The Somme – Rancourt Military Cemetery – ‘To the Immortal Memory’

A brief diversion from our current French Flanders tour, dictated entirely by today’s date.  This is Rancourt Military Cemetery, on the Somme.

And this map shows the gradual Allied advance over the five months of the Battle of the Somme.  To the south, the junction between British & French armies is clearly marked by the dark blue line.  Hardecourt was attacked by the French 39th & British 30th Divisions on 1st July 1916, although it would not fall for a month; Maurepas, which fell on 24th August, now contains a French cemetery where 3,678 men are buried, as does Cléry (2,332 burials), and the French would finally capture Rancourt (red circle) on the afternoon of 25th September, with Combles falling the following day.

And there is a huge French Cemetery here at Rancourt, too, the largest French cemetery on the Somme, in fact, containing the graves of 8,566 French casualties (some of whom await burial in the inset) who fell in this area.  The building on the far right is the remembrance chapel, erected by the Du Bos family in remembrance of their son, Jean, and all his comrades who were killed in action near here on 25th September 1916.

Unfortunately, it is already evening, so there’s no time to look around today,…

…because it is this British cemetery, across the road opposite the French one, that we have come here to visit.

The French cemetery is marked in blue on this trench map, with the little British cemetery marked as an orange dot.

As members of our group head down the slope towards the cemetery,…

…you will notice that I have also marked the copse in the background on the trench map,…

…because beneath the trees lie 11,422 dead German soldiers, two thirds of whom are Battle of the Somme casualties, most of the remainder casualties from 1918.  Two mass graves contain nearly 7,500 of these men, of which less than a third are identified.

We – the Friends of the Surrey Infantry Museum and one or two civvies like me  – are here for a special purpose on a special date (that’s actually Michael More-Molyneux, HM Lord-Lieutenant of Surrey since 2015, and his missus, Sarah, whom we have been following for the previous few photos, arriving at the cemetery).

It is 16th May 2018, and every year on this date since 1811, in remembrance of the Battle of Albuhera, the toast ‘To the Immortal Memory’ has taken place.

Following Albuhera, the surviving officers and sergeants of the 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment of Foot, who would earn the sobriquet ‘the Die-Hards’ after the battle that cost them twenty out of their thirty officers and 422 out of 570 men, met at a local inn where they pledged to meet on the date of the battle each year to remember their dead comrades.  And so they did, each meeting featuring the silent toast ‘To the Immortal Memory’, a tradition continued to this day by the regiment’s successors, which, from 1966, with the formation of the Queen’s Regiment (now The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment), would include both the the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment (the West & East Surrey regiments had amalgamted in 1958) and the Middlesex Regiment, hence the Queen’s Regiment taking up, or continuing, the tradition at that time.  Or something like that.

The annual toast, proposed by the Commanding Officer and drunk by intermingled sergeants and officers in the Warrant Officers’ and Sergeants’ Mess at one time, but now at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I believe, is made each year, and was doubtless taking place back in Blighty at the same time as Colonel Anthony Ward OBE was preparing to deliver the toast at our ceremony here at Rancourt.  Thank heavens the process of moving the chalice around the circle of participants…

…was explained to the uninitiated prior to the ceremony.

Today, the toast remembers not only the 57th’s dead at Albuhera, but all officers and men from the current and forebear regiments who have since given their lives in the service of King & Country.

I chose not to take photographs as the chalice was passed around the circle of participants, the handful of civilians present being offered the opportunity to partake if they wished as guests of the Sergeant’s Mess, and in which most of us participated.  I have never before had the privilege, probably never will again.  It was a moving ceremony under a grey Somme sky.

Following the ceremony, as the rest made their way slowly back to the coach,…

…I made my way quickly, very quickly, round the cemetery.  Good job we weren’t in one of the larger ones.

The emblems on the headstones in this cemetery actually tell a slightly false tale of the men buried beneath.  Fifty eight of the seventy six identified Great War burials here are men of the London Regiment, six of whose battalions are represented.  Thus the Irish harps on three of these headstones signify men of the London Irish Rifles, the headstone of Rifleman Barnes (second from left) features the badge of the 21st County of London Bn. (First Surrey Rifles), and the centre headstone,…

…that of Private E. C. Warboys, features the badge of the East Surrey Regiment, even though Private Warboys died whilst posted to the First Surrey Rifles.  And this proves to be the case elsewhere in the cemetery, a number of headstones bearing soldiers’ original regimental emblems although at the time of their deaths they were fighting with the Londons.

