A big day of walking today in the Northern sector of the Somme, taking in Authuille, the Ancre Valley (at several points) Blighty Valley, Crucifix Corner, Leipzig Redoubt, the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Ulster Tower, and the edge of Thiepval Wood and also Newfoundland Park (St. John’s St., Danger Tree, Y Ravine, and the German communications line down into Beaumont Hamel), before ending up with a loop from Auchonvillers: out along Hawthorn Ridge, then down the Old Beaumont Road into the valley below Hawthorn Ridge, following the Sunken Lane up to Redan Ridge, then turning back down to Chalk City, Jacob’s Ladder, and Malins’ vantage above the Sunken Lane. At several points today my suspicions that vestiges of the battle might be ubiquitous in the woods and marginal ground around the Somme were confirmed. Wherever it is possible to peer into the shadowy, bramble-choked woods the same undulations appear – differing only in size and concentration depending on how prolonged and intense the fighting was in a particular area. These vestiges certainly help provide an impression of what the war did to the landscape; but it still requires a great deal of traditional research and not a little imagination to flesh-out this impression and to make it live.
On the other hand all the traditional research in the world, looking at trench maps, reading accounts, even looking at pictures, doesn’t hold patch to walking the ground when it comes to understanding the nature of the fighting. Once one gets a handle on where the lines ran (which is more difficult than it might seem, particularly since lines evolved organically and not always rationally) the logic of events becomes apparent. Moving South to North, four sites in particular hammered this home today. First, looking down Mash Valley toward Albert, with Ovillers on the right, I really understood Tolkien’s description and his obvious anxiety. It’s even clearer from the backyard of the Ovillers church, which overlooks the valley. The second was Leipzig Redoubt, from which the views over the surrounding valleys (Nab and Ancre) are truly spectacular. Of course, this means that the fields of fire for a machine gun would be similarly spectacular; as would the view of an artillery observer. All the more remarkable that the British were able even to get into and take part of the Redoubt, attacking up from Authille Wood. Third, from the German positions below Ulster tower there are sweeping views across the Ancre Valley right up to the Newfoundland Memorial Park. Finally, standing halfway along the road between Auchonvillers and Beaumont Hamel, with Hawthorne Ridge looming up to the right front and Redan Ridge further off but just as commanding to the left front is a little bit chilling. An advance along the line of the valley would be subject to enfilading fire from above on both sides. Whereas any advance toward redan ridge would be subject to fire across the valley from Hawthorn Ridge. Likewise any attack along the line of Hawthorne ridge toward the crater blown by the mine at 7:20, would come under the guns of Redan Redoubt as well as those in the Valley and Hawthorne ridge. Malins’ captured the results with his camera as men of the 86th Brigade jumped the bags and moved through no-man’s land toward the crater. Almost immediately some of the figures start to stumble and fall. It is a tragic scene in its own right, but takes on entirely new significance when it can be illuminated by an understanding of its topographical context.
Who’d have thought it, all those military historians enjoining students to ‘walk the ground’, were right!