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Jul 27

In Search of the Past – A visit to the Somme Part 1 by Penny Gerrard

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Frost Magazine is conscious that this year, 2016, marks the centenary of the The Battle of the Somme, which  lasted from July 1st to November 18 1916, with huge loss of life. We are enormously moved and delighted that writer, Penny Gerrard, has written a series of features for us centred around this event, which we will publish over the following weeks.

In Search of the Past – A visit to the Somme Part 1  by Penny Gerrard

In May of 2014 the germ of an idea was born. Two couples met on holiday and hit it off. The two chaps’ conversation turned to military history and an ambition was shared:  to visit the battlefields of the Somme to track down the sites where their family members had fought and, in some cases, died.   
In Search of the Past – A visit to the Somme Part 1 by Penny Gerrard1

“The Hodsons and the Gerrards meet in May 2014”

It was clear that 2016 was going to be an important year – 100 years since this beautiful area of France was torn apart by the First World War.  Boys and men on both sides battled in awful conditions and came home physically and mentally scarred, or failed to return at all, often with not even a grave to mark their passing.

It wasn’t long before research was under way.  My husband, Francis Gerrard, was looking to visit the grave of his uncle, Gilbert Sexton, a private in the Buckinghamshire Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and wanted to establish just how he died.   Was he gassed as had been handed down through the family for the past century?

Richard Hodson‘s ancestors were a very different kettle of fish with three of four being career soldiers to be tracked down – their ranks ranging from 2nd Lieutenant, via Lieutenant, to Captain and, most senior of all, Lieutenant Colonel.   Could he find out enough to enable us to visit the key battle locations as well as one grave and one memorial to those whose bodies were never found?

In Search of the Past – A visit to the Somme Part 1 by Penny Gerrard2

 “Rendevouz at The Eurostar Terminal at St Pancras”

May 2016 saw both couples, Richard and Judy (no not them) and Penny and Francis, joining forces at St Pancras Station for what was to be our first trip on Eurostar.   The train glided sedately through the Kent countryside, then dipped down into the tunnel under the channel before getting its second wind and revving up to full speed for the short dash onwards to Lille – our base for the next few days.

In Search of the Past – A visit to the Somme Part 1 by Penny Gerrard3

“Our hotel – The Bellevue in Lille”

Richard – a former serviceman himself – had planned our campaign with military precision and our first task was to requisition a vehicle – no easy matter as four of us tried to extract the most favourable terms for the car hire with three of us speaking English (loudly) while I spoke French (hesitantly).     Setting off wasn’t without its problems either since the driver’s seat proved resistant to the necessary adjustments to accommodate Richard and his six foot something frame.   Things were not helped by the Satnav stubbornly refusing to speak in anything but French despite the aid of a passing and somewhat astonished workman who was pressganged into assisting with both seat and Satnav.   Richard was finally comfortable and I began putting my college simultaneous translation training into practice as I interpreted the Satnav from the back seat.   We were excited to set off on our first day of exploration.