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A journey to find my lost relative on the Somme

South Lancashire soldiers at rest. (Photo: Photo www.ww1photos.org))

As I flip my bicycle off the D938 and disappear into the woods at Acheux-en-Amiénois, the arrow-straight street is empty of automobiles because it cuts throughout the Somme.

I’ve travelled greater than 400 miles throughout land and sea to go to these woods in northern France on a journey to seek out out what occurred to my great-grandfather’s brother, who by no means returned house from the First World Warfare.

And as I push into the cover of timber, I’m lastly following within the footsteps of a person with my blood in his veins who final walked by way of right here a century in the past.

George Grindley was a 31-year-old dad from Manchester with brown hair and gray eyes who lived together with his spouse, Pollie, and their daughters Alice and Elizabeth in a terraced home overshadowed by the armaments manufacturing unit the place he labored as an engineer’s labourer.

However within the autumn of 1916, he left his household and the smokestacks of our shared residence metropolis behind and crossed the gray waters of the English Channel to struggle in a conflict that had already ended the lives of tens of hundreds of males.

It was inside these obscure woods that he joined his already battle-scarred unit, the 2nd Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment, as they camped in solely relative security a couple of miles behind the frontline.

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George and a trainload of different new recruits have been getting into the hobnailed boots of lifeless males in a battalion that had misplaced 29 officers and different ranks within the trenches solely days earlier.

“George and the opposite recruits have been changing lifeless pals of those males. They knew what he was about to face – that he won’t be alive for for much longer,” Max Dutton, a historian on the Commonwealth Struggle Graves Fee, had informed me earlier than I set off.

“However there would have been familiarity too. These males all spoke the identical Lancashire accents and would have recognized the identical locations again residence, so it wouldn’t have been exhausting for them to start out getting alongside.”

By learning the army service data of those troopers, I’ve come to know them by identify and am even aware about a few of their secrets and techniques. In the event that they have been to magically reappear between these timber, I might recognise a few of them from previous pictures.

Ruddy-faced Albert Bland lived on the sting of considered one of Manchester’s most infamous slums and his enlistment papers had been signed by his native vicar. Albert Alty, who like George was simply 5ft 5in, had survived a gunshot wound whereas preventing at Thiepval.

South Lancashire troopers at relaxation. (Photograph: Photograph www.ww1photos.org))

Edward Burgess, who was simply 20 and seemed like a boy in a person’s uniform, was handed match by the regimental medical officer regardless of affected by a hernia. John Creaghan, an single collier, was frightened about whether or not his woman, Annie Banks, would obtain his pension if he died.

The others included Thomas Hough, who had misplaced his lance corporal’s stripe after disobeying an order, and George Gillsbanks, a 38-year-old father-of-four, who was in a area hospital affected by shellshock earlier than later being despatched again to the road.

As I journey alongside a slender filth monitor that pulls me deeper into these silent woods, I start to marvel about these first conversations Personal Grindley may need had together with his new comrades.

Data present he was already an skilled soldier and had beforehand served with the Dragoon Guards in India and South Africa.

However, given what these males had simply been via, he maybe spoke solely to point out them a photograph of Pollie or inform them about his youngest daughter, Elizabeth, who was simply three-months-old.

Army maps present how these woods, which had a railway line operating alongside their japanese flank, have been a two-day march from frontline trenches drawn in blood purple ink by British cartographers.

The timber provided no safety from scorching metal and one German long-range shell landed within the woods on the day George arrived and solely narrowly missed the battalion’s huts. The maps recommend the woods had been decreased to scrubland by 1918.

Paths that are quiet now have been a hive of exercise again then, with pictures held by the Imperial Conflict Museum displaying troopers with rolled-up sleeves butchering carcases of meat and loading bombs onto wagons.