This cemetery is a post-Battle of the Somme cemetery,…

…begun, it seems, on Christmas Day 1916,…

…when the remains of three men of the Worcestershire Regiment were buried in a single grave beneath a single cross in the middle of what must have been a wasteland by that time.

Now pink flowers grow at their gravesite near the centre of Row C.  The CWGC website states; ‘The cemetery was begun by units of the Guards Division in the winter of 1916-17’, so if anyone can tell me if the 2nd Bn. Worcestershire Regiment were part of the Guards Division at that time, it would be appreciated.  And if so why?

Nearly a month later a single man of the Yorkshire Regiment, at the end of the row, was buried here, and half a dozen other casualties followed in February and March 1917 (Middlesex Regiment, King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment & Seaforth Highlanders – I don’t think any of them were in the Guards Division either),…

…but the majority of the men buried in the cemetery died in August & September 1918, and of those, most died over just two days, 31st August & 1st September.  31st August 1918 had seen Monash’s inspired capture of the heights of Mont St. Quentin just north of Peronne, less than three miles south of here, and the Second Battle of Bapaume was taking place six miles to the north, officially between 31st August & 3rd September.  As the Prince of Wales’ Own Post Office Rifles, of whom six casualties who died on 1st September and one on 2nd, are buried here (see above), include among their battle honours the Second Battle of Bapaume, I would suggest that the men killed on those dates are all casualties of that particular battle.

Row D, where twelve of the nineteen identified burials (two are unknown) in the row died on 1st September 1918, and two the previous day.  Of a total of 76 identified burials in the cemetery, six died on 30th August, twelve on 31st August, and 33 on 1st September.

Row D in the foreground, the three headstones on the right, although bearing the emblem of the Royal West Kent Regiment, actually marking the graves of men seconded to the 1st/20th Bn. London Regiment, two killed on 1st September, one on 31st August.  The three headstones on the left are among the few non-London Regiment graves here, and the seven headstones of Row E in the row behind…

…mark the graves of six unknown soldiers who were brought here from the surrounding battlefields after the war; the seventh headstone, on the far right, is a special memorial to Private L. A. Reardon of the 32nd Bn. London Regiment, another man killed in action on 1st September 1918 and who is known to be buried somewhere in this cemetery, although exactly where is unknown.

Row A, in the foreground, contains no unidentified men, and of the eighteen men buried in the row, ten died on 1st September and three the previous day.  All eighteen are from battalions of the London Regiment, or seconded to a London Regiment battalion.  Behind in Row B six men are unidentified, and nine of the remaining eleven men died between 31st August & 2nd September, eight of whom were with London Regiment battalions.  And behind Row B, in the centre of this shot,…

…you will notice three headstones that are not marked on the cemetery plan.

This is Row BB, and these three R.A.F. Blenheim aircrew were for a long time buried here simply as unknown airmen (below).

Killed on 21st May 1940, seventy five years later they would be positively identified, and you can read their story, and much more besides, including the crash photographs, here.

Row B.  London Irish Rifles & First Surrey Rifles.  31st August & 1st September 1918.

Let’s hope so, eh?

Right, we have to go,…

…but it has been a moving and poignant half an hour,…

…and one that I shall always remember.

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2 Responses to The Somme – Rancourt Military Cemetery – ‘To the Immortal Memory’

  1. Nick kilner says:

    Fascinating! Particularly the graves of the Airmen. I notice they now have separate named headstones spaced well apart, so presumably the were exhumed and DNA tested to work out who was who. That must have been hugely satisfying for all involved.
    And what a great ceremony to have been involved in! I suspect you have joined a very select group of people who have had the honour. Brilliant!

    • Magicfingers says:

      Yeah, the airmen’s story is interesting, and as soon as I saw the photo of George Hawkins that was used on the cover of Life magazine I recognized it immediately.
      I suspect you are right about the ceremony. What a privilege. Kept that one quiet for a year, didn’t I?

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