In late May this year I visited the Great War battlefields of northern France on the trail of my grandfather Tom Verrinder, who served with his brother Edgar in the 9th Lancers on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918. I began my visit where my grandfather had his 'initiation into warfare', as he termed it, on the Somme battlefields of 1916. On the first day of the battle, on 1 July, his regiment had been poised with the rest of the cavalry to follow the infantry through the German lines, but when the breakthrough never happened the cavalry were dismounted and used for battlefield clearance - to find wounded men and to bring together and bury the bodies of the fallen.
In a previous blog I wrote about the work of the 9th Lancers dismounted party - ghoulishly termed a 'vulture party' by one officer - in front of Fricourt, where the 10th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment suffered the highest casualty rate of any British infantry battalion on that morning. 159 of those men were buried together where they fell, in four mass-graves in the former no-man's land. After the war those burials became the site of Fricourt New Cemetery, which also contains men from the 7th East Yorkshires who died here on the first day of the battle.
As I walked out of Fricourt on the first morning of my visit, into no-man's land and towards the cemetery, I was struck by the beauty and tranquillity of the place - not only the cemetery itself, but also the rolling chalk grasslands visible off into the distance, dotted with the woods that were to become such terrible places as the fighting progressed. Taking in the view it was hard to imagine the enormity of the death and destruction that took place here in 1916, but my archaeologist's eye was drawn to the plough soil where the evidence is still there in abundance - the chalk spoil from the trenches, and huge quantities of rusting shell fragments and other debris that litter the fields for miles around. You can see a photograph of some of these artefacts below.