Serre was one of the strongly fortified villages held by the Germans at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The village, about five miles north of Albert, marked the most northern point of the main attack on the 1st of July 1916 (although there was a subsiduary attack at Gommecourt, a mile or so further north).
The name of Serre has come to be linked closely with several of the 'Pals' battalions, which suffered very heavy losses in the attacks made here. The Pals battalions were part of Kitchener's Army, and they were formed in specific towns or cities, where battalions were raised following the call to arms. As many of those who enlisted were friends, colleagues or relations, the idea was that by enlisting together in the local Pals battalions they would stay together during their service.
The casualty lists that came back after the 1st of July 1916 devastated some of the communities which had sent these Pals battalions. As friends, colleagues and relations had joined up together, so they often died together, and families, streets and whole communities grieved together when the telegrams arrived.
Map of the Serre Area
At Serre, the attacking troops were of the 31st Division (part of VIII Corps), and at 7.20 a.m. on the 1st of July 1916, the soldiers of the first wave left their trenches, passed through the British wire and lay down in No Man's Land to await the end of the bombardment. This ceased at 7.30 a.m., and in front of Serre men of the 12th York & Lancaster (Sheffield City Battalion) and the 11th East Lancashires (Accrington Pals) who were the first wave stood up and tried to cross No Man's Land. Just to the south, the attackers were of the 15th West Yorks (Leeds Pals) and the 16th West Yorks (1st Bradford Pals). The Sheffield City battalion men had laid white tapes which led to gaps in the German wire the night before, but when they attacked these were gone. The attackers were mown down by machine gun fire, and there was an almost total lack of success here, although one company of the Accrington Pals did reach Serre, but were lost. Reinforcements, men of the 13th and 14thYork & Lancasters (the 1st and 2nd Barnsley Pals) were sent in, but were also stopped with no success, and the attack here was then suspended, with no gains made whatsoever.
Famously, the Commander-in-Chief, Douglas Haig commented adversly in his diary on VIII Corps performance on the 1st of July. However, the Official History recognises the brave efforts that were made here, often by men facing battle for the first time. It records 'There was no wavering or attempting to come back, the men fell in their ranks, mostly before the first hundred yards of No Mans Land had been crossed. The magnificent gallantry, disipline and determination displayed by all ranks of this North Country division were of no avail against the concentrated fire-effect of the enemy's unshaken infantry and artillery'.
The 4th Division (which was a Regular Army Division) attacked to the south of Serre on the 1st of July, between that village and Beaumont Hamel, and did manage to reach a strongpoint known as the Quadrilateral, although they could not hold it and had to retire just before mid-day on the 2nd of July. The line near Serre was more or less unchanged here even at the end of the Somme battles in November 1916, and on the 13th of November the 3rd Division also attacked here - again without success.
A great deal more information on the Pals battalions can be found on the Accrington Pals website, and there are also several books devoted to the various Pals battalions.
There is much to see in and around Serre today. Within the village itself on the right of the D919 as you exit the village to the south-west is the memorial to the 12th York & Lancaster Regiment (the Sheffield City battalion). There is a wayside crucifix just after it on the left of the road.
The memorial, designed by Monsieur Augustin Rey, was unveiled on the 21st of May 1923, by Lieutenant-Colonel Wedgwood, in the presence of around 150 men who had fought at Serre in 1916. Prominent citizens from Sheffield were also present at the ceremony, including Gresford Jones who had been the Vicar of Sheffield during the War, and who dedicated the memorial. Newspaper reports on the 4th of July 1916 stated that Serre had been taken on the morning of the 1st of July, but then appeared to have been retaken by the Germans. This suggested even a temporary success here, which was far from the case; however some men from the Sheffield City Battalion had actually reached Serre and their bodies were found by 3rd Division troops when they briefly entered Serre during the unsuccessful 13th of November 1916 attack four months later. The village was 'adopted' by Sheffield after the war.
