Un secteur méconnu des Français...
Dans la commune de Fricourt se trouve un secteur méconnu des Français. Bien que célèbre Outre-Manche pour la présence des troupes britanniques qui l'occupèrent à partir d'août 1915, beaucoup ignorent qu'il fut conjointement occupé par les 403e et 410e Régiment d'infanterie d'avril à août 1915.
Globalement, ce secteur comportait l'actuel bois d'Engremont et la zone du Old Point 110 Cemetery, s'étendait au Sud jusqu'à la ferme de Bronfay et s'appuyait, vers l'est du bois d'Engremont, sur la route de Péronne vers Mametz.
S'il connut peu d'attaques à l'époque de l'occupation française, il fut cependant le théâtre d'une guerre de mines entre Allemands et Français. Dans le bois d'Engremont et aux abords. plusieurs cratères témoignent encore de la violence des actions. Mais rien sur les lieux ne rappelle la présence et le sacrifice des soldats français dont peu ont été retrouvés.
Au mois d'octobre 2007, des ossements de soldats français furent découverts dans un champ à quelques mètres du Old Point 110 Cemetery par un britannique. D'après le service des sépultures de guerre, quatre à six corps furent finalement mis au jour. Ils auraient été inhumés dans la plus stricte intimité dans la Nécropole d'Albert sans qu'aucune association n'ait été prévenue.
L'histoire ne s'arrête pas là : en février dernier, la même personne constatait avec stupéfaction la présence de nouveaux restes à l'endroit même où il avait remarqué les premiers...
S'il est heureux que les autorités aient été prévenues lors de ces deux évènements ; si on peut difficilement mettre en doute le sérieux et le respect avec lequel les services des sépultures prennent en charge les corps de ces combattants ; on peut néanmoins se poser des questions sur les droits et les possibilités dont ils disposent pour approfondir leurs recherches en cas de découvertes de cette importance.
Avec la contribution de notre association, espérons que la mise au jour de soldats français fera naître chez les pouvoirs publics un plus grand intérêt pour la mémoire de tous les combattants de la Somme.
The Somme Effect.
For thirty years, my wife Kate and I have visited the Somme, not only to see the battlefields, but also because it is a region we have always loved. The huge open spaces, the emptiness and the feeling of tranquillity always made it a favourite place for holidays. We have travelled widely around France and Europe but Picardy was always special to us. At first, we were regarded by friends and work colleagues as rather odd for choosing a holiday destination that did not involve sandy beaches and hot sun. The fact that we also visited battlefield cemeteries was seen as very eccentric and my passion for field-walking and taking home small pieces of metal that were unidentifiable to almost anyone else only made our visits seem even more bizarre. The fact that we always travelled by motorcycle, which was then very much a minority pastime only confirmed the general opinion of friends that we were indeed quite eccentric.
At that time [in the late 1970s] there was very little interest in the First World War. Most people had some knowledge of World War Two, but the war of 1914-1918 was not taught as part of a school history syllabus in England and few people were aware of the titanic struggle that had been waged across France and Flanders. How I became interested is difficult to explain, for all of my relatives were veterans of WW2 [ apart from my Grandfather who as a result of shell-shock was notoriously irritable and never ever spoke of his service] I had no knowledge of anyone who had served in the war, yet while school-friends collected and traded souvenirs of the Second World War, I was only interested in the Great War items that could be found in most junk shops. They were plentiful and very cheap, as almost no demand existed for these relics of a forgotten war. Every old second-hand shop had a large shell-case full of bayonets and a tin biscuit box filled with old coins, badges and medals. I recall at the age of about 12, seeing an enamel and solid silver brooch in the shape of a pair of Royal Flying Corps wings, at the then outrageous price of £1.50 pence. [ 2 Euros] for me, this was three weeks pocket money so I asked the shop owner to hold it for me while I paid for them over the course of a month. We still have those wings and it is a reminder of a time when not everything that was old was highly valued.
Medals too were easily found and the normal trio of 1914/15 Star, War and Victory medals were about £2.50. [4 Euros] Of course, apart from a letter to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, there was no ability at all to research the recipients as war service details were still a closely guarded secret held by the Ministry of Defence, but this in a way ensured that prices stayed low. Now, of course with the advent of the internet and the release of service papers for research, prices have rocketed. Most interesting to me though, were the personal items that I often found. Engraved trench art, home-made ‘Tommy’ lighters, often with names on, Princess Mary tins full of fascinating personal mementos, each with their own story [ alas by then already long forgotten] held little interest for military collectors and were generally regarded as worthless curios. .
As I grew older, I began reading more about the war and it was a fruitful time for building up a library. Personal biographies, of which hundreds had been published in the 1920s and after the 50th anniversary in the 1960s, were always stacked on the shelves of second-hand bookshops and I would frequently come home with five or six excellent autobiographies for a few pounds. I slowly built up a library of over 300 such books and also began to realise that many of those veterans were still alive and living quietly in various parts of England, so I started to seek them out and ask them about their war service. Through some mutual friends, I was introduced to the author Lynne Macdonald, who was starting her mammoth task of writing about every year of the war, using first-hand accounts, and she was only too happy to have two willing volunteers prepared to travel the country to interview veterans. It was, as she presciently remarked, ‘not just the eleventh hour for these old men, but five minutes to twelve !’
