Contalmaison & Area
Contalmaison can be found about three miles north-east of Albert and around half a mile south of Pozieres, on the southern side of the main D929 road. The village was an objective for the 34th Division on the 1st of July 1916, but it took many more days of hard fighting before the 8th and 9th Green Howards of the 23rd Division were able to take it at 4.30 p.m. on the 10th of July.
Sites in and around Contalmaison village
Within the village itself, Contalmaison Chateau Cemetery can be found up a small grass track north from the D20 road within the village. Despite being in the village, the setting is rural; cows and geese can be seen in the fields that line the track, and the scene is very tranquil.
The graves have a semi-regular layout, with some graves set at slightly different angles. The cemetery dates from the war, and was first used on the evening of the 14th July 1916. It was then used for about seven months from September 1916, until the Germans fell back to their fortified lines in March 1917, and Contalmaison was left some way behind the lines. Field Ambulances were based near here, and a picture of the ruins of the Chateau itself alongside the cemetery (shown below) can be found in the Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields which was published shortly after the war.
Contalmaison Chateau Cemetery and ruins of the
Chateau just after the war. Photo: Michelin Guide to the Somme
After the village was taken in July 1916, German dugouts in the cellars of the chateau were used as an Advanced Dressing Station. These dugouts were very impressive to the British; down flights of steps and described as 'marvellous and elaborate'. However, the German advance in March 1918 saw them take the village again, and the cemetery was used briefly once more after Contalmaison was retaken by the British late on the 24th of August 1918.
After the Armistice, additional graves were moved here from the battlefields of the Somme and the Ancre. There were at one time a number of German graves and one French grave here, which have since been moved. In total there are just under 300 soldiers buried here, around 40 of whom are unknown. There is one special memorial on the right hand side of the entrance commemorating Private Henry Gibbins of the 1st Australian Pioneers, known to be buried here. Special memorials are shaped like headstones, but do not mark the actual site of burial.
The grave of Lance-Corporal Frederick William Burges, another Australian, is set by itself beneath a tree (to the right in the picture above). It is the final grave in Plot 1 Row E. Although Burges served with the 20th Australian Infantry Battalion, he was actually a native of Wiltshire, England. He had grown up at Mann Farm, in the small village of Boyton in the Wylye Valley north-west of Salisbury. His family were comfortably off; with a governess, housemaid and nursemaid recorded in the 1901 census. The original IWGC wooden cross which stood over Frederick Burges' grave can still be seen in St. Thomas a Beckett Church in the centre of Salisbury.
Frederick Burges was a farmer like his father before him, and just 23 when he enlisted early in 1916 in Wellington, New South Wales. His next of kin was given as his mother, Edith Ford Burges, by then living at Churchfields in Salisbury. Frederick was six feet tall, and was soon an Acting Corporal, becoming Lance-Corporal a year after enlisting. Some of his training once he reached England was undertaken at Rollestone Camp in Wiltshire, very near to where his family lived.
Less than a month after he became Lance-Corporal, on the 1st of March 1917, he died of shrapnel wounds which affected both legs and also his lungs. His grave was one of the original burials here, as his service record confirms he was buried at 'Contalmaison Chateau Military Cemetery' in 1917.
Also buried here is a Victoria Cross winner: Private William Henry Short of 'C' Company in the 8th Yorkshires - the Green Howards. (Oddly, only the initial W is included on the headstone, rather than W. H.). William Short (who was from near Middlesborough) won his V. C. in Munster Alley Trench, near Pozieres, on the 6th of August 1916. He was acting as a bomber in an attack there, and was badly wounded, first in the foot, with his leg being later shattered by a shell. He stayed with the other men despite his wounds and prepared bombs for them, and he died from these wounds the next day. The steel helmet that William Short wore during this action was one of the first items exhibited at the Imperial War Museum after it was founded in 1917, and is still held by the museum today. William Short's Victoria Cross and other medals are held by the Green Howards Museum.
