Templeux-le-Guerard British Cemetery, Somme, France

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Cycling the Somme

An account of a five day trip to visit the war graves and battlefields of my ancestors

Introduction

      In July '01 a combination of circumstances made it possible for me to finally make the trip to France to visit the war graves and the battlefields of my ancestors. My grandfather, Gunner Robert Munson, 821275 serving with 'V' 59th T. M. Battery of the Royal Field Artillery, was killed in action on the 6th July 1917 near Templeux-le-Guerard. Age 27. His cousin Private Richard Munson, 927 'D' Company, 10th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, (Grimsby Chums), was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Saturday 1st July 1916, Age 22.

The Trip

Day One.      I drove down to Dover after lunch with my bike in the back of the car and a rucksack packed with a change of clothes etc. The 250 mile drive took just over five hours non stop. Found a B&B not far from the town centre for 20, booked in and freshened up before walking into the centre for a meal and a pint, then back for an early night.

Day Two.      Awoke early on a warm sunny morning. I went down for a tasty full English breakfast, my clothes already packed and my cycling gear on. Then checked out and headed for 'Relyon' a secure car parking facility recommended by the B&B owner. It is about a mile from the town centre. I booked in arranging a flexible return in three or four days. "No problem sir, 4 a day, pay when you return". With my bike organised and a rucksack on my back, I headed for the ferries, gently down hill almost all the way to the sea front. Booked in at P&O Stena, the five day return ticket to Calais cost 26, bikes go free!

     P&O Stena are biker friendly, a red line
Calais Town Hall
on the tarmac guides you to the ferry loading area avoiding flyovers. Cyclists, (Pedal and motor), have a lane to themselves and they are first on and first off. I was in good time for the 9.30 am ferry and was soon sitting in the restaurant with a pot of tea, my bike secured with rubber bungies to a bulkhead near the bows.

     We docked at Calais 90 minutes later, plus an hour forward on the watch for European time. I biked towards the Ville centre, soon passing the magnificent Town Hall and turning right at the roundabout. On the other side of a duel carriage way after a short distance is the SNCF railway station, Gare de Calais Ville, a building no way near as grand, but I was pleased to find it so easily.

     I bought a return ticket, (billet), to Albert 284fr, (about 28), bike's go free, the only proviso is that you have to carry the them on and off the train yourself! Depart Calais Ville, (Platform 2) 14.14hrs, arr Amiens 15.56, depart Amiens 16.04, arr Albert 16.25. Two hours to go before the train departs - I note that I have only eight minutes at Amiens to catch the connection! When I get to the platform there is a train already waiting but I'm not sure it is the one I have to catch, there's no rush anyway and I sit down on a bench to soak up some warm sunshine.
SNCF Trains, France
      Now where do I put my bike? Again no problem, on these main line trains there is a special compartment next to the guard's, and a shape of a large white bike etched on the window! On local line trains the bike goes in the guard's compartment. In either case the compartment is usually near the middle of the train. An hour later it became obvious that the train at the platform was the one I wanted, so I put my bike on and settled in a compartment close by. The train pulled away on time heading down the coast towards Paris. I listened to the guards announcements carefully. Stops at Boulogne-Sur-Mer, Etaples / le Touquet, Rue, Noyelles-Sur-Mar, then following the Somme valley via Abbeville, arriving at Amiens on time, platform 2 I think. I quickly get my bike off. Then using a mixture of French, English and sign language, ask the guard which platform for connection to Albert. He shrugs his shoulders but then says, "Check the TV". We both look and say "Seven" together. With a wave of thanks, I'm off with a run, down the long platform up the steps at the end, across and down to platform seven. There are trains waiting on the the right and left sides of the platform, scooting down the platform on one peddle I think it is the one on the right. Seeing the guard is about to get back on the train I shout "Connection Albert", he smiles and with a sweep of an arm points to his compartment. In the end I made it with time to spare, 20 odd minutes later I'm getting off at Albert.

     After getting my bearings I head North along the D50, then turn left onto the D73 then up a tough climb heading to Auchonvillers about 12 k, (7.5 miles) in all, passing four Commonwealth War Graves locations along the way. Before the trip I had found on the internet, Avril Williams' website offering farmhouse accommodation with W.W.1 history and battlefield tours. It was also close to where I wanted to be but I was turning up on spec. I was lucky there was a vacancy and I booked in for two nights. Dinner that evening, was not the French style that I had imagined but English, with four other guests plus Avril, all Brits so the conversation was in English. The food was excellent and the six of us polished off five bottles of a very drinkable house red. No surprise that we all turned in early and I for one, slept like a log.