Acheux. (Photo: Dean Kirby)Acheux (Photograph: Dean Kirby)

“We’re at current in camp in a wooden simply behind the road with occasional ‘Hymns of hate’ coming throughout from Fritz,” a Second Lieutenant named Harold Cottrell wrote within the letter to his father.

“The noise is terrific, and the sky is lit up with the flashes of shells and weapons, principally our aspect, and I anticipate it’s fairly terrible for the Hun.

“We’re going up into our trenches in a day or two now and I anticipate we will be within the subsequent push, nevertheless, don’t fear as it’s fairly a easy factor now.”

‘A really fairly sight’

One other soldier from one other battalion wrote about how the huts right here have been residence to rats and the way the lads’s fires among the many timber have been “a really fairly sight”.

Biking on in dappled daylight, I move a line of tall beech timber that would have been right here in 1916. Within the centre of the woods stands a clearing washed by sensible sunshine, which I think about might have been the situation of the troopers’ camp.

I climb off my bike and am nearly to step out of the shadows when the silence is cracked by three gunshots – a searching get together someplace among the many timber.

I stand frozen stiff, hardly respiration and watching the far aspect of the clearing like a fox, anticipating a line of armed males to return into the open.

How might I clarify my presence right here? The thought crosses my thoughts that I could also be trespassing. I instantly really feel very alone and lots of miles from my spouse and son again house in Manchester.

Maybe, I’m wondering as I pedal shortly again to the street with out wanting over my shoulder, that is how my relative George Grindley was feeling as he marched out of those woods in the direction of the trenches of the Somme a century in the past.

On the road to Thiepval. (Photo: Dean Kirby)On the street to Thiepval. (Photograph: Dean Kirby)

On the street to Thiepval

The street to Thiepval crosses the River Ancre beneath an avenue of tall timber at Aveluy and takes a pointy left at Crucifix Nook – the previous gateway to British trenches named after Lancashire cities together with Blackpool and Chorley.

From there, the route leads uphill by means of the village of Authuille and continues upwards previous farmers’ fields edged by blood pink poppies which might be so small and remoted they seem weak within the afternoon solar.

I’m out of breath and starting to wrestle as I cycle alongside the previous frontline on my journey to seek out out what occurred to my great-grandfather’s brother George Grindley within the Battle of the Somme.

However then I lookup and see the large bulk of Thiepval Memorial, which was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate greater than 72,000 British and South African males who died in these fields and haven’t any recognized graves.

These battalions of males are out right here someplace – minimize down by machine weapons or blown aside by shells in these fields that rise in the direction of the excessive floor that was held within the iron grip of the Germans.

I discover the memorial unexpectedly full of members of the Royal British Legion who’re marking the 90th anniversary of the good 1928 battlefields pilgrimage by survivors of the conflict.

Thiepval. (Photograph: Dean Kirby)

The guests, lots of them veterans of newer conflicts, are laying wreaths and looking for kin among the many hundreds of names etched on the 140ft memorial’s big columns of Accrington brick confronted with Portland stone.

‘It looks like a household reunion’

Stephen Lingard, a battlefield information from St Helens, is wanting up on the identify of his great-great-grandfather William Molyneux, a lance corporal within the South Lancashire Regiment, who was killed aged 39 on eight September 1916.

“Each time I come again to see William’s identify, it seems like a household reunion,” Mr Lingard says. “Most of the guests right here at this time have seen motion. Once they come right here they fall silent. There’s a way of reverence and launch.

“One thing occurs to you right here. You get near individuals who died a century in the past – individuals you by no means met.”

I reluctantly depart the memorial and the names of 621 lacking South Lancashire males behind me and set off for Mouquet Farm, the place George Grindley first noticed motion in September 1916.

The unique Mucky Farm, because it was recognized to British troopers, was obliterated by artillery hearth and the farmhouse and barns that now stand on rising floor surrounded by fields east of Thiepval have been constructed after the struggle.