During 2005, the memorial was undergoing restoration, with access to the front of the memorial taped off and only the base of the plinth remaining. This work has been completed and the memorial is now restored to it's former appearance.
The village of Serre was evacuated by the Germans in their withdrawal in February 1917, but again lost again to them on the 25th of March 1918. It was retaken as the Allies advanced again on the 14th of August 1918.
Following the D919 south-west out of the village, just before Serre Road No. 1 Cemetery a small track leads off to the right. This can be navigated by car, or you can walk up the track, which is signposted to several cemeteries and to the Sheffield Memorial Park.
Sheffield Memorial Park & Area
This area has several sites of interest in close proximity, and is one of the more popular stops for battlefield visitors, including school parties. If driving up the track, then beware it can be quite rough. It is best to park by the first cemetery reached, which is Serre Road No. 3. Unlike the large No. 1 and No. 2 cemeteries, which can be found by the main road (see later on this page), Serre Road No. 3 is a small battlefield cemetery with just over 80 buried here. There are quite a number of unknowns buried here (more than 50%), and there are also headstones bearing two names; an indication of the nature of the burials. The cemetery was one of several made by V Corps after the Germans withdrew from this area in 1917.
Many of those buried here fell on the 1st of July 1916, and many are from Yorkshire and Lancashire regiments. There are special memorials to three men known and two more believed to be buried in the cemetery, and these are located on the right hand side. There are four main rows of graves, with Row E comprising a single unknown grave by itself at the back left of the Cemetery by the Great Cross.
From the cemetery, a track leads on to the Sheffield Memorial Park itself. This is a wooded area where the original frontline trenches and the shell-holes in the ground have been preserved. It was opened as a memorial park in 1936. There is a recent information tablet placed by Sheffield City Council near the front of the park. This has a coloured map, showing the positions of the various battalions here on July the 1st 1916, along with the German trenches and machine-gun positions they advanced against. Within the park are a number of memorials to the various Pals battalions that fought here or near here that day. The largest is a brick built structure commemorating the Accrington Pals, shown below.
The bricks used to construct this are what are known as 'Accrington NORI' bricks; still made in Accrington, they are very red in colour from the iron oxides in the clay, and the name 'NORI' apparently comes from the accidental printing in reverse of the word 'IRON'. Also on the rear of the memorial is the TocH symbol, originating from Talbot House in Poperinge during the Great War and today a charity. Right next to the Accrington Pals memorial are two smaller stone memorials with bronze plaques set on their fronts. These commemorate the Y (Chorley) and Z (Burnley and district) Companies of the 11th East Lancashire Regiment. The inscriptions are in both English and French. At the base of the Chorley Pals plaque are the words 'Where larks sing and poppies grow they sleep in peace for evermore'.
Another brick built structure, a shelter, is in memory of the Sheffiled City Battalion. This battalion suffered tremendous losses, with just under 500 casualties, which included 246 killed, plus a further 12 who later died of their wounds. Only four of the officers who attacked here survived.
There is also a memorial to the Barnsley Pals, in the form of a black granite stone. The funds for this were raised by businesses, the council and individuals from Barnsley, and it was unveiled in 1998, seven years after the last veteran of the Barnsley Pals had died.
At the front of the memorial park, the shallow outline of the original 1st of July frontline trench can still be seen. It was actually the Accrington Pals who attacked from the trenches here on the 1st of July.
Beside this trenchline stands a stone cross in memory of Private Albert Edward Bull. Albert Bull was from Apperknowle in Derbyshire (south of Sheffield), and was with the Sheffield City Battalion when he was killed here on July the 1st 1916 aged 22. He is buried in the nearby Serre Road No. 2 cemetery.
The memorial park slopes downhill, and the land still bears the scars of battle, with shell-holes and perhaps outlines of other trenches still visible today. There are also various smaller commemorations, often in the form of wooden notices nailed to trees, throughout the park.
