Thiepval Wood, looking south from the position of the German front lines in the summer of 1916. Away to the left the Thiepval Memorial towers above all, and on the horizon just to the right of the memorial a small clump of trees grow on the site of the Leipzig Redoubt . At the end of the track in front of us Connaught Military Cemetery is just visible in front of the wood, and the Ulster Memorial Tower can be seen on the far right of the photograph. On 1st July 1916, the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division attacked from their trenches on the edge of the wood up this slope towards us.
In late 1919, at a meeting at the Old Town Hall in Belfast, the decision was made to build a monument on the Somme, in the form of a replica of a well-known Ulster feature, to remember the thousands of Ulstermen who died on the Western Front. Helen’s Tower, a 19th century folly on the Clandeboye Estate near Belfast, was chosen, and construction here began soon after.
One of the oldest memorials on the Western Front, the tower was dedicated at a ceremony on 19th November 1921.
On the morning of 1st July 1916, the men of the 36th Division left their trenches on the northern edge of Thiepval Wood and successfully took the German front line that ran through what are now the lawns surrounding the tower, towards the trees in the middle right distance (above) surrounding Mill Road Cemetery. Beyond the cemetery, the German strongpoint known as the Schwaben Redoubt also fell as the Ulstermen continued their advance.
As the day wore on and casualties rose, however, lack of ammunition and essential supplies, and the difficulties in resupplying troops who had advanced up to a mile in places, along with the inevitable German counterattacks, led to worries that the forward troops were becoming isolated and might soon be cut off, and the decision was made to withdraw. By nightfall the men of the 36th Division were back in the German front line trenches that they had successfully overrun earlier in the day. They had suffered nearly 5000 casualties, more than a third of whom were killed. The division was withdrawn from the battle on 2nd July and sent to a quieter, at the time, sector much further north to rest and regroup – opposite the German lines on the Messines Ridge in Flanders.
This stone tablet, in memory of all ranks of the 36th (Ulster) Division, also lists the nine men of the division who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the war; three of these were won on 1st July, and one the following day. Three of the four were posthumous.
Note the Thiepval Memorial peeking out from behind the flagpole, and the tower of Thiepval church on the far left.
By the 1980s the tower was in need of serious refurbishment…
…after which it was rededicated on 1st July 1989.
There’s a Memorial Room inside the tower and a small display of items discovered during the recent trench excavations that have taken place within Thiepval Wood, but there was no time for us to take a look on this occasion. We did, however, add to the display, as you’ll find out in the next post.
Looking towards Thiepval Wood; it’s worthwhile taking a further look at the surrounding terrain and the juxtaposition of the front line trenches at this point.
View panning from south west (left) to north west (right) from the same spot as the previous photo. The British front lines prior to the Battle of the Somme are marked in blue, the approximate German lines in red. The River Ancre flows along the valley floor between us and the hills in the distance where, on the horizon, the British lines disappear into the trees that now grow in Newfoundland Memorial Park.
The site of the Ulster Tower is marked in yellow on this April 1916 trench map, Connaught Cemetery in light green, Mill Road Cemetery in pink (we shall visit both in later posts), and the Schwaben Redoubt is highlighted in olive. The redoubt, as I mentioned earlier, was captured on the first day of the battle, but after dark that night German counterattacks succeeded in forcing the Ulstermen out of the position and back to their own trenches, and it would be another three and a half months before the redoubt was once more in British hands.
The depression in the field (above & below, and identified by a tiny light blue dot on the trench map) still marks the site of a German machine gun at the apex of the position known to the British as the Pope’s Nose.
One more view, looking east, towards the Ancre Valley…
…before it’s time, I think, to take a look in the wood itself.