Great war:

THERE’S A COR­NER OF NORTH­ERN FRANCE WHICH WILL FOR­EVER BE­LONG TO NOR­FOLK.

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE -

Sta­cia Briggs makes a per­sonal pil­grim­age

The bat­tle­fields of the Somme con­tain many thou­sands of graves for those who fell in the Great War. But only one ceme­tery bears the name of our county. As we pre­pare to com­mem­o­rate the 100th an­niver­sary of the Ar­mistice, Sta­cia Briggs vis­its Nor­folk Ceme­tery for a very per­sonal pil­grim­age

sur­rounded by corn fields on a quiet road where cars are a rar­ity, it’s dif­fi­cult to visit Nor­folk Ceme­tery without feel­ing a ter­ri­to­rial pang but equally hard to imag­ine that this tran­quil place was once home to a huge ar­tillery de­pot and thou­sands of troops bivouacked here as they made their way to the front line.

The vil­lage of Becordel-Be­court lies in a val­ley and was pro­tected from the lines near Fri­court to the east by the rolling con­tours of the land­scape and, be­cause of this, be­came an area used by medics at the be­gin­ning of the Bat­tle of the Somme.

Stand­ing in this ceme­tery, named af­ter our county, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to pic­ture the car­nage that was here be­fore these peace­ful lines of sleep­ing sol­diers found their fi­nal rest­ing place, when Mid­dle­sex Av­enue trench ran along the road be­side it and to our right, trenches ran up to the front lines which were to the east. To­day, all you can hear is bird­song – a lit­tle over a cen­tury ago, the Western Front re­ver­ber­ated with the noise of war.

Around a mile from Al­bert on the Al­bert-Peronne road, Nor­folk Ceme­tery was started by the 1st Nor­folk Bat­tal­ion in Au­gust 1915 and used by other units – in­clud­ing the 8th Nor­folks – un­til Au­gust 1916, when it was sur­rounded by ar­tillery bat­ter­ies.

Af­ter the Ar­mistice, it was nearly dou­bled in size when graves were brought in from nearby bat­tle­fields. The ceme­tery hosts a VC, Ma­jor Ste­wart Wal­ter Loudoun-Shand of the York­shire Reg­i­ment who was killed in ac­tion on the first day of the Bat­tle of the Somme on July 1 1916, and two Lan­cashire sol­diers posthu­mously par­doned fol­low­ing their ex­e­cu­tion on June 26 1916 for de­ser­tion, Pri­vate John Jen­nings and Pri­vate Grif­fith Lewis.

De­signed by Sir Her­bert Baker, the ceme­tery con­tains 325 First World War buri­als, 224 of uniden­ti­fied solid­ers. Sev­en­teen of those iden­ti­fied are Nor­folk Bat­tal­ion sol­diers – Brightwell, Chase, Clax­ton, Clewer, Cook, Digby, Hawes, He­witt, Laud, Paul, Pond, Towler, Wilding, West, Wil­liams, Ple­sants and Myles – aged be­tween 16 and 32.

No­tably, here lies 16-year-old Pri­vate Isaac Laud, who died on Au­gust 9 1915 and was the first to be buried at Nor­folk Ceme­tery (it’s thought he lied about his age in or­der to en­list and fight for his coun­try) and Wil­liam Arthur Cook, killed in ac­tion on Novem­ber 23 1915 aged 30, who had been an ad­ver­tis­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Eastern Daily Press when he en­listed in the Nor­wich Busi­ness Men’s Com­pany. Cook’s name is com­mem­o­rated on a me­mo­rial in the re­cep­tion at Prospect House in Nor­wich.

The ceme­tery is the scene of some of the blood­i­est fight­ing of the First World War but, more than 100 years on, this fi­nal rest­ing ground for the fallen is a place of quiet beauty, im­mac­u­lately tended by the French, each grave planted with flow­ers, Nor­folk laven­der sway­ing gen­tly in the breeze, the scent of home.

My own in­ter­est in the Somme branches out from my fa­ther’s side of the fam­ily tree: my grandad, Percy Briggs, was un­der­age when he en­listed and made the jour­ney to France to fight in the muddy trenches, a teenager com­pletely un­pre­pared to be drawn into a con­flict which ex­posed him to ex­pe­ri­ences that would cast a shadow over the rest of his life. He rarely spoke of his mem­o­ries of the war, and his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren knew bet­ter than to ask.

Born in Lin­colnshire, my grand­fa­ther didn’t fight with the Royal Nor­folks, but it was a de­sire to con­nect to the man who took most of his se­crets to the grave and who died when I was very young (an older fa­ther, his chil­dren also re­called lit­tle of what he had told them of his time in France) that led me to the places he’d been and the land­scape where he’d once walked.

