The ruins of Guillemont Station. Photograph from the History of the 20th (Light) Division.
This village is situated about six and a half miles east of Albert, and is located on the junction of the D64 and D20 roads.
Guillemont held out for some time during the Somme battles, with attacks here on the 30th of July and the 8th of August before the village was finally taken on the 3rd of September, 1916. The 20th (Light) Division was instrumental in taking the village, and this action is described in their Divisional History. In the morning, their line was just to the west of the village, probably just a little closer than the position of Guillemont Road Cemetery today and, further north, running past the site of Guillemont station. Thier objective was to take the village, and continue east past the crossroads where their memorial (see below) stands today.
The attack had been postponed several times, partly due to poor weather, but the plan was to attack the village from north, west and south. Assembly trenches were dug north of Guillemont Station to aid the nothern attack, and at 6 a.m. on the 3rd of September, 1916, a bombardment commenced. The infantry attacked here at noon. The attack also employed 'push-pipes', and liquid fire, innovations which were also employed by the British elsewhere on the Somme battlefields in 1916. The attack went well, although there were casualties, and the second objective (the eastern side of the village) was taken by 1.30 p.m., although there was fierce hand to hand fighting within the village of Guillemont itself. The third objective (see the 20th Division Memorial details below) was reached later, but the final objective could not be taken that day. Attacks to the north near Ginchy were not succesful, and the Germans counterattacked at Guillemont. However, the next day (the 4th of September) the 20th Division troops pushed forwards again, and reached their final objective. They were supported by troops from the 16th (Irish) Division (who also took Ginchy on the 9th of September), and there are memorials to both Divisions in or near Guillemont. There is also a lot more to see, both in the village itself and in the surrounding area.
Map of Guillemont and surrounding area
Guillemont Station was located just to the north-west of the village, on the road leading to Longueval. The photograph at the top of this page shows the ruins of Guillemont Station after it's capture. The railway was rebuilt after the war, but is now long gone, and today grain silos are located just about where the station once stood.
Just a little further north towards Longueval is the site of Waterlot Farm, another feature on the 1916 battlefield. The bitter fighting around this area is reflected in the battle debris that can still be seen today in the field edges after ploughing. Shrapnel, shell fragments and .303 cases can be seen. Below is a .303 round with the cordite sticks still intact inside, seen at the edge of a field near the site of Guillemont Station.
Near the site of Guillemont Station, behind tghe present buildings, is a memorial to Second Lieutentant George Marsden-Smedley. This can be reached by walking through the yard of the grain silos. Aged only ninteen, Marsden-Smedley was killed near here on the 18th of August, 1916, whilst attacking with the 3rd Rifle Brigade. He left Harrow school in 1915 to join the Army. His parents purchased this small plot of land after the War, the location where he was last seen alive, and erected the memorial. George Marsden-Smedley's body was never found, and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. For some years after his death, notices appeared on the anniversary in the In Memoriam section of The Times. Reading these brings home the suffering of his parents and family, and the loss of their young son.
From the Marsden-Smedley memorial, there are good views across to Guillemont Road Cemetery and Trones Wood.
The church in Guillemont stands on the main road through the village. This is a quiet road, and pigeons roost on the church. In front of the church, to the right stands the village war memorial, and one of the names listed here is Maurice Waterlot - perhaps part of the family which owned Waterlot Farm (which was located north-west of the village). The name Waterlot also appears on maps of the area today - 'les Vingt Waterlot' is marked to the east of the village.
Just to the left of the church is a memorial to the 16th (Irish) Division. This is essentially the same design, a Celtic cross, as the Divisions memorial at Wytschaete (a picture of this can be seen on the Messines page). On the front of the memorial at Guillemont is inscribed '1914-1918 - In commemoration of the victories of Guillemont and Ginchy September 3rd and 9th 1916 in memory of those who fell therein and of all Irishmen who gave their lives in the great war. RIP."
Standing in front of Guillemont church, you can look downhill to see the road (D20) leading towards Longueval; this rises uphill again from the crossroads. The modern-day view can be compared with a war-time picture, which shows the complete desolation of the village. The site of church is on the left as you look down the road, but only the route the road takes demonstrates that this is the same spot.
The site of Guillemont village during the War. Photo: Vise Paris
If you stand with the church behind you, cross the road and then head uphill, there is a small road which leads off to the left. This is the Rue den Haut, and in land off to the right can be seen entrances to dugouts. Guillemont was a German strongpoint before it was taken in early September 1916, and they had constructed dug-outs possibly as a Divisional HQ.
