Albert was the main town behind the lines for the Allies on the 1916 Somme battlefields. It lies on the main D929 road that runs from Amiens eastwards to Bapaume, and this road between Albert and Bapaume runs straight across the Somme battlefields. Albert was devastated during the war, and rebuilt afterwards.
As a base for battlefield touring it is the most central location, although both accommodation and restaurants are fairly limited (see Staying in the Somme). The best guidebook for the Somme battlefields is Major & Mrs. Holt’s Battlefield Guide to the Somme, recently updated as a centenary edition. The Bradt Battlefield Guide is an alternative which also covers other parts of the Western Front.
If you have the time, walking the battlefields is a really good way to appreciate the ground and the features that can still be seen, and Paul Reed’s Walking the Somme is excellent.
In terms of the history of the war, Albert came to be associated with the British when their troops took over the lines here in the summer of 1915. After the war, Albert was ‘adopted’ by Birmingham.
Sites of Interest in Albert
In the centre of Albert is one of the most famous icons for the British in the Great War – the Golden Virgin on top of the Basilica. This is shown in the picture above in ruins. The golden statue of the Madonna holding aloft her child was visible from far away, and of course was an excellent target for enemy artillery. It was damaged fairly early on, in January 1915, and the statue was knocked from its pedestal but stayed leaning at an angle. It was later secured by the French in that position.
A superstition grew up among the soldiers that the war would end only when the statue fell. However, it remained in its leaning position all the time that Albert was in French and British hands.
The Germans advanced into Albert during their Spring Offensive in 1918. Well aware that the tower could be used as an excellent observation point by the Germans, it was British artillery that then deliberately targeted it and the statue finally fell. Albert was retaken by the British four months later, and three months after this the War was over.
Following the war, the Basilica was rebuilt, and the golden statue replaced, where it dominates the town and can be seen glinting in the sun from quite a distance away from high points around.
There are fountains opposite the basilica, and also car parking spaces. On the right hand side of the basilica as you look from the fountains is the Musée Somme 1916. Part of the museum is contained in tunnels beneath the town, which date originally from the 13th century, but were made into air-raid shelters in 1938 in preparation for the Second World War. The exhibits include a recreation of trenches, and a first aid post. Entry for individuals is €6.50, children under 6 enter free.
On the west side of Albert, on the main D929 leading towards Amiens is a Demarcation Stone. This is one of a series erected by the Touring Clubs of France and Belgium after the war, marking the furthest advance of the Germans. This one shows that the Germans did take Albert, briefly, but they did not hold onto it for long.
On the wall by the entrance to the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) is a plaque commemorating the Machine Gun Corps. It was unveiled just before the Second World War, and commemorates the 13,791 men of the Machine Gun Corps who died, and the 48,258 who were wounded or missing during the Great War.
There are several War cemeteries in and around the outskirts of Albert, including a French cemetery (see later).
Bapaume Post Military Cemetery
This cemetery is located on the eastern outskirts of Albert, just after a roundabout as you head out of the town in the direction of Bapaume. The hotel ibis is located off the roundabout.
The cemetery was started early in July 1916, after the nearby village of La Boiselle was taken. Just over 150 men were buried here between then and the end of January 1917. Another 250 or so graves were brought in after the Armistice, many being men of the 34th Tyneside Division who attacked further along the Bapaume road on the 1st of July 1916.
The 101st and 102nd Brigades attacked near here, and two Lieutenant-Colonels, Lyell and Sillery commanding battalions in the 102nd (Tyneside Scottish) Brigade died along with their men that day. Both are buried here. There are also three special memorials to men known to be buried here to the left just inside the trestle gate to the cemetery.
An early photograph of this cemetery helps explain why, in some cases, there are odd grave layouts in war cemeteries. The register states that memorials were erected within the cemetery by the 14th Canadian Battalion and the 7th Field Company, Australian Engineers. These memorials are long gone, but the spaces they occupied between graves remain. The original photo below left shows both these memorials. The large wooden cross in the centre commemorated the Australian Engineers, and the white cross on the right of the picture (larger than the others around it) commemorated the ‘Officers, N.C.O.s and men of the 14th Canadian Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment) who fell near this spot’.
Michel Gravel advised me of a war-time photograph of the Royal Montreal Regiment memorial at Bapaume Post, held by the Library and Archives Canada. This photo (below) shows the memorial in clear detail. Michel also explained that the brass plaque from the memorial (which the soldier is looking at) now hangs over the bar in the Royal Montreal Regimental Mess in Westmount, Quebec.
This part of the cemetery (Plot 1 row I) was where the original war-time burials were made, and as the memorials have gone, there are now gaps between the graves in the row where they used to stand.