A path leads down to a cemetery set just behind the memorial park in the valley. This is Railway Hollow Cemetery. A trench called Railway Avenue ran from near here all the way to Colincamps, over two miles to the west. This is where the British support lines were for July 1916. It was originally known as V Corps Cemetery No. 3, and like Serre Road No. 3 above was made after the Germans withdrew in 1917. The register is of an older type than in most cemeteries, and covers a number of other cemeteries as well as Railway Hollow.
There are 107 burials here, 65 being identified soldiers. There are just four rows of graves, with a French grave at the end of two of these. A stone seat is set to either side of the cemetery. The majority of the burials are of men who fell on the 1st of July or the 13th of November, 1916, reflecting the two major attacks in this area during the Somme offensives of that year.
Just behind the lines here during the War were four copses, which were named after the four apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Following the track that leaves from the front right of the Memorial Park, in the now tranquil fields which were once No Man's Land is the beautiful Luke Copse Cemetery, where 72 soldiers are buried. Of these, 44 are identified; fourteen are from the 12th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment - the Sheffield City Battalion - who died on the 1st of July. The other thirty identified soldiers buried here died on the 13th of November 1916 when another attack was made on Serre. No ground had been taken here between the two dates. The later burials are mainly from the 2nd Suffolks. Again, this cemetery was made after the lines had moved away from here, when the Germans retreated to the Hindenberg line early in 1917.
Two bothers are buried here who died serving in the same battalion on the 1st of July 1916: Lance-Corporal Frank and Private William Gunstone. Frank was the elder by a year, being 25 when he died. The brothers came from Nether Edge in Sheffield, not far away from where I grew up, and both served with the Sheffield City Battalion (12th York and Lancasters). The identical inscription on both brother's graves reads 'Allelulia for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth'.
A moving inscription can be seen on the grave of Pte Frederick Midforth from Hull: it reads 'Just waiting for his loved ones'. On my last visit, there was a photograph of Lt Bertrand W Devas next to his grave. Devas was from Kent, although he served with the 2nd Suffolks and along with many others was killed on the 13th of November 1916. He was married when he died, aged 34. To visit this lonely peaceful Cemetery, from which several other small CWGC cemeteries can also be seen in the fields nearby, is always a moving experience. The setting is so tranquil that it is hard to picture the destruction and devastation here on those days in July and November 90 years ago.
Below is a trench map showing Serre village and the surrounding area, dating from October 1916. The lines here had changed little since the 1st of July. The four copses, including Luke Copse, are all marked and they are clearly separate pieces of woodland, whereas today one longer piece of woodland encompasses John, Luke and Mark Copses. Touvent Farm is also shown, and the German trenches are marked in red whilst the British trenches are in blue.
Trench Map of the Serre Area
Straight opposite Sheffield Memorial Park, set above it as the ground rises is Queens Cemetery. This is in what was what was No Mans Land in 1916, and the slope up to this cemetery shows what was very often a factor on the British front line of July the 1st: the Germans had the advantage of the terrain.
The British had to advance up this slope when they attacked, and the German lines were just to the far side of where the cemetery now stands. Within the cemetery, which has a chain rather than a gate at the entrance, two short flights of steps lead up to a seat from which one can look back towards Sheffield Park and the British front lines and appreciate the scale of the task here.
Once again this is a cemetery made by V Corps in 1917 (originally V Corps Cemetery No. 4), and it contains just over 300 graves, more than a third of which are of unidentified soldiers. The headstones are fairly regular in their layout, although there are some gaps. Private James Knighton was serving with A Company of the Sheffield City Battalion and aged 24 when he died on the 1st of July 1916. James Knighton was a native of Sheffield and before he enlisted had been an Assistant Master at Ellesmere Road Council School in the city. The inscription on his grave is 'Still lives, still loves, still ours, will meet again, Ma and Dad'. Also named on the same headstone is Private Ernest Hudson, who was the same age, from the same city, served in the same battalion and died on the same day.
