This is the view that the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division would have had on the morning of 1st July 1916, as they left their trenches on the edge of Thiepval Wood and advanced towards the German lines on the crest of the rise, and the formidable Schwaben Redoubt beyond.
Looking east, the road leads to the little village of Thiepval in the distance, with the Thiepval Memorial on the horizon to the right. This was No Man’s Land on 1st July 1916. Imagine thousands of men tramping from right to left across these featureless fields, with no cover and, many of them probably thought, little hope, man after man falling as German machine guns and artillery cut them down. And yet the Ulstermen who advanced here managed to push on as far as anywhere along the British front on that terrible morning, before the inevitable retirement transpired. Brave men.
Our route, however, takes us down the short track in the right foreground…
…which leads us to the entrance to Thiepval Wood.
I’ve always wanted to visit these woods, whose names have become synonymous with the fighting during the five and a half months of the Battle of the Somme, and in the last year and a half I’ve at long last had the opportunity to spend some time in more than one of them. Thiepval Wood, or the Bois d’Authuille, as it is known locally, has always been high on the list; apart from for hunting purposes and tree felling, it has remained virtually untouched for a hundred years.
Thanks to the Somme Association, who now own the wood, it is possible, by arrangement, to have a look at the trench excavations within it that have taken place in recent years. There are plenty of photos and not a lot of annotation in this post, as photos of trenches are photos of trenches unless you expect me to start eulogising about parapets, paradoses and A-frames, none of which I have any intention of doing. Ha!
The 36th (Ulster ) Division arrived on the Somme in the winter of 1915 and by mid-March 1916 were installed the front line trenches between Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval, taking over from the Scottish regiments who had held this sector of the line before them. At the time, the wood contained not only trenches with names such as Elgin Avenue and Ross Castle, but also ones from the French tenure of this sector earlier in the war.
Teddy Colligan, who came here some fifteen years ago and never went home, holds court (he’s the man you need to contact if you fancy a look in the wood yourself). This is a section of Whitchurch Street, occupied by the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on 1st July 1916.
The small sap on the right hand side of this picture (and at the top of the previous shot) was originally dug to hold gas containers which, in the event, were never used. Two were still here in 2007 when the trench was first excavated.
According to Teddy, the trenches have been restored using as much of the original material that was uncovered as possible.
Never forget that this wood is a mass grave; hundreds of missing men lie beneath the green blanket that now covers this still cratered, yet peaceful, woodland floor.
Communication trench (above & below). Numerous communication trenches once wound their way south through the wood towards the British rear area.
Indeed it is! There are a number of information panels along the route.
Another communication trench…
…with a dugout entrance leading to who knows where (above & below).
Shell craters (above & below)…
…and old dugouts still litter the floor of the wood.
Some of these dugouts date back to the French occupancy of the wood in 1915, suggesting that, whatever you may have read about French trenches from early in the war, their constructions were pretty strong, and the British continued to use them.
This section of communication trench…
…with another entrance to the same dugout visible in this shot,…
…shows clearly its meandering structure, designed to reduce blast injuries should the trench receive a direct hit, as it snakes its way south.
Elsewhere, excavations continue. This photo is actually more interesting than you realise. We shall return to this shortly.
Keep going that way…
…and you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by the swampy marshland of the Ancre valley.
Teddy explains the lie of the land. He knows his stuff. The sandbagged crescent area at the far end of this trench was once an emplacement for a trench mortar. Fired by a lanyard, the mortar men would hide round this ninety degree angle to protect themselves from the blast.
It was at about this point that eagle-eyed Pauline asked me whether I had noticed a piece of metal in one of the trenches we had previously visited. Now you lot know, and Dantzig Alley proved it, if it needed proving, that I’m pretty good at spotting interesting stuff on my travels, but not on this occasion. I quickly backtracked to the trench she mentioned…
…and this is what I found. Look very carefully at this close-up of the excavation trench we saw earlier. Anything?
Have another look. This small piece of rusted metal, when recovered, turned over and cleaned a little,…
…turned out to be an eyepiece from a British gas mask, lens intact. Teddy was one happy man when we pointed it out to him. You can now see it at the Ulster Memorial Tower museum, I expect. I said it before and I’ll say it again. Nice job Pauline.
Let’s take a look around Connaught Cemetery next.