The 1st July 2006 saw the 90th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. At 7.30 a.m. on that day many ‘Pals’ battalions from across the whole of the U.K. and Ireland went over the top for the first and, for many, the last time. The 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington) East Lancashire Regiment comprised almost exclusively of men from the towns and villages around Accrington, Burnley, Blackburn and Chorley. They became known, collectively, as ‘The Accrington Pals’. On the 1st July 1916 they were to go into battle for the first time, attacking the small but heavily fortified village of Serre.
In May 2004 I organised and led a trip to the Somme and Ypres battlefields for Brindle Historical Society, where I am the Secretary. Some six months later, the thought of being in the Accrington Pals trenches at Serre on the 1st July 2006, exactly 90 years to the minute, started to take shape. Initial contact was made with Lancashire based coach company, Fraser Eagle, who took us around the WW1 battlefields earlier in 2004. An itinerary was outlined and rooms were block booked; even at this early stage they were becoming scarce, especially on the Somme.
As before we chose to be based at Arras for the first part of the trip and then move up to Belgium for a tour around the Ypres Salient, finishing at the Menin Gate in Ypres. An invitation to be on BBC Radio Lancashire Breakfast Show on the 1st July 2005, brought the publicity the trip needed. Bookings began to increase (several from the 2004 trip had snapped up the opportunity as soon as I mentioned it in January 2005). By Christmas the trip was sold out, with a number on a waiting list should additional rooms become available (they did not). It was becoming apparent that although the towns of Accrington and Chorley, in particular, were having ceremonies on the 1st July, they would not be represented on the Somme. Contact was made with Chorley and Hyndburn Councils, as well as the respective Members of Parliament. All asked for wreaths to be laid at the Accrington Pals memorial in the trenches at Serre on the day. As the passenger list grew, it was more than obvious that each and everyone had a reason for going. Two, however, were very special as they were siblings of ‘Pals’ who went over the top at Serre that very morning, 90 years before.
John Beaghan (from Salesbury near Blackburn) is the son of Private 15770 Robert Beaghan and the nephew of Private 15316 David Beaghan, both from Accrington. His father survived, having been kept back in the reserve trenches, but his uncle was killed that morning and rests somewhere in No Man’s Land at Serre; he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
One of the main ‘characters’ (and I am sure she will forgive me for calling her that) was 90 year old Chorley Nun, Sister Francis. She was the youngest daughter of Private 15845 Henry Calderbank who was wounded at Serre on the morning of the 1st July 1916, only to be killed in action on the Ypres Salient a year later; he is the only Chorley Pal to be commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres. By Easter 2006 the itinerary was finalised, or so I thought. Despite the French knowing as far back as 2005 that their President along with HRH Prince Charles, his wife the Duchess of Cornwall, HRH Princess Anne and HRH Duke of Gloucester would be on the Somme, Whitehall only released the news in June (less than 4 weeks before the event). With coaches having to have a special pass from the Gendarmerie just to be around Thiepval Memorial on the 1st July, the itinerary was hastily re-arranged.
In the spring contact was made with the BBC TV ‘Inside Out’ production team in Manchester and Paul Crone at Granada TV News, to see if they wanted to cover the trip and perhaps make a documentary. Eventually the BBC came back wanting to cover it for their regional news programme, North West Tonight; sadly Paul Crone nor Granada did not follow up their interest, so the BBC got an exclusive. I decided that the BBC would not be allowed to come on the coach with us, but to meet us on the Somme at pre-arranged times over two days. Passengers were contacted and all agreed with my decision – in fact it added to the trip, as did me toting a tape recorder around with me for BBC Radio Lancashire. After all, we too were making history and it should be recorded.
Forty intrepid travellers set off from Lancashire very early on the morning of the 29th June heading for the ferry at Dover, and eventually on to Arras for three nights. The trip went smoothly with Harry Johnson at the wheel (Harry took us around the battlefields in 2004 and actually asked to do this trip with us). When I say the trip went smoothly, that is not strictly true; as we approached Dover one of the passengers (who shall for evermore be nameless) advised me that he had left his Passport on his dining room table in Lostock Hall! As we went through “Passport Control” and French Customs (who are now based at Dover), we were asked collectively if we had British passports and we naturally replied “yes” (despite one being 302 miles away!). So with just one form with 40 names and passport number on it (thank goodness I requested passport numbers), a cursory nod and a “bon voyage”, we set sail for France wondering how we would get the passenger back into the U.K.
The following day, we left our hotel in Arras heading for a number of sites on the Somme battlefield. We didn’t want to get snarled up in the arrangements for the VIPs at Thiepval, Newfoundland Park (Beaumont-Hamel), the Ulster Tower and Delville Wood the following day, so we went to them first. The highlight of the day was the visit to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme, where the BBC joined us (actually they were already there along with many other members of the world’s media). During the day we also visited the grave of Chorley Victoria Cross winner, Private James Miller from Withnell who was killed in action on the Somme on the 23rd July 1916.
Breakfast was taken in the hotel at 5.45 a.m. on the morning of the 1st July 2006, and everyone was on the coach and away by 6.15 a.m. Like the previous day, the sun was already up and getting warmer as we headed for Serre down the D919 from Arras. On the coach were poppy wreaths from the Mayors of Chorley, Hyndburn and Ribble Valley, as well as from Greg Pope (MP for Hyndburn) and from Lindsay Hoyle (MP for Chorley). Other passengers had wreaths, and I had one for Lt. James Hitchon from my ‘home’ village Brindle. He was killed in action that morning, 90 years ago, leading a Platoon of the Chorley Pals over the top. With us on the coach were relatives of Lt. Hitchon from Belfast and Bradford.
As we made the 800 yards or so walk across No Man’s Land from the Serre Road to the Accrington Pals trenches and memorial, the birds were singing. Waiting for us, again, was Peter Marshall from BBC North West Tonight and his cameraman, Steve. At exactly 7.30 a.m. the church bells rang out around the Somme battlefield, and all of us stood silently in the trenches for two minutes. Besides us 40, there was one local Councillor from Burnley, two gentlemen from Blackpool who were really there for the Thiepval service, and a number of Army Cadets from Sheffield (the latter had camped out overnight, close by) – I wondered how many would be stood here in 2016 on the 100th anniversary.
I said a few words about the Pals and the trip (as if anyone needed reminding), and a Lancashire Policeman who had served in the Falklands War read a soldiers poem. Under the watchful eye of the BBC TV cameras we laid our wreaths accordingly on the Accrington Pals memorial, appropriately made of Accrington brick and brought from Lancashire back in 1992 (whoever laid the bricks was not a Lancashire bricklayer – Accrington bricks have a very thin layer of mortar, unlike on the finished memorial!).
Afterwards we walked around the trenches and No Man’s Land before sadly (in more ways than one), heading away for a much needed coffee break at nearby Auchonvillers (or “Ocean Villas” as the British ‘Tommies’ called it). Here we were able to visit some original British trenches in the grounds of the Ocean Villas Tea Rooms, courtesy of British owner, Avril Williams (no relation).
We left the Somme (to the Royals and an estimated 8,000 other British visitors) at around 10.00 a.m., heading for the excellent WW1 museum at Peronne on the River Somme; the battlefield that bears its name is quite a few miles to the north.
In summing up the day at Serre, I think the best comment was “I just had to be there”. Attending a set piece ceremony in Lancashire was fine, but 7.30 a.m. at Serre on the 1st July 2006 was special for everyone who was there. I intend, God willing, to be there in 2016.