In fact many of the headstones here show two names; or sometimes state two unknown soldiers, or sometimes one known and one unknown soldier are listed on the same headstone. One officer buried here is Lieutenant Stanley Bickersteth and the inscription on his grave reads 'Fifth son of Dr Bickersteth Vicar of Leeds and Ella his wife. Content.' Dr Bickersteth went on to become Canon of Canterbury and Chaplain to the King. Stanley Bickersteth served with the 15th West Yorkshires, joining up in September 1914 and serving initially in Egypt. He was 25 when he died, again on the 1st July 1916.
Serre Road No. 1 Cemetery
On the righthand side of the D919 to the west of Serre is Serre Road No. 1 Cemetery. (The register for Serre Road No. 3 cemetery is also kept here.) The German front line trenches crossed the road just about here in 1916. This is a large cemetery, with one of the highest level of unidentified burials in the area. In spring 1917 the battlefields near the Ancre were cleared by V Corps, and this cemetery, plus Serre Road Numbers 2 and 3, as well as other cemeteries described on this page were made. The original cemetery at Serre Road No. 1 comprised graves in Plot 1, rows A-G, which are located at the rear of the cemetery behind the Stone of Rememberance. They are mostly 1916 burials.
Many of the graves in Plot 1 are of identified men, but after the Armistice the cemetery was enlarged, and now there are 2,426 burials here, and only just under 700 of these are identified. This means that nearly three-quarters of the graves are of men 'Known Unto God' - although there are special memorials to 22 men who are known or believed to be buried here located at the back left. There are also special memorials to several men who were buried in other cemeteries, but whose graves were later destroyed in other battles. Another pair of brothers is buried here - the Destrube brothers: Charles aged 27 and Paul aged 26. Both were serving with the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, and both died on the 17th of February 1917. They are buried together in Plot 4, row C.
After the war, there was much discussion about exactly what would happen to the many soldiers graves in France, Belgium and elsewhere. A single design for the headstones was agreed, for all men of every rank and religion. The only elements that the relatives could have a say in were the few lines of text that could be inscribed towards the bottom of their fallen relatives headstone, and the religious symbol shown. Whilst the majority of graves do have the cross, and many have the Star of David, there are many that have no religious symbol at all.
Plots 1 and 2 at the rear of the cemetery have rows A-K and A-E respectively, but each also have three more rows at the front, listed as AA, BB and CC. Presumably, these rows were added later, in space available in front of the original row A, and so have this double-letter designation.
The layout of the graves within the larger part of the Cemetery, between the road and the Stone of Remembrance, is much more regular, reflecting the post-Armistice nature of the burials here.
A newspaper report relating to the construction of the cemeteries in a permanent form after the War describes how the headstones were set into a long row of concrete to ensure they would stand true, and one can imagine this process with the later, regular rows of graves at Serre Road No. 1.
Just a little further along from Serre Road No. 1 Cemetery is a French Cemetery. This was made initially by the British, clearing the battlefields after the end of the war. They found the bodies of French soldiers who had been killed attacking Hebuterne in June 1915. More burials of French soldiers were subsequently made here, and the cemetery was handed over to the French in 1933. The gateposts of the cemetery are crumbling and in need of repair.
Opposite the French Cemetery is a memorial chapel, with a plaque on the stairs leading up to it. The inscription refers to infantrymen from the listed units and states that they were engaged in the plain located in front of you (Toutvent Farm), and implores "You all, German and French soldiers who took part in those bloody combats, rest in peace. With us the memory, to them the immortality". There are also other plaques in the porch of the chapel.
Serre Road No. 2 Cemetery
Further along the road, on the left hand side as the road bends, is Serre Road Number 2 Cemetery. The low wall at the front makes the entrance way seem even more imposing. On the October day I took some of the photos, CWGC gardeners were blowing the fallen autumn leaves away to the edges of the cemetery. This cemetery is mainly in what was No Mans Land between the German and British lines during 1916.
