This page covers the Lochnagar Mine Crater, one of the most visited sites on the Somme battlefields (listed on the Five Must See Somme Sites page). It also covers the area nearby, including the two villages of la Boiselle and Ovillers which were just behind the German Front Lines on the 1st of July 1916. The map below shows the area with the sites of interest marked.
Lochnagar Mine Crater
The Lochnagar mine crater is one of several which remain visible on the Western Front today. In the Somme area, others may be seen at Hawthorn Ridge near Beaumont Hamel and on the edge of High Wood. On the 1st of July 1916, a series of large mines beneath the German Front Lines were exploded by the British just before the troops attacked. Other mine craters can be seen in Flanders, particularly around Messines.
Lochnagar crater is located south of the main D929 road which runs between Albert and Bapaume. It’s well signposted (as ‘la Grande Mine’), off to the right from the main road as this dips down to enter la Boiselle (travelling from Albert). There is parking near the crater although as this is a popular stop on school tours coaches often come up and down the narrow roads and turn before or after parking.
Lochnagar crater is now managed by the Lochnagar Crater Foundation. Farming on the land around had encroached towards the crater over the decades, and in 1978, Mr Richard Dunning purchased the land to ensure the crater could be maintained suitably as a memorial. The bodies of many German soldiers who would have been killed when the mine went off probably still lie here. In October 1998 the remains of a British soldier were found in the land just behind the crater. A cross now marks this spot, and the soldier was identified as Private George Nugent of the 22/Northumberland Fusiliers. He was later reburied in Ovillers Military Cemetery (see below on this page).
It’s possible to walk all around the edge of the crater, but access to the crater itself is not permitted. The crater was created by the explosion on 1st July 1916 of two charges of ammonal (36,000 lbs and 24,000 lbs, 60 feet apart) under a German position called Schwaben Hohe. The crater originally measured some 300 feet across and 90 feet deep. Despite this, the attack in this sector on the 1st of July was not successful, and the losses sustained, particularly by the Tyneside Scottish and other units of the 34th Division, were heavy. The action here is particularly well described in Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day on the Somme.
There is a large wooden cross made from Tyneside timber standing beside the crater, and there are often wreaths at the foot of this cross, laid by visitors to the site. In recent years, a new wooden walkway and an area for laying wreaths has been added to the base of the cross.
Other memorials sited here include the Grimsby memorial seat (shown above) and also two other benches; the Harry Fellows bench in memory of those who fell on the Somme and a third dedicated by the Friends of Lochnagar. Around the edges of the crater, the land still shows the vestiges of shell holes and is uneven and cratered. The hard bare chalky path round the edge of crater can be slippery if wet. From the edge of the crater the height of this key point allows an appreciation of the surrounding battlefields. There is a remembrance garden at the rear of the crater site, near the cross to George Nugent.
la Boiselle and the “Glory Hole”
From the road from the D929 up to the crater, on the right hand side is an area of land known during the war as the Glory hole. Here, the British and German front lines were extremely close together, and small mines had been blown by both sides to try and gain some advantage. However, on the 1st of July 1916 there was no infantry attack from this short stretch of line. Although private, part of this area can be seen from the road. The land is cratered and uneven, and starting in 2011 this area was studied in detail by the La Boiselle Study Group. More recently, the site has been taken over by the Association des Amis de l’Ilot de La Boisselle. It is not open to the public, but can be clearly seen from the road.
Just as the road from the Lochnagar Crater rejoins the main D929 is the la Boiselle Tyneside memorial seat. This location is just to the north-west of the ‘Glory Hole’ and also almost exactly on the British front line of July 1st, 1916. This memorial was erected quite soon after the War, as inscriptions on its rear show. These state that it was approved by Presidential decree on the 13th October 1921, erected by the trustees of the Colonel Joseph Cowan Fund and opened by Marshal Foch on the 20th April 1922. The motifs of the two Brigades, officially the 102nd and 103rd Brigades, are displayed on the pillars flanking either side of the seat.
On the front, the central plaque depicts a classical mounted warrior battling a dragon, whilst a weeping maiden looks on. The inscription, in English on the left and French on the right reads “Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friend. In front of this monument on 1/7/16 the ‘Tyneside Scottish’ and the ‘Tyneside Irish’ brigades attacked the enemy. For many hours the fortunes of arms fluctuated but ere night had fallen the two Tyneside Brigades with the aid of other units of the 34th Division attained their objective. Think not that the struggle and the sacrifice were in vain.”
In front of la Boiselle church, on the left side of the D20 leading to Contalmaison, stands a memorial to the 19th (Western) Division. This is in the form of a stone cross, with a butterfly on the top (which was the emblem of the Division). The 19th Division attacked la Boiselle in the early morning on the 2nd of July 1916, and managed to gain most of the village, although the Germans still held a line that ran through the church.
