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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

Grave hunting in the Somme

Updated: Feb 17

(This blog post is in two parts, the first being set in 2011 and the second being set in 2018).

As most of my followers know, I am a Francophone as one of my favourite countries in the world is France. I know the language (not 100% but enough to hold a conversation), I love the culture, the wine, the beer is getting better, the food (somewhat but I am still not shoving snails and frog legs down my throat) and the architecture. I also love the fact that France is for all seasons, ranging from the beautiful Mediterranean beaches, mountains in the Alps and Pyrenees, the cities, the forests, the castles …there is so much to explore and do! And then there is the history. Not all history is great but can still be fascinating to look into. There are the wars between my home country (which back then was known as the Union of England) and France, then there was the French Revolution and the infamous two world wars which broke out last century. It is here that I have a family connection (as all my family is born and bred English) with France. It’s not a great one.

Dud Corner in Somme, France
Dud Corner

My mother has been researching our family tree for many moons now and about ten years ago found out that we had three relatives who died in the First World War (1914-1918). To me they were my Great Great Grandad’s brothers. One died at the Battle of Loos and two died in the Battle of the Somme. As soon as my mother had all the facts, back in 2011 my folks, Olga (the wife) and I decided to drive across La Manche to find the gravestones and check out a few other sites which were involved in the Great War.

After an early start and crossing the water on the Dover-Calais ferry we arrived at our first stop, Corbie, a small but beautiful town located on the banks of the River Somme (east of Amiens) was where the first cemetery was located, known as the Corbie Communal Cemetery. Here we found the gravestone of Edward George Wheeler who died on the 16th September 1916 in the Battle of the Somme. Now like I said, all these guys who died were all my Great Great Grandad brothers, so as you can gather, they were all brothers. The first brother who was sent to war first died in 1915 at the Battle of Loos (more later on) but the other two were sent to war a year later at the height of the Battle of the Somme. Arthur died down the road on the 15th September 1916 but a day later, Edward died. Two brothers in the space of a nightfall lost their lives in a pointless war (don’t get me started on the cause of the outbreak of The Great War, all I can say is people back then need their heads bashing against the wall and look what happened, millions of lives lost and the shape of Europe turned for the worse which lasted decades). Out of the three brothers, Edward’s body was the only one found and had a grave.

On the way to the next cemetery we stopped off at Le Grand Mine but in English it is known as the Lochnagar Mine located on the outskirts of the village of La Boisselle. What the British army did was truly crazy, daring and brave, a plan which worked to stop the advancing Germans taking more of France. The British secretly dug tunnels under a German field fortifications known as Schwabenhohe (Swabian Height) and on the 1st July 1916 at 07:28, the Brits pulled the trigger and kaboom! A lot of Germans went flying up into the air, lots lost their lives and ones who survived probably had arms and legs detached or blinded, and the fortification was gone. A crater of around thirty meters deep and one hundred meters wide remained. Most of the German army in this area were defeated, some survived and made a run for it, retreating. The British during the Battle of The Somme, did this nineteen times to the German army.

Lochnagar Mine, Somme, France
Lochnagar Mine

Down the road we had to go to Thiepval Memorial, the biggest British cemetery and memorial to all those who lost their lives in the First World War (mostly those at the Battle of the Somme). From the car park we walked straight to the memorial in a field and heck, it was huge. This war memorial is to 72,337 missing British and South African servicemen who died in the Battle of the Somme and do not have graves (even though there are graves in the ground nearby but that’s because only a certain number of bodies could be identified). Standing underneath the moment gave me a great sense of pride (but sadness also) about how my country and other countries of the commonwealth came to our allies' defence and to restabilize Europe. I spent a bit of time looking around the place, all the plaques with names on them, all the reefs and also very amazed how spotless the place was. This place was amazing (despite it being for something that shouldn’t have happened). Eventually I found the plaque for Arthur Henry Wheeler, who died the day before brother Edward on the 15th September 1916.

Leaving the memorial I saw a large inscription. I didn’t spot it earlier but after reading it, I will remember it and it has stayed with me ever since I first visited Thiepval (I have been three times now as I write this).

Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme battlefields, July 1915 – February 1918, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.

After checking out the memorial I walked down to the bottom of the field (facing northwards). All I could see was the fields and trees, nothing else. No signs of people, buildings, just the clouds hovering above and the sounds of a few birds. The place was peaceful. At the same time I was trying to picture the battle which took place in front of me where I was standing. No words could describe what I was feeling here.