In common with many other war cemeteries, the flowers at Contalmaison Chateau Cemetery attract large numbers of butterflies, a lovely sight near the final resting places of the soldiers of 90 years ago.
In the centre of the village next to the church is one of the newer memorials on the Somme Battlefield. This was erected in 2004, to the 16th Royal Scots, also known as McCrae's Battalion. The memorial is made from stone brought here from Scotland, and was constructed by Scottish craftsmen. The bronze panels on the memorial were carved in Kirkwall.
The main bronze plaque on the front of the memorial explains the background to the battalion, which was raised in December 1914 by Sir George McCrae. On the 1st of July, over 250 from the battalion were killed, although men from the battalion did reach Contalmaison around 10.30 a.m. The Germans however forced them back, and the remnants of the battalion were cut off for three days before relief arrived. After this, Sir George McCrae declared "I was never prouder of my lads than on that day". There are various wonderfully intricate carvings on the bronze panels, depicting trench scenes and the soldiers of the battalion.
The battalion had a stong association with Hearts Football Club, with 13 players from the club being among the first to join up with the 16th Royal Scots. Other professionals from Raith Rovers and Falkirk followed suit. Many supporters of Hearts also joined up, as did fans of Hibernian, the other main Edinburgh football club. But it was Hearts that the battalion is most closely associated with, and a smaller plaque on the memorial is in memory of the 'players, ticket-holders and supporters of Heart of Midlothian Football Club' who advanced on Contalmaison on the 1st of July 1916.
One of the plaques on the memorial also commemorates the 15th Royal Scots, which was also known as the City of Edinburgh Battalion. This battalion was raised in late 1914, and included men from Manchester who had not been allowed to form a 'Manchester Scottish' battalion. They enlisted in the 15th Royal Scots instead. Nearly 250 men from this battalion were killed on the 1st of July during the attack on Contalmaison.
From the village green, leaving the church on your right, the D147 leads south towards Fricourt. Just as the village ends, a small road (the C4) leads uphill off to the left. Another memorial can be seen on the left hand side of this road, a little way up the hill. This is a memorial to another Victoria Cross winner, Second Lieutenant Donald S Bell, and is a site known as Bell's Redoubt.
The memorial again is farily recent, having been dedicated on the 9th of July 2000, and it was supported by the Friends of the Green Howards Museum and also the Professional Footballers Association. Donald Bell served with the 9th Yorkshires (Green Howards), and is reported to be the first professional football player to join up in 1914 (he played for Bradford Park Avenue). He enlisted in the ranks with the West Yorkshires, but in 1915 was commissioned as an officer with the Green Howards.
He actually won the V. C. for his actions at Horseshoe Trench, which was about a kilometre west of here, when on the 5th of July 1916, supported by Corporal Colwill and Private Batey, he attacked and destroyed a German machine-gun post. After this, he wrote to his mother modestly suggesting that the success of this attack was 'the biggest fluke alive'. He added 'I believe God is watching over me and it rests with him whether I pull through or not'.
Sadly, for this brave man he did not pull through; he was killed, here, when on the 10th of July he undertook a similar brave action, again attacking a machine-gun post. The bronze cross at the top of the memorial is a reproduction of the original wooden cross placed here by the men of his battalion in his memory. His body was moved in 1920 to Gordon Dump Cemetery, again about a kilometre to the west, and probably very near to where he won his V. C. The spot where he was killed was named 'Bell's Redoubt', and is marked as such on some trench maps.
A little further along the same road, again on the left, is the village civilian cemetery. This is in the same location as it was before the Great War. At least one French soldier who died in the Great War is buried here, and right at the back is another memorial, this time to the 12th Manchesters. It is set well behind all the civilian graves, except for one tomb just to its right.