Preventing round this central bastion of the German defences had value 6,300 Australian lives as they clawed their method up the slopes beneath heavy artillery hearth. The our bodies of lots of them have been by no means discovered.

It was solely taken on 26 September when 66 Germans emerged from deep cellars and surrendered.

The Somme. (Graphic: Nick Coles)The Somme. (Graphic: Nick Coles)

Sitting close to an Australian struggle memorial in a scape of floor which will have as soon as been a shell gap, I look throughout on the farm and take into consideration George, who was despatched to defend this nightmarish panorama after it was captured.

In heavy rain, he was instantly hit by what the battalion struggle diary described as a “very heavy shelling” that churned the dwelling our bodies of wounded males into the sewer-like mud.

Among the many first to die was Second Lieutenant Harold Cottrell, aged simply 18, whose grave down the street at Pozières reads: “A boy, he died for England.”

“We’re going to take a sure little bit of Hun trench, however… I don’t suppose will probably be very troublesome,” he had written house to his mom, Agnes.

The hell continued into Sunday, when one of many battalion’s trenches, which have been little greater than strains of related shell holes, suffered a direct hit. On Monday, the battalion struggle diary reported that the road has been “decreased to chaos”.

‘I used to be frightened to demise’

One man wrote residence: “It was simply as if an earthquake had occurred. It was all mud and I used to be frightened to dying.”

The lifeless together with one man who face was half blown away by shrapnell have been buried the place they fell in shallow graves that have been by no means discovered once more.

Amongst them was Leonard Greenwood, a 24-year-old store assistant from Salford, who was buried someplace close to the trail resulting in the farm.

Ration events who have been despatched to the rear to gather meals have been gone for 24 hours earlier than they returned exhausted after pushing via trenches crammed with British and German lifeless.

Fortunately for George, a plan to ship the battalion excessive was cancelled on the final minute.

When the lads lastly withdrew beneath the duvet of dusk the next Friday, 16 of their pals had died, 26 have been wounded and three have been lacking – the price in Lancashire lives of occupying Mouquet Farm for one week.

“All ranks confirmed apparent indicators of the extreme pressure that they had been subjected to throughout this tour within the trenches which had been a really harassing time,” the struggle diary says.

Mouquet Farm today. (Photo: Dean Kirby)Mouquet Farm immediately. (Photograph: Dean Kirby)

Service data reveal what occurred to a few of these males.

Thomas Robinson, a 24-year-old father of three, was evacuated to a hospital in Boulogne the place he died from a head wound. Amongst his private possessions despatched residence to his widow, Edna, have been his false tooth.

The daddy of Stanley Thomas was nonetheless looking for out what had occurred to his lacking son the next March, when he was lastly declared lifeless after a search of army hospitals.

However the saddest story of all is that of Arthur Wilson, whose identify is now etched on Thiepval Memorial.

Arthur, one in every of 5 youngsters from a poor household, had lied about his age when he joined up aged 16 and had later tried to go away – stealing a bicycle and serving two months in a British jail in a determined bid to be dismissed.

However the Military had introduced him to France after his father, Frank, had advised a police officer that becoming a member of the forces was “totally Arthur’s personal doing” and he would solely “get careless and be a burden to them” if he returned residence.

‘These males have been greater than gray faces’

A heat wind has risen from nowhere and had begun to shake the timber round Mouquet Farm as I put together to go away – an indication of approaching dangerous climate.

It snaps on the miniature flags and toy koala bears fixed to the Australian memorial and the handwritten message from the far aspect of the world, which says: “Our household has not forgotten and nonetheless loves you.”

“The lads who have been right here have been greater than gray faces you see in pictures. They have been actual individuals who suffered horribly right here. It was a massacre,” says David Pearson, a 59-year-old Australian who pulls up in a automotive as I’m pointing my bike again in the direction of Thiepval.

“Thoughts the way you go,” he provides as he appears in the direction of a darkening sky. “We’re going to get a storm.”

