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France 1916: The Battle of the Somme
The Road to Flers
The most loathsome and appalling terrain
The Somme countryside to the north and south of the road – the D20 – between the villages of Contalmaison and Longueval is beautiful in summer with alternate vistas of woodland, valley and rolling farmland. It probably looked much like this before 1914 except that today the evidence of war is visible in the cemeteries such as Flatiron Copse and Thistle Dump which lie along or near the road. Here are ancient woodlands such as Mametz Wood and unusual memorials such as the Welsh Division Memorial.
When the soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force came here to participate again in the battle of the Somme in late October 1916 they saw a landscape which had suffered from having been fought over by modern armies since the start of the battle on 1 July. ‘The idyllic landscape’, wrote Captain Alexander Ellis, the historian of the Australian Fifth Division, ‘became in a few short months the most loathsome and appalling terrain in the world’.
Travelling these quiet roads today we can image the scene. Shells and machine gun bullets had stripped the trees of leaf and branch turning the woods into virtually impassable graveyards of twisted wood, shell holes and discarded equipment. Villages were rubble and the meadows a quagmire of craters and mud. Beside Longueval lies Delville Wood where, between 14 and 20 July 1916, the South African Brigade fought to seize the wood from its German defenders. The fighting was terrible and the South Africans, who had entered the action with 3,150 men were reduced to little more than 130 survivors at the end of it. The wood itself was not finally taken until 25 August. To Captain Ellis, as the Fifth Division came here in late October 1916, the wood was an abomination:
Delville Wood in October 1916 was surely the most terrible spectacle that war had yet vouchsafed the world – Delville Wood, with its unburied corpses and its stinking trenches parapeted with dead Germans to protect those who yet lived. And perhaps some of the men who died in its foul recesses saw with a prophetic eye of death a future still unrevealed to us who are left. For a Tommy and a German, dying together in the same shell–hole, had smiled at each other before they breathed their last.
Captain A D Ellis, The Story of the Fifth Australian Division, London, no date, p.141
The Australian divisions were responsible for this whole back line area during the so called ‘Somme Winter’ of 1916–17. Nissen huts were built in villages a little further south such as Fricourt, Mametz, and Montauban–de–Picardie to accommodate men resting from the front–line trenches to the north–east of Flers and Gueudecourt. Tons of supplies were picked and brought forward by horse–drawn wagons under terrible conditions for both animals and humans. Captain Walter Belford, 11th Battalion, described how their horse lines were ‘knee–deep in mud’, the horses ‘sick with exposure and muddy fare … What had been only mild exercise for horses and men became toil and hardship almost incredible’.
The amount of road traffic in the area would have been immense and it all needed controlling. Responsible for this activity were the military police of the Australian Provost Corps and like all others on these roads they were exposed to the daily danger of enemy shelling. Down a side road off the D20 between Contalmaison and Longueval is Flatiron Copse Cemetery. Here, lying side by side in Plot I, Row G, Graves 12 and 13, are Corporal Harold Peak and Lance–Corporal Norman Lowe of the Australian Provost Corps. They enlisted in 1914 and fought at Gallipoli – Peak in the 1st Light Horse Regiment and Lowe in the 2nd Battalion, both New South Wales units – and they both transferred to the Provost Corps, Fifth Australia Division, when they came to France in 1916.
The valley in which Flatiron Copse is situated is well suited at its sides to soldiers’ dug–outs and bivouacs and these little structures would have dotted the area in late 1916 when the Fifth Division arrived here. At 9.30 pm on 28 October 1916, as Lowe and Peak were turning in for the night in their dugout hereabouts it was hit by a German shell and demolished. Both men were killed. Corporal Walter Monk, another Gallipoli veteran of the 1st Light Horse now also serving in the Provost Corps, told the Australian Red Cross that his friend Peak had been working on traffic duty in the area and that the men’s remains were ‘gathered up’ and buried close by. At the time Flatiron Copse was already a battlefield burial ground and the two Australian military policemen lie in the original battlefield plot.
Local roads, subjected to constant heavy military traffic, also needed maintaining and that work fell to the various pioneer battalions and engineering units of the Australian divisions as well as to the men of the front–line infantry battalions when out of the line. It was hard, backbreaking work in often terrible weather, and life–threatening because of enemy shelling.
Thistle Dump Cemetery lies off to the left of the D20 about a kilometre from Longueval down an unpaved side track.This small battlefield cemetery was begun in August 1916 and in Row E, lying side by side in Graves 32 and 33, are two men of the 4th Pioneer Battalion – Harry Davies and Henry Martin. On 16 February 1917 the friends were working on the building of a light railway line which would eventually run all the way along this area and up north of Longueval to the village of Flers close behind the front line held during the winter of 1916–17. Their deaths by shell fire came about in the random way of so many who died in these areas behind the lines.
Because they died far from the front, there was time to give them a proper burial, unlike those who perished in battle. Martin’s friend, Private Norman Reynolds, wrote:
I was one of the party that was with him at the time and assisted at his burial which took place in the afternoon … our Chaplain took the service all company Officers being present. He is buried in another grave with a comrade named Davies who was killed by the same shell (High Explosive). His death was instantaneous … shortly after our battalion moved to another locality but before moving the battalion erected a cross on the grave. The cross is painted white but the names of Martin and Davies are painted in black … my late friend and comrade would be roughly five foot six inches in height, medium build with a ruddy complexion, hair russet or reddish (or perhaps I may use our common expression ginger), amongst his friends he was often called ‘Bluey’ … he was a good living fellow and was at the time of joining up an active member of the Salvation Army at Townsville
Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau file, Private Henry Martin,
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010