Divided in death

An Irishman’s Diary: Two cemeteries on the Somme mark the war dead

‘It was not always quiet here on the northern banks of the River Somme. The British and German armies battled, to and fro, for every inch of sodden land from 1914 to 1918.’ Above, David Lloyd George  acknowledges cheers from British troops as he emerges from a captured German dug-out at Fricourt in September 1916. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘It was not always quiet here on the northern banks of the River Somme. The British and German armies battled, to and fro, for every inch of sodden land from 1914 to 1918.’ Above, David Lloyd George acknowledges cheers from British troops as he emerges from a captured German dug-out at Fricourt in September 1916. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 01:00

Two cemeteries rest close by each other on the northern banks of the River Somme, scarcely a mile apart but immeasurably divided by war. I went from one to the other, a pleasant autumn stroll along the quiet, undulating roads of rural France. It was not always quiet here. The British and German armies battled, to and fro, for every inch of sodden land from 1914 to 1918 and the only sound was “the monstrous anger of the guns”, as the poet Wilfred Owen put it. Thousands upon thousands were slaughtered. They now rest in the region’s many military cemeteries, solemn and orderly and impeccably maintained. The German cemeteries are less visible than those of the Allied forces as they were designed to blend with the environment.

More than 17,000 German soldiers lie at Fricourt, their graves marked by iron crosses. Occasionally the lines of crosses are broken by oval headstones inscribed with the Star of David, marking the graves of soldiers of the Jewish faith who served, in their thousands, in the German army. Corporal Adolph Hitler, the future leader of Germany, fought in this area for four years. He was wounded in 1916 and was temporarily blinded in a British mustard gas attack in 1918. He had a dangerous job as a dispatch rider, was commended for bravery and was awarded a number of medals, including the Iron Cross. It was while recovering from the gas attack in hospital that he heard of Germany’s capitulation and complained angrily that the fighting men had been stabbed in the back by their civilian leaders and Marxists. As I wandered among the iron crosses and the Stars of David I wondered how many of the sons and daughters of these dead comrades-in-arms did he go on to send to the gas chambers of the Third Reich?

It was at Fricourt that a less notorious fighter, Capt Manfred von Richthofen, the famous Red Baron or Red Devil, was first interred. A fighter pilot, who had his aircraft painted red, he is reputed to have shot down 80 Allied air planes. Richthofen was born into a prominent Prussian aristocratic family in Breslau ( now Wroclaw in Poland) and had a privileged boyhood. He excelled at gymnastics and horse riding, hunting wild boar, elk and deer in the forests of the family estate.

He entered the war as a cavalry man but in 1915 transferred to the Imperial German army air service and was soon making his mark as a fearless fighter pilot. In 1917 he was promoted leader of what became known as the “Flying Circus”, a crack squadron. A year later he was shot down and killed in April, 1918, at the age of 25, behind the Allied lines. Richthofen was hugely respected by all sides in the conflict. Despite the bloody exchanges on land and in the air there were still remnants of old military chivalry. Richthofen was buried with full military honours by his foes. Six Allied airmen with the rank of captain acted as pallbearers and the squadrons based on the Somme sent wreaths. One was dedicated to “Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.

Just down the road from Fricourt at Mametz is one of the smallest and, for me, the most poignant of all the cemeteries I visited. This is where the British Front Line ran on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st, 1916. On that awesome day the British army saw more than 21,000 of its troops killed in action, among them 161 men of the Devonshire Regiment. From their trench on a slight incline above the road the Devons had observed a German machine post on the opposite slope. They were assured by higher authorities that the gun would be put out of action by artillery bombardment before they went over the top. But the gun survived and as the Devons attempted to cross 400 yards of open country towards the German lines many of them were mown down. Later that day their comrades collected the bodies of the fallen and buried them in the trench they had left. On a wooden plaque they wrote: “The Devonshires held this trench. They hold it still”. The plaque has long since weathered away but, in what is now the Devonshire Cemetery, it has been replaced by a stone memorial. The words remain, cast in stone so that age cannot wither them.

Not far away, across the border in Belgium, near the village of Boezinghe lie the remains of the Irish poet, Francis Ledwidge. Having survived the hell of Gallipoli and the rigours of Serbia, Ledwidge was sent to Flanders with his regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He wrote these lines: “And now I’m drinking wine in France/ The helpless child of circumstance/ Tomorrow will be loud with war/How will I be accounted for?’ The answer came on July 31st, 1917. He was a member of a work party repairing a road – a task that would have been familiar to him from his days as a ganger on the roads of Meath – when a shell exploded beside him. Ledwidge and five comrades were killed. They were buried where they fell but their bodies were later reinterred in the nearby Artillery Wood cemetery.

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