After the war, the village was 'adopted' by Hornsey, and in September 1921 a deputation from Hornsey visited and gave a tractor, a threshing machine and a plough to help the villagers with their return to farming the devastated land.
Guillemont Road Cemetery
This cemetery, located on the D64 to the west of the village is fronted by a low wall, and there is an entrance building with two conical conifers behind. Today, mature trees line the edges of the cemetery, in comparison to a picture of the cemetery between the Wars.
Guillemont Road Cemetery between the Wars. Photo: J. Souillard
The cemetery during wartime was quite small; it was started after the battle which took the village on the 3rd of September 1916, when units from the 16th and 20th Divisions finally captured Guillemont. The cemetery was used during the war up until March 1917, but after the Armistice it was one of the cemeteries used to bury bodies recovered from the 1916 Somme battlefields around the village.
Today, there are 2,263 burials here - as with other cemeteries containing many bodies recovered after the Armistice, the proportion of unidentified burials here is very high. In fact, over two-thirds of the burials are those of unidentified soldiers. The original burials form Plot 1 of the Cemetery, and can be seen in the picture below.
One of the best-known graves here is that of Lieutenant Raymond Asquith, son of Herbert Asquith, who was Prime Minister at the time of his sons death on the 15th of September, 1916. An obituary in The Times four days later recorded the loss of 'a man of brilliant promise'. He was a lawyer, and also following his father into politics (he was the prospective Liberal candidate for Derby) when the war broke out. Although already in his mid-thirties, he applied for a commission, and served initially in the Queens Westminsters, then the Grenadier Guards. He had applied to return to the frontline from a staff position shortly before he fought and died near here, and was obviously a brave and intelligent man. So the War, which is said to have touched most families in Britain, touched the lives of the Prime Minister, who lost his eldest son, and Raymond Asquiths own family. He left a wife and three children.
Another grave which caught my eye here was of a South African soldier, Frederick Eaton, a Private in the 2nd South African Regiment. There was a small picture of Frederick Eaton alongside his grave stone. He died on the 18th of July 1916, a long way from his home in East London in the Cape Province, but someone, presumably from his family, had visited the grave fairly recently to remember him.
From the cemetery there are good views across to the village church, and also Longueval church can be seen further in the distance. The buildings on the site of Guillemont Station can also be seen, and Trones Wood is visible to the left. At the rear of the cemetery are eight special memorials to men believed to among the 1,523 unknown burials here, set four on either side of a stone bench.
There are a number of sites of interest near the village. On the D20 leading east out of Guillemont at a cross-roads is a memorial to the 20th (Light) Division. Today, the memorial is simply a brass laurel wreath and plaque with the words "In memoriam Twentieth Light Division", set just above the ground level. This memorial is on the line which formed an objective of the Division when they attacked on the 3rd of September, 1916. The road running north-south (which forms the cross-roads with the D20) was taken, as their third objective.
However, this is replacement of the original memorial. The original, a tapering stone obelisk, was unveiled on Sunday the 4th of June 1922, by Major-General Sir Cameron Shute (who had commanded the 59th Brigade of the 20th Division during the Guillemont actions). He was accompanied by the Mayor of Guillemont and a French Army representative (General Douchy), plus men who had fought with the Division at Guillemont. The original memorial was similar in appearance to the same Division's memorial in Flanders, which was unveiled five years after the original one at Guillemont. The Flanders memorial can still be seen today at Langemarck. The replacement memorial here at Guillemont was unveiled on the 25th of April, 1995.
Further on, as the road bends to the right just before a wood, a track leads off to the left with a signpost to the Dickens Cross. (The wood to the right here is Leuze Wood, known during the War as Lousy Wood.) A visit to the Dickens Cross entails parking your car and walking a few hundred yards along the track. The area around the cross is well maintained, with shrubs around the edges and a flowerbed at the base of cross.
This is a memorial to Major Cedric Charles Dickens, who served in the 13th London (Kensingtons) Regiment, and who was killed near here on the 9th of September 1916. He was the grandson of the author Charles Dickens. The cross that can be seen on this site today is not the original, and in fact neither is the location where the cross was originally positioned. It was located around 100 yards away from the present spot. On the back of the present cross a small brass plaque explains this is a recent replacement, reading: -
"After 80 years the original cross that stood on this site was irreparably damaged by the elements. This replacement, funded by the Dickens family, was unveiled on Remembrance Sunday November 14th 2004 ensuring our Ceddy's memory lives on. The original is now in Ginchy church".
