My annual visit to the Chorley Pals trenches at Serre was part of a five day coach trip I had organised to the Somme battlefield.
Forty three people left East and Central Lancashire early on the morning of Thursday, 10th July heading for Dover and then across the channel to Calais and ultimately to Arras for four nights. Passengers included Helen Barratt from Accrington who looked after the Accrington Pals collection at Accrington Library for many years. Also on board was Derek Glover from Accrington, his wife Betty and their daughter Anne. Eighty year old Derek is the son of 15103 Private Clarence Glover, one of the few men in the Accrington Pals to reach the German wire at Serre on the morning of the 1st July 1916. Derek was making his first trip to the Somme battlefield, as was my close friend ex-Football League Referee Allan Banks.
The first full day started at Fuechy-Chapel cemetery on the outskirts of Arras. Here, George and Irene Griffiths paid respects to George’s grandfather, Private George Griffiths from Chorley who was killed in action on the 11th April 1917. The rest of the morning was spent at the Historial WW1 museum in Peronne – a town twinned with Blackburn. After lunch the party headed on to the Somme battlefield and visited the Devonshire Trench cemetery, near Carnoy. Next stop was to pay respects to James Miller VC from Withnell, near Chorley who is buried in Dartmoor Cemetery at Becordel-Becourt; he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for bravery on the 30th July 1916. Also in the cemetery is the oldest serving soldier to die during the war – sixty seven year old Lieutenant Henry Webber who was killed in a front-line trench on the 21st July 1916. Close by is one of the most poignant sights on the Somme – a father and son buried next to each other after being killed by the same shell.
Last call of the day on the battlefield was to Delville Wood, where the South Africans suffered so many casualties during mid-July 1916. The day ended with a visit to the Arras memorial.
Day two on Saturday, 12th July and just as we left the hotel in Arras the heavens opened; the 35 minute coach drive to the battelfield was in non-stop rain. However, as we left the coach for the 800 yard walk across No Man’s Land to the Pals trenches at Serre the rain stopped. At the Accrington Pals memorial in the front-line trench, an emotional Derek Glover laid a wreath along with Helen Barratt on behalf of Hyndburn Borough Council.
At the Chorley Pals plaque close by, I invited Stan Dickinson (a Normandy veteran and Secretary of Chorley Ex-Servicemen’s Association) to lay the wreath on behalf of the Chorley Pals Memorial charity. Passengers then looked around the site and moved to Queen’s Cemetery in No Man’s Land where so many of the Accrington and Chorley men are buried.
We were late arriving for coffee at Ulster Tower but received the usual warm welcome from the custodians, Phoebe and Tommy Colligan. We were then taken on a tour of the adjacent Thiepval Wood by Tommy, into the wood and restored trenches where the Ulstermen attacked from on the morning of the 1st July 1916. At the end of a fascinating tour, I presented our hosts with a photograph of the proposed Chorley Pals Memorial statue. On the way back to Arras for a late lunch, we called in at Achiet-le-Grand cemetery where Stan Dickinson’s Uncle, Private Frederick Dickinson is buried; he was killed in action on the 14th May 1917 and his name is on the memorial inside Coppull Parish Church. Stan also left a poppy cross in the cemetery for Sister Paschal from Chorley (a passenger of my two previous coach trips), on the grave of her Great-Uncle, Rifleman J.R. Clarke of the Post Office Rifles, killed in December 1917.
The afternoon was spent off the Somme battlefield at the Vimy Ridge Memorial. Several of the party managed to get an unscheduled tour of the underground tunnels from where the Canadian and British troops emerged to take the ridge in April 1917 (it is amazing what a bit of Northern charm and cheek can do!).
Sunday morning saw us in No Man’s Land again on the Somme battlefield, this time in the Sunken Lane near Beaumont-Hamel. Here on the morning of the 1st July 1916 men from the 1st Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers had crawled out of Saps (a quickly made trench) and waited to advance on the German lines. The Battalion had survived the landings on the Gallipoli beaches in April 1915 but they were cut down by German machine guns as they left the Sunken Lane. On the ridge, opposite, is the now overgrown Hawthorn Ridge mine crater, created when a massive mine exploded under the German lines at 7.20 a.m. on the 1st July 1916 – signalling to the Germans that the attack was imminent. Just by where the coach was parked at the bottom of the Sunken Lane could be seen the “iron harvest” – shells recently dug up from the adjacent fields.
Coffee was taken at Ocean Villas tearooms at Auchonvillers, before heading to Newfoundland Park nearby. We were welcomed by our guide, a young lady from Canada spending three months doing voluntary service for her country (why can’t we get our youngsters to do the same?). She gave us a brief talk on the history of the Newfoundland Regiment, decimated a few yards away on the 1st July 1916, before the party headed off on a walk around the site taking in the impressive Caribou Memorial which overlooks the battlefield. As is his custom, Councillor Tom Sharratt of Samlesbury Parish Council (who was on his third coach trip to the Somme with me) paid respects to Private Fred Taylor from the village who is buried in a cemetery on the fringe of the memorial park.
After lunch in Albert (twinned with Ulverston, near Barrow-in-Furness) we headed for the Lochnager Crater – made by another British mine that explode at the start of the Somme battle. The village of Pozieres was the next stop where the battlefield and the imposing Thiepval Memorial was viewed from the site of a former German bunker and observation platform, nicknamed “Gibraltar”. The day ended at the Memorial to the Missing on the Somme at Thiepval where several passengers laid wreaths or left poppy crosses. I left a small tribute to my relative – Bradford Pal, Private Benjamin Balme, who was killed on the 1st July 1916 at Serre.
On the last day, heading for the ferry home from Calais we stopped of at a small cemetery at Gonnehem near Bethune. Here, eight members of the Jones family from Blackburn and Accrington paid tribute to their grandfather, Lancastrian Private James Bottomley MM who was killed in action on the 18th April 1918.
A smooth ferry crossing back to Dover and an equally smooth and trouble free journey back to Lancashire saw us arrive back in the county at 7.30 p.m. Thanks go to our driver Alan Weaver of Fraser Eagle coaches in Padiham.