It’s a grey, cold and wet day in October and I’m surrounded by oak trees which have just dropped their acorns. Thousands lay scattered on the ground at my feet and it’s hard to imagine that just as many soldiers died here nearly 100 years ago. I’m visiting Delville Wood in the Somme region of France. It is most famously known as the site where South African soldiers died trying to take the wood ‘at all costs’. Only 143 men from 3,150 survived following 6 days of fighting in July 1916. My Great-Great-Uncle Charles Arthur arrived with the 23rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers on the last day to relieve the South Africans. His fight was to end in 5th March 1917 at Rouen and he is buried in St Sever Cemetery.
I am visiting the area with my father to visit the graves of our relatives who fought in the First World War. Some are buried near Ypres, while others are scattered as far as Boulogne and Rouen. Many thousands of people have travelled this route before us. Veterans, relatives, school groups and tourists. All of them seeking to learn something about the First World War, the people who fought for our freedom and maybe a little something about themselves. The museums, battlefields and cemeteries can provoke a range of reactions and the sounding of the last post under the Menin Gate in Ypres every night at 8pm reminds us never to forget. Remnants of the war can be seen in the museums or even bought as souvenirs. Farmers are still finding ammunition and bones as they plough their field.
The red poppy symbol can be found throughout the region and poppy wreaths are constantly being laid at cemeteries, memorials and even the desolate Lochnagar Crater where miners tunnelled under the German defences and used explosives to blow a huge hole in the ground. However, real poppies are not to be found at this time of year but maybe the damp, muddy conditions are a greater reminder of the hardships that the soldiers faced during the war.