On the way out there is a visitor centre which is very informative and explains what happened in the surrounding area at this terrible period of time. It was also here I spoke to guy who works with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and explained to me that I should be able to find out where the two brothers who died in the battle were, to near about the exact spot. This I will do when I get back to London and see if I can find the spots they died.

The last stop of the day was at the Dud Corner Cemetery on the outskirts of Loos-en-Gohelle (just north of the city of Lens) where the memorial here lists 20,610 names of British and Commonwealth soldiers with no known graves who died in the Battle of Loos which started on 25th September 1915. In the middle of the grounds there were graves and a beautiful white-stoned white cross overlooking the fields where the battle took place. The first of the three brothers was sent to this battle, William Alfred Fredrick Wheeler and died on day three on 28th September 1915. There is no grave for him but a plaque on the wall.

Dud coner cemetery, Loos, France (not in Somme!)

The family back home, a little bit of background – Yiewsley, London

Before the three brothers set out for war, they were all brought up at number 5, Tavistock Road in Yiewsley in West London (just north of Heathrow and near that big car park called the M25). My great-grandfather somehow didn’t get called up for the war (or maybe just didn’t fancied it and stayed at home, who knows?) but his three brothers all signed up to serve King and Country and went to our neighbour’s backyard to help our friends with wine in need and make sure the enemies didn’t get to our island.

Photos: Yiewsley Memorial – West London with the three Wheeler brothers engraved on it.

The first one to trot down to Dover for a boat across to France was William Alfred Wheeler (who took on the bad guys at the Battle of Loos). He served with the 12th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers based in the City of London. Service number was 11597 and died at the age of 22.

The two younger brothers joined the battle a year later and were sent to the Somme, one of the biggest battles in the war. Arthur Henry Wheeler, born on 13th December 1895 was the youngest of three brothers to die at the age of 21. He served with the 32nd battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Service number was 16846.

One of the three Wheeler brothers before setting out to the Somme. (Not sure which one of the three it is but he is the second one from the left).

Edward George Wheeler was also part of the 32nd battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (service number: G/24100). Born on 1st April 1894, he died on the 16th September 1916 at the age of 22. The three have their names on the memorial on Yiewsley high street outside Saint Matthews church.

My mother thinks this is William Wheeler. He is definitely one of the brothers but not 100% certain which one of the three.

Grave hunting in the Somme – the story of 2018

A few years have passed and the remembrance of the end of the Great War (First World War) are now in full swing. A little bit of research was done and back in September 2018, I drove back to Northern France to lay wreaths at all of the three brothers' graves and memorials. It was a few weeks before the 100th anniversary would mark the end of the war and for whatever reason, felt that all three of them needed a visit, to remind them (if they are looking on) that their actions of bravery for our family, future generations and our country was worth it and that they were not forgotten. I am not sure why I did this but I did. My family donated some money to the cause as well and I drove to France with my best buddy Olly in tow.

Before setting off to the memorials, the first stop of the day was in a field between the villages of Wormhout (Wormhoudt) and Esquelbecq, not too far away from the Belgium-France border, east of Dunkerque. It was here the Wormhout massacre took place. The short story of it all was the British were in retreat heading back to Dunkerque as the Germans were advancing very quickly towards La Manche/English Channel in May 1940. The 144th Infantry Brigade of the 48th (South Midland) Infantry Division was holding the main road in the area to delay the German advance so the rest of the British army would get on the boat back to the island. However the troops were overrun by the Waffen-SS soldiers from the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hilter. The British tried to hold out but used up their ammunition supplies so they decided to surrender to the SS troops, thinking that they would be taken prisoner according to the Geneva Convention (like hell Hilter and his pals were going to go by that piece of paper as they bloody started the Second World War).

After their surrender, they joined other British troops from other regiments as well as French soldiers in charge of a military depot in the area who were taken to a barn in La Plaine au Bois on the 28th May 1940. On the way to the barn the allied troops became a bit more alarmed at the brutal conduct of the SS en route to the barn, which included shooting a number of wounded stragglers who couldn’t keep up.

