[First in a series of posts about the Battle of the Somme.
This is the Somme river valley. The word “Somme” is likely derived from Latin and French, “sommeil” suggesting a nap, a doze, or quick sleep. Others say it is Celtic and means “tranquil”. It was neither for the soldiers who fought and died.
The battle for the pillbox at Tyne Cot has significance for all of us. First, it was part of the “War to End All Wars”, a misnomer. Second, it is a reminder of the fragility of life. Third, for myself and my two brothers-in-laws who went on this journey in September of 2016, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Somme Offensive, it was a connection with our grandfathers who fought and lived.]
Tyne Cot Cemetery
Date, September 8, 2016.
If we had waited three weeks and a few days, it would have been the 99th anniversary of the successful Australian assault on the hill along the Passendaele-Broodseinde road where the Germans were dug in and waiting. The weather is beautiful, unlike 100 years ago, and the countryside is serene and tranquil.
The view is of Fields of Flanders in the rolling chalk upland hills with Belgian villages here and there. The beauty is somber. In 1917, the second year of the Battle of the Somme, September rains and constant shelling by Allied and German howitzers have made the landscape a muddy morass and hellish scene. The entrenched Germans are ready with machine guns, barbed wire, deep dugouts, and pillboxes.
The name “Tyne Cot” was provided by the British Northumberland Fusiliers.
Far from home, far from their families, opposite the Germans, the Fusiliers are said to have seen a resemblance between the German concrete pill boxes and the Fusilliers’ own stone cottages near Tyneside (Tyne cots) in Northumberland, England’s northernmost county.
On 4 October 1917, the hill and the bunker where Tyne Cot Cemetery CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) is now located was captured by the 3rd Australian Division. New Zealanders, in support of Australians and advancing through mud that day, were caught in uncut German barbed wire and slaughtered. Elsewhere other British and Commonwealth soldiers attacked German lines.
After taking the hill, the pillbox where the cross stands was used as a medical dressing station for wounded. A cemetery for the 343 dead Australian soldiers was begun two days later.
The inscription reads, “This was the Tyne Cot Blockhouse captured by the 3rd Australian Division 4th October 1917.
On 13 April 1918, the Germans recaptured the hillside and it was finally liberated by Belgian forces five months later.
After the Armistice the cemetery was expanded to consolidate the graves of other battle sites around Passendaele and now contains over 11,500 graves of Commonwealth and British soldiers. Four German soldiers are buried here. The memorial wall contains the names of almost 35,000 soldiers who have no known grave.
The city towers of Ypres are visible in the distance. The blood red poppies that are ever present in the green fields are a reminder of the lives lost.
Worth watching – Youtube Tyne Cot drone view.
How does one assess the worth of the Battle of the Somme?
On the first day of the battle, British soldiers kicked soccer balls towards the German lines across “no man’s land,” in a belief the battle would be quick and simple.
It was neither.
In all, for the six miles that British soldiers advanced during the offensive, they lost more than 400,000 and both sides saw 1.3 million casualties. Intending to relieve the French who held out against a German offensive at Verdun, there too were a million casualties. This was bloodletting on a massive scale.
And what are we left with?
The days are gone by when, for dynastic ends, small armies of professional soldiers went to war to conquer a city, or a province, and then sought winter quarters or made peace. The wars of today call whole nations to arms…. The entire financial resources of the State are appropriated to a military purpose….
— Moltke the Elder, writing in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870
The first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 1916, was the bloodiest day ever in British Army history.
Exhausted when the winter snows finally came, both sides hunkered down and repeated the bloodshed in 1917, when Tyne Cot was captured by the Australians, and in 1918 when it was recaptured by the Germans, until the Armistice came on November 11, 1918.