The Times, on the 19th of September, 1916 (the same day it contained an obituary to Raymond Asquith, see above), carried an announcement that there would be a requiem mass for the repose of Major Cedric Dickens soul, at the Brompton Oratory on the 25th of September. The report stated that he had died on the 10th of September, but the date on the Cross here, and also in the CWGC records, is the 9th of September. This probably represents the confusion in reporting of such sad news at the time.
The 'Kensingtons' History of the Great War contains a picture of the First battalions officers, including the (then) Captain C.C. Dickens, who looks very young. It also describes the action in which he died in some detail. An attack took place, at 4.45 p.m. on the 9th of September, the Kensingtons being in support. Major Dickens led 'A' Company forward, and into the German trenches. They were trying to link up with the 16th Division to their left, but the Germans still held some of their trench, and were bombing them. Major Dickens was killed, and presumably this action was very near the spot where the cross now stands. 'A' Company of the 'Kensingtons' suffered badly that day; during the advance across No Mans Land, one platoon was wiped out by one large shell. The Kensingtons withdrew in the morning of the 10th of September. Like so many others, Cedric Dickens has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. On the anniversary of his death, several members placed notices in the In Memoriam section of The Times for several years after the war.
The fields around Guillemont still yield battle debris from the fierce fighting that took place here. When I visited the Dickens Cross, in the corner of a field near the foot of a pylon not far away were several "silent pickets", the devices used to hold up barbed wire. They were so named as the corkscrew base enabled them to be screwed silently into the ground, rather than being hammered.
This is a little further along the D64 past Guillemont Road Cemetery. The name Trones Wood was actually a misspelling; the French name (then and today) is Bois de Troncs. There were attempts to take the Wood from the 8th of July, 1916, and on the 14th of July the 18th Division was successful in doing so.
After the War, the wood was almost totally destroyed, as the picture below, of graves in the wood shows. There is no Cemetery today located within the wood, and so these graves were probably relocated after the Artmistice.
Graves in Trones Wood just after the War. Photo from the Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields
At one time, there was an 18th Division memorial at Trones Wood in the form of a wooden cross. However, today a memorial to the 18th Division, found on the edge of the wood by the road, is one of the early permanent British memorials in the Somme. It is a tall obelisk, and the main inscription reads "To the Glory of God and in imperishable memory of the officers, NCOs and men of the 18th Division who fell fighting for the sacred cause of liberty in the Somme battles of 1916 and 1918."
Underneath are the words "The greatest thing in the world", and below that a quotation from John Chapter 25 Verse 12, a quotation which is also seen on other memorials. The regrowth of the wood can be seen in the sequence of photographs below. The first was taken just after the War, and the shattered trees that are the remains of Trones Wood can be seen behind
The 18th Division Memorial by Trones Wood just after the War. Photo from the Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields
Between the Wars, the wood grew back, and the second picture shows the young trees surrounding the memorial.
The 18th Division Memorial between the Wars. Photo: Combier-Macon
Today, of course, nearly 90 years have passed, and the woodland is mature again. The 18th Division Memorial can still be seen, now surrounded by well-grown woodland; it is difficult to envisage the battle that raged here in 1916.
A machine-gun post in Trones Wood just after the War. Photo from the Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields
Ginchy, Lesboeufs, Combles
These villages and their surrounding areas have a number of cemeteries and memorials which are worth visiting. Ginchy itself, however, has few sites of great note, although there are many silent pickets holding up fences within the village, as shown in the picture below
Ginchy church is where the original "Dickens Cross" is now located, but this has been locked when I have visited, although it is listed in some guides as being always open .
On the road leading from Ginchy to Lesboeufs, there are two memorials to the left of the road. The first is the Guards Division memorial. Standing within a hedged area, this is a simple stone cross, with the inscription reading "In memory of those officers warrant officers, non-commisioned officers and men of the Guards Division who gave their lives to their country in the month of September 1916 in the actions that took place at Ginchy and Lesboeufs".
On the rear is another inscription, which reads "This memorial replaces the wooden cross erected close to this site immediately after the battles of September 1916.". The Guards Division memorial was unveiled in October 1928, by Major-General Sir Geoffrey Feilding, who commanded the Guards Division in 1916. Representatives from the Guards, and from the French military were also present, as was the Earl of Cavan, who had commanded the 14th Corps of which the Guards Division was a part.