The view from Lucky Way. (Photo: Dean Kirby)The view from Fortunate Method. (Photograph: Dean Kirby)

A visit down Fortunate Means

The sky is popping black with approaching thunderclouds as I roll my bicycle down the street recognized to British Tommies as Fortunate Means and minimize by means of the previous frontline with growing nervousness.

Dud bombs unearthed by native farmers are typically left on the nook the place a sunken monitor factors like a gnarled finger to the sector the place my great-grandfather’s brother, George Grindley, was fatally wounded on 21 October 1916.

Many farmyards round right here include a set of wartime scrap – le tas de ferraille – and other people nonetheless sometimes endure life-changing accidents whereas choosing up unexploded shells which rise from the Somme mud after winter frosts.

Earlier on the Blighty Tea Room in La Boisselle, a gathering level for off-duty British battlefield guides, the proprietor Jon Haslock had proven me a few of the weapons he discovered whereas renovating his former farmstead.

Leaning towards the wall stood a line of disarmed bombs and a used fuel shell alongside the headstone of a German soldier, Musketier Eggerstedt, which had been present in a compost heap.

‘We have been digging within the backyard and located the our bodies of 5 Germans’

“Even a century on, the consequences of the warfare may be seen throughout us,” Mr Haslock had stated. “We have been digging a gap for a septic tank within the backyard and located the our bodies of 5 German troopers. It’s simply a part of the life right here. Whenever you’re strolling within the fields, you possibly can nonetheless see the strains of trenches in the best way the crops develop.”

With one eye fastened on the climate, I change gears and pedal onerous up the sunken monitor generally known as the Stump Street, which as soon as crawled with German machine gun nests ready for Personal Grindley to return marching down the hill in the direction of them.

I’ve to hold my bike up a flight of concrete steps and stroll it alongside a grass hall lined with corn crops as tall as a person. They make unsettling noises – a sound like scurrying rats – as they twitch within the wind.

And now, right here I’m, pulling my bike throughout the sunbaked furrows of the ploughed subject the place a person with my DNA suffered a devastating damage on the tail finish of the Battle of the Somme.

The 2nd South Lancashire Regiment in France. (Photo: (Photo Lancashire Infantry Museum)The 2nd South Lancashire Regiment in France. (Photograph: (Photograph Lancashire Infantry Museum)

George had recognized the assault was being deliberate – the worry of dying constructing slowly for days prematurely.

His battalion, the 2nd South Lancashires, had practiced attacking strains of white tape within the rear and a field of Lewis weapons had arrived earlier than they moved to the entrance in heavy rain via rotting piles of lifeless Germans nonetheless sporting fuel masks.

As daybreak broke on 21 October, the battalion was ready uneasily simply out of sight on the prime of this slope in a former German stronghold often known as Stuff Redoubt after a sleepless night time of incoming shellfire and a biting frost that encrusted the mud.

Then, at precisely 12.06pm, whistles blew alongside the road they usually poured excessive in waves of half corporations and commenced their downhill assault on the troops of the fifth Ersatz Division.

“The spirit of all ranks was fantastic and the lads went over the parapet in nice type,” the battalion warfare diary stated.

I shut my eyes and attempt to think about the Lancashire males approaching. A few of them are going too quick and are dying beneath the creeping barrage of shells from 200 heavy British weapons designed to guard them.

Others are scuttling down the Stump Street – hurling bombs and firing Lewis weapons as they destroy and seize the enemy machine weapons.

And right here I stand, half approach down the identical sloping area, caught in a wierd no man’s land between the previous and the longer term – a century too late to save lots of George from the destiny that was about to befall him.

The field. (Photo: Dean Kirby)The sector. (Photograph: Dean Kirby)

Someplace proper right here, in a maelstrom of whizzing bullets and burning fragments of shrapnel, he has fallen closely to the bottom with a devastating wound 400 miles from Manchester and his spouse and two daughters.