Day Three.      I was up early and ready for breakfast at 8.30 am. The weather was not so good - the rain had been hammering down on the skylight in my bedroom from well before 7 am. Not promising for a keen cyclist for many years but now normally only in fair weather! I hoped the old saying 'Rain before seven, fine by eleven', would favour me but heavy bursts of rain continued until early afternoon. I spent the morning at Avril's, reading books from a comprehensive collection on the First World War, that filled the dining room bookcase. Eventually the rain eased to intermittent light and heavy drizzle. Determined to salvage some of the day, I set off on my bike heading for the Thiepval Memorial where Richard Munson is remembered along with many others that have no known grave.

Thiepval Memorial,  Somme, France
The Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France.

      On the way I visited the Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No.1. It is down a track off the D73, about a 100 metres, then a path through a sugar beet crop in a field on the right, to a low ridge. There the small cemetery surrounded by a stone wall is beautifully kept, as were all the cemeteries I visited. I looked through the register and signed the visitors book, you will find both in a cupboard built into the wall, near the entrance to all Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries. I sheltered under a tree during a sudden short sharp downpour, it was so peaceful, a skylark then burst into song as the rain stopped. It was hard to believe this place had once been a part of the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War,
The Battle of the Somme.



     I made my way back to the road along the path and track, both muddy after all the rain. Before getting back on my bike, I cleaned the clinging mud off my cycling shoes, socks, track suit and bike wheels.

      As I continued to Thiepval my thoughts drifted back to the descriptions of trench and battlefield conditions I had been reading about that morning. Then speeding down the steep hill that I had struggled up the day before I was jolted back into the present, the wet conditions affecting my brakes, and some sharp bends in the road demanded all my concentration.

Pier and Face 1C, Thiepval Memorial.
Section of Pier and Face 1C, Thiepval Memorial.
     Soon I turned left onto the D50 for a short distance before turning right back on the D73 up a long testing climb to Thiepval and on to the Memorial. Here I located and took a photograph of the commemorative inscription for Richard Munson, carved in stone with many more of the Grimsby Chums.

Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval,  Somme, France
The Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval.

      On the way back, I stopped at several war grave sites including the impressive Ulster Memorial Tower, the style seemed as I'm sure it was intended, to make the site a piece of Ireland in France.

      The day was now dry but cool as I sped down to the D50, then back on the D73, struggled up the hill again back to Auchonvillers. I passed Avril's to pay a visit to the small British Cemetery the other side of the village where I found graves of more Grimsby soldiers.

      I arrived back at Avril's in time for a mug of tea before showering and changing for dinner. Just two other guests and Avril that night but the food plus three bottles of the house red and the company as good as ever. Before I turned in, Avril showed me around her famous cellar, It had been a stretcher bearers' post and emergency operating station. Soldiers, names and numbers are scratched on the wall, also the epitaph of a soldier who is thought to have been held there overnight, before being 'Shot at Dawn', sobering stuff before going to bed!


Day Four.     It rained heavily overnight and through breakfast but by the time I had packed, paid my dues and said my goodbyes, it had almost stopped. Just as well I had a 35 k, about 22 miles, ride to Peronne to do, with a 24 lb rucksack on my back. Once there, find the hotel recommended by a friend of a friend, hopefully book in, (again I hadn't made a reservation!), put my rucksack in the room - then ride to Templeux-le-Guerard, 25 k, (about 15 miles) east of Peronne, to visit my grandfather's grave. Then back to Peronne.

     I set off the same route as the day before, keeping on the D73 after Thiepval. I had a back wind and made good time in spite having to shelter twice during heavy rain showers as menacing large black clouds came and went. I found the hotel Hostellerie des Remparts easily and checked in without problems just after 12 o'clock. Then I was on my way again, the riding even easier with the same back wind but without the rucksack. Not much more than an hour later I could see the church steeple in the village ahead that I knew was Templeux-le-Guerard and the area where my grandfather had lost his life. Suddenly I had a lump in my throat for I was about to achieve a very personal goal.

      The British Cemetery is south-east of the village on the road to Haricourt. It was begun by the 59th Division in April 1917 and carried on by other units until August 1917 and again in September and October 1918 and largely increased after the Armistice with the concentration of graves from the battlefields surrounding the village. Just before I arrived the heavy clouds had given way to bright warm sunny conditions. I was pleased to see that the cemetery was cared for to the same high standard and quickly found my grandfather's grave.
Robert Munson, Templeux-le-Guerard British Cemetery, Somme, France
     It was a special moment, I was there representing the family for the first time and all those no longer with us who had not been able to visit. I spent about a hour looking around, taking photographs and signing the visitors book. Not far from my grandfather's grave lies Major Valentine Fleming DSO "C" Sqdn., Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, who died on Sunday, 20th May 1917, Age 35. Son of Robert Fleming; husband of Evelyn C. Fleming, Chelsea, London. Member of Parliament for South Oxon, and father of Ian Fleming the creator of "James Bond, Secret Agent 007". Another reminder if one was needed how fate casts a wide net. I arrived back in Peronne about 5 pm. The ride back into a head wind had been easier than I had expected. I bought some post cards and stamps in the town centre before returning to the hotel to shower and change for dinner. I went down early and had a couple of bottles of excellent French beer, while writing the cards. Then through to the restaurant for a superb meal with a more than decent bottle of red, a great way to end a memorable day.

