Great Uncle William, also know as ‘Willy’ was really the first person who I ever did any serious research on. He was the brother of my Grandfather Charles (1894-1978), one of 8 children, all who will be covered at some stage.
In the back of my mind was the hope, but not expectation, that I may get to trace where he was buried, and then visit his grave. I spent a lot of time on the internet studying various WW1 sites, but was unable to find any information that I could use. I was new to genealogy at this stage and unaware of websites like those of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and various genealogy websites, where I now know I could find a lot of information.
So I left London with not much to go on, fully aware that I would need to research further if I wanted to know for sure the location of his grave. There would be places in France where I could look but by this time I wasn’t really confident of finding anything.
And so I found myself in the Somme. The first Battle of the Somme was fought from the 1st July to 18th November 1916 – on the first day of the battle , the Allies suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, including 20,000 killed. In the space of the next 5 months, and the 2 years beyond that, until the Armistice in November 1918, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed in the trenches of northern France. What I was amazed by was how small an area they managed to slaughter so many people in. During the War, the front line would move occasionally, back and forth, but prior to the Somme, it was largely static for months at a time. The Axis troups created the first big push in a south westerly direction during the initial invasion, and the the Allied troups pushed back towards the north east of France, getting as far as the Somme before things halted. Here, in 1916, both sides resorted to digging miles and miles of trenches over northern France and Belgium, in places with names like Flanders, the Somme, and over as far as Verdun, in north eastern France, to the Swiss border, and thereby spent the next two years killing each other in this small area.
My first stop was a little town called Villers-Bretonneux. Driving into the town, I saw a sign stating that it was “sistered” with a town in Victoria, Australia. Which made me wonder… I had been told by an Australian friend, that he went to a small town in northern France and he had seen something very special written on the wall of the local school. He also told me how, when one of the locals had found out that he was Australian, he was told “Your boys did a great job here in the war”. And so, I found the local school and sure enough, looking through the windows of the classrooms, I saw written in huge letters on a wall overlooking the courtyard…”NEVER FORGET AUSTRALIA”. This town was where, in 1918, the Australians halted the final German advance of the War. Here at the local school, is an Australian war museum. I spent some time in the museum, before going to the Australian War Memorial, and Commonwealth graveyard. Commonwealth soldiers killed in the war were buried near where they died, and so, there are about 250 cemeteries over northern France, containing about 150,000 graves. Each cemetery has a register, so I looked, rather hopefully, through the “C” section. No William John Cooper.
Hundreds upon hundreds of graves are here. A lot of Australians, taking up one side of the graveyard. Aged from 18 or 19 to some in their 30’s. And of course, there were many graves that read “A Solider (or “An Australian Soldier”) Of The Great War, Known Unto God”. At the end, was the huge Australian memorial. On the right hand side of the cemetery, a wider selection of countries were represented. I spied several graves that read “A Soldier Of The Kings Royal Rifles, Known Unto God”. Great Uncle William could have been any one of them, for all I knew.
I toured several memorials and cemeteries, containing thousands of graves. Checking each directory for the slim chance that I would see my Uncle’s name. Plenty of Coopers. No William John Cooper.
Soon, I arrived at the biggest war memorial in the world – Thiepval. A huge, brick and stone megalith, towering towards the sky and containing a cemetery with French & British graves behind it. Opening the register, there were far more names listed here than in any of the other cemeteries or memorials I had visited. Maybe I would find something? To be honest, when I first saw this monument from a distance, I had a feeling I was going to find something. I don’t know what made me feel like that, just a feeling. The “C” book was not in the first drawer. Going to the other side, there were more books, including “C”. With several pages of Coopers. And that’s where I saw it…
His age was wrong, he was actually 20. But it was him for sure. My heart started to beat a little faster. Did that mean that his grave was here? One of the graves behind the monument? Looking around the monument itself, there were thousands of names engraved into it… The book said where his name was written, in the “Kings Royal Rifles” section, Pier and Face 13 A and 13 B – and there it was: COOPER W.J.
Then I saw something that I can’t really describe in words. Written into the stonework of the memorial was a sentence that said what Thiepval memorial was all about. That the monument contained the names of “73,000 British & South African soldiers who died in the Battle of The Somme, whose bodies were never recovered, and have no known grave.” Hence, this memorial’s full name – ‘Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme’.
Needless to say, it’s a very strange feeling. Sad for someone I never knew. Someone who died 54 years before I was even born. I had only ever seen one picture of him, but to know that his existence ended with no trace just like that is really sad. And there were 73,000 others who had the same fate. Whilst I was sad, I felt pleased to have actually found something, anything. And I left that place with mixed feelings.
I toured some more and soon came to the New Foundland monument, at Beaumont-Hamel. What can I say about this place? All around the northern France countryside, the landscape has returned back to normal. Fields have been leveled by farmers and bomb craters have disappeared. Not here. It’s been left like it was when the war finished. Driving along the road beside the old battlefield, I was amazed at how much the ground undulated. As I walked into the park, I walked into a sea of bomb craters, and saw many old trenches. Trenches that still fill up with mud after every rainfall.
I climbed to the top of the monument, a huge Caribou, and looked out over the grassy, crater filled terrain. It wasn’t hard to see the scars, but there is absolutely no way to know what it must have actually been like here, other than sheer Hell. This was where it all happened. This is where mechanised slaughter took place on a scale never before seen, and so many people died in this spot and the surrounding fields. The old British front line was clearly visible ahead, and beyond it, “No Mans Land”. The ‘Newfies’ were one of the first regiments to go over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and in 10 minutes, it is estimated that 80% had become casualties here.
So I walked into a trench that took me to the front line, following the ghosts of thousands before us. The rusted steal supports that braced the final trench before No Mans Land were still there. Then I was in No Mans Land for real, with protruding steel pig tails that used to hold barbed wire on either side of me and the dozens of bomb craters all around, I was left to imagine the sounds of explosions and machine gun fire, the blinding flashes, and the gas that once hung over this land. But it was eerily quiet. Birds sang, but the wind was cold and blowing in a light, freezing rain at times.
Past a tree called “Half way tree”, or “The Danger Tree”, named so because I was already half way across No Mans Land. In 5-10 minutes, I had arrived at the German trenches, and they were a mirror image of the British ones. Zig-zagging back and forth and just like the Allied ones, protected by rusted steel pig tails and surrounded bomb craters. There were several areas that were closed off, as there are many unexploded bombs here.
I came to the Tynesyde Scottish monument. From here, I followed the Allied front line back to the Caribou, passing still more craters, filled with murky green water and soon found myself back where I had started, next to a half buried, rusty skeleton that resembled the frame of an old cannon or trailer or something similar.
From here, I ventured to the New Zealand monument, at Longueval, the South African monument at Delville Wood, which is accompanied by 5000 graves, and on to the last site of the day, at Rancourt. Here, three separate cemeteries are located. A large French one, a small British one, and German one, containing 10,000 graves.