On arrival at the barn, the most senior British officer in the group, a guy named Captain James Lynn-Allen protested, but was rebuked by an SS soldier. One hundred men were now standing inside the small barn and then the SS threw stick grenades into the barn killing many of the POWs (Prisoner of War). However the grenades failed to kill everybody due to the bravery of two British troops, Sergeant Stanley Moore and Augustus Jennings who hurled themselves on top of the grenades using their bodies so they could suppress the force of the explosion and shield their fellow soldiers from the blast.

The SS found out what was going on so they called for two groups of five to come out. The survivors were shot. However one man who was shot, Brian Fahey survived (which was unknown to the SS at the time). Eventually Brian would become a composer back home and worked with the BBC (and died back in 2007 aged 87). Anyway, the SS saw this method too slow as well and just went into the barn shooting the rest of the surviving troops, all guns blazing! Several British prisoners were able to escape whilst others like Brain Fahey were left for dead. A total of eighty men were killed at the time and within a few days afterwards, some of the wounded died because of their wounds being so severe. A few days after that, Fahey and several others were found by medics of the German Army and were taken to hospital (not quite sure why when the Germans wanted to shoot them in the first place!). Once treated they were sent to prisoner of war camps around Europe (so I am not sure what was better, being shot in a bar or going to somewhere like Auschwitz or Dachau and having a bad time there, but it ended up all good for Brian Fahey because as mentioned, he survived and had a wonderful career in music).

After our visit to the barn, it was time to hit up the cemeteries starting with the one in Corbie where Edward George Wheeler is buried. Found the grave straight away (based on my memory despite the fact the last and only visit here was back in 2011). I never laid a wreath down before so to do this for the first time, I actually felt nervous, made sure it was laid down correctly, saluted and just stood there for a moment, silence. Not a sound was heard from anywhere. Reflecting on what all three brothers had to go through, the only source of information was the thing I learnt through school or on the road. No one in my family has told me what it is like to go into a war because quite frankly, not many people in my family have, and if they did, they have departed Earth. However I was doing this for my whole family and to make sure they weren’t forgotten. I think it is in our duty to keep educating generations on what happened, the consequences, the pain, so that everybody knows in the future not to go down this road and that everyone who died for freedom, has not done it for a lost cause. Afterwards I felt pride in doing this, a little bit emotional, I am not going to lie about that but I knew it was an honour but I also knew I had to do this twice more during the day.

Next stop was the Thiepval memorial where I laid a wreath in the centre with so many others where people have laid wreaths. There were a heck of a lot of people around as it was the weekend and the 100 years anniversary of the end of the Great War was fast approaching so everyone was here to find lost relatives, to remember the fallen, or just to learn the history of the area. After laying the wreath down I quickly went to find the plaque on the memorial for Arthur Henry Wheeler, yup, still up there and looks like someone has given all the names here a good old wipe down with the polish. The memorial was gleaming.

However I was also here on a mission. My mother found out that we had another relative who died in the Battle of the Somme, passing away three days after Edward George and Arthur Henry. His name was John Albert Harvey, born in 1882 and was my Great Great Grandmother’s second husband (so a step-brother to Edward, William and Arthur). I found his plaque with ease. He may have not been blood but he married into the family and he is family. He will be remembered the same way as the three brothers. Not much is known about him but what we did know was that he was from down the road from Yiewsley and came from nearby Hillingdon in West London.

Before the last cemetery to see William Alfred Fredrick Wheeler, I took Olly to Vimy Ridge memorial, the Canadian National memorial which is dedicated to members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who were killed during the First World War. Located north of Arras, this huge preserved park is located on the site when all four divisions of the Canadian forces joined up and took on the advancing Germans in the Battle of Arras. After the battle, France ceded this part of the land to Canada on the understanding that they would time this into a park and a memorial. And the Canadians, bloody hell they did a damn fine job erecting this massive monument which overlooks Vimy Ridge and the surrounding area (which is mainly woodland and fields).

Walking around I could see where craters exploded in the wood, signs of where trenches would have been and tunnels, which visitors can’t walk right up to as they are closed off for safety reasons. Maybe there are still unexploded bombs hidden in the ground and could explode at any moment. However humans are not walking over the ground but there were plenty of sheep. I was kinda waiting for a sheep to explode a bomb and turn into a lamb shank right in front of my eyes. However this was over 100 years ago since the Battle of Arras has passed and no sheep have exploded yet.

