Three and a half years ago now – travelling with a small group in the area of the Somme – my brother and I made a significant breakthrough on a little project we had given ourselves to try and discover the final resting places of two Allied airmen who had been downed upon a reconnaissance mission, one of tens of thousands mounted during WW1, and an unremarkable one at that.
As so often happens with such quests, having alighted upon the story by chance we had done such research as we could at the Public Records office at Kew before setting off on said expedition, which had been arranged as little more than a tour of the ‘greatest hits’ sites and memorials of the epic battles that took place around the Somme from 1916 to 1918.
On such outings it is always a plus to have some specific soldiers or places to find.
Touring the aforesaid ‘greatest hits’ with those who have never been before is always and inevitably a rewarding experience (for both tourists and guides) because the poignancy and implications of what remains to this day of the scars of WW1 never fail to impress.
On the tour I refer to we came to an obscure corner of the Somme sector and yet another long, straight, road across rolling countryside approximately close to where we knew our airmen had come down.
We were driving along it at 50mph or so and at the top of a long hill slope suddenly flashed past a clump of trees on the left behind which there was a wall and – my brother spotted – a local municipal cemetery. We knew that our quarry had been buried in a municipal cemetery and not one of the regular and beautifully kept Commonwealth War Graves Commission variety.
A quarter of a mile later a quick conversation followed: we had no real idea of where we were, or which hamlet further down the road we were coming to, but (what the hell) why didn’t we just stop, go back and take a look … just in case?
Dear reader, that is what we did.
A quick pull off the road, a turn around, and we sped back up the hill to said cemetery, expecting nothing. Our party jumped out, walked in and began looking around the fifty or so graves, as we did so acknowledging two workmen who were tending to the grass and shrubs around the edge of the surrounding wall.
Within two minutes – joy of joys – we had located our two airmen, lying side by side amidst a range of local civilians who had been buried over the last 150 years!
Noticing our excitement, one of the workmen came over and engaged us in stilted conversation (our French was very limited).
As he gained an understanding of our interest and why, he made a phone call on his mobile and – within five minutes – a middle-aged gent had driven up the hill to join us. The local mayor, he told us that he and his wife had a good deal of information about our two airmen back at his house.
Half an hour later, sitting around their modest kitchen table over a cup of coffee, we were leafing through news reports and German photographs of German soldiers posing beside the very aircraft outside the local church where it had crash landed, killing its crew. And much more besides.
It made for a memorable highlight of our tour that summer.
The irony was that, setting off back up that hill within the hour – on our way to our next scheduled stop – we happened to speed past a sign to the Butte de Warlencourt, itself an unimpressive chalky mound upon the horizon, and (simply because it was there, we hadn’t planned to visit it) on a whim decided to stop and have a look.
There was an explanatory board or two detailing how the landmark had changed hands between the Allies and the Germans right up to 1918 and a statement that it was owned and maintained by the Western Front Association.
It was a case of job done, box ticked … and (frankly) so what?
None of our touring party had known anything particular about it, bar the fact it existed and was fought over … and anyway we were getting late for our scheduled arrival at our next ‘greatest hit’ elsewhere.
I was reminded of this little episode when spotting this article penned by Sebastian Murphy-Bates today upon the website of the – DAILY MAIL