Armistice 100: Norfolk on the front line
PUBLISHED: 17:19 31 October 2018
The battlefields of the Somme contain many thousands of graves for those who fell in the Great War. But only one cemetery bears the name of our county. As we prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, Stacia Briggs visits Norfolk Cemetery for a very personal pilgrimage
There’s a corner of northern France which will forever belong to Norfolk
Surrounded by corn fields on a quiet road where cars are a rarity, it’s difficult to visit Norfolk Cemetery without feeling a territorial pang but equally hard to imagine that this tranquil place was once home to a huge artillery depot and thousands of troops bivouacked here as they made their way to the front line.
The village of Becordel-Becourt lies in a valley and was protected from the lines near Fricourt to the east by the rolling contours of the landscape and, because of this, became an area used by medics at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
Standing in this cemetery, named after our county, it’s almost impossible to picture the carnage that was here before these peaceful lines of sleeping soldiers found their final resting place, when Middlesex Avenue trench ran along the road beside it and to our right, trenches ran up to the front lines which were to the east. Today, all you can hear is birdsong – a little over a century ago, the Western Front reverberated with the noise of war.
Around a mile from Albert on the Albert-Peronne road, Norfolk Cemetery was started by the 1st Norfolk Battalion in August 1915 and used by other units – including the 8th Norfolks – until August 1916, when it was surrounded by artillery batteries.
After the Armistice, it was nearly doubled in size when graves were brought in from nearby battlefields. The cemetery hosts a VC, Major Stewart Walter Loudoun-Shand of the Yorkshire Regiment who was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1 1916, and two Lancashire soldiers posthumously pardoned following their execution on June 26 1916 for desertion, Private John Jennings and Private Griffith Lewis.
Designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the cemetery contains 325 First World War burials, 224 of unidentified soliders. Seventeen of those identified are Norfolk Battalion soldiers – Brightwell, Chase, Claxton, Clewer, Cook, Digby, Hawes, Hewitt, Laud, Paul, Pond, Towler, Wilding, West, Williams, Plesants and Myles – aged between 16 and 32.
Notably, here lies 16-year-old Private Isaac Laud, who died on August 9 1915 and was the first to be buried at Norfolk Cemetery (it’s thought he lied about his age in order to enlist and fight for his country) and William Arthur Cook, killed in action on November 23 1915 aged 30, who had been an advertising representative for the Eastern Daily Press when he enlisted in the Norwich Business Men’s Company. Cook’s name is commemorated on a memorial in the reception at Prospect House in Norwich.
The cemetery is the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the First World War but, more than 100 years on, this final resting ground for the fallen is a place of quiet beauty, immaculately tended by the French, each grave planted with flowers, Norfolk lavender swaying gently in the breeze, the scent of home.
My own interest in the Somme branches out from my father’s side of the family tree: my grandad, Percy Briggs, was underage when he enlisted and made the journey to France to fight in the muddy trenches, a teenager completely unprepared to be drawn into a conflict which exposed him to experiences that would cast a shadow over the rest of his life. He rarely spoke of his memories of the war, and his children and grandchildren knew better than to ask.
Born in Lincolnshire, my grandfather didn’t fight with the Royal Norfolks, but it was a desire to connect to the man who took most of his secrets to the grave and who died when I was very young (an older father, his children also recalled little of what he had told them of his time in France) that led me to the places he’d been and the landscape where he’d once walked.
His story is a little threadbare, but it weaves its way through our family and binds us a little bit closer to this part of the world: there but for the grace of God, our family tree could have been felled alongside the hundreds of thousands of others who made the ultimate sacrifice. Chance and fortune led Percy home. Many of the pals he fought beside, however, never saw the country they were fighting for again.
We know snippets; grandad talked of the animals he saw in war, in particular the mules, of being glad for the three square meals he received during training because he’d been hungry all his young life, of his brother – my great uncle – who emigrated to the new world and died for the old at Gallipoli and another brother who emigrated to Canada and fought at Vimy Ridge, and of the foe that attacked all armies in France, trench fever, transmitted by body lice.
He spoke little about what he had seen, but did speak of feeling frightened before – but not during – battle; there was no time for fear when the fighting began.
Trying to retrace my grandfather’s journey in France inevitably led to standing in cemeteries with endless rows of gravestones and feeling a set of mixed emotions, ranging from a deep sense of melancholy to enormous pride. What those brave boys sacrificed for us; the very least we can do is remember them.
I have visited the Western Front almost a dozen times in the past 20 years and each time it is affecting as the last.
Nothing can prepare you for driving into the area where battle once raged but which is now a peaceful blend of tranquil rolling countryside punctuated by quaint villages, the beautiful Somme river winding its way westwards through the battlefields, Amiens and towards the coast.
Roads pass through wheat and bean fields which spread out across the Somme like a patchwork, punctuated by imposing crosses and rows of Portland stone, the silent witnesses to what was the bloodiest single section of the worst day of battle in the history of the British Army.
The four-and-a-half month battle claimed a million casualties, 400,000 of whom were British and Commonwealth, an equal number of whom were German and 200,000 of whom were French; of this number, one in four died. Those stark figures are why the Battle of the Somme has become the abiding symbol for Britain – and the Commonwealth – of the 1914 to 1918 war.
When the British launched the Somme offensive on July 1 1916, they lost 19,000 men with another 40,000 wounded just on the first day. In this first ‘modern war’, the battle came after two years of relative quiet on the Western Front.
The Battle of the Somme has become synonymous with the slaughter of armies on an unprecedented scale due to the increasing mechanisation of warfare and as such, occupies a place in history like no other, making the centenary of the end of the First World War even more important to mark.
This year, I have visited Norfolk Cemetery twice within the space of six weeks: the first time, the maize stood tall in the fields surrounding the cemetery, on my return, it had been harvested and hay bales stood sentry in groups overlooking the gravestones.
By the gate I found fragments of a silent picket, the corkscrew-shaped struts used to hold barbed wire, a button from a uniform and a shrapnel ball, all unearthed by farmers. Every year, the so-called ‘Iron Harvest’ turns up around 25 tonnes of munitions, some of which remains potentially lethal – the landscape is still yielding its grim reminders of war and will always bear its scars.
With the button tightly held in my hand, I walked to the gravestones of the boys from Norfolk which by now I can find immediately, and silently checked in with each and every one: Brightwell, Chase, Claxton, Clewer, Cook, Digby, Hawes, Hewitt, Laud, Paul, Pond, Towler, Wilding, West, Williams, Plesants and Myles.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Five Norfolk links on the Somme
Norfolk Cemetery in Becordel-Becourt near Albert is the cemetery started by the Royal Norfolks in August 1915.
This is the village where the first soldier of the Norfolk Regiment was killed in action on the Somme. Private George Chase, who was born in Ruston, died in August, 1915.
Delville Wood, also known as Devil’s Wood, was the scene of heavy fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme and again in 1918. The cemetery was created after the Armistice, south of the wood, and there are 90 Norfolks buried there. The museum opposite has a display on John Sherwood Kelly, a Norfolk’s commander who won the Victoria Cross, the only Norfolk to do so.
The monument commemorates many Royal Norfolk Regiment soldiers who have no known grave. Look for Pier and Face 6B and 6C.
This was where Norwich-born Charlie Wells along with Captain Wilfred Nevill, known as Billie, led the so-called ‘football charge’, when the men went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and kicked a ball towards the German front line to take their minds off the task they faced. Both men fell as they reached the enemy wire, but follow-up waves – including the Norfolks – later captured the trenches.