It’s inconceivable, even standing right here now, to completely think about the horrific scenes that should have unfolded on that chilly autumn afternoon.

However there are clues within the small Commonwealth Conflict Graves Fee cemetery that appears up from the centre of this remoted area in the direction of the heavy skies above Stump Redoubt.

Among the many 391 graves – greater than 1 / 4 them unidentified – lie 25 of George’s comrades together with 20-year-old Edward Burgess, whose gravestone reveals one thing of the heartbreak felt again residence.

“To have, to like after which to half is the saddest story of a mom’s coronary heart,” it says.

‘To like after which to half is the saddest story of a mom’s coronary heart’

However the man I’m looking for just isn’t right here.

I’m nonetheless wanting on the graves when the entire world appears all of the sudden to attract a deep breath and fall silent. Then an enormous clap of thunder shakes me to the bone.

In a state of panic, with the air seemingly charged with static, I’ve no selection however to run with my bike bumping throughout the ploughed area and cycle as quick as I can down the uneven floor of the Stump Street to Fortunate Method.

I hope the street lives as much as its identify as 4 French cyclists swoop previous with a pleasant greeting and disappear over hill into the looming darkness as one other clap of thunder rumbles overhead.

Grandcourt Road cemetery. (Photo: CWGC)Grandcourt Street cemetery. (Photograph: CWGC)

The street to Bouzincourt

Black storm clouds are giving chase as I experience my bicycle at velocity throughout the Somme.

I reduce an remoted determine as I comply with the monitor chopping by means of swathes of farmland the place, a century in the past, my great-grandfather’s brother was being taken for emergency medical remedy.

On 21 October 1916, George Grindley was discovered alive with a savage wound close to the ditch he was attacking and carried by German prisoners after which by transport seven miles to a subject ambulance station forward of me within the village of Bouzincourt.

I’m solely half approach alongside the trail – the one shifting creature for miles round within the flat, treeless panorama beneath this malevolent sky – when a spattering of fats raindrops turns to heavy rain.

There isn’t any escape from the roar of thunder and lightning that comes subsequent. I briefly ditch my metallic bike – however then climb on once more and pedal arduous in the direction of the momentary safety of a barn.

In that second, out of breath and soaked to the bone, the climate all of the sudden feels unusually private – as if I’m being hunted down.

There isn’t a doubting the assault had been a strategic success.

George’s battation, the 2nd South Lancashires, had crossed the 400 yard stretch of no man’s land in underneath 30 minutes and walked cleanly by way of barbed wire that had been minimize to ribbons by British artillery hearth.

They killed 50 Germans who have been caught abruptly of their dugouts and took 400 prisoners together with a variety of officers. “The enemy didn’t make any nice resistance and shortly gave himself up,” the battalion struggle diary later stated.

However it was then that catastrophe struck. The enemy’s artillery opened hearth on their very own misplaced trenches whereas snipers started choosing off the Lancashire males. The battalion suffered 28 killed, 133 wounded and 26 lacking – leaving their lifeless on the sector as they returned to the rear.

The field where George Grindley was wounded. (Photo: Dean Kirby)The sector the place George Grindley was wounded. (Photograph: Dean Kirby)

The survivors have been despatched “hearty congratulations” by Douglas Haig, the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Drive, on their “wonderful work” in a telegram.

However studying by means of the service data of the lads who died on 21 October reveals the tragedy of that day – the silent struggling of the lifeless males’s households again residence.

The mom of 20-year-old Edward Burgess was informed by the Military his medals have been the lawful property of his estranged father and “have to be surrendered to him, ought to he seem and declare them”.

‘We’re carrying this on for the households’

Different mother and father have been left questioning for months whether or not lacking sons have been nonetheless alive after being despatched an envelope of private possessions that contained nothing greater than an id disc – an indication maybe that that they had truly been obliterated by shelling.

