Somme Battlefields

contalmaisonArchaeologists looking for war poet Wilfred Owens's trench dugout on the Somme find the remains of 3 fallen soldiers. So what happens to the missing when they are found, and should we go looking for them?

By Evelyn McKechnie

The woman gently held the poppy petals clasped in her hand and waited. She was judging the direction of the wind blowing across the peaceful landscape of the Somme. When she released them the petals floated down perfectly onto the gravesite of the exhumed soldier. It was a beautiful, mild, sunny day in October 2003 in Serre, a small hamlet and a million light years away from the horror of war that was the Somme in 1916. The woman came to remember the fallen and felt impelled to honour this one soldier.

The soldier's remains had been uncovered by an archaeological team in Serre, who were actually looking for Wilfred Owen's trench dugout. 1,979,556 soldiers from all the nations that fought in the 'Great War' are missing and it is estimated that if you walk 6 paces in any direction on the front line, you would be walking on a grave.

The archaeologists in Serre, though much used to exhuming human remains, were deeply moved by the woman's simple token of remembrance. The soldier was somebody's son, husband or brother and her gesture signified what they all felt, that they were glad he had been found.

The archaeologists did not know the woman's name but they might be able to name the soldier who had lain under the ground in the Somme for the past 85 years. By his shoulder tags they knew he was probably from the Kings Own Lancashire Regiment and possibly one of their 19 stretcher bearers who are still missing. He was found lying at the bottom of the trench his hands clasped around barbed wire. Rats had given him no peace even in death as they had burrowed through his pelvic bones and made their nest in his lower back all those years ago.

It would take time to identify him but it could be possible. Unlike their German counterparts, the British had no aluminum dog tags. They were issued with only one dog tag made of compressed cardboard, a kind of fibrous material that decayed in the mud after their death. It was only after the end of the Somme battle in November 1916 that British soldiers were issued with two dog tags, though some soldiers would buy private aluminum bracelets behind the lines in the villages".

But it was what happened in Serre in 1917 that brought the archaeologists to this sector of the front line, part of the battlefield just north of Beaumont Hamel. The earth was being opened up to once again to lay bare the physical evidence of the horrible nature of the 'Great War' which lies just beneath the tranquil fields of the Somme.

The archaeologists had been commissioned by the BBC's 'Meet the Ancestors' programmers, to search for the German dugout that Wilfred Owen occupied with his platoon in January 1917. Owen was killed one week before Armistice Day on 4th November near Ors. His family was informed as church bells rang out for peace.

His 50 hours in the dugout inspired one of his most famous poems, 'The Sentry'. The poem describes how a sentry on duty was blown down into the dugout and blinded after heavy bombardment. Helen McPhail, Vice Chairman of the Wilfred Owen says, "Owen was able to convey his experiences so vividly in his poetry and his letters".

SerreOn 12th January 1917, eight weeks after the 'official' end of the Battle of the Somme, Owen occupied the 'advance post' a former German dugout. He had crawled there through no mans land with 25 soldiers of A Company of the 2nd Manchesters. Because it was a German dugout the stairway of the dugout faced the German lines, so Owen posted a sentry. After heavy bombardment, the sentry was blown down into the dugout and blinded. Owen and his men were finally relieved 50 hours later by the 15th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry, a Glasgow Pals battalion made up men employed from the Glasgow Corporation Tramways. (The 'Pals' were battalions made up of volunteers from the same area who all joined

Owen wrote to his mother on the 16th January 1917 about his experience in the dugout, saying he had suffered 'seventh hell,' that he was 'not at the front but in front of it'. He went on to describe in the same letter the mud of the Somme, as 'not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4 and 5 feet deep'.

The same sucking clay was in evidence 85 years later. It stuck to your shoes, building up layer upon layer as you walked and it wasn't even raining. Passchendaele was even worse for mud as men could fall off the duckboard walkways and just simply disappear.

Looking around from the dig site, it is hard to comprehend the horror that existed here during the Great War. The Somme at Serre is a rolling landscape with no hedgerows, so their horizons completely surround you. A small horse clip clops by with an open carriage carrying a young couple. The turnips are piled high at the edges of the fields and the shooting season has begun. Lots of French farmers stand around the fields looking for their first kill, their dogs bounding along in the thick Somme soil, the sounds of shooting boom across countryside.

The front line of the Somme in July 1916 was only 22 miles long, from Gommecourt in the North to Maricourt in the South, yet it witnessed the most appalling losses of the British Army, with 19,000 dead in a matter of hours and 36,000 wounded. The battle continued until the 18th November 1916, 8 miles were advanced and the cost was 420,000 casualties sustained in the four months of fighting. The Northern Pals Battalions of Sheffield, Bradford, Accrington and Leeds were wiped out at Serre in the murderous first minutes of the battle on July 1st, 1916. Formed at the outbreak of war, they were two years in the making but were destroyed in ten minutes.

One and half million artillery shells were fired in the bombardment of the Somme but a third were duds. The failure to blast the German trenches effectively and cut their thick wire in front of the trenches meant the Germans were able to crawl up from their deep dugouts in the chalk to man their Maxim machine guns to appalling effect. That is why the Somme is the final resting place for so many of Owens's 'Doomed Youth'. The British soldiers walked out of the trenches, burdened with 66 pounds of equipment, to occupy and consolidate trenches that were supposed to have been obliterated of all Germans but they were cut to pieces.

Even today, you can see the physical signs of the First World War still in evidence. The trench systems can still be seen from the air as chalky lines through the Somme. They were filled in with chalk by the farmers and even after 85 years, the trench lines are still visible criss-crossing the landscape. There is also the 'Iron Harvest' of unexploded artillery shells which are still being ploughed up each year which are collected annually by the Belgian Army for disposal.

LochnagarThe BBC dig unearthed part of a trench complete with 4 separate layers of duckboards, numerous artillery shells, bullets, barbed wire, British toffee apple bombs and the bodies of a further two soldiers, both German. The bodies were removed to the small French Memorial chapel, across the road from Serre No 1 Cemetery and the French National Cemetery at Serre-Hebuterne. It is probable that the German soldiers will be buried in a few months time in the mass grave of the 'Comrades Garden' at Fricourt,

If the British soldier found at Serre is ever identified his name will be taken off the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, containing over 72,000 names. His final resting place could be only a few metres away at Serre No 2 Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in France where over 7,000 soldiers are interred.

The missing are still being found, usually, when construction takes place over a battlefield area. An example of this is Boezinge, a village north of Ypres in Belgium and in Thiepval, France.

For the past five years local amateur archaeologists called, 'the Diggers' enthusiasts with a passion for the Great War in the Ypres area have found remains of 172 soldiers. Most of them were fragmentary, as they often were found in no man's land, an area that had been heavily shelled. Only a few dozen appeared to have been buried on the battlefield by their comrades. As to the nationalities, almost half of them were British, one third was German, and the rest were French. That number of 172 of course is almost negligible when compared to the estimated 50,000 who have not found a known grave in the whole Ypres Salient.

Soldier in trenchIn Belgium, when remains are found they are handed over to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Ypres, the German equivalent Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfürsorge, or the

Archaeologists will continue to excavate the battlefields of the Great War. As for the woman at Serre, gently dropping her poppy petals into the grave of a man she had never met, it was as though she came to represent all those who died with her name, Mother, on their lips - in French, German and English.

© Evelyn McKechnie