The Somme – Auchonvillers Communal Cemetery

The unassuming entrance to Auchonvillers Communal Cemetery, with the ubiquitous dark green CWGC sign telling us that we really should take a look within.

This more elevated view is the one most people get of the cemetery,…

…as their coach rushes past on the way to their next stop, and it is only the observant few who might notice the CWGC headstones along the far cemetery boundary (as happened to me in 2016 when I took these two shots – obviously making a return visit a necessity).

Across the road the signposts show roughly where we are, and there’ll be a map later; follow the road three quarters of a mile to the south east (left) and we’d come to the preserved trenches of Newfoundland Memorial Park.

The official cemetery entrance turned out, on my return visit, to be redundant,…

…and on climbing the slope,…

…and with the renovation work behind us, the Great War graves are clear to see,…

…lining the northern boundary, the hedge behind now severely cropped, and by this time you will surely have noticed their distinctive colour.

These headstones are made of Corsehill red sandstone, one of the CWGC’s experiments with types of material other than the usual Portland Stone.

There are fifteen burials here, all but two of whom are men of the 1st Bn. Border Regiment killed on 6th April 1916.  The two other burials, can be found at either end of the row,…

…at this end, on the far left,…

…Lance Corporal J. E. Davis, Royal Lancaster Regiment, killed on 12th August 1915,…

…and at the other end, on the far right,…

…Lance Corporal E. Sugden, West Yorkshire Regiment, killed on 24th August 1918.

This trench map, luckily for us, is overlayed with a tracing of the British trenches prior to the Battle of the Somme in the very area in which we find ourselves.  German territory is marked on the right, their front line denoted by the dotted line, No Man’s Land is clear and then come the British front line trenches, with communication trenches and even light railways stretching away towards Auchonvillers on the left.  I have marked the site of the communal cemetery in orange, and the green area is the approximate site of Newfoundland Memorial Park, with Y Ravine marked in pink.  For future reference, between the cemetery and the trench railway in the centre of the map you will notice that one of the communication trenches has been given the name of Tipperary Avenue.

The story behind the deaths of these thirteen men (eight privates, one lance corporal, two corporals, one serjeant and the company serjeant major) of the 1st Bn. Border Regiment is an everyday tale of death in the trenches of the Great War.

No more.

No less.

The battalion arrived in the sector on 4th April 1916 and spent much of the following two days engaged in much-needed repairs to the barbed wire defences and to the support trenches serving the front line,…

…although they did send out patrols into No Man’s Land each night from which at least two men failed to return.

At around 9.00 p.m. on 6th April the Germans opened up a major local bombardment, an estimated 8,000 shells from both artillery and trench mortars raining down on the communication trenches behind the British front lines as the Germans prepared to launch a trench raid.

The raid would see seventy five men attack from Y Ravine along what is now the eastern edge of the Newfoundland Memorial Park with the objective of taking prisoners from 2nd Bn. South Wales Borderers, manning the front line opposite them, and the barrage was intended to prevent reinforcements moving up the support trenches, thus isolating the Welshmen further forward.

The South Wales Borderers had, like the Border Regiment, only been in the line for three days, and the raid hit both battalions hard.

Some of the Borders who found themselves trapped in Tipperary Avenue under the German bombardment that night were old-timers, and all of them were regulars who had fought their way to nowhere on Gallipoli the previous year.

They died under a blizzard of German shellfire as they struggled to make their way forward, or hugged the bottom of the shattered trench and prayed.

In vain.

The raid was a resounding success for the Germans, due to excellent and precise planning beforehand and determination and speed during; the raiders were told that they had a maximum of fifteen minutes in the British trenches, no more.

The British suffered some 112 casualties that night.  One officer and 33 other ranks were dead, another fifty wounded, and 28 missing, of whom 19 were known to have been captured.

The inset photographs show some of these men, all South Wales Borderers, in German captivity after the raid.

At least one other man of 1st Borders, Private C. Bull, died later that night, or more likely was dead on arrival at the dressing station at nearby Englebelmer, and is buried in what became Englebelmer Communal Cemetery Extension, and twenty four 2nd Bn. South Wales Borderers killed during the raid are buried in Mesnil Ridge Cemetery, just under a mile away to the south east.  German casualties amounted to three men killed by a grenade explosion and one other man wounded but successfully evacuated.  An everyday tale.

On the other side of the cemetery, I rather presumed that this faux-CWGC headstone had a story behind it, and indeed it does.  William Brown was a Newfoundlander and Sergeant-Major in the British Army who not only was the escort to the catafalque of the Unknown Warrior when the remains were brought back to the United Kingdom in 1920, but later became guardian of the Newfoundland Memorial Park, where he was personally involved with the reburial of Newfoundland’s dead.  No surprise, therefore, to find him buried here on the Somme.

On leaving the little cemetery, that way takes us into the village itself, which is where we are heading next.

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