Day Five.      I was up early on a damp drizzling morning, packed then went down for a continental breakfast. My map showed that there was a railway station nearby so I decided to have an easy day and catch a train to Amiens from there! After posting the cards I made my way to the station only to find it boarded up, obviously in the past some one had done a 'Beeching', on it. So it was back to plan 'A', bike 35 k, (22 miles) to Albert.

      I arrived there late morning and checked in at the station, I had almost two hours before my train was due. Time to have a look round Albert and have a jambon and fromage sandwich, (French bread crammed with ham and cheese), and a pot of tea, served with a small jug of hot milk.

     The short train journey to Amiens was uneventful and I had about a hour there before boarding the connection to Calais. This train slowed almost to a stop several times and then ten minutes after the time we had been due to arrive in Calais, I heard Calais announced as we pulled into a station. I quickly made my way to the guard's compartment for my bike and scrambled off the train in a heap. At once I knew it wasn't the right stop, but there wasn't time for me to get back on board, the guard said "Catch the next one". I made enquiries and found I had got off at Calais Frethun, some 14 k before the stop I wanted Calais Ville, I did consider cycling it, but found the next train was due in 15 minutes. I caught that and arrived in Calais Ville with out any more problems.

      I made my way to the P&O ferry terminal and booked in ok the ferry was running late, boarding to start in 30 minutes at 7.15pm. Once in the lane I put my watch back to BST, as before the bike lane was loaded first and was I soon tucking into a sandwich and a pot of tea. Four or five bus loads of school children came on board returning from a day trip. Soon it was wall to wall kids doing what kids do but nothing to bother me, although there were others tutting and pulling a face! I had other priorities eg., making room in my rucksack for a litre of Glenffidich at 18.75p from what used to be the duty free shop.

      When we docked at Dover the red line route to the Customs check point came into its own but I found a queue of cars lined up there with me the other side of the lane. I stopped and called across, "Do you want me to come over"? "Are you English"? He replied, I nodded and he waved me through. I continued to follow the red line to the exit, then made my way up the hill to the secure car park which didn't seem so steep. Perhaps I was a touch fitter having clocked up 96 miles on my cyclo-computer between parking the car and returning to it. Soon I was paying the parking fee then loading my bike into the car.

      At 9pm I was driving out of Dover. The final part of this trip was a drive to my daughter, Sarah's, home in Hampshire, who was recovering from an operation. Stay for a couple of days then take her and my wife, who had been looking after her for a couple of weeks, and six months old grandson Jack, (latest addition to the family tree), back home to Grimsby. This was to allow Sarah to have another week convalescing. All in all a busy but rewarding time.

     Finally I still have more places in France to visit, due to rain on day 3, I didn't have time to visit La Boiselle, or the grave of my mother's half brother, Private George W. Dadd 12572, 8th Bn., Lincolnshire Regiment, killed in action on Saturday, 23rd September 1916. Buried at Lievin Communal Extension, Pas de Calais, France. Hopefully I will go back in the not too distant future.
Also another personal goal is to visit my mother's place of birth, Lerwick, Shetland Isle.
T. C. Munson.

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     This trip was not as demanding as I'd imagined. I think anyone who wanted to do something similar would find the same! Of course to be able to speak French would be an asset but it is not essential, and perhaps not as much fun. I often had a private chuckle about my recent efforts when I thought about the days events! I found most French people I spoke to very helpful and more often than not, could speak some English.

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The Battle of the Somme

     The Battle of the Somme started on July 1st 1916, and ended on November 18th. The battle was preceded by an artillery barrage of unprecedented proportions. Hundreds of guns along the miles of front opened fire on June 24th. Such was the barrage that the gunfire could be heard in England. The barrage continued until 7.28 am on July 1st, when huge mines that had been constructed under the German lines by Royal Engineers, were blown. Two minutes later officers' whistles signalled the start of a catastrophe. When the barrage had stopped, the Germans who had burrowed deep underground to survive, clambered up to their machine gun positions all along the line and opened up a deadly hail of bullets and shrapnel as the first line advanced. Many were cut down within a few paces. The slaughter continued with line after line cut down. The British Army suffered over 57,000 casualties, killed, wounded or missing on the first day. Casualty figures for duration of the Somme offensive are disputed but said to be: British and German Armies, 400,000 each and the French, 200,000. Little was achieved and the war raged on for another two years. Go back