(Editor's Note: This was written by my late father on the occasion of visiting my great-grandfather's resting place in the village where he was killed in WWI during the battle of the Somme. On the eve of Veteran's Day, which was known originally as Armistice Day and marked the end of the War to End all Wars, it seems fitting to share this little remembrance of the day we walked the ground and visited the monument to a place where a half million soldiers were killed, including one LCPL Terence P. Moran)
The road to the Somme was trim and green in the April air. I sat in the back, a place I rarely visit, and having had no real breakfast, chewed on Rory and Terry, who was driving, The incessant chatter and airy disregard of place and direction made me curmudgeonly. Still, nothing could actually sour the freshness of the morning and after one or two more “Right! Here, turn right for crissakes ”. Terry, in a fine state of total contentment, sailed on unperturbed and I decided to leave it be and trust to blind faith. After which, strangely enough, there were no more lapses of attention.
We skirted to the north of Amiens and stopped at Albert, not sure where we were exactly in relation to the battlefield but somehow knowing we were very close. The church, the town square, the very ambience of the place had a timeless quality completely at odds with the fact that 84 years ago everything in view was raised to the ground and even that was reduced to a porridge of muddy craters. We had a cheesy toasty thing – certainly not what you would call breakfast – and some good coffee and pushed on, heading for Thiepval.
The Memorial is huge. It towers over the trees and dominates the landscape. The landscape is serene and laid open to view. One can see across the downward sloping
Hills, across the entire battlefield in fact from a vantage point by the Ulster regiments’ memorial which stands at the top of the ridge. There the enemy machine gunners were dug-in along a line, maybe 70 feet apart and paralleling the railway line. Although the gunners were unable to see the railroad track away below them what with the ground mist and the dark on that November morning it hardly mattered as all the guns had been sighted-in so thoroughly that ‘not a single blade of grass could escape the murderous fire’. It all looked very placid and bucolic now, but on Friday morning, the 13th November 1916 , it must have been a scene from hell. A featureless expanse of tree stumps, barbed wire and shell holes; and because of the incessant rains, the entire area a gluey quagmire of mud and lifeless body parts
No place certainly for a living being and no way out alive for my Grandfather.
A man finding himself here on that early day would be terror-stricken with the sure and certain knowledge that death was just a few quick breaths away.
We walked along the bottom by the railway track, tracing the line of advance towards the little station of Buvaise-Hamel, which had been the objective on that day, just a few hundred yards ahead. We saw again the trench that had been furrowed out between the railway line and the wee river and knew we were looking at the killing ground where our Grandfather had given his life to a promise that was never kept.
With all of the trenches ladderbacking the hills and the close proximity of the thousands of desperate men who had been facing one another, what struck me most was that the scale of things was so much smaller than one would have supposed. The ‘kill area’ was actually a long gully with the little river running through the length of it and the railway line to Buvaise-Hamel snuggled in beside the river. The land sloped down on both sides forming the vee of the gully and from their entrenched positions on the slopes the enemy could pour a wall of enfilade fire with little or no risk. We stared, silent, at the ruined little red-bricked box of a station. It looked utterly inconsequential and very, very sad.
Just a couple of hundred yards back from the station we came to the small walled-in cemetery where all 900 who fell that day lie together with others killed earlier and still others who were to be killed the following day. In all 2478 headstones stand inside the enclosure.
We walked the rows of white markers so neat so well kept; knowing already that his body had not been identified except by the uniform and was ‘known only to God’. In many cases it was the same, sometimes the name of the regiment was given, sometimes not. At times not even that much could be identified from the shredded cloth.
Out of all those markers there was one, just one, which said: Lance Corporal, 10th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers -Friday 13th November 1916 ……. and so we took that to our own.
Back at the Memorial we read his name in the book and found it again on the wall of remembrance –Block 16C. Rore took the photo, while Ter clung to the wall with me holding him and we got a tracing:-“Terence P. Moran “
Yes…and that was it.
Terence Fergus -- April ‘03
(Postscript: the visit was made on the occasion of my and Dad's leaving Iraq on leave - me on mobilization and he on a tour as a project manager to make operational again the Port of Umm Qasr; another great story.)