The inscription at the top shows that the memorial commemorates not only the attack on the 2nd July 1916, but also the 19th Division throughout the remainder of the Somme battles that year. As well as la Boiselle, the names Bazentin-le-Petit (where the Division fought on 23rd of July) and Grandcourt (where the Division withdrew on the 19th November, right at the end of the Somme campaign) are listed.
On the base of cross are listed the units which made up the 19th Division; on the front Artillery, Engineers, Pioneers, RAMC and RASC, and on the other three sides the battalions of the three infantry brigades, the 56th, 57th & 58th.
Further up the D20 past the church, there is an small octagonal brick structure with green metal doors on the left. A sign on its front reads ‘Rue Georges Cuvillier’. A grass track just before and to the left of this leads to the 34th Division memorial, standing on the edge of fields. The views ahead and across towards Ovillers Military Cemetery and the Thiepval memorial in the background to the right are impressive. The memorial is in the form of the figure of Victory, on a stone plinth, originally holding up a laurel wreath (see contemporary picture below). It was unveiled on May the 23rd, 1923, by Major-General Sir Cecil Nicholson, who had commanded the Division from 25th July 1916 until the end of the war
The memorial is said to be located where the Divisional HQ stood in 1916. Towards the top of the plinth is the checkerboard insignia of the Division. The bronze figure of Victory no longer holds the laurel wreath. The Division’s units are listed on the side panels; infantry on the left and artillery and engineers on the right.
The inscription commemorates the 34th Division (which included the Tyneside Scottish & Irish Brigades mentioned earlier, see the Tyneside Memorial Seat). The memorial records that the Division was engaged for the first time in battle near this spot on the 1st of July 1916. All 12 infantry battalions of the Division were involved, in successive waves. In around 10 minutes nearly 80% of the men in the leading battalions had become casualties; mainly caused by German machine-guns. These, once the British barrage lifted, were able to sweep across No Man’s Land (which waswide here) and catch the advancing soldiers in the open.
In front of Ovillers and la Boiselle, the only gains came in between Lochnagar and la Boiselle, where the 21st, 22nd and 26th Northumberland Fusiliers (the first two battalions from 102 Brigade, the last from 103 Brigade) started to advance the moment the mine at Lochnagar was blown. Note that George Nugent (see both Lochnagar Crater above and Ovillers Military Cemetery below) whose remains were found by Lochnagar crater was in the 22/Northumberland Fusiliers (or 3rd Tyneside Scottish). The troops took German trenches to the north and north-east of Lochnagar crater, around Scwaben Hohe and on the norther slopes of Sausage Valley.
However, there were no reinforcements available, and so the 19th Division were detailed to carry out an attack on la Boiselle after dark. They successfully took the village early the next day (see above).
Ovillers is the small village opposite la Boiselle but to the north of the D929. From the main D929 road, there is a good view of the large Ovillers Military Cemetery. This contains the burials of nearly 3,500 soldiers, only 31% of which are identified.
The cemetery is located in what was No Mans Land, and from the front of the cemetery, where a bank slopes down to the road, there are clear views of the Albert basilica to the right, of Mash valley in front, and the main road running on the spur ahead. Charles Edmonds, returning across this area on July the 16th described it in A Subaltern’s War.
“A little grass had still room to grow between the shellholes. The village was guarded by tangle after tangle of rusty barbed wire in irregular lines. Among the wire lay rows of khaki figures, as they had fallen to the machine-guns on the crest, thick as the sleepers in the Green Park on summer Sunday evening……..the flies were buzzing obscenely over the damp earth; morbid scarlet poppies grew scantily along the white chalk mounds; the air was tainted with rank explosives and the sickly stench of corruption”.
The cemetery was originally only Plot 1, which located just back from the front right of the cemetery. This was started around August 1916, and used until March 1917. It was then quite small, less than 150 graves, but the cemetery was expanded significantly after the Armistice. This was mainly as a result of bringing in bodies from the local battlefields of Ovillers, La Boisselle, Pozieres and Contalmaison. This explains the high number of unidentified burials located here.
One notable grave in Ovillers Military Cemetery is that of Private George Nugent of the Tyneside Scottish, who was reburied here on the 1st of July 2000 after his remains were found at the Lochnagar Crater in 1998 (see above). Special memorials to 35 soldiers who were originally buried in Mash Valley Cemetery but whose graves are lost are located at the front right of the cemetery. There are also special memorials to 24 casualties who are believed to be among the unidentified buried here. One records a casualty who is known to be buried here – Major John Walsh of the 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, who died of wounds aged 34 on the 19th of February, 1917.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealths Wargraves Commission website
Rose Coombes: Before Endeavours Fade
Charles Edmonds: A Subaltern’s War
Brig-General Sir James Edmonds: Military Operations France & Belgium 1916 (Volume 1)
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Chris McCarthy: The Somme – the day by day account
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
Martin Middlebrook: The First Day on the Somme
Paul Reed: Walking the Somme
Gary Sheffield & John Bourne: Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918