Early on in my 15-year-long fascination, some say obsession, with the First World War, I was asked to find out what happened to a friend’s great uncle during the conflict. As far as the family were concerned he had died “somewhere in France” in August 1916.
After a bit of digging in the records I found Private George Messinger Graham of the 1st battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who had died on August 18, 1916, at Guillemont, one of many villages used by the German army to fortify its lines during the five-month Battle of the Somme.
George’s name is on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, along with over 70,000 of his fellow combatants. He has no known grave and his remains are probably buried in a mass grave at Guillemont Road Cemetery, on the outskirts of today’s sleepy village. Buried here too was the prime minister’s son, Raymond Asquith, a second lieutenant in the London Regiment.
In mid-August, 1916, this area was a cauldron of high calibre shelling, shrapnel and intensive machine gun fire as the British Army attempted to break through this heavily defended German stronghold.
But the German defenders were to hold out until the first week of September. The perspective from the German side at Guillemont is captured brilliantly by Ernst Junger in his classic book of the First World War, Storm of Steel. It was an attritional battle that often involved desperate hand-to-hand fighting.
I managed to visit Guillemont some ten years ago, and while walking across the fields directly in front of the village it was impossible to miss the detritus of the battle. Here and there could be found a harvest of shrapnel pellets, spent and unspent bullets, and bits of shell, a crop churned up year upon year by the farmer.
Of course, men were dying day by day all along the frontline from the North Sea to the Alps – men from North Tyneside like Lance Corporal John Wilson Armstrong, from Backworth, of the 1st Gordon Highlanders who was killed in action on August 18 and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
Also killed in action that day was Private Arthur Robinson, from Monkseaton, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who worked as a clerk with the North Eastern Railway Company.
Some died of their wounds like Private James Roberts of the West Yorkshire Regiment, who died behind the lines at a military hospital near Boulogne.
The Somme Exhibition is on display at the White Swan Centre in Killingworth until the end of August and will then be travelling around the borough.
If you would like to get involved in the project or have any information call into our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre, North Shields.