This is a larger cemetery, with over 7000 burials, nearly 5000 of which are unidentified. In fact, this cemetery has the largest number of unidentified burials on the Somme, and indeed in France. Again, this was originally a small wartime cemetery, started in May 1917, containing Plots 1 and 2 before the Armistice. Afterwards, burials from at least 16 other small cemeteries or churchyards were brought here. These were relatively small numbers, however, and many more graves must be those of men recovered from the battlefields, as there are now 36 plots. At one time it was thought that there might need to be up to 10,000 burials here, and in 1930 a report in The Times described the cemetery as still incomplete, with hundreds of graves of recently recovered soldiers remains marked by temporary wooden crosses. Serre Road Number 2 Cemetery was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and not completed until 1934.
The original plots 1 and 2 are located behind the Stone of Remembrance, and are 1st of July and 13th of November 1916 graves largely, with the headstones set at a different angle to the later ones. It is worth noting that, in both of the large Serre Road Cemeteries, the original burials were well away from the road, which may have been why they could be expanded after the Armistice. Among those buried here is Captain Francis Dodgson, of the 8th Yorkshires. There is a private memorial to him which can be seen beside a field track just to the west of Contalmaison. Also buried here is Private Albert Bull, who also has a private memorial in the form of a stone cross by the Sheffield Park front-line trenches (see above).
Just outside and to the left of the cemetery, a private memorial to Valentine Ashworth (Val) Braithwaite stands on a small mound with conifers at each corner. He was a Lieutenant in the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, when he died on the 2nd of July 1916. His name is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
The field which can be seen behind this memorial is thought to be where the experience which inspired the poet Wilfred Owen to write The Sentry occurred. This describes a sentry being blinded, one of many Wilfred Owen poems that vividly portrays the realities of war. Owen had arrived in France in the first days of 1917, and on the 6th of January 1917 his battalion, the 2nd Manchesters, moved up to the front. Owen had arranged a code with his mother whereby he would be able to give her his location (soldiers were not allowed to put such information in thier letters). On the 10th of January he wrote a letter to his mother that included the word 'Mistletoe' - the agreed trigger for the code. The second letter on each of the next five lines spelt out 'Serre'. Six days later he wrote to his mother again, this time describing how '....I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it. I held an advanced post....in the middle of No Man's Land.' He goes on to describe the awful experience, and says that although he posted his sentries half-way down the steps of the dug-out they occupied, 'one lad was blown down and, I am afraid, blinded.' An excavation was undertaken here recently, and filmed, featuring in a BBC 'Ancestors' programme.
Sadly, Wilfred Owen was killed before his talent as a poet was widely recognised - even more tragically, this happened on November the 4th 1918, just a week before the Armistice. He is buried near the village of Ors, and more information on this can be found on the Ors page.
Between Serre Road No. 2 Cemetery and the French Chapel, travelling from the former towards the latter a new memorial can be seen on the right hand side of the road. This is in the form of a small block topped with a bronze tablet. The tablet records that in October 2003 the remains of three soldiers were found near this spot. They were two Germans, from the 121 RIR, who died in June 1915 and who were identified, and one British soldier believed to have died on the 1st of July 1916. Only his regiment, the King's Own (Royal Lancasters) could be identified. The regimental badges of the two units are on either side of the memorial, which was unveiled in June 2006. The remains were reburied, as the memorial says 'with their comrades': the Germans in Labry German Cemetery near Verdun, and the British soldier at nearby Serre Road No. 2 Cemetery.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Accrington Pals website
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Brig-General Sir James Edmonds: Military Operations France & Belgium 1916 (Volume 1)
Great War Forum website
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Chris McCarthy: The Somme - the day by day account
Martin Middlebrook: The First Day on the Somme
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
Wilfred Owen Selected Letters (edited by John Bell)
Paul Reed: Walking the Somme
Gary Sheffield & John Bourne (Ed.): Douglas Haig: War Diaries & Letters 1914-1918
The Times & The Scotsman Archives