In August this year, a group of us set off from Liverpool Town Hall to visit the Somme battlefield on the centenary. Our group included myself, the Consort – Cllr Roy Gladden, the Lord Lieutenant, Dame Lorna Muirhead and her husband Mr Ronald Muirhead, Standard Bearers from the Royal British Legion, the Kings regiment, the Liverpool PALS, and veterans from various army regiments as well as relatives from those who died at the Somme and Kenny our estimable piper from the Liverpool Scottish.
Shortly before our departure to France, I had discovered that I would be following in my grandfather’s footsteps to France almost a 100 years to the day. It then got very personal.
As soon as I knew I would be Lord Mayor during this centennial year, it was important to me to travel there to mark this important milestone in Liverpool’s history. The Battle of the Somme raged from the 1st of July 1916 until the 18th of November and during that time more than a million men were killed or wounded making it the bloodiest battle in human history.
Specific to Merseyside was the part played by the Liverpool PALS, the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th of the Kings (Liverpool) Regiment in the Battle of Guillemont between the 3rd to the 6th of September. The PALS Regiments seemed like a great idea at the time. Groups of men who had gone to school or college together, or who worked at the same factory or played in the same football or cricket teams or lived in the same streets would all join up in a battalion together. Their sense of loyalty and camaraderie would join them together into an indomitable fighting force.
That worked, up to the point when the telegrams started arriving. When house after house suffered losses so unbearable, it would take two generations to recover.
The Liverpool and Manchester PALS joined together to take back the village of Guillemont and they were largely successful but the losses were heavy. Liverpool lost 1791 men during that battle including 465 lost just on one day the 30th of July 1916 ‘Liverpool’s Blackest Day’. It is hard to imagine how it must have felt when all those telegrams started to arrive to the streets of Liverpool.
All the bodies of those who died were buried in France, often close to the place where they were killed. Back in the 1920’s a visit to France without the aid of the Eurotunnel and ‘easyJet’ would have cost the average Liverpool resident five years pay.
Clearly that would have been out of the question for most of
our residents who probably never had the opportunity to mourn at the grave of their blessed husband, son or father. It was our intention to pay homage to our Liverpool men a hundred years later and to mourn them on behalf of our City, paying homage by presenting a new plaque in honour of them in the church at Guillemont where so many of them died.
It was a very solemn service with the Mayor of Guillemont present who was overcome with emotion and thanked us all most gratefully. One of my most memorable moments was at the memorial to the Liverpool Scottish who died during the Battle of Bellewaarde in June 1915. It’s a beautiful memorial but is sited by a wood and we had to walk through corn fields to get to it. The Lord Lieutenant and I got to the monument first and a few tourists were already there but then we heard the wail of our piper and saw – marching through the French cornfield our standard bearers with standards flaring, just as they must have done a century ago. It was one of several goose pimple moments on that trip.
We visited many cemeteries and museums including a German cemetery which we visited in the early morning just as the mist was rising; it was a very eerie moment. Unlike our gravestones which are white stone, the German graves are black crosses and scattered amongst the black crosses are the graves of German Jews who died for the fatherland. I found this particularly ironic given the treatment of the Jewish people by the Nazis during World War Two. The Thiepval memorial is particularly poignant and contains the names of all the 72,000 men who have no known grave in France, the ‘Missing of the Somme’. On every facet of that great building can be seen the names etched of every individual who fought, died and now cannot be buried with dignity. Some of our party found their relatives names on this Memorial which can be seen for miles around.
Another stunning location is the Canadian memorial called ‘Ghosts at Vimy Ridge’. Made of white stone, it towers into the sky with the bodies of soldiers being passed by angels further and further up into the hands of God. It is truly one of the most amazing pieces of art I have ever seen and is genuinely awe inspiring.
Our final destination was the amazing service held in the evening at the Menin Gate to commemorate the fallen of the World War One. Three firefighters play the ‘Last Post’ at the gates of the city of Ypres to commemorate the Fallen. This has taken place every evening for a hundred years. Our party had the honour to present our standards and lay wreaths at the Menin Gate to remember our lads from Liverpool and Merseyside who played such a significant role in that war.
A hundred years later it is still as important to honour those men today. They gave their lives so that we could enjoy freedom in Europe, they travelled far from home and their families in order to do it. They deserve our homage and our deepest respect.