On the front of the memorial are the words 'To the eternal memory of 1039 officers NCOs and men of the 12th Bn. Manchester Regiment who made the great sacrifice 1914-1918. Thier name liveth for evermore'. At the top of the stone column is the regimental emblem in bronze, and on either side a carving of a sword is inset in the stone. The memorial was erected by relatives and the 12th Manchesters Old Comrades Association. The number listed represents the total number killed during the war, but on the 7th of July 1916 the 12th Manchesters lost nearly 600 men in an abortive attack on the Quadrangle support trench not far from here. The battalion were only ordered to this attack just before it commenced, and had to try and 'catch up' to reach their positions.
One officer who survived wrote 'The steadiness of the men was wonderful and they went over in as good a line as if on parade, although as soon as the advance started they were subjected to very heavy shelling and machine-gun fire. As our barrage had ceased, they had no shelter whatever and had a distance of 700 yards to cross. As soon as the first three companies showed themselves on the ridge overlooking the trench they were met by a withering fire and were mowed down in great numbers.......in a few seconds, hardly any of us were on our feet. The casualties were very numerous. Only two officers came out unwounded and one wounded officer was never fit for service again'.
The 12th Manchesters were raised at Ashton-under-Lyme, and had arrived in France in July 1915. The original memorial was a six foot tall cross made of oak with a slightly different inscription: 'To the eternal memory of all those comrades who laid down their lives on the 7th of July 1916'. The cross had been made by an old soldier from the 12th Manchesters (Ted Thompson) and was originally sited at Mametz Wood and unveiled by Major Browell in August 1927. Browell was one of those who had sailed with the battalion in July 1915 to France. The site at the cemetery was purchased in 1929, and the memorial was replaced by the permanent one that can be seen today.
Sites in the area around Contalmaison
South-west of Contalmaison on the right hand side of the D147 leading towards Fricourt is Peake Wood Cemetery. This small cemetery comprises just four rows of graves, along with six special memorial 'headstones' commemorating men known to be buried here. Rows A-C are full-length, with the shorter Row D at the back right. The back left is where the special memorials are located. In September 2002, the remains of a soldier which had been found and unusually (for recent times) identified were buried here. This burial was undertaken with full military honours, and was that of Private William Crompton of Gainsborough, who was killed on the 3rd of July 1916 whilst serving with the 1st Lincolns.
The cemetery was started towards the end of July 1916, and only used until February 1917. It seems strange that there should be relatively many special memorials to men who are known to be buried here in a cemetery where the total number of burials is just over a hundred. Perhaps this reflects the fact that this was one of the first cemeteries in the Somme area to be made permanent, possibly at a stage when the process was not so well refined. Of course, it could simply reflect that the graves were not well marked in the first place. Records at the CWGC may be digitised and made available at some point in the future, which might allow such questions to be answered.
There was an Advanced Dressing Station situated near here in 1916, which was in full view of the enemy. Many of those buried here died in July, August and September 1916, although there are few 1st of July graves. The Land Tablet (the stone tablet stating that the land for the cemetery was ceded in perpetuity) is inset in the back of an attractive stone seat within the cemetery.
In October 2006, the 'iron harvest' that the fields of the Somme still yields was evident here. By the wall of the cemetery was a shell (left picture below), and in the small copse (Peake Wood) on the opposite side of the road were two very large shells (right picture below). My car keys set beside them give some idea of the size - and if you enlarge the right hand picture by clicking on it, the smaller shell in the background is the same size as the one in the left hand picture. Once I had taken the pictures of these shells, I left them well alone and continued my battlefield tour. Even after 90 years, this ordnance can be lethal, and if you see such iron harvest whilst visiting the Somme, by all means take pictures, but please leave the shells where you find them.
A small track in the valley between Contalmaison village and Peake Wood Cemetery runs north from the road. Beware that here, as in many other areas on the Somme during the season, hunters with shotguns stalk the fields and the sound of shots rings out regularly. However, a few hundred yards along this track on the right (at a point to the west of the village itself) is a small private memorial to Captain Francis Dodgson. This resembles a small bollard, and is leaning considerably.
