battlefields unearths a vast arsenal of live ammunition, shells, grenades and mortar bombs. All should be regarded as dangerous and not touched under any circumstances. Every year these deadly relics cause casualties, many of them fatal. Safe souvenirs can be bought in many locations on the battlefield.

Further Reading

Walking the Somme - Second Edition
(Paperback - 256 pages)
ISBN: 9781848844735

by Paul Reed
Only £12.79 RRP £15.99

This new edition of Paul Reed's classic book Walking the Somme is an essential travelling companion for anyone visiting the Somme battlefields of 1916. His book, first published over ten years ago, is the result of a lifetime's research into the battle and the landscape over which it was fought.

From Gommecourt, Serre, Beaumont-Hamel and Thiepval to Montauban, High Wood, Delville Wood and Flers, he guides the walker across the major sites associated with the fighting. These are now features of the peaceful Somme countryside. In…
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