Lochnagar Crater - July 1st 2016 (Photo: Karen Thomas)

Friends of Lochnagar remember the Battle of the Somme centenary at La Grande Mine

Posted on centenarynews.com on 03 July 2016
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Centenary News volunteer writer Karen Thomas attended the memorial event at Lochnagar Crater on July 1st 2016, and sent this report.

In contrast to the early morning clear blue sky that promised a hot summer’s day across the Somme Valley on 1 July 1916, a damp grey pall was cast over Lochnagar Crater a century later. The Friends of Lochnagar’s annual gathering had swelled to 5,000, as people across the world and across generations came to remember those who fell during Britain’s bloodiest battle of the First World War.

Among the troops attacking along that sector of the front line near the village of Ovillers-La Boisselle were the Tyneside Scottish, who were represented at today’s ceremony by serving soldiers of the descendant 101st (Northumbrian) Regiment, Royal Artillery. Gunners from the 204 (Tyneside Scottish) Battery had begun the commemorations with an overnight vigil at the crater.

Dignitaries, friends, family and the public lined the rim of the largest mine crater created on the Western Front, which is now dedicated to peace, fellowship and reconciliation.

At 7.28am a maroon was launched and whistles blown for 30 seconds reflecting the first few minutes of a battle that would leave 19,240 British and Commonwealth soldiers dead by the end of that first day.

One hundred years earlier, a mine packed with 60,000lbs of explosives painstakingly laid beneath the German trenches was detonated. The plume of debris rose to 4,000 ft and two minutes later men hurled themselves ‘over the top’ to the shrill sound of whistles and attacked what they expected to be destroyed German trenches.

The 90-minute centenary service began with the Lone Piper from the Somme Battlefield Pipe Band walking slowing round the rim while playing The Battle of the Somme and followed by the Lochnagar Standard bearer. Richard Dunning, who bought Lochnagar Crater on 1 July 1978, led the ceremony that has been held annually for 37 years.

In his welcome that was translated into French and German, he said: “Here, for one hour, we all stand together as equals. To bow our heads, to honour those brave young men of all nations who, when the whistles blew, rose up and walked into the guns knowing that that day could well be their last.”

Wreaths at the Lochnagar Memorial Cross. Photo: Karen Thomas

After prayers, the Lochnagar Wreath of Peace and Reconciliation was the first of many laid against the wooden cross made from beams taken from a deconsecrated church near Durham. The cross was erected near the crater rim in 1986 and its origins act as a reminder that many of the British soldiers killed in the 1 July 1916 action were from the northeast of England.

Acts of remembrance were also carried out by the young. Children of Ovillers-La Boisselle sang the Marseillaise, with members of the congregation also singing the French national anthem. Tait Jones, winner of the Impressions of Lochnagar Crater annual competition open to 10-17 year olds, had her poem Looking Back read out in English and French.

A soulful rendition of First World War song Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire reverberated around the crater and served as a stark reminder of the losses incurred by the ordinary Tommy during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The sombre mood of remembrance deepened as the bagpipes accompanied the congregation singing Abide With Me.

After the traditional elements of remembrance - The Last Post, two minutes silence and Reveille - were observed, the congregation joined children in scattering hundreds of poppy petals into the crater. Where each petal fell, a young soldier fell. Exhortations and blessings in English, French and German addressed the crowds.

The ceremony ended with a lone Gunner being lowered 21 metres down by his comrades to the Crater’s base. He sounded The Last Post as the thousands who had gathered to remember held hands. This final act is peculiar to the ceremonies held by the Friends of Lochnagar and is performed in recognition of the association’s motto: Remembrance; Respect; Reconciliation.

Friends of Lochnagar website.