Francis Dodgson was 27 when he died. He was educated at Marlborough and then Trinity, Cambridge. He was serving with the 8th Yorkshires (the same battalion as Private Short who won the V. C. - see above) when he died on the 10th of July 1916. Captain Dodgson is now buried at Serre Road No. 2 Cemetery, covered in the Serre page of this website.
To the north-west of the village, on the right-hand side of a track leading north off the D20 road between Contalmaison and la Boiselle is a bunker. This track leads both north and south from the road, and parking near it can be difficult (It is also possible to approach from the other end of the track in Pozieres). Walking north until nearly opposite a copse on the right, the entrance to the bunker can be seen in the bushes on the right side of the track. Inside, the profile of the 'elephant-iron' roof can clearly be seen.
Another road from Contalmaison is the D147 which runs north towards Pozieres. From this, a mud track leads off to the right signposted to two cemeteries. This track may be fine by car in summer, but beware if tackling it in any other season; it may be best to park in the area to the left of the road and walk up the track.
The first cemetery along this track is the 2nd Canadian Sunken Road Cemetery, off to the left of the track. The mud track which leads to the cemeteries is the sunken road that lent its name to both, although it is no longer sunken here at least. A trench known as 'Sunken Road Trench' ran near the road here. Denoting the Canadian nature of this first cemetery is the fact that its name is inscribed in both French and English on the gateposts. Also, a maple leaf symbol is fixed to the gate, as is the case with other sites of importance to Canada on the Western Front. The register can be found in the second cemetery down this track (see below).
This is one of the few war cemeteries I have visited where the path to the gate is not well defined. In fact, spaces between the growing crops were all that led to this cemetery from the track. All the soldiers buried here were men of the 2nd Canadian Battalion. There are five rows of graves. These men died during September and October 1916, and the battalion's War Diary for that period is sketchy. Lieutenant H. C. Stuart died on the 9th of September 1916. The battalion was in reserve that day, but was called upon and there were several casualties, including Lieutenant Stuart, who was buried here, and Lietenant J Pringle who charged a machine-gun and fell riddled with bullets. He is buried in Albert Communal Cemetery Extension some miles away, and so probably survived long enough to be sent back for medical treatment. The War Diary records that on the 10th of September they buried their dead, which would have included Lieutenant Stuart.
Just a little further along and on the other side of the track, this time down a well-maintained grass path is Sunken Road Cemetery. This too was made during the Somme offensives of 1916, and contains around 200 burials. Again, many Canadians are buried here, but there are also British and many Australians too. When the Germans retook this area in 1918, they also used the cemetery for two burials, but the bodies of these German soldiers have long since been removed.
One of the Australians buried here is Private Stanley Ted Read (although his headstone appears to be inscribed 'Rea'). Read was 18 when he enlisted in October 1915, and was therefore only just short of nineteen years old when he was killed in action on the 13th of August 1916. He had arrived in France, via Alexandria, in June 1916, and joined up with the 46th Battalion less than a month before he was killed.
He was buried at the time in what was called 'Long Drive Valley', although the map reference given ties up exactly with the location of what is now known as Sunken Road Cemetery. There seems to have been some confusion when it came to having his permanent headstone engraved; in December 1921 the Army wrote to ask his mother whether, as her son had been a member of the Presbyterian church, she really wished to have the Star of David inscribed on his headstone. His file contains no reply to this, but his headstone shows no religious symbol today, although the inscription at the base reads 'He laid down his life in the deadly strife to keep Australia free'.
In addition to the burials, there are three special memorials to men known to be buried in the cemetery at the rear.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Robert Bonner (Ed.): The 12th Battalion The Manchester Regiment
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Friends of the Green Howards website
Gerald Gliddon: Somme 1916 - A Battlefield Companion
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Imperial War Museum website
Chris McCarthy: The Somme - the day by day account
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
The Times online archive