Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Somme

Even though I had only been home from Normandy for two weeks, I was feeling unusually anxious about this trip.  This was my first solo trip outside the UK for many years and I just couldn't shake the thought of things going wrong on my own, when abroad.
My mood wasn't eased in the slightest when I almost low sided the bike losing the back end after picking up a screw in a month old rear tyre.  At least I know I can now plug a tyre successfully and get back on the road.


Although the plug was holding, I was picking up the wife in Wales on the way home and I didn't want to risk a plugged tyre on a fully loaded bike or on the faster French roads either.  The usual places in Scotland couldn't help me at short notice, couldn't fit me in, couldn't get a tyre, blah, blah.
So I emailed Lloyd Motorrad in Carlisle, "no problem, if you can get here before 8am on Friday morning we'll get it done before we open".  Absolute top team who went out of their way to help keep the trip on, even answering emails before 6 in the morning!
Therfore the trip started a day early, I booked digs in Preston thinking I would take in some of the Lakes and the Dales on the way.  I still had digs booked in Chipping Norton for the Saturday night and the tunnel on the Sunday.
After running down the M74, the guys in Lloyds wheeled the bike in, changed the tyre and within an hour I was having breakfast in McDs.

Top team at Lloyd Motorrad

After breakfast I headed for the Lakes, planning to run down past Ullswater over the Kirkstone pass then along the side of Windermere.  It rained all the way, every mile.  Pulling into Kendal it was clear my 3 year old GoreTex gloves were no longer Goretexing as they should.  After drip drying in a cafe over a coffee I headed for the Dales in the vain hope of better weather, I should have known better.  The rain was now mixing nicely with mist over the hills, miserable.

This was as good as the Lake District would get.

It didn't get much better in the Dales, Ribblehead viaduct in the mist and rain.

Arriving at Preston the staff at the hotel looked less than impressed as I checked in while simultaneously slowly flooding the reception .  Surely tomorrow will be better.
Saturday was better, the rain had dried up during the night and the morning sun was quickly drying things up.  I picked up the M6 and then the M5 heading for Gloucester once again confirming my opinion  that the motorway network in this country is a joke.  After a quick fuel stop I headed through the north Cotswolds for Stow-on-the Wold.  After the motorways and anxiety of the last few days the winding roads of the Cotswolds were a welcome relief.  As I rolled into Chipping Norton I was beginning to feel like my old touring self again, everything was going to be just fine.
The only cloud on the horizon on Sunday morning was the M25.  I wanted to be at the tunnel for 11am, so I planned to hit the M25 about 9am.  This is the answer to the M25, Sunday morning at 9am.  I was at the speed limit all the way from Beaconsfield to Ashford.  I made up so much time I had to kill 45 minutes at Ashford before making my way to the tunnel.
At the tunnel I rode right through check in and onto an earlier train, with none of the 2 hour waits that had been reported.

On the train for the second time in a month

The only other guy on a bike was a guy on a Harley heading for Amsterdam.  We chatted about the usual rider stuff for the 35 minute crossing before heading our separate ways.
Once in France I picked up the A26 and headed for Arras where I fuelled up and grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading for the digs.  Leaving Arras I just headed south as the digs were roughly in that direction and I really needed some decent riding!  After a couple of hours of getting happily lost I asked the sat nav to direct me to the digs.  I don't think there is a bad road to be found here.  An hour later I pulled in to Avril Williams guest house in Auchonvillers.  I was immediately greeted with a brew, shown around the grounds and then to my room.  This place will not be to everyone's taste, it's a bit shabby, but it's clean and comfy.  Most importantly it is in a perfect location for the WW1 Somme sites.  Avril does evening meals and the Sunday roast pork was superb.
After a breakfast of bacon and eggs I headed north to Vimy and the Canadian national memorial.  I headed north under a crystal blue sky, with the sun warm on my back.  This was more like it.  Riding down through the battlefield to the memorial is surreal.  As far as the eye can see there is not a square meter of the landscape that does not bare the pock marks of the shells expended during the battle.  In what seems like futile defiance, trenches still weave through the 100 year old carnage.

Vimy memorial

Detail of Vimy memorial

Vimy memorial

After leaving the memorial, it is a short ride back down to the museum and visitor centre.  Unfortunately when I arrived it was closed, so I contented myself with a walk around the preserved trenches and battlefield at the rear of the visitor centre.  Again the entire area is cratered with shell holes surrounding the trenches.  I couldn't begin to imagine the hell that was unleashed here.

The Canadian flag flies over the restored trenches at Vimy

Not an inch of the battlefield has been untouched by shell fire

Leaving Vimy I realised any ideas I though I had about WW1 were not even close to the reality of what happened here.  Heading south I fuelled the bike, and myself up at Bapaume then headed for the Thiepval memorial.  When you walk around the memorial and see over 72000 names of soldiers who are still missing it hammers home the brutalising reality of war on the western front.  I'll get back to Thiepval memorial later.
I was on the hunt for a name on the memorial for a friend.  Richard is part of a group researching the names of the fallen on the cenotaph from our home town, Bo'ness.
You can find their Facebook group here
Or the website of the project here
I spent an hour looking for 'Private H Hannah' but could not find the name where the memorial register said it should be.  I checked the register of the missing at the visitor centre, again no luck.  There is obviously an error somewhere.  After a few texts back and forward I reluctantly gave up, Richard would look into it some more and get back to me that evening.
I decided to have a look around the museum attached to the visitor centre, it is well worth the 6 Euro entry fee.