“Are you able to inform me if it was taken off him and if he was lifeless on the time?” wrote the daddy of Alfred Baker in flawless handwriting that masked his hidden anguish after being despatched his son’s disc. “Any info you may give me shall be gratefully acquired as his demise has by no means been accounted for.”

Robinson Pugh, the brother of Willie Pugh, additionally wrote to the Military in December: “Are you able to give me any info regarding W Pugh and the place he’s?”

And as late as 1921, the daddy of Samuel Williamson was begging the Military to not ship his son’s dying plaque to their house as it might upset his grieving spouse and she or he “has not been in good well being for a while”.

George Grindley’s spouse, Pollie, would additionally come to write down her personal heartbreaking observe to the Military: “I’ve acquired no results by any means – solely his identification disc.”

George Grindley's grave in Bouzincourt. George succumbed to his wounds in the field ambulance tents on 21 October 1916 (Photo: Dean Kirby)George Grindley’s grave in Bouzincourt. (Photograph: Dean Kirby)

Torrential rain continues to be pouring once I lastly attain the Commonwealth Struggle Graves Fee cemetery in Bouzincourt the place George lies buried.

On the night of 21 October 1916, he succumbed to his wounds within the area ambulance tents that stood throughout the street from the cemetery.

The stainless graves comprised of Portland stone and planted with purple Lancashire roses stand in straight ranks subsequent to a farm the place French cows watch guests from over the wall.

A person I can see operating in the direction of me is Bob Thomson, 52, the fee’s senior head gardener at Thiepval, who has taken time to satisfy me right here on this appalling climate.

Mr Thomson has been in France 26 years and cares tremendously about his work.

“It actually begins to hit you if you’re weeding across the graves within the sunshine in spring,” he tells me as we take shelter from the downpour.

“That’s whenever you consider the lads who’ve died right here. It’s very private then.

“We take numerous satisfaction in our jobs. We’re carrying this on for the households.”

Pollie's tribute to George. (Photo: findmypast.co.uk)Pollie’s tribute to George. (Photograph: findmypast.co.uk)

Again residence in Manchester in 1916, my circle of relatives had been struggling.

George’s younger widow, Pollie, suffered a second tragedy eight weeks later when their six-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, died from acute bronchitis.

“Someplace overseas in a soldier’s grave,” Pollie wrote in a poem that winter as she mourned. “Lies my pricey husband among the many courageous.”

I return to the cemetery at nightfall to put a wreath of poppies – the primary member of my household to take action in a century.

“Thanks George,” is all I’m able to write.

The rain has gone now and a heat night solar is shining throughout the fields of the Somme and on to the face of George’s grave.

A soldier’s grave among the many courageous.

Bouzincourt Cemetery within the Somme area of France. (Photograph Dean Kirby)

George Grindley: A soldier’s story

George Grindley. (Photo: findmypast.co.uk)George Grindley. (Photograph: findmypast.co.uk)

George Grindley was an bizarre man who was simply one of many 700,000 British casualties who fell on the battlefields of the First World Warfare.

A former Dragoon Guard who had served in India and South Africa, he had given up preventing and was working on the Armstrong Whitworth armaments manufacturing unit overlooking his residence in Openshaw, Manchester, on the outbreak of the First World Conflict.

Aged 31 and simply 5ft 5in, he volunteered to hitch the 2nd Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment and arrived in France, the place his brother Daniel Grindley was already serving, within the autumn of 1916.

George, a father of two, survived a heavy German shelling at Mouquet Farm that churned dwelling our bodies of wounded males into the sewer-like mud. He died from wounds after attacking Stump Trench within the Battle of the Ancre Heights on 21 October 1916, on the tail finish of the Battle of the Somme.

His story has been pieced collectively utilizing army service data and regimental warfare diaries and with the assistance of the Commonwealth Warfare Graves Fee, the Lancashire Infantry Museum and findmypast.co.uk. Dean Kirby travelled with Brittany Ferries.

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