His story is a lit­tle thread­bare, but it weaves its way through our fam­ily and binds us a lit­tle bit closer to this part of the world: there but for the grace of God, our fam­ily tree could have been felled along­side the hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­ers who made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice. Chance and for­tune led Percy home. Many of the pals he fought be­side, how­ever, never saw the coun­try they were fight­ing for again.

We know snip­pets; grandad talked of the an­i­mals he saw in war, in par­tic­u­lar the mules, of be­ing glad for the three square meals he re­ceived dur­ing train­ing be­cause he’d been hun­gry all his young life, of his brother – my great un­cle – who em­i­grated to the new world and died for the old at Gal­lipoli and an­other brother who em­i­grated to Canada and fought at Vimy Ridge, and of the foe that at­tacked all ar­mies in France, trench fever, trans­mit­ted by body lice.

He spoke lit­tle about what he had seen, but did speak of feel­ing fright­ened be­fore – but not dur­ing – bat­tle; there was no time for fear when the fight­ing be­gan.

Try­ing to re­trace my grand­fa­ther’s jour­ney in France in­evitably led to stand­ing in ceme­ter­ies with end­less rows of grave­stones and feel­ing a set of mixed emo­tions, rang­ing from a deep sense of melan­choly to enor­mous pride. What those brave boys sac­ri­ficed for us; the very least we can do is re­mem­ber them.

I have vis­ited the Western Front al­most a dozen times in the past 20 years and each time it is af­fect­ing as the last.

Noth­ing can pre­pare you for driv­ing into the area where bat­tle once raged but which is now a peace­ful blend of tran­quil rolling coun­try­side punc­tu­ated by quaint vil­lages, the beau­ti­ful Somme river wind­ing its way west­wards through the bat­tle­fields, Amiens and to­wards the coast.

Roads pass through wheat and bean fields which spread out across the Somme like a patch­work, punc­tu­ated by im­pos­ing crosses and rows of Port­land stone, the si­lent wit­nesses to what was the blood­i­est sin­gle sec­tion of the worst day of bat­tle in the his­tory of the Bri­tish Army.

The four-and-a-half month bat­tle claimed a mil­lion ca­su­al­ties, 400,000 of whom were Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth, an equal num­ber of whom were Ger­man and 200,000 of whom were French; of this num­ber, one in four died. Those stark fig­ures are why the Bat­tle of the Somme has be­come the abid­ing sym­bol for Britain – and the Com­mon­wealth – of the 1914 to 1918 war.

When the Bri­tish launched the Somme of­fen­sive on July 1 1916, they lost 19,000 men with an­other 40,000 wounded just on the first day. In this first ‘modern war’, the bat­tle came af­ter two years of rel­a­tive quiet on the Western Front.

The Bat­tle of the Somme has be­come syn­ony­mous with the slaugh­ter of ar­mies on an un­prece­dented scale due to the in­creas­ing mech­a­ni­sa­tion of war­fare and as such, oc­cu­pies a place in his­tory like no other, mak­ing the cen­te­nary of the end of the First World War even more im­por­tant to mark.

This year, I have vis­ited Nor­folk Ceme­tery twice within the space of six weeks: the first time, the maize stood tall in the fields sur­round­ing the ceme­tery, on my re­turn, it had been har­vested and hay bales stood sen­try in groups over­look­ing the grave­stones.

By the gate I found frag­ments of a si­lent picket, the corkscrew-shaped struts used to hold barbed wire, a but­ton from a uni­form and a shrap­nel ball, all un­earthed by farm­ers. Ev­ery year, the so-called ‘Iron Har­vest’ turns up around 25 tonnes of mu­ni­tions, some of which re­mains po­ten­tially lethal – the land­scape is still yield­ing its grim re­minders of war and will al­ways bear its scars.

With the but­ton tightly held in my hand, I walked to the grave­stones of the boys from Nor­folk which by now I can find im­me­di­ately, and silently checked in with each and ev­ery one: Brightwell, Chase, Clax­ton, Clewer, Cook, Digby, Hawes, He­witt, Laud, Paul, Pond, Towler, Wilding, West, Wil­liams, Ple­sants and Myles.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

‘The ceme­tery is im­mac­u­lately tended by the French, each grave planted with flow­ers, Nor­folk laven­der sway­ing gen­tly in the breeze, the scent of home’

Pic­ture: Denise Bradley

The beau­ti­ful Nor­folk ceme­tery at BecordelBe­court, tucked away in the French coun­try­side

RIGHT: Pop­pies in the Somme Pic­tures: Denise Bradley

ABOVE: The grave of 16-year-old Isaac Laud, the first sol­dier to be buried at Nor­folk Ceme­tery at Becordel-Be­court

Photo © Sta­cia Briggs

Percy Briggs, who en­listed un­der-age in or­der to fight in the trenches at the Somme

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