Thiepval battle mural and artefacts in the museum

State of the art WW1 air warfare at Thiepval museum

By now it was getting seriously hot in the bike gear, touching 34 degrees as I left Thiepval.  I tracked down a supermarket in Albert and bought a 12 pack of water, I had a feeling I might need all of it!
Just north of Albert I decided to drop past Lochnagar crater as it was on the way back to the digs.  There is just a simple memorial cross at the site where over 27 tonnes of explosives created a crater 100 metres wide and 21 metres deep on the first day of the battle.

The memorial cross at Lochnagar crater

Panorama of Lochnagar crater

When I got back to the digs, there were over 100 US army officers and men already there.  The US and others were attending a ceremony in Amiens and they were using the conference facility the Avril Williams runs for talks etc.  I was invited for dinner and had a few beers with some very interesting army types.  It's not often you get to dine with 2 Major Generals!
I also had a look around the museum that Avril runs, it is a cracking wee collection of military goodies.  Well worth the 5 Euro entry fee.
Tuesday started with a message from Richard about Private Hannah.  There had been a mix up with his regiment, so now at least I could track down the correct pier and face on the memorial and start the hunt again.  After my bacon and eggs I decided to change my plan for the day and head for Thiepval first, rather than Beaumont-Hamel.  It turned out to be a great decision, I got the place to myself for almost an hour.  Within 10 minutes I had tracked down Private Hannah, on pier 6 face 'D' and let Richard know, it felt good to have 'found' him.  They are going to forward the information to the War Graves Commission and get the records corrected.
Private Hugh Hannah, 1006, 2/10th Royal Scots , may you rest in piece, wherever you may be.
Walking around the memorial on a summers morning, with only the birdsong breaking the silence is a truly humbling experience.  I think at one point the wind must have blown something in my eye...

Thiepval memorial

Private H Hannah, amongst the other 72000 names of the missing at Thiepval

Joint cemetery at Thiepval in the peace of a summers morning

Leaving Thiepval behind, I headed the handful of miles to the Newfoundland memorial near Beaumont-Hamel.  Like Vimy this preserved battlefield  brings home the violence of the western front as the trench-lines meander through the cratered battlefield.  As you walk around the memorial park you come across several scattered graveyards marking the worst of the battle.  All of this is watched over by the statue of a Newfoundland Caribou calling out to the lost.

The Newfoundland Caribou calling out over the battlefield

The battlefield at the Newfoundland memorial

Memorial to the highlanders in the Newfoundland memorial park

One of the graveyards in the Newfoundland memorial park

After walking around the memorial park and the visitor centre it was well into the afternoon, jumping back on the bike the temperature was well past 36 degrees.  I headed to the Ulster tower where I know there was a cafe and something cold to drink.  For half an hour I wandered around in the shade drinking cool bottles of water.

The Ulster tower.

Suitably refreshed I had tracked down the German cemetery in Fricourt that I wanted to visit.  The road from the Ulster Tower was amazing.  Very fast and flowing, it was the first time that I actually appreciated just how good the roads are around here.  It was great right up to the point where a Gendarmerie stepped out to halt my progress.  As I slowed down I suddenly remembered that the general speed limit had been reduced from 90 to 80, shit.  In my pigeon French and their broken English we got the message to each other and I was sent on my way with a wave.   Thankfully I was only doing 91 when they got a lock on me, 20 seconds earlier and the outcome may not have been as amicable!
I bimbled the rest of the way and into Fricourt...

The entrance to the German cemetery at Fricourt

War and Germany were blind to religion in WW1

The heat finally got the better of me and I decided to head back to the digs.  After peeling myself out of the bike gear I had a couple of pints and another great home cooked dinner.  That evening there was a massive thunderstorm, the sky almost as bright as day as lightening struck all around for over two hours.  At least it was a bit cooler now...

Bacon and eggs to start the day, again, this has to stop!  Delville Wood and the South African memorial is first on the list and then just ride around and see where I ended up.  As I said earlier the roads around the Somme are fabulous and it doesn't matter where you go there is always something to see along the way, just watch the 80kmph speed limit!
I ended up doing about 100 miles just criss crossing the Somme area stopping at cemeteries and memorials along the way.  Great roads, courteous drivers and motorcycle friendly villages made for some great riding.

The South African memorial at Delville wood

The South African memorial at Delville wood

South African wall of remembrance, one of the many on the Somme recording hundreds of thousands of dead and missing

After leaving Delville Wood I just rode around avoiding the main roads, mostly just getting lost.

It wasn't only humans that lost their lives during WW1

Tank Corps memorial

5570 Graves at Caterpillar Valley cemetery.  We are not really learning are we? 

Memorial to the 9th Scottish division

...and that was it, three days in the Somme that absolutely flew by.  It is an incredible place to visit.  I though I knew a bit about WW1.  I do know a bit, an incredibly small bit.  I still can't comprehend the sheer scale of the losses or the battles or the brutality of a war that has left 300,000 dead with no known grave.

I avoided the bacon and eggs on Thursday morning and headed at full speed for the tunnel, if I was going to suffer motorways after the great roads I had spent the past few days on,  I wanted it over quickly.  Once again I checked into the tunnel and got offered an earlier train, thanks again Eurotunnel!  As I was boarding the rain came on, well technically I was back on British soil.  The rain hammered down all the way round the M25 (2 hours) and then accompanied me all the way to Oswestry, where I met up with my wife and a few friends.  A hot shower, a good meal and a drink with friends has an amazing effect on a soaking, tetchy biker!
Friday was supposed to be a loop around north Wales with the wife, but the torrential rain was leaving half an inch of standing water in the car park so that put paid to that.  Pub again then.
Saturday was a grim 300 mile blast home up the M6 and M74.

Wales is still on the to-do list and I'll definitely visit the Somme again in the future.