A bit of history (again) which I found out whilst walking around the memorial. When the Nazi Germans during the Second World War captured the area with the British retreating towards the ports on the English Channel coast, no one from France, Britain, Canada knew of the state the memorial at Vimy Ridge would be in. Would it be destroyed etc? Nope, Hilter, being an artistic himself in his younger years before becoming a political nutter, loved the design of the memorial and it’s peaceful surroundings that he told his army not to destroy the memorial. How nice of him!

Not too far north from the Vimy Ridge on the outskirts of a village called Ablain St-Nazaire and Souchez is the world’s largest French military cemetery. By god it is huge. There were lots of graves each with a wooden cross but in the middle of the grounds is a huge basilica, Notre Dame de Lorette. However the reason I came here was for the L’Anneau de la Mémoire (The Ring of Memory or otherwise known as the Ring of Remembrance). This is a huge memorial dedicated to the First World War and was opened on the 96th anniversary of Armistice Day on November 11th 2014. The memorial honours the 576,606 soldiers from forty different nations who died in the Nord-pas-de-Calais region (now Hauts-de-France region). The ring has five hundred metal panels that are arranged in an ellipse pattern. Each panel has 1200 names of fallen soldiers and are listed alphabetically by their last name. The 500th panel remains blank so that any newly discovered names can be inscribed. When I saw this on the news when it opened, I was a little bit disheartened that my prime minister of my country at the time did not bother attending the opening of this ring (ok, I know it was Armistice Day and that Theresa May had to be at Whitehall in London, but come on, I think the opening of this memorial is probably more important for the events of the war, that’s my view anyway).

Whilst walking around (and looking for my family members on the panels), I noticed the names which are in alphabet order (as mentioned) but no mention of the fallen’s rank or nationality. The guy who designed the ring, Phillppe Prost states: “No ranks, no nationalities: just a dizzying list of the human stories that ended on France’s northern battlefields.” The names of friends and foes are engraved together in order to establish a theme of forgiveness and reconciliation after the conflict. I eventually found all the Wheeler’s in one section and found John Albert Harvey as well. I think Olly found a family relative who fought for the Germans there also. This place was huge and I believe this memorial is a great way to reunite the countries, remember all those who have fallen and a reminder that this sort of thing shouldn’t happen again.

The last stop was Dud Corner cemetery on the outskirts of Loos to lay down the wreath for William Alfred Fredrick Wheeler. By now it was the end of the day, so after driving all over the Hauts-de-France region laying wreaths, checking out other historic points of interest, it was just nice to stand next to the stone cross for a few minutes to relax and take a deep breath. The day was emotionally tiring but I was glad and felt very proud to lay down the wreaths, remember my family (who I never knew but with their background stories there was a sense I knew them somewhat) remember all the others who have fallen and broaden my horizon on the subject of war. It was also a great history lesson (a lot better than studying World War 1 in school) as I got to visualise the places where certain battles happened

.What does the future hold now? Do I or the rest of my family forget about the four relatives now that one hundred years have passed since the end of the Great War? Well, no. Even though I didn’t know what they did for our country, our neighbours, their bravery will not be forgotten. But it takes places like this, school lessons, to keep the subject alive. To make sure future generations don’t make the same mistakes. Will this be my last visit to the cemeteries in Higher France? No, because I hope in years to come I will take my little explorers, Amelie and Isabella to these places. To teach her the events of what happened in both wars. To show her the graves and memorials and explain to her what our family and other people did back then. It takes education. And then I hope she will have the will, the sense that if she ever had children, to pass on the knowledge and do the same thing that I did. Back in 2011 it was great that my folks and I got to go round exploring, fact-finding. It was a bit weird doing grave hunting in another country but we had something in common. Now I hope it will be the same with Amelie and Isabella.

As my mother does more family tree research, who knows, there maybe more names cropping up to do with the events of both world wars. Hopefully there isn’t but we do come from a huge family. Regarding this blog post, I wrote this with all my heart, a lot of research went into this, miles driven and was a massive history lesson to me. Again, felt proud to remember the fallen, to lay wreaths and was an emotional experience all around.

If anyone hasn’t got any connections with the First or Second World War, visiting some of these memorials, especially the big ones which have visitor centres or museums is a great way of getting a better understanding of what happened during these dark times. There are also tour groups in the region who will take visitors to the grounds.

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