Two names on the crosses in the old postcard shown above can be read with the help of a magnifying glass. Both are from the Canadian Field Artillery: Lieutenant Kitto and Bombardier Major.
Lieutenant Alec Kitto (originally from England) was serving with the 12th Canadian Field Artillery when he was killed in action on the 16th of September 1916. On that day, the 12th Canadian Field Artillery were based at La Boiselle. They were firing on German positions north-west of Courcelette supporting an attack by the 3rd Canadian Division. At 3 pm, a Gunner who had been sent with Lieutenant Kitto to liaise with the 25th Battalion reported that Lieutenant Kitto had been killed by a sniper on his way there.
Arthur Major held the rank of Acting Bombardier with the 7th Canadian Field Artillery when he died just over two months after Kitto. The 7th Canadian Field Artillery had spent the month of November 1916 near Courcelette, some three miles along the D929 towards Bapaume. This unit’s War Diary is unusual as it lists Other Rank casualties by name. On the 19th of November, the diary entry reads ‘Hostile artillery shelled our back country fairly vigorously during day. Battery positions received some attention‘, and goes on to record that Bombardier A.C. Major of 25th Battery was killed by an ‘air burst’ over their guns.
Albert Communal Cemetery Extension
On the south-eastern side of Albert, on the Rue du 11 November (D938) a little to the south is Albert town communal cemetery. Sited within this, in a separate plot, is the CWGC maintained Albert Communal Cemetery Extension. Trees line the wall by the road.
The cemetery was started in August 1915, shortly after the British became involved in the fighting in this area. From September 1916, Field Ambulances and the 5th Casualty Clearing Station were based at Albert and used the Cemetery extensively. After the front lines moved forward following the German withdrawal to the Hindenberg line in early 1917, the cemetery was then little used.
There are also soldiers from the Second World War buried here. Their bodies were recovered from the surrounding area by the French and reburied here. However, the vast majority of graves are First World War, with over 860 from the Great War and 25 from the Second World War. Very few of the burials are unidentified.
There are at least two Brigadier-Generals buried here, one being Brigadier-General Henry Clifford, DSO, who died on the 11th of September 1916 when commanding the 149th (Northumberland) Brigade, part of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. He was killed by a German sniper when inspecting trenches near Mametz Wood.
He was the son of Major-General Sir Henry Clifford who had won the Victoria Cross when serving as a Lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854. Brigadier-General Henry Clifford’s nephew, Lieutenant Hugh Clifford was killed on the first day of the Somme, and is buried at Ovillers Military Cemetery.
There are also mass graves in Plot 1, where there are several names on each headstone and the headstones are set very close together. One instance is five headstones together set between Rows D and E. There are three or four names on each headstone, all men from the Essex Regiment who died in late 1915. A central stone has a cross and the regimental insignia on it.
There is little space left beneath the names for personal inscriptions, but under the name of Private James Fryer (who died on the 3rd of November 1915, aged just 19) are the words ‘God bless our dear boy, rest in peace dear, always in our thoughts for ever‘. It’s hard to read these words without a lump coming to the throat.
In Row J there is another mass grave, this time for eleven men from the Royal Garrison Artillery and one from the Royal Army Service Corps. All but one died on the 14th of July 1916, when they were unloading ammunition at Albert and were hit by a German shell. These headstones, with the central stone showing regimental insignia, is shown below left.
To the left of the CWGC Cemetery in the Communal Cemetery itself are ‘blank’ CWGC headstones which have been used to mark the burials of local people (see photo above right).
The final headstone in Plot 1 Row S is that of Bernard Wellum, who died on the 11th of July 1921 and is listed in the register as ‘civilian’. Wellum was an Imperial War Graves Commission Employee, and when he died was buried in this cemetery. Like many other early IWGC employees, Bernard Wellum had fought in the Great War, serving as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was only 25 when he died.
Albert French National Cemetery
Continuing south-east away from the town centre, on the same road (the D938) is Albert French National Cemetery. This is on the left side of the road, just after a roundabout. The cemetery is well-maintained, with well-tended lawns and flower beds, although perhaps not as beautiful as CWGC cemeteries.
There is a register box just inside the gates, and the graves are mainly crosses with a few headstones set back to back. In the cemetery are the graves of 3,175 French soldiers. There is also one burial which comes under the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – that of Wing Yuk Shan of the Chinese Labour Corps, who died in December 1918.
Right at the back are four walled beds, which are mass graves containing around 3,000 men, with a list of names on a series of tablets.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Michel Gravel for information on the Royal Montreal Regiment memorial
Gerald Gliddon: Somme 1916
Library and Archives Canada
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Chris McCarthy: The Somme – the day by day account
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
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