I had finally discovered living history and to be able to talk to the men who inhabited the world of the books I read was a moving and fascinating experience. Because I was quite well-informed about the war, I was able to talk to them with some knowledge of the subject and this I think, helped some of them to relax. Many had never before spoken of their experiences, not even to close family and some of the stories that emerged were moving and astonishing. One ex-officer had never mentioned, even to his wife, that he had won the M.C at Thiepval for catching, and throwing back German grenades, on the basis that what he did was nothing even slightly brave and he thought no-one was interested anyway. He explained away the large holes on his back [caused by his failure to spot one particular grenade] as the result of shell splinters accidentally acquired while he was well behind the lines ! We met and interviewed a wide range of men, from 1914 BEF veterans, to territorial volunteers of Kitcheners Army and late war conscripts, whose experiences covered every conceivable trade, battle and location. They were a remarkable generation, those last Victorians whose vision of fighting for King and Country were old-fashioned by the 1970s, and they had all witnessed the post-war misery in a ‘land fit for heroes’ that never was. They had all sacrificed so much yet almost none were bitter or cynical about what they had endured, even those who had been badly wounded or disabled as a result. One veteran, Clarrie Jarman who for twenty years was our surrogate grandfather, had lost a leg as a result of wounds inflicted on July 1st 1916,
When finally released from hospital after almost two years, Clarrie managed to get a job as a machinist on the Martinside aircraft factory, a position that meant had had to stand all day, working from 8 am to 6 pm six days a week. He was so short of money that he walked three miles each way to and from work every day, to save the bus fare. There was, as he said, no use in complaining at the time as there were many able-bodied men who would gladly have had his job. Not for these men was there the ‘victim’ mentality so prevalent today or the attitude that they were owed something. Never once did I hear him blame anyone; not the Germans or the British High Command for his predicament. He was rightly critical of the poor treatment meted out to returning servicemen after the war but his overall attitude, which was commonplace among the men we met, was that they had taken part in the greatest adventure in their lives, and that bad luck was responsible for any physical legacy that they had to endure.
Living as I did in a world that was at peace, comfortable and where poverty and privation were things that only happened to people in third world countries. It was a shock to realise that a living generation could have been treated so badly by their government during and after the war [and by successive governments as well] and yet still remain hard-working, loyal and proud. How so many of then endured what they did was, and still is a mystery to me and their stories made a deep impression on me and I will always think of them as a unique and remarkable generation. They fought and died in conditions that I suspect would have modern armies in the throes of revolution. Through my interest in them and their largely forgotten war, we also met and befriended many extraordinary people, who have remained close friends over the intervening years and if for no other reason I am glad to have been so much involved in the subject. As a result of my interest, we became founder members of the Western Front Association in 1980, of course we had no idea membership would reach into the thousands, being sure that there were only a handful of like-minded people and we were astonished after a year or so, when the membership reached 500 people !
It has been fascinating too, to see how the subject of the Great War has, over the last decade, emerged from the shadows of history into the light. When I began work as curator at the Royal Armouries Museum in 1987, virtually no visitors aside from a tiny minority were interested in the weapons of the war and almost none of many lectures I gave ever dealt with World War One. By the time I left the museum last year, the war was by far the most popular subject for lectures and the museum displays of the weapons of that conflict were one of the most visited. This was in part because the subject was at last being taught in schools, which in turn began to prompt children into asking their parents if they if they had any relatives who fought in 1914-1918. Interest grew also as a result of the internet revolution which enabled people to begin researching their relatives in a way that had never before been possible. This in turn has had an effect in many other areas, particularly for collectors. Prices for anything connected with the war have reached epic proportions. Medals, books, badges and uniforms are now so expensive I often wonder who can possibly afford to buy it all and it has been beneficial as well for the Department of the Somme, for it was never a region blessed with much in the way of employment for its inhabitants. Farming is the traditional employment in this, the most fertile region of France, and Airbus is now the second largest local employer, albeit with a questionable future. Yet we have seen tourism increase markedly across the region, with some quarter of a million visitors coming every year. Many of them are only ‘flying’ visitors, coach parties of schoolchildren doing a rapid battlefield tour or simply curious people just passing through who decide to stop and look. But of those a significant proportion will become deeply interested in the subject and enchanted by the countryside. I have seen this happen on more occasions than can just be explained by coincidence for there is something about the unique mix here of history, landscape, and timelessness that appeals deeply to people. The ability to stand on a given spot with a trench map or book in one’s hand and say ‘This event happened here ’ is what I call the Somme Effect and it is something that occurs in very few other places. At last, recognition of this can be seen in the battlefield trails, the Poppy motifs and the increasing levels of facilities being offered to visitors by the authorities and tourist industry. Perhaps, at last, it has been recognised that the Somme is indeed, a very special place.
Martin Pegler 2007.
A la fin de la première guerre, des villes Britanniques décidèrent d'apporter leur aide à la reconstruction des villes et villages de la Somme.
Bayencourt / Bexhill
Albert / Birmingham
Péronne, Maricourt / Blackburn
Courcelettes / Brighouse
Courcelles, Colincamps / urnley
Lesboeufs / Canterbury
Barleux / erby
Bray-sur-Somme / astbourne
Montdidier / Exeter
Morlancourt / Folkestone
Ovillers-la-Boisselle / Gloucester
Guillemont / Hornsey
Fricourt / Ipswich
Biaches / Leamington
Mametz / Llandudno
Montauban / Maidstone
Combles / Portsmouth
Grandcourt / Stourbridge
Carnoy / Swansea
Thiepval / Tonbridge
Longavesnes / Warwick
Engelbelmer, Auchonvillers, Beaumont Hamel / Winchester