Hovering over the Somme

It was about this time 40 years ago that we had not long returned from our very first family holiday abroad, which was a week in France, as my dad recalls in his column from 15th September 1979. We had driven down to Dover in our trusty custard-yellow Ford Cortina estate to take the hovercraft across the Channel.

Dad was one of those writers who simply could not switch off, and so every trip was potential column or book material. He also knew that if he could show that he’d used the trip as research for future writing, then he could legitimately offset a good chunk of the expense against his tax bill. He wasn’t daft!

Consequently, it meant that myself, aged 12, and my teenaged elder siblings, were dragged – sorry, I mean ‘taken’ to various churches, cathedrals, cemeteries and museums.

I could not fathom why anyone would want to spend time on their holiday looking at row after row of identical graves in a military cemetery. And what was so special about that great big monument on a hill in the middle of the French nowhere? I wanted themes parks, beaches and ice creams!

What my 12-year-old self failed to appreciate was that I was standing on ground that was the scene of the most famous and bloodiest battle of the Great War, that of the River Somme.

The big monument, which consisted of two ‘wings’ either side of a central tower with spectacular views over the French countryside, was actually the Australian National Memorial which lies 15 miles east of the northern city of Amiens, next to the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery. The monument and cemetery commemorate thousands of Commonwealth servicemen who lost their lives on or near the ground upon which they stand.

When they launched their Somme offensive on July 1st 1916, the British expected little German resistance after a sustained artillery bombardment the week before. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and within the first hour, almost 20,000 of the 120,000 allied troops lay dead, while 37,000 were wounded. The Battle of the Somme lasted 141 days and resulted in around 1.5 million casualties on both sides, yet enabled our troops to advance a mere six miles.

The awful death toll led to the military abandoning their recruitment strategy known as the ‘pals’ battalions. To encourage men to join up, army staff would canvass potential soldiers in groups, promising them that they could serve alongside their friends, neighbours and work colleagues (in other words, their ‘pals’), rather than the usual method of being assigned randomly to regiments. The drive was highly successful, with ‘pals’ battalions being established all over the country, from workplaces, towns, villages, sports clubs and practically any community with a common interest.

Sadly, as men from the same places served side by side, so it meant they were killed side by side, leaving great holes in the community to which they once belonged. Certain areas suffered far higher losses than they otherwise would have done, and one of the worst affected was the East Lancashire Regiment, better known as the Accrington Pals. Of the 700 members who all came from in and around that Lancashire town, 235 were killed and 350 were wounded in the space of 20 minutes on the first day of battle. Following the carnage at the Somme, the army reverted to more traditional methods of recruitment.

Unfortunately, as a 12-year-old visiting these battlefields, the significance of the ground beneath my feet did not sink in, and for me, the most enthralling part of the whole holiday was the journey over there on the hovercraft.

The experience of first seeing that magnificent otherworldly machine gliding onto the beach, of the immense noise of the engines as it started up then set off, and then of the incessant bouncing as we hovered all the way the France, was just thrilling.

Sadly, it is no longer possible to hover to France. Competition from ferries that could transport much greater numbers of people and vehicles, and from the Channel Tunnel, meant that it just couldn’t keep up and the service shut down in 2000.

However, if you still want to experience hover travel, then nip down to Southsea in Hampshire, where you can still take the hovercraft across to the Isle of Wight. The 12-year-old within me might just persuade me to make that trip.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 13th September and the Gazette & Herald on 11th September 2019

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