I woke up on 20 October 2018 to the sound of church bells pealing at 7am in our B & B in Cagnoncles. I was too excited to hang around any longer so we set off early towards Briastre.
A thick mist choked the land and it was hard to see more than a 100ft at best in front of us. It was easy to imagine all those soldiers standing out there, a 100 years to the day returning to the spot where they had fought and fallen. Perhaps the fog would have reminded them of another type of mist seen on the battlefields. Poison gas was mistaken for mist or smoke on it’s first sighting. It gave a very eerie start to the day but a very atmospheric one.
It seemed pointless to travel to the spot where the battle had happened while visibility was so poor, so we made our way to the nearby town of Solemnes which was also part of the attack. We wandered the town, looking at it’s memorial to the fallen and learnt how the town hall had been destroyed during WW2 by retreating Germans using a time bomb, which sadly had killed some allied soldiers who had gone to seek shelter in it and was now rebuilt as it had once been. We ventured into a local café/bar for a coffee. All the locals who entered the bar came up, said hello and shook our hands. I don’t know if this is something they do for any visitor but it was a lovely greeting. The sun soon burnt back the mist and it turned into a bright shining day. We drove to nearby Briastre, a small village of about 700 souls. But we had no idea exactly where to start looking for the site that Jack had won his military cross We had some military maps that Jeremy Banning the historian who researched my grandfather had found, we had a book about the East Lancashire division in which Jack had made some annotations and we also had the citation for his medal which read as follows:
‘For marked gallantry and determined leadership. He was in command of a company, and under heavy machine-gun fire, dashed forward with a few of his men, shooting several of the enemy with his rifle and capturing the guns. Later, finding that the company on his flank had not reached its objective, he led a platoon and attacked the enemy on his flank. His gallantry and good leadership was the cause of success during a very difficult advance’.
This advance took place on 20 October 1918 in the early hours of the morning. They had amassed the evening before and were ready to go by 1AM.
We decided that we would visit the mayor’s office. Every town and village in France of any size has one and we hoped we might be able to draw on some local knowledge. The people were very interested in what we were trying to ask. A gentlemen whom we thought was the mayor came forward to speak to us but it was a lovely lady called Valerie who kindly translated for us in the end, whose father had been English. Together everyone in the office piled around our books and info and helped us to locate where Jack had won his MC and whether it was accessible. The railway cutting he had crossed, which had been the first part of his MC had long since gone it seemed and the ravine did not exist as it once had done and was mostly inaccessible. Valerie kindly agreed to hop into the van with two British strangers and take them to the point where we could access the MC site. We can’t thank her or the people of Briastre enough for this it would have been extremely hard to pinpoint the area without their help.
We set off down a farm track, slightly muddled about where we were, we thought we might have located the crossroads that was his final objective and the 2nd part of his MC but carried on walking, till we located what we decided was the ravine he had crossed. I was a little confused by the info and originally thought that they had travelled along the ravine but in fact they had crossed it, taken out a machine gun post and carried on towards the sunken road. I have some original photos taken at the time from the East Lancashire division book of the
ravine, railway cutting and sunken road which proved very useful. In the distance we could see the local farmer on his tractor quiety ploughing his fields. I read aloud some of the info of the attack that happened there and found my self feeling very emotional and choked, so much so I couldn’t finish reading the passage.
We walked round the other side of the field and came across the railway cutting that he had crossed. Jack had written ‘Our part was the deepest part’ and indeed it was very deep. The 2D photo doesn’t convey at all how deep it was. A cross was beside the edge of the ravine but we had no way of knowing who it was for. It wasn’t a miltary gravestone. We carried on and found a railway bridge and the bottom part of the ravine. But we were still a little confused at this point about where the sunken road was, it wasn’t quite making sense yet.
We made our way back to the van, which was parked next the villages military graveyard, it was kept spotlessly clean and about 8 tenths of the graves were members of the Manchester Regiment. I read and photographed every grave and pondered whether any of them had been Jack’s friends. It was a lovely spot, looking over green fields and towards slowly turning turbines in the distance. We had our lunch here in the van overlooking the cemetary.
Wel was determined to finish our objective though before we headed off to our next accommodation. We studied the maps again and decided to head up and down the road, eventually we came across a small road leading out of town, as we drove up the road, it gradually sunk down between the fields and eventually we reached a crossroads. We both had a tingle down our spine, we knew at last we had found the sunken road. In the distance we could hear church bells pealing and a
sky lark sung his sweet song above our heads. It might sound silly but it felt to me like those bells were ringing in recognition and confirmation that we had at last found our spot. The story was complete. Oddly the photo of the sunken road from 100 years ago looked very similar, even down to the sign that was there. In the distance I could see the ravine he’d crossed, in the other direction was the steeple of the church in Solemnes, just as in the original photo. I felt that I had honoured my grandfather and his regiment by returning to this spot. You can read about history in a book but there is nothing like walking it, no history book can convey the depth of a ravine crossed, the colour of the earth trodden or the magical feel of a place. Of all the days in my life this will be one of my proudest.
I can think of no finer way to finish than with the poetry of Rupert Brooke:
‘ If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.’