The second memorial, a little further along towards Lesboeufs, is no longer accessible by a path or track from the road, and is set back about 40 feet from the road in a field. Hence, depending on the time of year, access may be very diffcult due to either mud or crops. This is a private memorial to Captain Herbert P. Meakin. When I took this photograph, the problem was mud; hence the picture is taken from some distance away, from the road. However, the small wooden cross that had been placed on the memorial does show that someone had visited recently.
Meakin served in the Guards Trench Mortar battery, and was killed near the spot where this memorial stands. In the Middlebook's Somme Battlefields, the authors wrote in 1991 that there were plans to restore it - sadly, however, this is one memorial that remains in a poor condition, with access difficult at best.
With no known grave, Captain Meakin's name is one of the thousands on the Thiepval Memorial.
Further along, as the road drops down towards Lesboeufs is the Guards Cemetery on the left. This is one of three with the name "Guards Cemetery" on the Western Front; the other two are at Combles (not far from here) and at Cuinchy. The cemetery is above the level of the road, with a bank and wall with entrance steps at the front. I am fortunate in having a series of photographs showing this cemetery. The first must date from very shortly after the War, as the original wooden crosses are still in position, and to the rear there are a number of men working - perhaps IWGC men working on the cemetery.
The Guards Cemetery just after the Great War
The second photograph shows the cemetery completed and the layout more or less as today. This probably dates from between the wars, and can be compared with the modern picture below, taken from more or less the same spot, although there were previously two conifers on either side of the entrance (which can be seen in the early photograph, and which grew to maturity) that have now been removed.
The Guards Cemetery between the Wars. Photo: J. Souillard
The cemetery was originally a wartime one; and these early burials are mainly of Grenadier Guards who fell in the area on the 25th of September 1916, which was when the Guards Division took the nearby village of Lesboeufs. It was a small cemetery, with only 40 graves, but after the Armistice it was increaased in size, and now contains 3,136 graves. As with Guillemont Road Cemetery (see above), the fact that many of these were recovered from the battlefields around, perhaps three or more years after they had died, means that less than half of the graves are identified.
The original Cemetery is now Plot 1, and the graves here (at the front left) can be distinguished as the headstones are at right angles to those of the later graves. Plot 1C consists of just two graves by themselves, both Grenadier Guards: Guardsman Ernest Wilson from Manchester and Lieutenant the Honourable William Parnell, from Park Lane in London. The latter was just 22 when he died, but had won the Military Cross when in December 1915 near Le Tilleloy he entered the German trenches and surporised a German post, killing wo and taking one prisoner. The citation makes it clear this was not the only occasion Parnell had taken part in a raid of this kind.
Guards Cemetery is an attractive and peaceful cemetery, and one of the unusual features is the path leading from the steps at the front to the Cross of Sacrifice at the back. This is inlaid with flowering plants, a thoughtful and pleasing design. As with many of the Western Front cemeteries, this makes one think again of the efforts that went into creating and preserving these cemeteries - and I for one am glad that the effort was not only made, but continues to be made so well by the CWGC.
Directly behind the Cross of Sacrifice at the rear of the cemetery are special memorials. There are five to soldiers originally buried at Ginchy ADS Cemetery whose graves were later destroyed. To left of these are three more, to the memory of men buried at the time in Lesboeufs, whose graves are now lost. There are also special memorials at the right edge of the cemetery, to men known or believed to be buried here. One of the Irish Guardsmen buried here was John Clarke from County Cork, who was killed in action on the 13th of September 1916 aged 21. The inscription on his headstone reads "An only child, sadly missed and deeply mourbed by his loving Mother. R.I.P."
Combles is around two miles east of Guillemont, and was taken on the 26th of September, after the Germans evacuated it the night before. However, during the months before that, the village had been largely destroyed, as the war-time picture below shows.
The ruins of Combles Photo: Vise Paris
As well as several cemeteries around the village, including another 'Guards Cemetery', there is a bunker which can be reached, although with some difficulty. It is located in a field behind a warehouse at the edge of the village on the road which runs from Combles to Morval. The road bends to the left just as it exits the village of Combles here, and the bunker is to the left in the land above the road.
The site can be extremely overgrown, but the bunker is worth a visit; it is apparently a command bunker rather than a machine-gun post or other emplacement.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealths Wargraves Commission website
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Chris McCarthy: The Somme - the day by day account
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
Paul Reed: Walking the Somme and information on the Dickens Cross
O.F. Bailey & H.M. Hollier: The Kensingtons 13th London Regiment
V.E. Inglefield: The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division